April 24, 2019

Beloved Broadway Star Carol Channing, 97

Carol Channing

Carol Channing, the wide-eyed, raspy-voiced Broadway star who made an indelible impression as Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” and as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” died the morning of Jan. 15 at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 97.

Channing had suffered two strokes in the past year, according to her publicist, B. Harlan Boll, who in a written statement called her “an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon.” 

An indomitable presence — she starred in revivals of “Dolly” well into her 70s and was still performing at 93 and — Channing estimated she appeared as Dolly Levi more than 5,000 times, missing only one performance. During her final Broadway run as Dolly in 1995, she told The New York Times: “Performing is the only excuse for my existence. … What can be better than this?”

The only child of George and Adelaide (Glaser) Channing, Carol Channing was born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, and raised in San Francisco. Her mother was Jewish and her father was a journalist who eventually became the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. She discovered her love of performing when she was 7 years old and, in a class election, imitated her teachers to the delight and laughter of her fellow students. From that moment she was hooked. (She also won the election.)

“Performing is the only excuse for my existence … What can be better than this?” — Carol Channing

While studying drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, in 1941 she went to New York and auditioned for a role in Marc Blitzstein’s musical play “No For an Answer.” She got the role, and although the show closed after only three performances, her performance was praised, and she decided to pursue a Broadway career. She was cast as an understudy for Eve Arden in Cole Porter’s “Let’s Face It” and found work in nightclubs and at Catskills resorts, but returned home at her father’s insistence in 1946. Convincing him to give her one more chance, she came to Los Angeles where she auditioned for Gower and Marge Champion, who cast her in their revue, “Lend an Ear.” A success in Los Angeles, the show also played for a year on Broadway and led to her being cast in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1949. 

Playing Lorelei Lee, the innocent flapper and gold digger, made her an immediate star. Time magazine wrote: “Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to re-illumine the whole gaudy legend of show business.” The show ran for two years on Broadway, followed by a yearlong national tour; the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” became her signature song. She went on to star in “Wonderful Town,” “Pygmalion” and “Show Girl” on Broadway, toured the country in her own cabaret act and performed in nightclubs with George Burns when Burns’ wife and performing partner, Gracie Allen, was ill. 

The role of Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” brought her even bigger fame. A massive hit, it won 10 Tony Awards (including best actress for Channing), and ran for seven years. Channing left after the first year, but returned to the role on Broadway in 1977, 1981 and 1994. She also appeared as “Lorelei” (reprising her role from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) in 1973;  “Sugar Babies” in 1980; “Jerry’s Girls” in 1984; and with Mary Martin in “Legends!” in 1986.

Channing’s brassy, exaggerated persona didn’t make an easy transition to film and TV. She received an Oscar nomination for supporting actress in 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but “The Carol Channing Show,” a sitcom produced by Desilu productions in 1966, was never picked up. She guest-starred on many shows, including “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” Flip Wilson’s show “Flip,” “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street”  and “The Love Boat.” She also played the White Queen in Irwin Allen’s made for TV production of “Alice in Wonderland.” A lifelong Democrat, her name appeared on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list,” which she called the highest honor of her career.  

Channing was married four times: to Theodore Naidish, Alex Carson, Charles Lowe and Harry Kullijian. She had one son, Channing Lowe, an editorial cartoonist, who survives her.