Next month in Dallas, Legends!, a comedy by James (A Chorus Line,) Kirkwood, starts a six-city tour at the Majestic Theatre prior to coming to Broadway in the late spring. The deliciously venomous play—about two bitterly feuding Hollywood screen legends who must share a New York stage—stars Mary Martin, 72 (mother of two and now a great-grandmother) and Carol Channing, 62 (mother of one son). These giants of musical theater have been pals for 36 years, but this will be the first time they perform together. (They’ll split a $25,000 weekly salary and share in profits.) For Martin, Legends! marks her return to the theater after suffering a punctured lung and fractured pelvic bone in a 1982 car accident in San Francisco. The crash killed her manager, Ben Washer, and severely injured Martin’s movie star pal Janet Gaynor, who died two years later. Special Correspondent David Wallace talked with the vivacious superstars in Martin’s memento-filled Rancho Mirage, Calif. home. The appropriate topic: their lives as theater legends.
Channing: Gee, Mary, I love the color of your hair [light reddish blond].
Martin: I mixed it with Nice ‘n Easy. I do it myself. I can really screw it up. It’s been green…everything.
PEOPLE: You two go back a long way.
Martin: I was doing South Pacific, and she was doing Lend an Ear at the National.
Channing: That’s right. It was right next door. We watched the opening of South Pacific from our fire escape. We saw the greats of the theater walking in—Leland Hayward, Joshua Logan, Rodgers and Hammerstein—everyone coming to see Mary. Mary was writing me notes, saying, “Wait, just wait for your next show,” and “You’re next. You’re going to be a great star.” When I got my first starring part [a year later in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes] Mary gave me her dresser. And it just changed opening night for me. I knew a real pro was handling me. We’ve been close ever since. When something happens in my life, Mary’s there.
Martin: And vice versa.
PEOPLE: Mary, why didn’t you want to do Legends! at first?
Martin: I had read the script last summer and thought it was funny. But I thought it just wasn’t my image. I read it up to a certain point and that was it. They asked me to reconsider. I said, “I can’t. People are expecting to see me in a musical, and this is not a musical.” They said, “We’ll change the things that are upsetting you [mostly the obscenities].” So I agreed to take the script home again. Maj [her daughter-in-law] read it and then Larry [Hagman]. He called and said, “Now, Mother, I don’t want you to do it.” I said, “Okay, now I know.” And he said, “Because I want to do it. I’d like to buy it for a picture so there is no reason for you to do it. It can be done just as easily with two men.” Then he said he was going to come down and make me say the words I didn’t want to say.
Channing: What he really said was, “I’m going to prop you up in bed in the morning and make you say f—until you get used to it.” Don’t you love it?
Martin: The payoff was, Larry said, “I really think it’s funny, I think it’s touching, and I think it’s time you got back to work. I think you’ve been off long enough.” They had already talked to people about playing the other part. I finally said, “Would you like to know who I would like to play with more than anyone? Carol Channing.” I knew that she was working, but this was a lifetime dream—that we would perform together.
Channing: It’s a dream I never thought would come true. After Mary’s accident, which she never talks about, I was playing in San Francisco, and Mary came to see me opening night. I think it was Hello, Dolly!, and the house came down when I introduced her. That night Mary and I sat up in the Clift Hotel and talked all night long. I didn’t care if I ever slept. I was sitting there with Mary and Charles [Channing’s husband] and talking about how this terrible thing had happened and how she was getting herself together because she is a survivor—making herself crawl up steps when she couldn’t. All that. And what did she say? She said, “Let’s hold hands. Isn’t it a wonderful life we’ve had? Let’s be grateful and thank God.” I thought, “Only Mary Martin after this horrendous thing…she’s lost the dearest, closest people in her life and she says, ‘Haven’t we had a rich and wonderful life.’ ” Later, I was doing some promotion at the opening of a clothing store, and Mary was in the audience and she kept interrupting me when I was trying to make a speech. And we were shouting back and forth to one another. We suddenly realized we had an act. Laurel and Hardy, maybe, but an act! We said, “Gee, people are laughing all around us,” and we realized we had a chemistry that nobody could calculate, nobody could force. Now, whether you see it in this play or not, we feel it. Even when we go over the script, it’s hard because we never stop talking. Mary talks all about discipline…
Martin: So do you! Her discipline flies out the window when we’re sitting here alone. We should keep someone with us who will say, “Okay, let’s get back to the script, girls.” I’m still a little…not scared exactly. I just hope they’ll accept me in it.
Channing: I do, too. They’ll accept you doing anything.
PEOPLE: Aren’t you worried about the inevitable comparisons that will be made by critics?
Channing (laughing): Do you think I don’t know this? I gotta come up to a monument! We know they’re going to say, “Well, Mary Martin is the Queen of the Midway but what the heck is she [referring to herself] doing there?” Critics are only human, and some jerk is going to come along and compare us. So we expect that. The only thing to do is know it’s going to happen, and thank God I’m working with a woman who has been through every possible thing in show business and who knows that this will happen and that it makes no difference.
PEOPLE: What do you think of the changes you’ve seen over the years in the business?
Martin: I’m upset because it costs so much to see a show. It’s just wicked, $45 or $46 a ticket. That’s a hell of a lot for one show.
Channing: But, Mary, everything has gone up that much. Refrigerators have gone up that much. I don’t think it’s just the theater…
Martin: Oh, yes, Carol, there more than anywhere.
Channing: Theater has gone up more than a refrigerator?
Martin: Let’s say this. A refrigerator you have to have in your house. You don’t have to have a show.
Channing: Oh, yes, you do.
Martin: No, you need a refrigerator in your house or everything will spoil. We in our business supply a release from life to forget your problems. But we’re not completely necessary for daily living.
Channing: For me it’s a necessity. I would rather see a show than eat, I think.
Martin: But you have to eat!
Channing: No, you don’t, but you have to lift yourself up from the mundane into a wonderful world.
Martin: Neither one of us is practical in any way whatsoever, and why I got on a practical subject I don’t know.
PEOPLE: Let’s get back to Legends! for a moment. Do the characters resemble people you know?
Channing: These people are everybody I’ve ever known. They are everyone James Kirkwood ever met. I understand these stories. One of the stories about Maggie Bain being eaten by her cat [a tale exchanged between the play’s two characters]…I shouldn’t tell you, but it’s a real story. Marie Prevost [a silent screen actress who appeared in Mack Sennett comedies] had a dog, remember, Mary?
Martin: You weren’t even born, Carol.
Channing: Marie Prevost had a dog. She died, and a few days later they came in and found the dog had eaten parts of her.
Martin: Hush, Carol! Don’t give away these stories.
PEOPLE: Let’s drop that one. What have been your favorite roles?
Channing: The one I’m doing at the moment, and that’s the dead-on truth. You know why? It’s like asking a woman who is madly in love, “Which man did you love the most?” Well, my God, you don’t remember anybody but the man you’re in love with right now.
Martin: It’s true.
PEOPLE: What about your regrets?
Martin: I’m a little sorry I turned down My Fair Lady. I always wanted to do it, and it was given to me first. But I had just finished Peter Pan, which I had been involved with for two and a half years, and I had busted my back from my neck to my tailbone [flying from suspended wires]. Nothing was right with it. But Alan Lerner and Fritz Loewe didn’t understand why I couldn’t do it. They played the score for me, and I said, “I can’t!” They asked, “Well, who do you think?” And I said that there was a little girl who had just come from London and had been in a musical. “Her name is Julie Andrews and she’d be perfect.” Julie doesn’t know this story. And then, again, The Sound of Music I did on Broadway, and she did on film.
Channing: I’m sorry I turned down Mame. Jerry Herman was writing it while Hello, Dolly! was playing, and he kept asking me to do it. I said, “Jerry, I can’t leave Hello, Dolly! It’s lightning in a bottle, a hit show. You don’t leave.” But I thought about Angela Lansbury when I was walking down a street in back of her. I had just seen her in a play and she was so-o-o-o amusing. I said, “Jerry, Angela can do it. She has the strange combination you want.”
PEOPLE: Mary, you must have been thrilled to have Nancy Reagan sing when you were honored in October in New York.
Martin: I’ve known her since she was 16 and a debutante. We [Martin and her late husband, producer Richard Halliday] gave Nancy her best stage job in Lute Song [a 1946 experimental Broadway play], and I’ve known Ronnie forever, too. Nancy said she would like to be there but said she wanted to sing Mountain High, Valley Low from Lute Song for me—and with me. To get this done, Nancy called me at home from Camp David. I’m here with my accompanist and conductor, and I’m singing into the phone, “If you need me, I’ll be nearby…” and Nancy says, “Lower, lower.” So I sang lower, and she says, “No, lower.” Finally I said, “Nancy, if you get any lower you’re going to choke to death.” So she sang it in the lowest key we could find. She was utterly, utterly darling.
Channing: Nancy made a lot of friends that day. I never knew that side of her.
PEOPLE: Both of you have had your shares of mountains and valleys.
Martin: You have tragedies but you can’t give in to them. You have to go through and survive them. Ben went like that. [She snaps her fingers.] Maybe that is one reason I decided I wanted to do the show. Because at least we are doing something we know how to do. We are doing what we were put here to do. So here we are, full steam ahead, whatever the outcome is. Full steam ahead!