People under 30 might not know who Carol Channing is, but the San Francisco native — most famous for her roles as Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes and as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! — turns 97 this Wednesday, Jan. 31. But to commemorate the occasion, Nicky Ciampoli will perform as the inimitable entertainer at Oasis.
“Nicky as Carol Channing“ is more than tongue-in-cheek drag, over-exaggerated in the way that classic drag performers would portray a figure like Bette Davis or Judy Garland. Ciampoli is not merely a fan, but worked as Channing’s former assistant from 2006 to 2008. And he makes the case that she’s had more traction during the last few decades than people realize.
“A lot of people know her from Thumbelina,” Ciampoli says of his heroine. “She was the voice of Thumbelina, and sang ‘Marry the Mole.’ On Who’s Line It It, Anyway? she was impersonated by Ryan Stiles. I don’t know if you remember that Celebrity Deathmatch, when the celebrities would fight somebody. She fought against Mike Tyson — and used her own voice! And a lot of people known her from Alice in Wonderland. She was the white queen.”
“Everything in the show is something that Carol has done,” Ciampoli says. “We’ll do something from Hello, Dolly!, a couple things from Gentleman Prefer Blondes. One of the things Carol Channing loved to do was play the Grand Ole Opry. She released, I think it was three country albums, so I do a little of that and then she did a Broadway show called Showgirl in 1961 and it was at the Eguene O’Neill Theatre, a one-woman vaudeville show … that was the very first Broadway shot that was televised on TV. And a couple things from Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
It’s a live show, with a bit of spontaneity as opposed to karaoke-tracked songs. A live band is cost-prohibitive, so Ciampoli works with a musician in L.A. who creates arrangements that are in Channing’s key. His acquaintance with Channing dates to his early 20s when he was working in Florida with a producer who got Channing and her fourth and final husband, Harry Kullijian, to do a few shows.
“She came to Florida and did three shows for us,” Ciampoli says. “Even though I was 21 and she was 86 and he was 87, but we just clicked. I stayed in touch, and in June 2006 I got a phone call from Harry and her asking me if I would like to come out to Modesto, California, where she had a summer home, and if I wanted to be her assistant. What did I have to lose? It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’ve been in California ever since.”
In their time together, they watched a number of classic films and TV shows, and Channing would share stories of the people she’d known. While she never worked with Judy Garland, Ciampoli says Channing saw the latter’s 1961 show at Carnegie Hall and always spoke highly of her and Liza Minnelli alike. She also spoke kindly of another beloved star’s performance in a less-than-well-received film, Lucille Ball in Mame.
“We watched it one night, and she said [writer and lyricist] Jerry Herman absolutely hated having Lucille Ball do Mame,” Ciampoli says. “It was not a financial success, and the 1974 movie wasn’t either. Lucy bought the rights and played Mame — and we all know Lucy couldn’t song. But Carol said she liked it because Lucy made Mame her own. She played it glamorously — not a knockoff of Angela Lansbury.
Unfortunately, Channing has never seen her former employee perform. Living in Rancho Mirage, she’s frail but in good health, and Ciampoli says the timing has simply not worked. But he does it with her blessing.
“I’m her younger sister, you know — but she has never seen me,” he says. Being that I was working with her and got to know a lot of details, the eyelashes I wear are the same exact length and brand she wears, lipstick. I don’t know how much more you can get than that.”
Nicky as Carol Channing, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 8 p.m., $27.50-$40, at SF Oasis, 298 11th St., sfoasis.com