Bidding Farewell To 'Hello, Dolly!': Actress Carol Channing Dies At 97

Jan 15, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 1:50 pm

Carol Channing's trademark platinum blond hair framed a face that always seemed to be smiling, her wide-eyed innocent style belied a very savvy mind, and her voice was unmistakable. She died Tuesday morning, her publicist told Broadway World. She was 97 years old.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Channing's parents were Christian Scientists. She recalls that she got her first glimpse of backstage delivering copies of The Christian Science Monitor to theaters.

Some nights they're hyper, some nights they're slow, some nights they're sleepy, we have to nurse them; we have to find the way in to communicate with them. ... It's an electric thing for the performer; it's like plugging me in the wall. - Carol Channing on performing for live audiences

"It came over me that I was looking at the stage and backstage of a cathedral, a temple, a mosque, a mother church," Channing wrote in her memoir Just Lucky, I Guess. "I know I'm using adult words to describe a child's feelings, but I don't know how else to tell you this simple reaction of a child to a holy place."

Channing's near-religious connection to her audience gave her an astounding amount of energy, and she grew irritated with those who tried to diminish the importance of theater in people's lives.

"Live theater is something that can't possibly die because we're working on their metabolism," said Channing. "Some nights they're hyper, some nights they're slow, some nights they're sleepy, we have to nurse them; we have to find the way in to communicate with them. ... It's an electric thing for the performer; it's like plugging me in the wall."

Channing's first great role was also her first big break as Lorelei Lee in the 1949 original Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But the role with which Channing will always be identified is Dolly.

It was this role in Hello, Dolly! that Channing loved most because it was life affirming in every sense. She had great respect for the show's creator, Thornton Wilder, and was deeply touched by the character's gradual ascent in this most optimistic of Broadway shows.

"It's easy to slide downhill, but who are the ones that just won't do it? Who are the diamonds in the rough that go upstream against everything?" said Channing. "That's what it was all about, that's what Thornton Wilder kept writing about."

It was the same lesson she shared with the audiences who watched her perform thousands of times in Hello, Dolly!: "Dolly Gallagher Levi stop talking to your dead husband and rejoin the human race!"

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Broadway actress Carol Channing died today. She was 97 years old. Kim Kokich has this appreciation.

KIM KOKICH, BYLINE: Carol Channing's trademark platinum-blonde hair framed a face that always seemed to be smiling. Her wide-eyed, innocent style belied a very savvy mind. And her voice was unmistakable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE GIRL FROM LITTLE ROCK")

CAROL CHANNING: (Singing as Lorelei) I'm just a little girl from Little Rock. We live on the wrong side of the tracks.

CHANNING: Carol Channing's career on the stage, in film, on television and in recording spanned more than six decades. In an interview with NPR in 1995, Channing said that once she began working in theater in the early 1940s, she was rarely unemployed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CHANNING: First off, I think it's very fortunate I never stopped working. That's terribly important because I guess it's like an athlete's bicep. If you keep using it, it gets stronger and stronger.

KOKICH: Actress Marge Champion is credited with discovering Channing in a casting office while scouting for a show being directed by her late husband, Gower Champion.

MARGE CHAMPION: She came in with those big eyes. And then she said, do you mind if I take off my shoes? And, of course, they fell down laughing. And she took off her shoes and launched into a series of imitations because that's what she did. She was the best Carmen Miranda and Sophie Tucker. And they were laughing all the time. But I think they'd seen enough. But I kept urging her to keep on doing more.

KOKICH: Channing was born in Seattle, Wash. Her parents were Christian Scientists. In her self-admitted rambling and selective memoir "Just Lucky, I Guess," Channing writes that she was a young child delivering copies of The Christian Science Monitor to theaters when she got her first glimpse of backstage. She explains, it came over me that I was looking at the stage and backstage of a cathedral, a temple, a mosque, a mother church. I know I'm using adult words to describe a child's feelings. But I don't know how else to tell you this simple reaction of a child to a holy place. Channing's near-religious connection to her audience gave her, she said, an astounding amount of energy. And she grew irritated with those who tried to diminish the importance of theater in people's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANNING: Live theater is something that can't possibly die because we're working on their metabolism. Some nights, they're hyper. Some nights, they're sleepy. Some nights - but we have to find the way in to communicate with them. And slowly, the anodes and cathodes build. And it's an electric thing for the performers, as if you plugged me into the outlet in the wall.

KOKICH: Channing's first great role was also her first big break - the part of Lorelei Lee in the 1949 original Broadway production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." But the role with which Channing will always be identified is Dolly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

CHANNING: (Singing as Dolly) Hello, Harry. Well, hello, Louie. It's so nice to be back home where I belong.

KOKICH: It was this role that Channing loved most because it was life affirming in every sense. She had great respect for Thornton Wilder, who created the character of Dolly Levi as a widow. And the character's gradual reawakening in this most optimistic of Broadway shows touched Channing deeply.

CHANNING: It's easy to slide downhill. But who are the ones that just won't do it? Who are the diamonds in the rough that go upstream against everything? And that's what it's all about. That's what Thornton Wilder kept writing about. And he said in "The Skin Of Our Teeth," mankind can survive the Ice Age, the Stone Age, the dinosaur age if we just forget our jealousies, forget our competitions, stay together, burn the furniture in the fireplace. But we'll make it. We'll somehow make it. And he says, Dolly Gallagher Levi, stop talking to your dead husband and rejoin the human race.

KOKICH: For NPR News, I'm Kim Kokich in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hello, Dolly. Well, hello... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.