Broadway Legend Carol Channing Dies At 97

RIP, Dolly.

Carol Channing, who became a star on Broadway and to some extent television and the silver screen, but who is perhaps best known for her performance in 1964’s Hello, Dolly!, has died at the age of 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, who said she had two strokes in the past year.

Ms. Channing was bringing audiences to their feet night after night in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” when she was 74, 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?”

Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Channing told the story, her mouth held 22 puffs with ease, and 27 with no great difficulty; her standby could manage only three.

Ms. 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.

The critic Walter Kerr called her “maybe the only creature extant who can live up to a Hirschfeld,” explaining that the theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld “always lives up to the people he draws, but the people he draws don’t always live up to him.” Mr. 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 Ms. Channing became a Broadway star at the Ziegfeld Theater on Dec. 8, 1949. That was the opening night of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a musical based on Anita Loos’s best seller of the 1920s, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin and choreography by Agnes de Mille. Ms. 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 Ms. 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.

The 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 Ms. 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Channing as best actress in a musical.

That same year she sang a rewritten, politically partisan version of the title song, called “Hello, Lyndon!,” which President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for a full four-year term, played at campaign stops. She went on to perform the song, accompanied by Mr. Herman on the piano, in a show staged during the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Ms. Channing and the Johnson family became close friends, and there was some speculation years later that that relationship had landed her on President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous enemies list.

Among those Ms. Channing beat out for the Tony was Barbra Streisand, who was nominated for “Funny Girl.” To her disappointment, however, it was Ms. Streisand who was chosen to star in the 1969 film version of “Hello, Dolly!,” which meant that both of Ms. Channing’s signature roles ended up being played onscreen by other actresses: Marilyn Monroe had played Lorelei Lee in the 1953 movie of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(…)

Carol Elaine Channing was born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, and grew up in San Francisco, the only child of George and Adelaide (Glaser) Channing. 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 Carol adored her father, a newspaperman turned Christian Science lecturer.

In her 2002 autobiography, “Just Lucky I Guess,” Ms. Channing 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 in Vermont. 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. (He was 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 Ms. 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 Ms. Arden only once, she accepted a pay cut to $50 a week from $65 to appear in a play about nurses on Bataan, “Proof Thro’ 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 Ms. Champion’s husband staged the musical numbers.

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

With Ms. 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 Ms. Channing’s performance when they set out to cast Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

More from Variety:

Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97.

Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with extreme heartache, that I have to announce the passing of an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon — Miss Carol Channing. Saying good-bye is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I know that when I feel those uncontrollable urges to laugh at everything and/or nothing at all, it will be because she is with me, tickling my funny bone.”

Channing won a Tony as best actress in a musical in 1964 for Jerry Herman’s musical version of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” Until then she had been closely identified with the gold-digging Ms. Lee in the 1948 musical adaptation of Anita Loos’ flapper-era novel.

Channing lost out on the chance to sing her signature song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” in the film version of “Gentlemen”; that honor went to Marilyn Monroe. And though she had bested Barbra Streisand for the Tony in 1964 (Streisand was nominated for “Funny Girl”), she was passed over for the “Hello Dolly” film in favor of the much-younger Streisand.

During her career Channing made few films. But one of them, the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews, brought Channing an Oscar nomination for supporting actress and a Golden Globe.

At age 72 Channing returned to Broadway as Dolly Levi. The husky-voiced performer still continued to captivate audiences on the Great White Way and around the country.

Carol Elaine Channing was born in Seattle and raised in San Francisco, the daughter of a noted Christian Science lecturer George Channing. In her 2002 autobiography “Just Lucky, I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts,” she revealed that her father had been a light-skinned African American who used two different accents: one to help “pass” in the white world and another around the house, where he sang gospel music to his daughter.

Channing studied dance and drama at Bennington but dropped out to appear in Marc Blitzstein’s “No for an Answer,” which opened at the Mecca Temple (later New York’s City Center) in 1941. It ran only for three days, but that was enough for Channing to make an impression.

Channing developed a satirical night club act and appeared around town at Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown and at Catskills Mountain resorts. By 1946, she returned home to San Francisco, whereupon her father gave her another chance to succeed.

This time she moved to Los Angeles, where she auditioned for Marge and Gower Champion’s revue “Lend an Ear,” which ran for five months on the West Coast before landing in 1948 at the National Theater, where it continued for a year. Though she’d been around for several years, she was suddenly “a brilliant new comedienne,” according to Cue magazine.

When Herman Levin and Oliver Smith were preparing “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the “brilliant new comedienne” was their first and only choice for Lorelei Lee. On Dec. 8, 1949, Channing debuted to enthusiastic notices, drawing comparisons to Beatrice Lillie and Fanny Brice. She spent two years on Broadway with the show and another on the road.

In 1953 she replaced Rosalind Russell in “Wonderful Town,” and she toured for two years with the musical version of “My Sister Eileen.” Another musical attempt, “The Vamp,” based on the life of Theda Bara, closed after 60 performances in 1955, but she received a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical for her efforts.

Channing made her film debut in “Paid in Full” in 1950 and then appeared with Ginger Rogers in 1956’s “The First Traveling Saleslady,” which she once joked should have been called “Death of a Saleslady.”

Once again she turned to nightclubs, opening at the Tropicana in Las Vegas and touring major boites for the next three years.

Some of the nightclub material was incorporated into the Broadway revue “Show Girl,” which opened in 1961 and ran for 100 performances; Channing drew her second Tony nom.

After that she toured with George Burns and then in stock in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess.” Her TV special “George Burns and Carol Channing” brought her an Emmy Award.

Under the direction of Gower Champion, Channing became the toast of Broadway again in “Hello Dolly,” which won 10 Tony awards, including best actress. She appeared off and on in the tuner for the next 30 years.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Channing was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show and other talk shows and, as someone who grew up in the New York area, her status as a Broadway legend meant that she was often seen in the local media either performing or appearing at events. Perhaps the most surprising thing came in the 1990s when she reprised her role as Dolly in a revival that lasted for several years on Broadway, although she was with the cast for only a short period of time.

In any event, at 97 one can’t really call a death tragic. She lived a full life and, at least from her public demeanor, always seemed to enjoy her stardom and the treatment she received from fans around the country. It was, in other words, a life well-lived.

As is always the case, I’ve long thought that the best way to remember someone best known for their performances is through those performances. In that respect, here’s a video of Channing and the original cast of Hello, Dolly! performing the shows iconic number:

And here’s a video from 1979 of the same number:

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Obituaries, Popular Culture, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    landed her on President Richard M. Nixon’s infamous enemies list

    She described this as the highest honor she received during her career.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    When I was 8 or 9, we had a roguishly disreputable neighbor who spent his time painting and drinking, not necessarily in that order. He was allegedly (in)famous for three things:
    1. He had been Sophie Tucker’s pianist
    2. He had co-written the song “Sioux City Sue”
    3. He had given Carol Channing voice lessons

    Only the first was ever independently verified…

  3. Slugger says:

    My wife met her in 1974 when Ms. Channing showed up at a clinic where my wife was working with children with speech problems. This was one of Channing’s charity interests. She popped in, observed therapy for a while, and sang “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friends.” The kids and staff were charmed. She was gracious and engaged.

  4. CSK says:

    My sister saw Channing in the “Hello, Dolly” revival at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1995. At age 73, she could still navigate in 6-inch stilettos. What a trouper.

  5. Franklin says:

    She always seemed larger than life, that face almost felt like a caricature of itself. What a wonderful long career she had!