Broadway star Carol Channing, who delighted audiences over almost 5,000 performances as the scheming Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly, has died aged 97.
Publicist B Harlan Boll said Channing died of natural causes at 12.31am on Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, California. He said she had twice suffered strokes in the last year.
Besides Hello, Dolly, Channing starred in other Broadway shows, but none with equal magnetism. She often appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour.
Her outsized personality seemed too much for the screen, and she made only a few movies, notably The First Travelling Saleslady with Ginger Rogers and Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews.
Over the years, Channing continued as Dolly in national tours, the last in 1996, when she was in her 70s. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called her “the ninth wonder of the world”.
Channing was not the immediate choice to play Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife.
The show, which features a rousing score by Jerry Herman that’s bursting with joy and tunes like Put On Your Sunday Clothes, Before The Parade Passes By and It Only Takes A Moment, is a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker.
Theatre producer David Merrick told her: “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears.”
Channing was born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor.
When his only child was three months old, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a writer for the Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He later became editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications.
At the age of seven, Channing decided she wanted to become an entertainer. She credited her father with encouraging her: “He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97. And the people who do that are happier people.”
While majoring in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she was sent off to get experience in her chosen field. She found a job in a New York revue. The show lasted only two weeks, but a New Yorker magazine critic commented: “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing.” She said later: “That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”
For several years she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, taking jobs as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times. Landing in Los Angeles, she auditioned for Marge Champion, wife and dance partner of Gower Champion who was putting together a revue, Lend an Ear.
Marge Champion recalled: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”
Channing was the hit of Lend An Ear in a small Hollywood theatre, and she captivated audiences and critics when the show moved to New York.
As the innocent gold digger in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her stardom was assured. One reviewer reported she “hurls across the footlights in broad strokes of pantomime and bold, certain, exquisitely comical gestures”. The show’s hit song, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, became her signature number.
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.
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.