The larger than life Broadway icon Carol Channing has died at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age of 97. She was best known and cherished for originating the lead roles in the original Broadway productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, as well as her Oscar-nominated performance in the movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie.
Carol Channing. Photo © Allan Warren
Born in Seattle on January 31, 1933, Channing’s interest in theatre was sparked at the age of seven. Rather than give a speech explaining why she was fit for student council, she elected to do impressions of her teachers instead, earning laughs that made performance an appealing career choice. She moved to New York to pursue her dream after a brief stint at Bennington College, Vermont.
Channing’s career first took off when she starred as flapper Lorelei Lee in the 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The production ran for two years on Broadway, followed by an extensive national tour. She would return to Broadway for musicals Wonderful Town, The Vamp and Show Girl, spending much of this first decade of fame either performing in musicals or touring a nightclub act she devised herself.
It was Channing’s act that lead to her being cast in the starring role in Hello, Dolly!, producer David Merrick impressed by her comedic and vocal chops. Hello, Dolly! opened in 1964 to rave reviews, going on to win 10 Tony Awards with Channing named best actress in a musical. The musical ran for nearly seven years on Broadway, and Channing would tour the show in revivals 1977, 1982 and 1994.
Though her screen career never quite matched the success she earned on the stage, Channing’s performance in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie as Muzzy Van Hossmere, an eccentric widow, saw her nominated for an Oscar. Notably, she was not approached to reprise either Lorelei Lee or Dolly Gallagher Levi in their respective film adaptations, something she was openly disappointed by.
However, Channing would return to Lorelei Lee in 1974 at 51, appearing in a revised version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes simply titled Lorelei. Though critics were sceptical of both the work and the believability of her performance, Channing was nominated for a Tony.
She would be honoured for her work on Broadway in 1995 with a Tony for lifetime achievement, not long after reprising the role of Dolly for the third time at 74.