Carol Channing, the American actor who originated the roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the eponymous heroine of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, has died aged 97. Channing died of natural causes after suffering multiple strokes last year, her publicist, Harlan Boll, said.
Channing played the matchmaking widow Dolly Levi more than 5,000 times across three Broadway runs from the 1960s to the 1990s and on tours around the world. The part had been turned down by Ethel Merman, but Channing made it her own, donning a hat as feathery as her eyelashes and a red sequinned gown. The musical, based on a Thornton Wilder play and written by Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman, won several Tony awards upon its premiere including best actress in a musical for Channing. She claimed to have missed only one performance as Dolly, after a bout of food poisoning in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When she returned to the role in her mid-70s, in the 1995 revival, the New York Times critic Vincent Canby concluded: “World, beware: it’s possible this woman is a substance that should be legally controlled.”
A sparkling entertainer with bright eyes, a megawatt smile, a gorgeously gravelly voice and, frequently, a platinum bob wig, Channing was a natural performer. The only child of George Channing, a journalist, and Adelaide (née Glaser), she was born in Seattle in 1921 and loved to sing as a child. Channing excelled at imitating her teachers and fellow students at school in San Francisco (she remained a fine impersonator) and later attended Bennington College in Vermont. She was raised as a Christian Scientist and was entranced by the magic of the theatre when she delivered copies of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper to the stage door of a local playhouse.
Inspired by Ethel Waters, she set out to become a performer. “There wasn’t an inch of the entertainment field I didn’t investigate,” she wrote in her memoir Just Lucky I Guess. “I auditioned for anyone who would look.” She was accepted into the San Francisco Ballet as a teenager, performed comedy at the Borscht Belt summer resorts in upstate New York’s Catskill mountains, and began to get roles on Broadway after understudying Eve Arden in the musical comedy Let’s Face It! co-starring Danny Kaye.
Anita Loos, the author of the 1925 comic novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, saw her on stage in the satirical revue Lend An Ear and proclaimed: “There’s my Lorelei.” Channing was swiftly cast in her first leading role as the gleeful, gold-digging Lorelei Lee, the Little Rock flapper who believes diamonds are a girl’s best friend, in the musical based on the novel. After it opened in 1949, she became an instant star and Time magazine put her on its cover. When the musical became a movie in 1953, Marilyn Monroe was given the role of Lorelei.
Channing said that Noël Coward once offered her a role but she turned it down; he later told her she was a “silly ox” for not accepting. But after her run as Lorelei she appeared in more Broadway musicals – Wonderful Town, The Vamp and Show Girl – and also had film roles, including the 1956 movie The First Traveling Saleslady, which cast her and a young Clint Eastwood as a couple. It also gave Channing a song, A Corset Can Do a Lot for a Lady.
Her most successful film role was as the nightclub singer Muzzy Van Hossmere, fond of quaffing champagne and proclaiming “raspberries!” in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which brought her an Oscar nomination in 1968 (she lost to Estelle Parsons for Bonnie and Clyde). Channing was furious to find Barbra Streisand cast in the film version of Hello, Dolly! – she said it was “like somebody had kidnapped my baby” – but was glad to play the part over many decades on stage. She also returned to her other signature theatre role in a 1974 Broadway sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, entitled Lorelei.
Following the 30th anniversary tour of Hello, Dolly!, she received a lifetime achievement Tony award in 1995. Her memoir was published in 2002. Channing was married four times and had a son, the cartoonist Channing Lowe.