You know what sucks? When you are a wonderfully talented and culturally-significant performer who nobody thinks about, until you die. I don’t remember reading one blog post anywhere on Soupy Sales, Henry Gibson, Karl Malden, Dom DeLuise, or Bea Arthur until they died. Well, that’s about to change.
Every New Year’s Eve, I promise to write a post about three celebrities who lived to see to upcoming year. Each will be somebody who had an impact on me in some significant way and also happened to live long enough that people might be surprised to hear they are still around.
So–while they are still alive–let me say how much I always enjoyed the comedic work of Phyllis Diller, singing talents of Lena Horne, and cooky talent of Carol Channing.
Born in 1917, Diller is one of the most important comedic actors alive. She is a trailblazer for women in the comedic arts, making her first stand up appearances in the 1950s, when it was almost unheard of for women to be in that line of work. And her work set the standard for what female comics could do. Rosanne Barr’s “domestic goddess” is derived from Diller’s own musings on being a housewife in postwar America. As a kid I loved her work in films like Boy Did I Get the Wrong Number! and, of course, in Mad Monster Party.
Born a month before Diller, in June 1917, Lena Horne is about as real-deal “American treasure” as you’re going to get. I can’t condense her historical and cultural significance into a paragraph so let me just say she did it all. From her time on stage at the Cotton Club, to a major recording artist, to a star of numerous films, she had it all–looks, a voice, and decent acting chops. Check out her most famous appearance in Stormy Weather to see how much the camera loved Lena Horne. I did, too. As a small kid I knew her first as the spokesperson for Sanka coffee. Even then, older than my own abuelita, I had a crush on Ms. Horne.
And Carol Channing. What can I say about Carol Channing. Unlike the other two, you can still catch a glimpse of Carol Channing every once in awhile. Born in 1922, Channing is best known as the titular character in Hello Dolly, for which she won a Tony. She was a fixture on Broadway, and received a lifetime achievement award for her work on the stage. But she is also a cultural force. Channing was a fixture of TV game shows and talk shows in my youth, never far from Johnny Carson’s couch or the corner square down from Paul Lynde. She has spent much of her recent life as an outspoken supporter for Gay Right’s and seems to embrace the kitsch quality to her iconic status. And here’s a tidbit she revealed in her autobiography: she’s also biracial!
So there you have it. Three giants of the American screen, stage, and recording studio who made it to 2010.