Carol Channing, the last of a generation of Broadway musical stars with oversized personalities and a trouper’s dedication to touring America, died Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, California, her publicist said. She was 97.
Publicist B. Harlan Boll said Channing died of natural causes. Boll said she had twice suffered strokes in the last year. Channing would have turned 98 on Jan. 31.
Although she played a variety of characters in her long career, she was forever identified by two larger-than-life women: the gold-digging Lorelei Lee both in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in 1949 and in “Lorelei” in 1973, and, especially, Dolly Levi, matchmaker from Yonkers in “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 and multiple revivals. She won a Tony for “Dolly,” and received two others — a special award in 1968 and, in 1995, a Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1981, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
To commemorate Channing, the Committee of Theatre Owners will dim the lights of Broadway theatres for one minute on Wednesday at 7:45 p.m.
Several former Dollys took to Twitter Tuesday to laud Channing. Bette Midler, who won a Tony for the 2017 revival, called Channing “a complete original, there will never be another.”
Barbra Streisand, Dolly in the 1969 movie, tweeted that she was “a true life force . . . a kind and effervescent woman who never allowed the parade to pass her by!”
“She was show business and love personified,” wrote Bernadette Peters, who played Dolly on Broadway last summer.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, currently in Puerto Rico for “Hamilton,” tweeted the lyrics to “Before the Parade Passes By,” followed by a simple “Goodbye, Carol.” The “Hello, Dolly!” touring company, led by Betty Buckley, announced it would dedicate Tuesday’s performance in San Diego to Channing.
With her enormous eyelashes, basso-profundo voice and platinum blonde wigs, Channing’s Dolly set endurance records for seldom missing a performance and, not incidentally, made her a favorite of female impersonators. Asked by a Newsday reporter in 1995 if she ever got bored playing the same character, night after night, town after town, she insisted, “You’ve got to go out there and paint a new picture every single night, to make them believe it’s actually happening for the first time in front of their eyes. Or you’ll empty the theater.”
Empty theaters were never a problem. For example, when “Lorelei” broke all box office records by selling out the 6,000-seat Music Hall in Oklahoma City in 24 hours, the street in front of the theater was named after her. And even a legendarily problematic 1986 tour with Mary Martin in James Kirkwood’s “Legends!” — so bad it died before it got to Broadway — grossed $10 million in 32 cities.
Although Channing appeared often on TV in the 1960s and got an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award for the 1967 movie, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” she was a thoroughly theatrical creature. She traveled with 20 pieces of luggage to make what she called “instant homes” on the road with dozens of framed photos and personal treasures. A lifelong Christian Scientist, she also brought along her own food.
She was bitten by the theater bug while helping her mother distribute Christian Science Monitors backstage in San Francisco theaters. “And I stood there and realized — I’ll never forget it because it came over me so strongly — that this is a temple,” she told the Austin Chronicle in 2005. “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.”
Born in Seattle, she moved as an infant to San Francisco when her journalist father got a job there. In her 2002 memoir, “Just Lucky I Guess,” she revealed that her father had a black mother. Channing said her mother didn’t want her to be surprised “if she had a black baby.”
Channing was married four times. She had one son, Chan Lowe, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated cartoonist. A passionate Democrat, she was proud of appearing on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” after she and composer and lyricist Jerry Herman turned the title song of “Hello, Dolly!” into the Johnson campaign theme, “Hello, Lyndon!” She was also active in gay rights, hosted the Gay Pride Day in Hollywood and, in 2002, had a day named for her in San Francisco.
Although she later made up with Streisand for getting the movie of “Dolly!,” she told Newsday in 1995 that “it was like she kidnapped my baby.”
Al Hirschfeld, Broadway’s legendary caricaturist, drew her more times than any other performer. “You recognize a star when you see one,” said Hirschfeld, who died in 2003. “She credits me with designing her, but she really designs herself.”
CAROL CHANNING CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
"Lend an Ear" (1948)
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1949)
"Wonderful Town" (1954)
"The Vamp" (1955) (Tony Award nomination)
"Show Girl" (1961) (Tony Award nomination)
"Hello, Dolly!" (1964) (Tony Award)
"Four on a Garden" (1971)
"Lorelei" (1974) (Tony Award nomination)
She also starred in revivals of "Hello, Dolly!" in 1978 and 1995
"Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967) (Oscar nomination)
"Just Lucky I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts" (2002)