RANCHO MIRAGE, CA — Tony Award-winning actress and musical comedy star Carol Channing, who delighted American audiences over more than 5,000 performances of “Hello, Dolly” on Broadway and beyond, has died. She was 97. Her publicist, B. Harlan Boll, said Channing died of natural causes at 12:31 a.m. Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, and that she had twice suffered strokes in the past year.
She was adored by millions of people worldwide for her lady-like spunk and signature gravelly voice but she always maintained that diamonds were this girl’s best friend — a nod to her signature song, “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” which sealed Channing’s stardom.
She also starred in other Broadway shows, on television and in nightclubs. She partnered with legendary comedian George Burns in Las Vegas and on a national tour. She also starred in a few movies — notably “The First Traveling Saleslady” with Ginger Rogers and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews — but her outsized personality wasn’t a good fit for the screen.
But the scheming Dolly Levi was Channing’s defining role, and she last embarked on a national tour as Dolly in 1996, when she was in her 70s, leading Tom Shales of The Washington Post to proclaim her “the ninth wonder of the world.”
Channing once said the role of the Dolly was “as deep as Lady MacBeth” and “the essence of her character was her unquenchable thirst for life” — attributes that often have been assigned to to Channing herself, who credited her sunny optimism to a lifelong faith in Christian Science. Her connection with audiences came close to a religious experience.
“Live theater is something that can’t possibly die because we’re working on their metabolism,” said Channing. “Some nights they’re hyper, some nights they’re slow, some nights they’re sleepy, we have to nurse them; we have to find the way in to communicate with them. … It’s an electric thing for the performer; it’s like plugging me in the wall.”
Channing almost didn’t get the role of Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife. “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears,” theater producer David Merrick said.
But Channing wowed at the audition with a performane that was once sexy and filled with innocent wonder. She was hired on the spot for “Hello, Dolly,” a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which features a rousing score by Jerry Herman and joyful tunes like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment.”
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.
Others have played the role of Dolly — including Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers Barbra Streisand, who played Dolly in a 1969 film version directed by Gene Kelly, and Bette Midler, who won a Tony Award for it in 2017.
But the role remains quintessentially Channing’s.
Tributes to the legendary star poured in on Twitter Tuesday morning. 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.”
“Goodbye to Carol Channing, with much gratitude to her for providing so much joy,” tweeted Random House copy chief Benjamin Deryer, who said he was lucky enough to see her in the 1995 revival of “Hello, Dolly” and noted that “she tore down the house. Repeatedly.”
Asked by the Wall Street Journal in 2013 if there was anything she hadn’t gotten around to do doing that she wanted, she responded with the wide-eyed coquettish charm that defined her: “No, I did everything that I ever thought was marvelous.”
In his statement about Channing’s death, Boll said:
“It is with extreme heartache, that I have to announce the passing of an original industry pioneer, legend and icon: Miss Carol Channing. I admired her before I met her, and have loved her since the day she stepped … or fell rather … into my life. It is so very hard to see the final curtain lower on a woman who has been a daily part of my life for more than a third of it. We supported each other, cried with each other, argued with each other, but always ended up laughing with each other.”
He added: “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.”
Born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, the only child of newspaper editor George Channing, who was a writer for The Christian Science Monitor and later editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications. She got her first glimpse of the theater while delivering copies of the publication backstage at age 7 and decided that she wanted to become an entertainer.
“It came over me that I was looking at the stage and backstage of a cathedral, a temple, a mosque, a mother church,” Channing wrote in “Just Lucky, I Guess,” her memoir. “I know I’m using adult words to describe a child’s feelings, but I don’t know how else to tell you this simple reaction of a child to a holy place.”
She decided at age 7 that she wanted to become an actress, and her father encouraged her.
“He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97,” Channing said. “And the people who do that are happier people.”
She majored in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, then found a job in a New York revue that only lasted a couple of weeks. But Channing made a lasting impression. “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing,” a critic for New Yorker magazine promised.
“That was it,” Channing said later. “I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”
It took some time before Channing’s career took off, and she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, working as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times. Marge Champion, for whom she auditioned as a dancer for the revue “Lend an Ear,” noted: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”
She was a hit in “Lend an Ear,” both in the small Hollywood theater and then when it moved to New York. It helped her seal the role of the innocent gold digger Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
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.
Channing, whose accolades range from the Oscar Hammerstein Award for lifetime achievement in musical theater to Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Award, remained active in promoting arts in education in California throughout her life. She was also a staunch defender of gay rights, and her hometown of San Francisco declared Feb. 14, 1988, Carol Channing Day to commemorate her commitment to equality.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
Image: This June 19, 1978 file photo shows actress Carol Channing in New York. Channing, whose career spanned decades on Broadway and on television has died at age 97. Publicist B. Harlan Boll says Channing died of natural causes early Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Rancho Mirage, California. (AP Photo/G. Paul Burnett, File )
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