The musical Hello, Dolly! made its Broadway debut in 1964 and was an instant smash with Carol Channing in the title role. Three years later, when ticket sales were starting to slump, producer David Merrick retooled with an entirely black cast that featured Pearl Bailey as the lead and Cab Calloway as her love interest. The move was such a success that it landed Bailey on the cover of LIFE. And it also drew the attention of the sitting U.S. President.
LIFE said that with the new cast, “the performances have sharpened up. The dancing has extra snap, as if the hoofers are trying to outdo their excellent predecessors.” Pearl Bailey, it said, had the perfect temperament for the role of Dolly and “feels at home in every word.”
Audiences agreed. Clive Barnes, the powerful New York Times critic, raved about the show, in which he said Bailey drew show-stopping applause from the audience: “For Miss Bailey this was a Broadway triumph for the history books…She took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa.”
Interestingly, Bailey told LIFE that when she signed on as Dolly, she was not told anything about the racial composition of the rest of the cast. The choice to use only Black actors was not without its dissenters—including Frederick O’Neal, who was the first Black president of Actor’s Equity and felt that a mixed-race cast would be more in line with the goal of integration. LIFE also cited white critics who found the idea of an all-black cast condescending, and mentioned that some wondered if this might lead to an all-white Porgy and Bess.
Bailey’s response to LIFE was: “If anyone was worried about integration, why didn’t they worry about it at the time of the first Dolly?”
Bailey’s performance earned her a special Tony award (as a replacement she wasn’t eligible for a standard nomination). When Bailey and the cast performed at the ceremony they were introduced by Carol Channing, who graciously raved about the success Bailey was having with her signature role.
Among those who came to see the production was Lyndon Johnson. He already had a connection to the musical from his 1964 presidential campaign, when Channing sang “Hello, Lyndon!” at the 1964 Democratic Convention. For this new production Johnson and his wife Lady Bird visited with Bailey and came on stage after a performance. LIFE said that this was the first time a U.S. President had appeared on a theatrical stage before an audience.
Bailey continued in the role until Hello, Dolly! closed its original run in 1970. She returned to a new production of the show in 1975, one that had been especially designed for her.