Carol Channing, fervent Broadway star and famed comedienne, died Jan. 15 at the age of 97. Throughout her long career, Channing starred in several iconic musicals, most famously 1949’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!” Her legacy is characterized by her relentless and consistent dedication to theater.
Channing had always been a natural performer — in an interview in 1994, she recalled wanting to sing on stage since the fourth grade. At that age, she also ran for class secretary and won after performing comical impressions of her teachers instead of giving a speech. Her penchant for entertaining continued into her older years, with Channing winning a statewide oratory contest at the age of 16. After graduating from Lowell High School in San Francisco in 1938, she left home to attend Bennington College in Vermont, where she majored in drama.
Channing’s first break in New York City was a role in Marc Blitzstein’s “No For An Answer” in 1941. The show wasn’t successful, but it was enough for Channing to know that she belonged on the stage. Years later, she appeared in “Lend an Ear” before performing in the Jule Styne and Anita Loos musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” in which she charmed audiences as Lorelei Lee. Her off-kilter role quickly became iconic with Channing reaching new levels of fame for her performances of the show’s featured songs, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “I’m Just A Little Girl From Little Rock.”
In the years following her initial Broadway breakthrough, Channing would solidify her place as a theatrical star through performances in musicals such as “Wonderful Town” and “The Vamp.” Additionally, after marrying her manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956, Channing was offered to fill Gracie Allen’s role in the Burns and Allen comedy show, in which she sang and danced alongside George Burns.
In 1964, Channing had her second career-defining role: She starred in the Jerry Herman-scored “Hello, Dolly!” as Dolly Gallagher Levi, an animated and shrewd middle-aged widow. Her performance in the role was met with rave reviews from critics, and Channing won the Tony Award for Best Actress that same year. Her icon status was solidified by her conspicuous presence — the actress was well known for her platinum blonde hair, six-foot stature and wide, expressive eyes. Channing also became well known for her dedication; she didn’t let age or anything else get in the way of performance. Whether it be through wearing a wig to mask bleach-damaged hair, and performing in spite of her impaired vision and arm injury, Channing continued to challenge expectations for Broadway stars — and she did so onstage more than 5,000 times as Dolly Levi alone.
Channing’s legendary musical roles weren’t succeeded by a career of the same caliber in film and television. While Channing did perform in the successful 1967 musical comedy film “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” she did not reprise her theatrical roles for the film adaptations of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” or “Hello, Dolly!” However, in 1974, Channing returned to Broadway to reprise the role of Lorelei Lee in the popular updated version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the musical “Lorelei.”
In 1995, at the age of 74, Channing returned to “Hello Dolly!” with an international tour — a revival through which she captivated audiences once again with her resplendent personality and vibrant demeanor. That same year, she was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
Channing was married four times. She had a son named Channing with Alex Carson, her second husband, who was later adopted by Charles Lowe, her third. While she and Lowe had a long relationship, their marriage ended in separation before Lowe died in 1999. Channing married her childhood sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, in 2003, who passed away in 2011. She is survived by her son, Channing.
Channing’s legacy is a remarkable one. With her numerous accolades and recognitions, she popularized the idea that women could play unconventional and funny roles. Her eccentric personality and over-the-top performances created a new sort of experience for Broadway audiences and her consistently positive critical reception proved that what she was doing worked well. She set an example of grit and personality in the theater industry, while making a name for herself in the entertainment history at large. Channing will be remembered for spending her life on center stage — in her own words, “it’s the safest place in the world to be.”
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