Actress and singer Carol Channing died early Tuesday at the age of 97 at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. Her longtime publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the entertainer’s death from natural causes.
Whether you knew her as Dolly, Lorelei, Muzzy or just Carol, Channing was a one-of-a-kind talent who captivated any audience. Her razor-sharp wit, gravelly voice and big, bright smile became the trademarks of a performer who originated some of Broadway’s most iconic roles throughout the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Channing continued to share her gifts on stage into her late 90s, enshrining her in a class of Broadway luminaries all her own.
Harlan Boll said “it is with extreme heartache” that she announced “the passing of an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon.”
“I admired her before I met her, and have loved her since the day she stepped... or fell rather... into my life,” the publicist said in a statement. “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.”
“We supported each other, cried with each other, argued with each other, but always ended up laughing with each other,” Harlan Boll added. “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.”
The daughter of prominent newspaper editor George Channing and his wife Adelaide, Channing was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Seattle, but predominantly grew up in San Francisco. According to her 2002 memoir Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts, her father sent a wire to Detroit when she was born that read, “Carol came into the world singing.”
Channing, who was raised in a devout Christian Scientist household, credits her mother for introducing her to theater on an outing to distribute Christian Science Monitor issues at entertainment venues.
“I’ll never forget it, because it came over me so strongly,” Channing recalled the feeling of stepping into a theater for the first time. “This is a temple. This is a cathedral. It’s a mosque ... 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.”
After attending Bennington College for one year, Channing dropped out and moved to New York City, making her stage debut in “Never Take No for an Answer” in 1941. Her big break, however, didn’t come until 1949, when she was cast as the diamond-obsessed showgirl Lorelei Lee in the musical “Gentleman Prefer Blondes.” The role catapulted Channing to fame and secured her spot among Broadway royalty for her performance of the now classic song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Although Marilyn Monroe took the reins from Channing in the musical’s film adaptation in 1953, the Broadway star continued to have a successful stage career with performances in “Wonderful Town” (1953) and “The Vamp” (1955). It wasn’t until 1964, however, when Channing struck gold again with perhaps her most famous role as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a turn of the century matchmaker, in the musical “Hello, Dolly!”
Channing famously beat out Barbra Streisand, who starred in “Funny Girl,” for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her starring turn, even though Streisand was later cast as Dolly in the film adaption. Channing reprised the role three times on Broadway and in the West End for more than 5,000 performances in the title role until her last run in 1995 at the Lunt-Fontanne.
She would later go on to star in film and television roles, but the theater was always where Channing felt most at home. “Something comes over you in front of an audience and nothing hurts,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 2013. “It’s very healing. Everybody has their safest place on earth and mine is center stage.”
Due to the immense critical and popular acclaim surrounding her performance in “Hello Dolly” ― the original cast album remained at No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart for seven weeks ― Channing was cast as Muzzy Van Hossmere in the 1967 movie musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” starring Julie Andrews. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Muzzy, the “jazz baby” party girl, is best remembered for the now iconic line, “Raspberries,” which has become synonymous with Channing ever since.
After two failed marriages to writer Theodore Naidish and Canadian football player Alex Carson with whom she had one son, Channing Carson, Channing married her manager and publicist Charles Lowe in 1956. Although their marriage lasted 42 years, it was not without its challenges ― Channing claimed that the two only slept together twice and that Lowe had mismanaged her finances during their divorce negotiations in 1998. Lowe, who refuted her allegations, died a year later, before the divorce was finalized.
Channing’s 2002 memoir was the catalyst for her fourth marriage to childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian. Kullijian was told of Channing’s fond memories of their time together and reconnected decades after they had first met. The two married in 2003 and lived happily until Kullijian’s death eight years later.
In her memoir, Channing also revealed a previously unknown African-American ancestry. Before she left for college in 1937, her mother told a 16-year-old Channing that her father’s birth certificate was labeled as “colored” because his mother was an African-American woman. Channing told Larry King in a 2002 interview that she only had one thing to say when she found out the news: “I got the greatest genes in show business.”
Throughout her career, Channing has been beloved by the gay community, inspiring legions of drag queens to imitate her signature saucer-shaped eyes and red lips. Describing her relationship with the LGBT people as a “mutual love affair,” Channing told dot429, “The gay community is responsible for so much of my success, and I love them. It’s a mutual love affair, really. They make the better audiences too, because they laugh often and loudly.”
Channing continued to be a powerful presence on Broadway up until the ’80s. In 1995, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Tony Awards for her immeasurable contributions to the theater, delivering an acceptance speech so quintessentially Channing, in which her red lipstick paired perfectly with an AIDS ribbon.
In her later life, Channing was never too far from the stage, performing in various one-off shows and cabarets. Her life and career inspired the 2011 documentary “Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” which introduced modern-day audiences to the then 90-year-old icon. Age, however, has never been an impediment to Channing. “No matter how old you get, and I’ll be 90 in January, there is always something around the corner that you feel passionate about and need to accomplish or complete,″ she once said.
By all accounts, Channing happily embraced her final years, working with students at a local middle school and making the appearance on stage now and then. When asked by the Wall Street Journal in 2013 if there’s anything hasn’t gotten around to doing yet, she had the perfect response.
“No, I did everything that I ever thought was marvelous.”
Fans shared tributes on social media: