Carol Channing, Broadway Icon, Dies @ 97

Carol Channing, synonymous with the role of Dolly Levi in the Broadway staple Hello, Dolly!, died early today at her Rancho Mirage, California, home, Broadway World reports. She was two weeks shy of her 98th birthday.

"Raspberries!" (Image via Universal)

Her publicist Harlan Boll released the following statement confirming her passing:

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. 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 was born January 31, 1921, in Seattle. Her father was an esteemed newspaper editor and Christian Scientist who immediately moved the family to San Francisco, where she was raised. Part Jewish, at 16, she learned her father's mother was African American, a fact that wasn't widely known publicly until many decades later.

Inspired to perform after seeing Ethel Waters (1896-1977) sing, Channing attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied drama. A small part in a revue, she was singled out by a critic, which emboldened her to quit school — leading to a long dry spell.

Her first major role on the New York stage was in No for an Answer (1941), followed by an understudy gig for Eve Arden (1908-1990) in Let's Face It! on Broadway.

In 1948, Channing became well-known in Lend an Ear and was drawn by Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003) in flapper mode, which she always said gave her the necessary boost to be cast as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949). It was her first truly iconic performance, and it gave her a signature song in "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Her unique, husky vocal style was becoming widely and lovingly imitated, and her pop-eyed, larger-than-life looks were immortalized on countless magazine covers, including Life.

In spite of her association with the role, Loreli Lee was brought to the silver screen in 1953 by another blonde, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962).

Already a Broadway star, Channing ascended to international fame with her role as Dolly Levi in 1964's Hello, Dolly! She won a Tony and became a household name, with the show going on for six years and nearly 3,000 performances, providing a part for many well-known actresses. Her acclaim in the role fueled a special Tony in 1969 as well as a lifetime achievement Tony in 1995, and she would famously revisit the role on Broadway in 1978 and in 1995, the latter of which found her enduring the rigors of the part in her seventies.

It doesn't get better!

Sadly for Channing, she was passed over for the 1969 movie version of Hello, Dolly!, with the part going to Barbra Streisand (b. 1942), an event she described as feeling like she was observing her own funeral. Not unlike how some felt sitting through the leaden adaptation, directed by Gene Kelly (1912-1996), which nonetheless managed to break even at the box office and win three Oscars for its art direction, score, and sound.

Channing had another huge success with a reprisal of her daffy Lorelei Lee character in the musical Lorelei, which played around the country in 1973 and was a hit on Broadway the following year, bringing her another Tony nomination.

Channing's prodigious and peculiar talents were rarely well-utilized in film, but she did appear in varied fare like The First Traveling Sales Lady (1956) and Skidoo (1968), and was Oscar-nominated as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), in which she uttered the immortal catchphrase, "Raspberries!"

She was a popular figure on television, often as herself or reprising her Dolly role. In 1970, she was the first celebrity to perform a Super Bowl halftime show. Perhaps most memorably, she was the White Queen in a 1985 production of Alice in Wonderland.

Channing was married four times, and had a son with her football player husband Alexander Carson (1923-1981).

The blogger with Channing in 2011 (Image via Matthew Rettenmund)

Married for over 40 years to her agent Charles Lowe (1912-1999), their union was cast in a new light when she sued him for divorce in 1998, alleging they'd only consummated their marriage once or twice, that he was gay and that he had spent much of her fortune. He denied the allegations, dying soon after from complications of a stroke.

Meeting Carol & Harry in 2011 — HERE

In 2003, Channing famously took up with and married her high school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian (1919-2011), a Modesto politician and anti-pornography activist. The cute couple made public appearances and were devoted to one another until his death.

She is survived by her son, Chan Lowe.

1 Response

  1. As a teenager (geez, over 50 years ago) I met her a handful of times at cocktail parties hosted by the Doctors Shenson in San Francisco. Always generous, always smiling, always effervescent. I remember how she made me feel simply happy exchanging greetings and a few words.

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