Carol Channing, Effervescent Stage Star of 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

Courtesy of Photofest
Carol Channing in the 1967 musical film 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'

The indefatigable actress and singer was the recipient of three Tonys and earned an Oscar nomination for her turn in 'Thoroughly Modern Millie.'

Carol Channing, the indomitable personality who electrified Broadway audiences with her energetic performances in the original musical comedies Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, has died. She was 97. 

The three-time Tony Award winner, who also earned an Oscar nomination for her role in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), died at 12:31 a.m. Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, publicist Harlan Boll announced.

With her husky voice — one of the most easily recognized and most imitated in the world — and gigantic saucer eyes, poofy platinum bob and ear-to-ear, pearly white grin, Channing was a larger-than-life luminary. Fans could not resist this daffy blonde.

In Hello, Dolly!, which opened at the St. James Theatre on Broadway in January 1964 and ran through December 1970, Channing crackled as meddling matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi. The role was written for Ethel Merman, but she was too busy and turned it down.

Featuring a score by Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart and based on Thornton Wilder's 1954 stage play The Matchmaker, Hello, Dolly!, produced by David Merrick, amassed 10 Tonys, including one for best musical and another for Channing as best actress in a musical.

Channing would play Dolly more than 5,000 times on Broadway (she also starred in revivals that opened in 1978 and 1995) and on the road, never needing a stand-in except once — when she missed half a performance in Kalamazoo, Michigan, because of food poisoning.

The actress was devastated when 20th Century Fox chose Barbra Streisand — then shooting Funny Girl, which would earn her an Oscar for best actress — to portray Dolly in the 1969 film version, directed by Gene Kelly.

“I was doing Hello, Dolly! at Expo '67 at the time, and when they announced the star for the movie, on that great day I had the feeling I was Mark Twain and had just died and become an observer at my funeral,” Channing said.

The rejection was all-too familiar. After she starred as the gold digger Lorelei Lee from Little Rock, Arkansas, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — where she sang what would be her signature song, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend — Channing lost out on the role to Marilyn Monroe for the 1953 Fox movie version helmed by Howard Hawks.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with a book by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos and music by Jule Styne, ran at the Ziegfield Theatre from December 1949 to September 1951. Channing made the cover of Time magazine on Jan. 9, 1950. “Perhaps once in a decade a nova explodes above the Great White Way with enough brilliance to re-illumine the whole gaudy legend of show business,” the magazine story said.

Channing won a Golden Globe and was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for playing eccentric widow Muzzy Van Hossmere in the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), directed by George Roy Hill and also starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.

Channing was born in Seattle on Jan. 31, 1921, the daughter of a newspaper editor. She came to San Francisco when she was young, and she attended Lowell High School in the city and then Bennington College in Vermont, majoring in drama and dance.

She made her Broadway debut in October 1941 in Let’s Face It! as an understudy to Eve Arden.

Her appearances there also have included Proof Thro’ the Night, Lend an Ear, Wonderful Town (in which she replaced Rosalind Russell), The Vamp, Show Girl (a one-woman show based on her wildly popular nightclub act), Four on a Garden and Lorelei.

In November 2013, she returned to New York for a one-night engagement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of Hello, Dolly!

Her effervescent talents lent well to guest appearances on TV variety shows and specials, beginning with an appearance on The Milton Berle Show in 1948.

She won an Emmy Award for the 1966 special An Evening With Carol Channing, and she guest-starred on such variety and comedy shows as The Red Skelton Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Dean Martin Comedy Hour and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (in a memorable pairing with another “daffy” blonde, Goldie Hawn).

Channing played cruise director Julie McCoy’s (Lauren Tewes) Aunt Sylvia on several episodes of The Love Boat, voiced Grandmama Addams on an animated version of The Addams Family in the 1990s and was the White Queen in CBS’ 1985 version of Alice in Wonderland.

She guest-starred as herself on Magnum, P.I., The Nanny, The Muppet Show, Touched by an Angel, The Drew Carey Show and Family Guy.

Her film résumé also includes The First Traveling Saleslady (1956); Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968), a psychedelic cult classic that also starred Jackie Gleason, Frankie Avalon and Groucho Marx; and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).

Her face was familiar on such game shows as I’ve Got a Secret, What’s My Line? and The Hollywood Squares, and she recorded several top-selling albums (the original cast album of Hello, Dolly! was released in 1964). Her 2002 autobiography was titled Just Lucky I Guess.

Boll called her "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," he wrote. "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. Saying goodbye 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."

Said the touring company of the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! 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." (The musical comes to the Pantages in Hollywood on Jan. 30.)

The theater lights on Broadway will be dimmed for one minute at 7:45 p.m. on Wednesday in her honor.

"Carol Channing was one of the great icons of the American theater and a beloved ambassador for this art form," American Theatre Wing president & CEO Heather Hitchens said in a statement. "She possessed a quality so unique and so special that she became her own archetype. Though her loss will be felt deeply by fans and professionals alike, her indomitable spirit lives on in the countless leading ladies who have been — and continue to be — influenced by her greatness."

Channing had four husbands: Theodore Naidish, a writer; Alexander Carson, a center for the Ottawa Rough Riders of the Canadian Football League; Charles Lowe, her manager, publicist and spouse for more than 40 years; and Harry Kullijian, a former city councilman in Modesto, California. 

Childhood sweethearts Channing and Kullijian were wed in 2003 after seven decades apart; at their reception, she performed Hello, Dolly!, substituting her husband’s name in the lyric. He died on Dec. 26, 2011, on the eve of his 92nd birthday.

Survivors include Chan Lowe, Channing’s son with Carson and an editorial cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist, and Sylvia Long, described as a close family member. Services have not yet been determined.

In lieu of flowers, a donation can be made to the Carol Channing Theater at Lowell High School in San Francisco or the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

Channing was the recipient of a special Tony in 1969 and was given another trophy for lifetime achievement in 1995.

“For my lifetime, I can’t think of anything more soul-fulfilling than I could have done. It was the only thing to do,” she said after accepting that latter prize to a standing ovation. “Achievement, apparently, is doing exactly what you want.”