The Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes star has died
Carol Channing, the saucer-eyed, gravelly voiced Broadway barnstormer whose offbeat personality and marquee value fueled such Golden Age musicals as Gentleman Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, has died, her publicist B Harlan Boll confirmed in a statement to PEOPLE. She was 97.
Boll said that Channing died at 12:31 A.M. on Tuesday, at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, of natural causes.
“It is with extreme heartache, that I have to announce the passing of an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon – Miss Carol Channing,” the statement said. “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.”
Continued Boll’s statement, “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.”
A devout Christian Scientist who prided herself on never needing an understudy to cover any of her thousands of performances (except once, when food poisoning kept her from doing Dolly!‘s Act II in Kalamazoo, Mich.), Channing had successfully battled ovarian cancer in the 1970s — a serious but temporary setback she only talked about in later years.
One joke she did like to tell about her health was that she had only been sick once in her life, when she was on a plane and inadvertently watched Barbra Streisand in the movie version of Hello, Dolly!
Channing was born in Seattle to seasoned newspaper editor George Channing, who relocated the family to San Francisco for his work. An only child, Channing joined the high school debating team because she enjoyed being noticed, and later claimed her interest in theater developed from her mother Adelaide taking her backstage to help distribute Christian Science literature to actors. Channing said that as a result she came to equate the theater with church.
In her 2002 memoir Just Lucky I Guess, Channing wrote that when she was 16 her mother told her that George Channing’s mother, Carol’s paternal grandmother, was African American. In the 2011 feature documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life, the star also confirmed that her mother was Jewish. Said the actress about her heritage, “I thought I had the greatest genes in showbiz.”
After dropping out of Bennington College in Vermont, the aspiring model-actress made the rounds of booking offices in New York and Los Angeles, only no one really knew what to do with her.
That changed forever when author Anita Loos saw her in the revue Lend An Ear and suggested Channing be cast as the airheaded, gold-digging 1920s heroine Lorelei Lee in the musical adaptation of Loos’ novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes. When the show opened in 1949, not only was Channing’s star launched, but she also had a lifelong theme song: “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Between Blondes and Dolly!, Channing did nightclubs and TV appearances. And while, because of her exaggerated personality and gestures, movies were never really her forté (Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei on screen in Gentleman Prefer Blondes), she did earn an Oscar nomination as the eccentric rich widow in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie.
But it was as the meddling 1890s matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi that made Channing an iconic American heroine. The show, based on Thorton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, opened Jan. 16, 1964, not even two months after the assassination of President Kennedy — at a time when the grieving nation desperately needed some cheer. Composer Jerry Herman’s lilting title song proved a phenomenon, thanks to its jazzy rendition by Louis Armstrong, whose single unseated The Beatles right off the top of the pop charts.
Providing Channing with her annuity, Hello, Dolly! has never ceased to be performed — invariably in the indelible shadow of Channing — and gave the maturing star the chance to take her own last curtain call in the role in January 1996.
She ultimately retired to California with her fourth husband (her previous three marriages ended in divorce), her childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian, whom Channing wed in 2003, when she was 82. Together they formed a foundation to promote the teaching of the arts in California schools.
Kullijian died in 2011. Channing is survived by a son from her second marriage (to football player Alexander Carson), Chan Lowe, an editorial cartoonist in Palm Beach, Fla.