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Carol Channing, Star of Broadway’s ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,’ Dies at 97

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 1968 Channing received a Tony Special Award. She appeared on Broadway in a reworking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” called “Lorelei” In 1974 and drew a Tony nom.

Channing later toured in “Sugar Babies” on the road and a revue based on Herman’s musicals “Jerry’s Girls.” In 1986-87, she toured in “Legends” with Mary Martin; the production drew most of its notoriety for the fights between its two stars, and the show never reached Broadway. The playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner James Kirkwood Jr., wrote a book about the experience, “Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road With Mary Martin and Carol Channing.”

Apart from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Channing’s big-screen appearances were rare, and mostly cameos, including “Skidoo” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In 1966 she had a Desi Arnaz-directed sitcom, “The Carol Channing Show,” that went unsold.

She made some guest appearances on TV sitcoms and talkshows, including CBS’ “What’s My Line?,” on which she appeared in 11 episodes from 1962-66. She recurred on “The Love Boat” as Aunt Sylvia, and she did some voiceover work in cartoons, most notably as Grandmama Addams in 15 episodes of “The Addams Family” animated series that ran 1992-93. She did various voices on 13 episodes of “Where’s Waldo?” in 1991.

In 1995 Channing received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement.

The actress was the subject of the well-received 2011 documentary “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.”

In 1956 Channing married her manager, former TV producer Charles Franklin Lowe, who adopted her son Channing Lowe by professional football player Alexander Carson, Channing’s second husband (novelist Theodore Naidish had been her first). Husband Lowe died in 1999.

Channing married her school sweetheart of 70 years earlier, Harry Kullijian in May 2003; he died in December 2011.

She is survived by her son, Channing Lowe and close family member, Sylvia Long.

Donations may be made to the Carol Channing Theater at Lowell High School (1101 Eucalyptus Dr., San Francisco, California 94132 | (415) 759-3066) or the McCallum Theatre (73000 Fred Waring Dr, Palm Desert, CA 92260).

 

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