Share this article

print logo

Carol Channing, larger-than-life Broadway star, dies at 97

Carol Channing, whose incandescent performances as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and the matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” made her a Broadway legend, died early Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 97.

Her death was confirmed by her publicist, B. Harlan Boll, in a telephone interview. She had suffered two strokes during the past year, he said.

Channing was bringing audiences to their feet night after night in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” when she was 74 – appearing at the top of the staircase singing, “Wow, wow, wow, fellas,/Look at the old girl now, fellas,” resplendent in her scarlet gown and jewels, her platinum hair crowned with red plumage. Ten years later she was still getting applause, this time for a cabaret act. Nine years after that, just a few days before her 93rd birthday, she appeared at Town Hall in Manhattan as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the night “Dolly” opened.

“Performing is the only excuse for my existence,” she said during her last Broadway appearance, in the 1995 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” “What can be better than this?”

Channing was one of the most recognizable presences in the theater world. Her tousled hairdo, headlight-size eyes and exaggerated mouth were the subject of countless caricatures. For many years her real hair, damaged by bleaching, was covered by a wig.

Her false eyelashes, worn at a fantastic length since she was a teenager, posed a more serious problem. The glue that was used to attach them gradually pulled out her natural lashes, and Channing began painting on the long spikes.

By then, her vision had become impaired, but she was philosophical about her somewhat hazy view of her fellow actors. “I know what they look like,” she said.

The generous mouth was put to amazing use in “Hello, Dolly!” In one scene she shoveled into it, with assembly-line speed, one potato puff after another. The stage puffs, made from Kleenex and tinted with powdered Sanka, were spit out into a napkin when the audience’s attention was directed elsewhere. As Channing told the story, her mouth held 22 puffs with ease, and 27 with no great difficulty; her standby could manage only three.

Channing’s voice, gravel-toned and capable of sinking to subterranean levels, was as distinctive as her appearance. When she sang a song in her exaggerated growl, it belonged to her forever; only Louis Armstrong’s own growling rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” was a match for hers.
Her speech in public, described as everything from a “raspy yawp” to a foghorn, was deceptive, friends said: When alone with them, she was perfectly capable of less stylized enunciation and enjoyed serious conversation.

Critic Walter Kerr called her “maybe the only creature extant who can live up to a Hirschfeld,” explaining that theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld “always lives up to the people he draws, but the people he draws don’t always live up to him.” Kerr added, “Here’s the exception: mascara to swim in, nobly tragic mouth, the face of a great mystic about to make a terrible mistake.”

The tall, flamboyant Channing became a Broadway star at the Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 8, 1949. That was the opening night of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” a musical based on Anita Loos’ best seller of the 1920s, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Channing starred as the flapper Lorelei Lee, and her stardom was assured when she sang Lorelei’s anthem, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

Time magazine summed up her performance: “Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to reillumine the whole gaudy legend of show business.” Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of the New York Times, hailed her Lorelei Lee as “the most fabulous comic creation of this dreary period in history.”

The show ran almost two years on Broadway, and Channing played Lorelei on tour for another year.

In the next decade, she appeared on Broadway in “Wonderful Town,” “The Vamp” and “Show Girl.” She also created a nightclub act that toured the country.

Carol Channing at the Ice Palace Hotel in Cherry Grove on Aug. 24, 2013. (Deidre Schoo/New York Times)

Producer David Merrick, who had acquired the Broadway rights to Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker” and was in the process of turning it into the musical “Hello, Dolly!,” caught Channing’s act in Minneapolis and discussed the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi with her. She later met with Gower Champion, who had been enlisted as director and choreographer – and who, with his wife, Marge, had played an important role in Channing’s early career – and the role was hers.

“Hello, Dolly!,” with a score by Jerry Herman, opened at the St. James Theater on Jan. 16, 1964, and received ecstatic reviews. It went on to win 10 Tony Awards, including one for Channing as best actress in a musical. Among those she beat out was Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for “Funny Girl.”

To Channing’s disappointment, however, it was Streisand who was chosen to star in the film version of “Hello, Dolly!,” which meant that both of Channing’s signature roles ended up being played onscreen by other actresses: Marilyn Monroe had played Lorelei Lee in the movie version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Channing’s own motion picture career never really took off, although she received an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for her performance in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967). She did enjoy some success on television and in her later years did a lot of cartoon voice-over work. But the theater was her natural home.

“Hello, Dolly!” ran for almost seven years on Broadway. Ginger Rogers assumed the title role when Channing left to take the show on the road in the summer of 1965, and Pearl Bailey, Ethel Merman and other marquee names later played it, as well. (Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters starred in a hit Broadway revival that began in 2017.) But ultimately the part belonged to Channing, who toured with revivals in 1977, 1982 and 1994.

By the time she returned to the role on Broadway in October 1995, Channing had played Dolly more than 4,500 times, missing only one performance – in June of that year, when she left the show for a day to fly to New York from San Diego to accept a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. She had appeared onstage in a cast, a neck brace and a wheelchair, and with viruses that would have felled anyone with lesser determination.

She toured 30 cities with that production before opening on Broadway, where “Dolly” played to packed houses for 15 weeks before moving on to Britain, Australia, Japan and China.

Between the “Dolly” revivals, Channing starred in tours of “Jerry’s Girls,” a musical revue built around Herman’s songs, and, with Mary Martin, in the James Kirkwood comedy “Legends.” In 1974, she appeared on Broadway in “Lorelei,” a revised version of “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.”

Carol Elaine Channing was born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, and grew up in San Francisco, the only child of George Channing, a newspaperman turned Christian Science lecturer, and the former Adelaide Glaser. She later recalled that she was both frightened and embarrassed by her mother, a woman of wildly varying moods who kept her from having friends and lied to her teachers about her, but adored her father.

In her 2002 autobiography, “Just Lucky I Guess,” she revealed that when she was 16, her mother told her that her father was part black; she kept her racial heritage a secret, she wrote, for fear that it would be bad for her career.

She discovered early that she had a talent to entertain. At the age of 7, she ran for secretary of her class, and when she couldn’t think of a good reason to ask her classmates to vote for her, she began doing imitations of her teachers rather than making a speech. She was hooked from the moment she heard the first wave of laughter. She also won the election.

She studied drama and dance at Bennington College. During the summer of 1940 she worked briefly at the Tamiment Playhouse, the famed incubator of talent in the Poconos, but failed to make much of an impression on Max Liebman, the playhouse’s director (and later the creator of “Your Show of Shows,” the TV show that made Sid Caesar a star).

The next winter, during a recess at Bennington, she went to New York to try her luck and was cast in Marc Blitzstein’s opera “No for an Answer.” The show folded after three days, but Channing, encouraged by the one line of praise she received in the New Yorker, decided to seek work on Broadway.

In October 1941 she became an understudy to Eve Arden in the Cole Porter musical “Let’s Face It,” but the next year, after having replaced Arden only once, she accepted a pay cut to $50 a week from $65 to appear in a play about nurses on Bataan, “Proof Through the Night.” It lasted a week.

After sporadic work in nightclubs and at Catskills resorts, she returned to San Francisco at her father’s insistence in 1946. The next year, she persuaded him to give her one last crack at the theater. She ventured to Los Angeles, where she did one-nighters and benefits before obtaining an audition with Marge Champion, who was looking for new faces for “Lend an Ear,” a satirical revue for which Champion’s husband staged the musical numbers.

“She certainly was awkward and odd-looking,” Champion remembered years later, “but her warmth and her wholesomeness came through to me.”

With Channing in the cast, “Lend an Ear” played for five months in Los Angeles before opening on Broadway in December 1948. It ran for just over a year, and Anita Loos and the producers Herman Levin and Oliver Smith remembered Channing’s performance when they set out to cast Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Channing maintained that “we have no such thing as age.” She said she did not observe her birthday until Jan. 31, 1993, her 72nd, when she was a guest at a White House dinner and, to her amazement, President Bill Clinton noted the occasion in his remarks. When she replied that she had never celebrated her birthday, the president responded, “Well, then this is your first birthday.”

She did, however, resent the change in attitude prompted by advancing years. “I sometimes get the strangest treatment from people,” she told the Times in 1995. “They try to force you to be what they think you are. They think you’re somebody you’re not. They start worrying about you and looking at you differently and helping you across the street.”

She was then in her mid-70s but believed, she said, that she had not yet peaked. “Shirley Temple peaked at 7,” she said. “I haven’t gotten myself together yet.”

She remained active well into her 80s. Reviewing her performance at Feinstein’s at the Regency in 2005, Stephen Holden of the Times wrote: “Although substantially diminished in power, Ms. Channing’s blend of unbridled optimism and ferocious vitality is still a primal show business force field. At 84, she personifies the adult child as natural showoff and clown, brimming with curiosity and humor, accentuating the positive.”

In 2012 Channing was the subject of a documentary, “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” directly by Dori Berinstein.

Channing’s first two marriages, to Theodore Naidish, a writer, and Alexander Carson, a professional football player, ended in divorce. She had a son, Channing, by her second husband; he was later adopted by her third husband, television producer Charles Lowe, and as Chan Lowe was for many years the editorial cartoonist for The Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Channing and Lowe were married in 1956 and were for many years a partnership, with Lowe negotiating Channing’s contracts and dealing with every detail of her career.

That partnership unraveled in 1998, when they separated after she accused him of mismanagement. They were estranged at the time of Lowe’s death in 1999. In 2003, Channing married Harry Kullijian, who had been her junior high school sweetheart. He died in December 2011. She is survived by her son.

Channing’s reputation as a highly individual personality was enhanced by her food habits. For many years she carried organically grown food in silver containers to restaurants, dinner parties and even the White House. The food was prepared with bottled water because, she said, she was allergic to something in tap water. It turned out that her food allergies were traceable to the hair dye she used. When she stopped dyeing her hair and began to wear wigs offstage as well as on, the sensitivity to tap water eased.

Channing once said that she hoped to die like David Burns, her original co-star in “Hello, Dolly!,” who got a big laugh in 1971 in a tryout of the musical “70 Girls 70” in Philadelphia and then keeled over onstage while the laugh continued.

“The audience didn’t know there was anything wrong, you see,” she said. “He died hearing the laugh build. I can’t think of a better way to go.”

There are no comments - be the first to comment