There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators.
Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. Asked if they’d ever encountered resistance with that comedy moment, one actor shrugged to Variety, “It’s never been a problem. Everybody does a Carol Channing impression.”
For several generations of theatergoers, that was absolutely true. The Broadway star who died Tuesday was one of a kind, with her raspy voice, wide eyes, over-enunciated style and revved-up energy, often with outstretched arms. A Carol Channing impression was immediately recognized, whether it was performed by a mimic like Rich Little, a drag performer, or a partygoer looking for laughs.
Channing was a terrific actress with more range than was generally utilized. But her greatest role was the invention of her persona. In real life, she was thoughtful and soft-spoken, a Bennington College alumnus. But she created a larger-than-life, off-kilter image when being “herself” on talkshows, TV variety programs and awards events like the Tonys. In banter with TV hosts, she managed to seem both razor-focused and a little spaced-out, as if listening to voices the rest of us can’t hear. She also talked about her health regimen, her food allergies and reliance on bottled water rather than from the tap, at a time when those needs seemed eccentric and hilarious.
Her success is remarkable because it’s based on just two stage roles: Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” which bowed on Broadway in 1949, and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” from 1964. When she starred in a fourth revival of the latter show with a 1995 Broadway opening, she’d already played Dolly for 4,500 performances, and she continued to tour well into her seventies.
Audiences loved her, but she never had an easy time in Hollywood, which generally didn’t know what to do with her (which was often the case with stage stars, also including Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon).
Channing made her film debut in the 1956 comedy “The First Traveling Saleslady,” as the romantic interest of a young Clint Eastwood, a pairing that seems even stranger in retrospect.
Her biggest movie success was her supporting-actress Oscar nomination for the 1967 “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” playing a zany millionairess in a role tailor-made for her. She followed that with “Skidoo,” an attempt by esteemed filmmaker Otto Preminger (“Laura,” “Advise and Consent,” “Exodus”) to address the psychedelic hippie scene. However, the film, which also starred an eclectic mix of Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason and Frankie Avalon, was a clunker, artistically and financially; subsequent film offers didn’t exactly start pouring in.
However, she was more comfortable on TV shows where she could tap into that Carol Channing persona, such as variety hours “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Laugh-In” and chatshows including “The Tonight Show” and talkers hosted by Merv Griffin, David Frost, Jack Paar and Dinah Shore. Millions of viewers who had never been to the theater became familiar with her animated persona and her comic timing.
As she got older, she displayed her serious side more. She was an early activist for AIDS awareness, sadly noting that most of the chorus men from the original “Dolly” had died at a young age. She was also an avid supporter of the Actors Fund. When her 2002 autobiography “Just Lucky I Guess” was published, she talked about her parents, including the fact that her paternal grandmother was black. She kept that a secret for most of her career, but said she was proud to finally talk about it, 50 years after her first successes.
Obituaries for her inevitably used the phrase “Broadway legend.” And to younger generations, the legend outweighs the first-hand knowledge. Channing’s film and TV appearances are still available on streaming services and YouTube, but it’s doubtful whether anyone under the age of 50 can do a Carol Channing impersonation.
But to many, she will remain the one and only Dolly, and perfect example of how personality becomes a key factor in stardom.