Carol Channing, who turns 95 on January 31st, spent decades using her wide smile and exuberant voice to entertain audiences. Over her years in show business, she's appeared in everything from Broadway masterpieces to television and film to Super Bowl halftime shows. With such a long life and storied career, it should be no surprise to learn she's also had a very interesting existence. Here are six facts you may not know about this unforgettable performer:
"The Greatest Genes in Show Business"
In her memoir Just Lucky I Guess (2002), Channing revealed that in 1937, when she was a 16-year-old about to head off to Bennington College, her mother told her that her father's birth certificate had marked him as "colored," as his mother had been black. It was an unexpected revelation for Channing, and she didn't make the information public for decades (a decision that allowed her to avoid the discriminatory treatment African Americans faced at the time).
However, Channing didn't completely forget about her heritage, which she credits with giving her the impressive vocal range and agility that helped her succeed as a performer. In a 2002 interview with Larry King, she declared, "I got the greatest genes in show business."
Channing Almost Wasn't Dolly
If there's one role that Carol Channing is known for, it's Hello, Dolly!'s Dolly Gallagher Levi. She created the part in 1964 and won a Tony for her performance. Since then, she's appeared on stage as Dolly thousands of times. However, this iconic role nearly wasn't Channing's — instead, it was first offered to Broadway legend Ethel Merman.
Merman decided she didn't want to do another show at the time, so a lucky Channing was able to make musical theater history. However, Merman still got the chance to play Dolly when she stepped into the Broadway production in 1970. In fact, she put her own stamp on the show when two songs that had originally been written for her were added back in: "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window."
Despite some competition over the role they'd shared, Channing and Merman still became friends. The two grew close after guest starring together on the popular TV show The Love Boat.
The First Super Bowl Diva
Are you looking forward to Beyoncé's (or Coldplay's) upcoming Super Bowl performance? Do you have fond memories of Katy Perry (and Left Shark) singing and dancing during last year's halftime show? If so, there's someone you ought to thank: Carol Channing.
When the first three Super Bowls were held in the 1960s, the only halftime performers were college marching bands. That changed when Channing came out to sing "When the Saints Go Marching In" in the middle of 1970's Super Bowl IV. (Marching bands remained a part of the show, however, as the Southern University Marching Band also performed that year.)
Channing has stated that her performance was requested "just about a week before the Super Bowl," which meant there was no time for a pre-show run-through. Fortunately, despite the lack of rehearsal time, she didn't experience any Janet Jackson-esque wardrobe malfunctions. In fact, Channing was invited back for Super Bowl VI in 1972, making her the first Super Bowl repeat performer as well.
For Channing, the Show Always Goes On
Imagine the excitement of being cast as the understudy in a big theatrical production. While you're not the star of the show, you'll still get fitted for costumes and learn lines. After all, something could happen to the lead, which means you'd be asked to go on stage and shine.
However, Carol Channing's understudies must have known they weren't going to get the chance to perform. Over the course of more than 5,000 performances as Dolly Levi, the unstoppable Channing only had one unscheduled absence (she missed half a show due to food poisoning). On tour with Hello, Dolly! in the 1960s, Channing maintained a record of perfect attendance even while undergoing chemotherapy for uterine cancer.
Basically, understudying Channing was never going to be someone's big break. However, any actress interested in a relaxing, pressure-free assignment would find life as her understudy to be the perfect gig.
An Enemy of Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon was a man with a long memory, especially when he felt he'd been slighted. After landing in the White House, his administration put together an "enemies list" of people who'd opposed Nixon or his policies. This compilation included journalists, labor leaders, antiwar activists and civil rights activists; it also mentioned performers such as Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Carol Channing.
Channing wasn't terribly political or radical, so it's hard to specify exactly why she ended up on Nixon's list. One possible explanation is her closeness with both the Kennedy clan and Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. At 1964's Democratic National Convention, Channing serenaded LBJ with "Hello, Lyndon" (a tweaked version of the popular "Hello, Dolly").
Whatever the reason for her appearance on the list, Channing ended up happy to be there. In 1980, she stated, "At first I felt terrible, then I realized… that no matter what I do the rest of my life... I'll never do anything as distinguished as getting on Nixon's enemy list."
Love the Second (and Fourth) Time Around
For much of her life, Carol Channing didn't have a lot of luck in the love department. Her first two marriages ended in divorce. And though her marriage to third husband Charles Lowe lasted for more than forty years, it wasn't a perfect union: when filing for divorce in 1998, Channing claimed the pair had only had sex twice, and that Lowe had mismanaged her money (Lowe, who denied her claims, died in 1999, before the divorce was settled). Fortunately, Channing had better luck with her fourth husband.
Channing had reminisced about her first love, Harry Kullijian, in her memoir. A friend told Kullijian he'd been mentioned in Channing's book, which was a surprise to him, as he'd thought his old flame had already passed away. Knowing Channing was still around prompted Kullijian to reach out to her in 2003. A few months later, they were married. The pair had several happy years together before Kullijian passed away in 2011.