ABOVE PHOTO: Carol Channing (Photo: Shutterstock)
By Mark Kennedy
NEW YORK — Carol Channing, the lanky, ebullient musical comedy star who delighted American audiences over 5,000 performances as the scheming Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway and beyond, has died. She was 97.
Publicist B. Harlan Boll said Channing died of natural causes at 12:31 a.m. Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, California. Boll says she had twice suffered strokes in the last year.
Besides “Hello, Dolly!,” Channing starred in other Broadway shows, but none with equal magnetism. She often appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour.
Her outsized personality seemed too much for the screen, and she made only a few movies, notably “The First Traveling Saleslady” with Ginger Rogers and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews.
Over the years, Channing continued as Dolly in national tours, the last in 1996, when she was in her 70s. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called her “the ninth wonder of the world.”
Messages of love and appreciation lit up Twitter early Tuesday, with the League of Professional Theatre Women saying Channing “was a gift of inspiration to so many.” Fans who saw her work also took to social media, calling her a “firecracker” and saying she was “matchmaking for the angels now.”
Veteran actress Bernadette Peters said Channing “was show business and love personified” and Margaret Cho said “you will forever be missed.” Viola Davis mourned: “You had a great run! Rest well.”
Channing was not the immediate choice to play Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife. The show, which features a rousing score by Jerry Herman that’s bursting with joy and tunes like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment,” is a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker.”
Theater producer David Merrick told her: “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears.” Even though director Gower Champion had worked on her first Broadway hit, “Lend an Ear,” he had doubts about Channing’s casting.
She wowed them in an audition and was hired on the spot. At opening night on Jan. 16, 1964, when Channing appeared at the top of the stairs in a red gown with feathers in her hair and walked down the red carpet to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, the New York audience went crazy. The critics followed suit. “Hello, Dolly!” collected 10 Tony Awards, including one for Channing as best actress in a musical.
Channing was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor. When his only child was 3 months old, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a writer for The Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He later became editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications.
At the age of 7, Channing decided she wanted to become an entertainer. She credited her father with encouraging her: “He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97. And the people who do that are happier people.”
In her memoir, Channing also revealed a previously unknown African-American ancestry. Before she left for college in 1937, her mother told a 16-year-old Channing that her father’s birth certificate was labeled as “colored” because his mother was an African-American woman. Channing told Larry King in a 2002 interview that she only had one thing to say when she found out the news: “I got the greatest genes in show business.”
Throughout her career, Channing has been beloved by the gay community, inspiring legions of drag queens to imitate her signature saucer-shaped eyes and red lips. Describing her relationship with the LGBT people as a “mutual love affair,” Channing told dot429, “The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, and I love them. It’s a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences too, because they laugh often and loudly.”
While majoring in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she was sent off to get experience in her chosen field. She found a job in a New York revue. The show lasted only two weeks, but a New Yorker magazine critic commented, “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing.” She said later: “That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”
For several years she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, taking jobs as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times. Landing in Los Angeles, she auditioned for Marge Champion, wife and dance partner of Gower Champion who was putting together a revue, “Lend an Ear.” Marge Champion recalled: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”
Channing was the hit of “Lend an Ear” in a small Hollywood theater, and she captivated audiences and critics when the show moved to New York. As the innocent gold digger in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” her stardom was assured. One reviewer reported she “hurls across the footlights in broad strokes of pantomime and bold, certain, exquisitely comical gestures.” The show’s hit song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” became her signature number.
Over and over again she returned to the surefire “Hello, Dolly!,” which earned her $5 million on one tour. She considered Dolly Levi “a role as deep as Lady Macbeth,” but added that “the essence of her character was her unquenchable thirst for life.” That description fit Carol Channing, who attributed her sunny optimism to her lifelong faith in Christian Science.
Others who have played the role include Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers and Barbra Streisand, who played Dolly in a 1969 film version directed by Gene Kelly. Bette Midler won a Tony Award in the role in 2017 and a current national tour stars Betty Buckley.
The tour of “Hello, Dolly!” said Tuesday it would honor Channing at its current stop in California. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of the one and only Carol Channing. She was a ‘Dolly’ for the ages, and a true icon of the American theater. Betty Buckley and the cast will dedicate tonight’s performance in San Diego to her memory.”
Channing had two early marriages that ended in divorce — to novelist Theodore Naidish and pro footballer Alexander Carson, father of her only child, Channing. Her son became a successful political cartoonist.
In 1956 she married a television producer, Charles Lowe, who seemed like the perfect mate for a major star. He adopted Channing’s son and supervised every aspect of her business affairs and appearances. He reportedly viewed every one of her performances from out front, leading the applause.
After 41 years of marriage, she sued for divorce in 1998, alleging that he misappropriated her funds and humiliated her in public. She remarked that they only had sex twice in four decades.
“The only thing about control freak victims is that they don’t know who they are,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s taken me 77 years to figure that out. I was miserable. I was unhappy. And I didn’t realize it wasn’t my fault. But I’m going to survive. I’m going to live. I’m free.”
Lowe died after a stroke in 1999. Channing moved to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, California, in 2000 to write her memoirs. She called the book “Just Lucky, I Guess.”
Channing remarried in 2003 to Harry Kullijian, her childhood sweetheart from 70 years before. He died in 2011.
In her book, Channing recounted an early story from her childhood that showed a budding audience-pleasing performer. She wrote that she came home from kindergarten and noted that all the little girls hit the little boys.
Her parents asked: “Do you?”
She responded: “Oh no, I pet them.”
HuffPost contributed to this report.