When director Dori Birenstein finished shooting her documentary, “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” currently having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, she told the now 90-year-old Broadway legend and her husband, Harry Kullijian, that if they’d name their favorite restaurant, the grateful filmmaker take them out for a celebratory dinner.
Channing picked the local Subway franchise.
“I believe she had the turkey sub and they were just so happy,” says Birenstein, of the memorable meal last December in Palm Springs. “That, to me, sums up the essence of what I learned about Carol: She’s a loving, wonderful person who is not caught up in the all the trappings of fame and playing games.”
Berinstein’s delightful documentary, a hit at the festival, combines current interviews with Channing and those who’ve known and worked alongside her during her 70-year career, plus clips and archival footage. Audiences see Channing singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and belting out “Before the Parade Passes By” from “Hello Dolly,” her two biggest Broadway hits. There are also various appearances on TV shows, at the White House, and in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.
“It doesn’t matter the name of the character in the shows, it’s always Carol, and that’s what makes a star,” says costume designer Bob Mackie in the movie, summing up Channing’s appeal. Others who show up to testify to Channing’s enormous talent and charm include Tyne Daly, Debbie Reynolds, the late Betty Garrett, composer Jerry Herman, director-performer Tommy Tune, writer Bruce Vilanch and Barbara Walters.
At the heart of the film, though, is the late-in-life love story between Channing and Kullijian, a California real estate developer who is her fourth husband. The two were sweethearts in junior high school in San Francisco in the early 1930s but broke up when he went off to boarding school. Nearly 70 years later, Channing devoted a chapter to Kullijian, entitled “My First Love,” in her 2002 autobiography.
A friend of Kullijian’s (whose longtime wife had died in the previous year) read the book and urged the widower to ring Channing. His response: “I thought she was dead.” She wasn’t, Kullijian called, and two weeks later the two were engaged. They wed in 2003 and, as the film amply shows, are as besotted with each other today as they were as adolescents.
“I don’t think I’d be making the movie without Harry,” says Birenstein. “That love story, to me, is so powerful and beautiful and it makes the movie far more accessible and entertaining. I hope it leaves the audience with great hope and happiness.”
Berinstein, 50, first met Channing when she was five years old. After her parents took her to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to see the touring production of “Hello, Dolly,”
“I made them take me to the stage door to meet Dolly Levi [Channing’s role].,” says Berinstein. “Carol says she doesn’t remember, and why should she, but it totally changed my life. I was fixated on theater from then on.” In addition to being a documentarian (previous films include “Gotta Dance” and “ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway”), Berinstein is also a successful Broadway producer, with shows like “Legally Blond” and “Fool Moon” on her resume.
Berinstein had become friendly with Channing several years before she started shooting footage for the documentary in 2009. “In the beginning, we would have dinner and I’d hear these stories. Carol’s a brilliant storyteller. Then I said, ‘Let me get a camera,’ but I didn’t know where I was going with the film,” says Berinstein. “Then I happened to say over dinner with Carol and Harry, ‘So how did you two meet?’ When I heard this incredible story about their magical relationship, I said, ‘Okay, now we’re making a movie.’ That was a turning point.”
Given Channing’s age and that she was last on the Broadway stage in 1996 with a revival of “Dolly,” Berinstein said she was expecting younger audiences to be unfamiliar with the star. “I was wrong,” she said. “Everywhere I went, everyone seemed to have a Carol Channing story. The younger generation know her from ‘Free to Be … You and Me,’ from ‘The Muppet Show,’ ‘Sesame Street’ and, most recently, as a voice on ‘Family Guy.’ Who knew?”
Berinstein said she and Adam Zucker, her co-writer-editor, finished cutting the movie less than two weeks before its debut at Tribeca.
“Discussions are underway now,” she says, with potential distributors. “I just want this film to have the best possible life. A theatrical release would be wonderful.”