Carol Channing, the blonde, saucer-eyed Broadway musical comedy star who was associated with one role—Dolly Gallagher Levi in Jerry Herman’s Hello Dolly!—as strongly as Yul Brynner was with The King and I and Richard Kiley with Man of La Mancha, died of natural causes on January 15, 2019. Her publicist confirmed the death. She was 97.
Ms. Channing played the sweetly scheming matchmaker Dolly Levi on Broadway three times over a 30-year period—testimony to how closely audiences identified her with the role. Ms. Channing was said to have never missed a performance in Dolly during its first Broadway run beginning in 1964, and played the part countless other times over the years in a variety of national tours.
Ms. Channing is the subject of the 2011 documentary film, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, directed and co-written by Dori Berinstein (co-written by Adam Zucker).
Given her outsized performance style, the actor was born for the stage. Perhaps more than any other female Broadway star of her time, she was immediately recognizable. Large circular eyes held a seemingly permanent expression of surprise, and were underlined by a wide, rectangular, toothy smile that sometimes appeared to be wider than her face. It was all framed by an unruly mop of white-blonde hair. She was, in fact, one of famed New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s most frequent subjects. It was famously observed that, in Hirschfeld’s hands, her “nose and mouth can be perfectly represented by an umlaut hovering over a parking-meter dial.” Her voice was equally distinct, a hoarse, whiskey-tinged, vaguely Southern, ditzy delivery that lent comic edge to nearly every sentence she uttered.
“It is not possible that anybody ever met anyone like Carol Channing on the street,” William Goldman wrote in The Season. “With those crazy popping eyes and that bizarre speech pattern, the lady would be hatched up on sight.”
It was producer David Merrick’s idea to musicalize Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, a play he had earlier produced. He hired Jerry Herman to write the score and courted Ethel Merman to star. When Merman turned him down, he turned to Channing, who had made a strong impression years earlier in 1949’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The show struggled out of town, but arrived on Broadway a tuneful, crowd-pleasing smash, winning ten Tony Awards. Channing herself won a Tony, her first of three, including one for Lifetime Achievement in 1995.
She famously lost out on the role to Barbra Streisand for the movie adaptation, but she came to terms with the disappointment. “I felt like jumping out a window when I heard Streisand was doing it,” she told Playbill in 1970. “I’d played it four-and-a-half years—I thought Dolly was mine. But after the initial shock wore off I realized no great part is ever exclusively anybody’s. Audrey Hepburn played My Fair Lady in the movies instead of Julie Andrews and Julie went on to be a big big star. I started Dolly off in the musical but Ruth Gordon originated the role in The Matchmaker. Streisand is a great artist and I enjoyed watching her.” She paused. “It’s hard sometimes to find the good side to people and events but it’s worth the effort. Once my father told me don’t waste your energy, your brain, your strength on the little things. Because the more you love, the more you’re interested in, the more you’re angry about—the more you have to give when anything bad happens.”
Carol Elaine Channing was born January 31, 1921, in Seattle, Washington. She was the only child of George Channing, a journalist, and Carol Glaser. The family moved to San Francisco when Channing was only two weeks old. She went to school at Aptos Junior High School and then to Lowell High School in San Francisco. She first became exposed to the theatre when she helped her mother distribute Christian Science Monitors backstage at the Curran Theatre. “I stood there and realized—I’ll never forget it because it came over me so strongly—that this is a temple. This is a cathedral. It’s a mosque. It’s a mother church,” she once said.
When she left home to attend Bennington College in Vermont, she received a shock. Her mother told her that her father had in fact been born to a German-American father and an African-American mother, making Carol one-fourth black. She did not disclose the information until 2002, when she published her memoir Just Lucky I Guess, for fear it would hurt her chances in getting cast for stage work.
Ms. Channing’s first theatre job in New York was in Marc Blitzstein’s No For an Answer in 1941. She made her Broadway debut in Proof Through the Night in 1942. The 1948 revue Lend an Ear earned her a Theatre World Award and the attention of author Anita Loos, whose short story collection about Lorelei Lee, Gentleman Prefer Blondes, was being turned into a Broadway musical. Ms. Channing was cast. The show made her a star, and gave her two songs, “A Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” that became among her signatures. She subsequently took the show on tour.
Despite her success in Blondes, Ms. Channing found it difficult to land a follow-up role. She replaced Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, in New York and on the road. A new Broadway musical, The Vamp, came next in 1955, but it lasted a mere seven weeks at the Winter Garden. She pursued nightclub dates to fill in time between shows.
After 14 months on the road, she came into New York in 1961 with a revue called Show Girl at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. It ran for 100 performances, but gave Ms. Channing a sizable forum to show her talents, and then went out on the road. Hello, Dolly! came next and she cemented her place in the Broadway pantheon.
She reprised the role of Lorelei Lee in the musical Lorelei in the 1970s, and came back as Dolly on two occasions. Ms. Channing was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995. She did gain some new notoriety, however, when, in 1986-87, she toured in the famously bedeviled play Legends with Mary Martin. The tour became the subject of playwright James Kirkwood Jr.’s Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road with Mary Martin and Carol Channing.
Among her few films, the most notable are the oddest: Skidoo, a late-career attempt at madcap comedy by filmmaker Otto Preminger (the cast included Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx and Frankie Avalon), and Thoroughly Modern Millie, a musical comedy about flappers and white slavery set in the 1920s, in which she co-starred with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore as socialite Muzzy Van Horne. She did, however, make endless appearances as herself on a wide variety of television programs, including with fellow Dolly Pearl Bailey in the special Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey on Broadway and a memorable performance as The White Queen in the 1985 TV adaptation Alice in Wonderland.
Channing was married four times. Her first marriage, to Theodore Naidish, ended in divorce. She then married Alexander Carson, who played center for the Ottawa Rough Riders Canadian football team. They had one son, Channing, who took his future stepfather’s surname and became the Pulitzer-prize-nominated cartoonist Chan Lowe. In 1956 she married her manager and publicist, Charles Lowe. They remained married for 42 years, but she abruptly filed for divorce in 1998 amid a sea of nasty recriminations. He died before the divorce was finalized.
In 2003, she married Harry Kullijian, her fourth husband and junior high school sweetheart, who reunited with her after she mentioned him fondly in her memoir. He passed away in 2011.
An outspoken liberal, Ms. Channing’s name was included in Richard Nixon’s now-famous “enemies list.” She has said that was the highest honor in her career.
A tireless trooper, she was always able to poke fun at her larger-than-life public persona. She famously participated in a rap duet of “Hello, Dolly!” with LL Cool J on a broadcast of the Tony Awards. “I’m terribly shy, but of course no one believes me,” she said on one occasion. “Come to think of it, neither would I.”