SOME TIME IN THE EARLY 1980s I went into a notions shop in the Garment District in Manhattan. I was looking for a bright stripe to add to a handbag design I was working on. It seemed there were only three people in the long, narrow space. Two glass display cases, crammed with buttons and tapes and embroidered patches and lace stood opposite one another, stretching half-way down the store. The walls were also filled, from counter-height to ceiling, with decorative and glittery items to sew onto or decorate with.
The three people were having a conference about embroidered patches. The man behind the counter was obviously the owner and he was saying, “This one’s just in,” and holding it up. His customers, a woman and a man, were listening.
I looked around and saw that there were several people in the back of the store. They were not looking at the merchandise, they were looking at the customers in the front and whispering. Since they had no coats, I decided they were employees and turned back to look again at the customers.
Their backs were to me as they listened to the man behind the counter. The man was unusually tall. He looked down and listened to his companion, who was leading the conversation. She had grey medium-length hair that stood out all over her head in frantic curls. She was slim and something about her was familiar. I listened to what she was saying; she was holding up a piece of decorative braid.
“Do you remember? I had nothing to wear for the Oscars last year and so I got out an old navy blazer and sewed this kind of embroidered tape along the lapels and down the front and then covered the blazer all over—I mean, just covered it—with all kinds and sizes of patches; the shinier the better. See there? It was like that one…”
With that, she pointed at a large embroidered emblem on the pegboard display wall. Now she didn’t point the way an ordinary person points—holding up the hand, elbow bent, finger out. She raised her whole arm in a graceful arc and stretched it to full length. She kept her fingers together until the last moment and then unleashed a long index finger with a bright red nail in the direction of the patch. She said, “See, there.” It was a real stage point and, even from the back, with grey hair, I immediately recognized the gesture and then the voice of Carol Channing.
Oh my, I thought, isn’t she wonderful. Even in this little store she is her dramatic self and what fun she is.
I debated going up to her and saying, “Miss Channing, I have loved you all my life.” But I decided quickly that wouldn’t do for me to say. After all, I am a woman who could be the same age as she or even older. While I was thinking, hoping for inspiration, she and her companion made a purchase and began to walk out and it was the moment for me to speak. Now or… but I still couldn’t think what to say, and so I never got the chance.
But I’ve been thinking about it now, all these years later. Perhaps I could have said, “Miss Channing, I believe I saw you in a summer “One Woman” show out of town (I think, in Albany). At least, to me you were the only one on stage, if there was someone else in the show, they were eclipsed by your glamour.” No, too effusive, leave off that last sentence even if true.
Or could I have said, “You were great in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ you stole the show.” But she was the show from the start, wasn’t she? At least as I remember it, it could have been written for her. She was the blonde, and center stage, and I can’t remember anyone but her. She glowed. And that voice, that amazing raspy style and slightly whiny sound. Unforgettable.
Or, perhaps I could just have extended my hand (or better yet, made a little bow in recognition), and said, “How do you do, Miss Channing, my name is…” No, my name would have been of no interest to her unless I had a program for her to sign and probably not even then. How about, “Miss Channing, I hope you’re going to do another show soon. I’d love to see you on stage again.” That might have opened a conversation, but then would I have been able to hold a conversation with Carol Channing? Somehow I can’t picture it.
So I guess it may have been better and more polite and just plain kinder to simply admire her silently as I did, and hope she had some idea she was recognized by a fan even if her hair was gray and she had no makeup on. Perhaps famous people, even effusive actors like Carol Channing, enjoy being ordinary shoppers once in a while. I’m sure she didn’t intend to reveal her special verve with that great gesture, that long arm, that wonderful finger pointing. It was second nature to her—she couldn’t be ordinary if a part in a show demanded it.