Broadway said “Goodbye, Dolly” to a favorite performer and lost one of its most distinctive personalities when Carol Channing, the original Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi, passed away from natural causes on January 15, 2019, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. Channing was the last in a long line of stage clowns who found the perfect role and stuck with it. With her saucer eyes, yard-wide smile, tornado of cotton-candy hair, and flexible voice which could go from a gravelly bass to a child-like squeak, she always played a variation on the dumb-like-a-fox blonde, manipulating every situation to her advantage. She first gained fame as the avaricious but charming Lorelei in the musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, but she assumed theater royalty status as the titular matchmaker in Hello, Dolly! in 1964, returning to the role many times including Broadway revivals in 1978 and 1995. Like Rex Harrison with Henry Higgins, Zero Mostel with Tevye, and Yul Brynner with the King of Siam, she became forever identified with the role.
And happily so. Channing told the New York Times in 1977, “I did Dolly 1,273 times in four years without missing a single performance, and on the night I closed I cried my eyes out in the dressing room. But I’ll tell you something — thank God I can keep doing Dolly until I’m 90.” Ultimately, she played the role over 4,500 times and traveled with a separate suitcase for her false eyelashes. She also carried her own specially-prepared organic food in a canvas bag, always asking waiters to heat it up for her.
She was born in Seattle in 1921, the only child of George and Adelaide Channing. The family later moved when her newspaper editor father got a job in San Francisco. He later became a lecturer for the Christian Scientist movement and this led to young Carol’s first exposure to show business. Her mother recruited her to help distribute the Christian Science Monitor backstage to city’s theaters where she became enchanted with the stage. “And I stood there and realized – I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly – that this is a temple,” she related to the Austin Chronicle. “This is a cathedral. It's a mosque. It's a mother church. This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards.”
She left Bennington College in Vermont where she was studying drama to pursue a career in New York. She landed an audition with agent Abe Lastfogel of William Morris, who agreed to take her on after hearing her quirky rendition of a Yiddish folk song. Her first Broadway appearance was in a three-day flop called No for an Answer, but a one-line mention of praise in The New Yorker encouraged her to continue. She then understudied Eve Arden in Let’s Face It. Ironically, Arden was later one of Channing’s many replacements in the Dolly tour.
Her first big break came when she landed a role in Lend an Ear, a musical revue in which she satirized the flappers of the 1920s. The show played Los Angeles and then New York and was directed by Gower Champion who would later helm Hello, Dolly. Her triumph in Ear led to her being cast as Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, based on Anita Loos’ slim volume detailing the adventures of the gold-digging siren. The material had previously been adapted as a play and the lead character was portrayed as petite and delicate, the opposite of the tall, gangly Channing. But the producers and later audiences were enchanted with her comedy take on the character. Her rendition such hits as “A Little Girl from Little Rock” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” became classics of the American musical theater.
After replacing Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town and starring in the short-lived musical The Vamp, she played her first featured film role in The First Traveling Saleslady, a forgettable comedy vehicle starring Ginger Rogers. Though Channing got to cut up in such numbers as “A Corset Can Do a Lot for a Lady” and enjoy a clinch with a young Clint Eastwood, she joked the film should have been called “Death of a Saleslady.”
“I felt the movies just weren’t for me,” she told TV Guide. She subsequently had greater onscreen success in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Her fabulous career was captured in 2012 documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.
Dolly was originally intended by songwriter Jerry Herman for Ethel Merman, but the big-voiced legend was exhausted from playing Gypsy and turned it down. Channing convinced Herman and her former director Champion she could more make Dolly her own. Despite out-of-town trouble in Detroit, the show went on to gross $60 million, became the longest-running Broadway show of its era, and won a then-record ten Tony Awards including a Best Actress nod for Channing (she later won a special Tony in 1968 and one for lifetime achievement in 1995). One of her fellow nominees was Funny Girl’s Barbra Streisand who would play Dolly in the film version. But Channing was not upset she lost out on the movie role. “Barbra has a characterization but at least it’s not mine,” she told columnist Joyce Haber. “When Marilyn Monroe got my part for the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she sat in the orchestra, third-row center for 18 nights, studying all my gestures. She did them on screen. That really hurt. This didn’t.”
Channing made Broadway appearances after Dolly including Four on a Garden with Sid Caesar and Lorelei, subtitled Gentlemen Still Prefer Blondes, a sequel which consisted mostly of flashbacks to the original. But she kept coming back to Dolly.
She was married four times, most infamously to her third spouse, her manager and publicist Charles Lowe. Their 42-year union ended in a bitter divorce when Channing claimed Lowe had run through her money, was abusive, and had only had sex with her twice during their entire marriage. Her fourth, much happier union, was with her high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. They were reunited after she mentioned him in her 2002 memoir Just Lucky I Guess. Kullijian passed away in 2011.
George Burns with whom she appeared in a summer tour explained her humor to The New York Times in 1976, “It’s her openness, her theatricality that makes her funny, she emphasizes her bigness. She makes you notice her eyes, her mouth. That’s why she can go out there, sing a perfectly straight song like ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and get laughs. You don’t even think about the song. You’re watching her capsize a character. So Carol’s humor, ultimately is her manner. It’s a style she invented herself. She mimics the golddiggers of the ’20s and ’30s…She lovingly mocks the character. She’s the dumb blonde, but she’s not that dumb…She never was. Carol makes us understand that joke. Her dumb blonde becomes larger than life.”