Carol Channing: 1921-2019

R.I.P. Carol Channing: how the ‘Hello, Dolly!’ star became the queen of Broadway

The Daily Beast

January 15, 2019

The Tony-winning Broadway star Carol Channing, who has died aged 97, is best known for originating the lead role in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ She lived, breathed, and bled for performance.

In November 2001, the night before Carol Channing was due to perform alongside Angela Lansbury in a special Auntie Mame/Hello, Dolly! mash-up, conceived by Jerry Herman in an evening dedicated to celebrating his music, Channing fell down a flight of stairs.

Lansbury was going to sing Mame, and Channing Dolly Gallagher Levi, the role she was most famous for, with the two icons swapping between the roles, each serenaded by their own mini-male chorus, as the skit went on.

“It was sold out,” her longtime friend and publicist B. Harlan Boll recalled Tuesday. “She overheard the phone calls between doctors and her management saying that she wouldn’t be appearing that night, and she wasn’t having any of it. She had stitches to her temple, a broken arm, and fractured thumb. She still went on the next night, and Harry Winston covered her arm-cast in diamonds. That cast had to have its own security. She couldn’t imagine anyone saying, ‘Carol couldn’t make it.’”

Channing made it, and she and Lansbury had a whale of a time; their contrasting mellifluous and raspy voices showcased perfectly.

It was Boll who announced Channing’s death on Tuesday. The multi-Tony award winning, husky-voiced Broadway star, best-known for her stage roles in Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, was 97 and is survived by her son Channing Carson, better known as the Pulitzer-nominated political cartoonist Chan Lowe, and a close family member, Sylvia Long.

Boll said Channing had suffered two strokes in the last year. “She was fine. The doctor said that for anyone else of her age it would have killed her, but it just made her stronger,” Boll said. “I knew her for two decades. Over the years we supported each other, laughed with each other, argued with each other. She was a force. Nothing would stop her.” Channing was the embodiment of the “show must go on” star.

“Carol was such a major part of Jerry’s life that he just needs time to grieve privately,” a representative for Jerry Herman told The Daily Beast.

Boll said Channing had died peacefully from natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, CA. at 12.31 a.m. She had originally moved there in 1998 to be near her cousin.

Bette Midler, who played Levi in the most recent, critically praised Hello, Dolly! revival, tweeted that Channing was “a complete original, and there will never be another. Blonde, 6ft tall and utterly hilarious, she was a legend.”

Midler came to visit Channing before taking the role on Broadway. Boll told The Daily Beast that he went into another room to work, and left the two women to talk. Every few minutes, Channing would shout out a question. “Oh Harlan, when was such and such?” he said.

Eventually Midler shouted, “Harlan, why don’t you get your butt in here?”

At one point the two women started singing together, “As The Parade Passes By,” the song Dolly sings when rousing herself from her grief over the loss of her husband Ephraim.

“I wish I’d filmed it,” Boll said of the moment.

On Tuesday evening, Midler released a longer tribute to Channing.

“There was only one Carol Channing, and there will never be another. She was that rarest of stage creatures, an absolute original. From her instantly recognizable voice, to her stature, which was close to 6 feet, with her wide-eyed take on the world she crept into theater-goers hearts and took up permanent residence there.

“When (producer) Scott Rudin invited me to play Dolly in 2016, I immediately thought of her and went to visit. How could I not? She had played the part over 7,000 times around the world, and to the world, she WAS Dolly. It was one of the great afternoons of my life. She was gracious, and she was generous, sharing with me the legends, the lore and the mechanics of Dolly, much of which had been lost in time.

“I will forever be grateful to her for lighting my way to one of the most magical experiences of my performing life, and for the hours I spent in her company. I flat-out adored her and send her fans, her friends and her son, Channing Lowe, my condolences, although as far as I am concerned, she will live forever.”

Channing didn’t see Midler perform in the role. Channing only saw one other ‘Dolly,’ Pearl Bailey. With the others, said Boll, including Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, and Phyllis Diller, “she was always on tour with it when they were doing it. She wasn’t opposed to them in any way.”

However, she was angered when Barbra Streisand was given the role in the 1969 film version, directed by Gene Kelly.

“It was suicidal for me,” Channing told the Miami Herald. “It’s like somebody taking your baby. I was there when it was created… I’ve never really dwelled on it; it’s painful to me.”

On Tuesday, Streisand tweeted that Channing was “a true life-force… a kind and effervescent woman who never allowed the parade to pass her by! xo B.”

The Hello, Dolly! touring company said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of the one and only Carol Channing. She was a ‘Dolly’ for the ages, and a true icon of the American Theater. Betty Buckley and the cast will dedicate tonight’s performance in San Diego to her memory.”

Buckley tweeted that Channing had left behind a “legacy of joy.”

Channing felt less pain, said Boll, that Marilyn Monroe had become so identified with Lorelei Lee, thanks to the movie of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, singing the famous ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.’

Monroe watched Channing perform the role for weeks at the theater, Channing recalled to the Miami Herald.

“At the end of the three weeks, she came to my dressing room and said, ‘I just want you to know that every morning, I woke up and thought, ‘Oh I’m gonna see that wonderful show again. I never got bored with it.’… I thought that was an awfully sweet thing to do. It helped a little bit with the sting—but, boy, I was ready to jump out the window.”

It was so distracting for the orchestra to have Monroe sitting there, Channing told Boll, that players would miss beats and notes—except the pianist, who, Channing said, “was more interested if Marilyn had a brother.”

Channing achieved her due of iconic recognition on screen in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) as Muzzy Van Hossmere (winning a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination), and for a later generation, singing loopily about “jam today” as the White Queen in a trippy 1985 mini-series of Alice in Wonderland.

In 1970 she became the first celebrity to perform solo at a Super Bowl halftime show. She toured her own revue, Carol Channing and Her Ten Stout Hearted Men, appeared in many TV specials and TV shows, including The Love Boat and Family Guy. Her immediately recognizable voice was also used on children’s audio books. Retirement was not for her: In the early 2000s, she toured her one-woman show, “The First Eighty Years are The Hardest.” She was, she told The View in 2010, unfazed by the idea of Johnny Depp playing her (as he said he would like to do) on screen.

First and foremost, Channing was a performer, and also an unapologetic hardy trouper and self-publicist. Her drive, her hunger to work, to shine, was akin to Joan Rivers’. The show always went on. She always went on.

Consider this appearance in What’s My Line?, in which the panel tries to guess Channing’s identity. Dressed in an enormous fur helmet-hat, Channing affects a Russian accent. Does she sing? “Yes…beautifully,” Channing says, that second word after a lovely pause. Her identity revealed, she sells her upcoming first-ever TV special—hard.

Channing was born on January 31, 1921 in Seattle. In her 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky, I Guess, she revealed that when she was 16 her mother had told her that her father was half black. After studying drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, Channing became a model, making her Broadway debut in 1948 in Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer.

Her other Broadway appearances included So Proudly We Hail, Let’s Face It, Lend An Ear, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Pygmalion, The Millionairess, The Vamp (for which she won her first Tony nomination in 1956), Show Girl (her second Tony nomination in 1961), Four On A Garden, Wonderful Town, and Lorelei (for which she won her fourth Tony nomination in 1974)

She performed in Hello, Dolly! for over 5,000 performances, winning the Tony Award in 1964, a special Tony Award in 1968, and a Lifetime Achievement Tony in 1995. She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981, and was also awarded an Oscar Hammerstein Lifetime Achievement Award and Julie Harris Lifetime Achievement Award.

Channing was married four times, most infamously to her former manager and publicist Charles Lowe, and finally, most poetically, to her childhood sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, who died in 2011.

Together for 42 years, Channing and Lowe split in 1998 (with Lowe dying before the divorce was finalized), amid accusations of abuse, financial chicanery, and Lowe claiming Channing had spread what he said were false rumors that he was gay.

When asked what Channing was most proud of, or loved the most, Boll told The Daily Beast, “Channing, her son.” (His father was her second husband, football player Alex Carson.)

Boll said that Channing regretted, as she saw it, not being a good enough mother for Chan in his early years.

“Carol always said that she, Ethel Merman, and Mary Martin (who Channing co-starred with in Legends) had discussed who among them had been the worst mother,” Boll said. “Sure, Carol would say, Chan had gone to the White House, which many little boys had not had the opportunity to do, but she felt she hadn’t been around enough when he was young. She was always busy, always traveling. Towards the end of her life, they grew closer, and her bedroom was filled with his artwork of mainly political cartoons, and towards the end Chan managed to say his goodbyes.” (The Daily Beast has reached out to Lowe for comment.)

When Boll asked Channing what show or role she was most proud of, she would say, “The next one. She loved Dolly, she loved Lorelei. But she didn’t look back, it had to be what was coming next.”

Channing was not just an LGBT icon, but an active supporter of LGBT rights. At the time of the controversy over marriage equality, she would say, said Boll, “Why would you want the government involved in your private life? If you want to get married, get married.”

She was immensely proud that one year at a San Francisco Pride event where they crowned a ceremonial “empress,” she had been crowned queen. Channing also told Boll that she had once gone to a Carol Channing lookalike contest with drag queens.

“You know Harlan, I took a third,” she reported.

Channing took the impersonations as a great honor. She herself famously impersonated Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich.

“One of them had once seen her do that, and walked out,” said Boll. “She said she never understood it, until one time when she went to see someone impersonating her and said, ‘Oh now I get it,’ and she never wanted to see someone impersonate her after that.”

Her sense of humor remained intact. Said Boll, “In Las Vegas one time, a guy came up to her, and said, ‘Fella, you look great. I’ve never seen a better Carol Channing.’ She replied, quick as a flash, ‘Thank you, I’m a truck driver from Toledo and come here on the weekends.’”

Boll said he would miss Channing dearly. That night in 2001 at the hospital following her fall down the stairs, “they wouldn’t let you in unless you were related. The doctor was nodding at me as if to say, ‘Just say you’re related,’ and so was Carol. ‘Oh yeah, I’m her father,’ I said. Carol didn’t miss a beat, and said to the doctors, ‘Can’t you see the resemblance?’ When the nurse shut the door of the room, she addressed me as ‘Father.’”

In 2010, Channing, dressed all in white and ready with a deliciously raspy “Look at the old girl now fellas,” returned to Broadway, performing at the New Amsterdam Theatre, with many returning “Dolly boys” from previous Hello Dolly! tours, to receive the “Gypsy Award” from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Channing’s last public appearance was on her 95th birthday at the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, CA, said Boll.

“On her tombstone, Channing wanted the phrase, ‘She raised their lives,’” Boll said, by which Channing meant that she hoped she had cheered people. “That’s what she hoped she always did,” said Boll.

The first performance of Hello, Dolly! had been on January 16, 1964, two months after John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Jackie Kennedy had bought her children to a performance in their first public appearance since his funeral.

“It came at a perfect time,” said Boll. “The country needed an escape, a laugh. Carol felt that everyone, everywhere, should do Dolly. For her it was the musical Hamlet.”