Channing was not the immediate choice to play Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife. The show, which features a rousing score by Jerry Herman that’s bursting with joy and tunes like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” ″Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment,” is a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker.
Theater producer David Merrick told her: “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears.” Even though director Gower Champion had worked on her first Broadway hit, Lend an Ear, he had doubts about Channing’s casting.
She wowed them in an audition and was hired on the spot. At opening night on Jan. 16, 1964, when Channing appeared at the top of the stairs in a red gown with feathers in her hair and walked down the red carpet to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, the casehardened New York audience went crazy. The critics followed suit. Hello, Dolly collected 10 Tony Awards, including one for Channing as best actress in a musical.
She was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor. When his only child was 3 months old, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a writer for the Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He later became editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications. At the age of 7, Channing decided she wanted to become an entertainer. She credited her father with encouraging her: “He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97. And the people who do that are happier people.”
While majoring in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she was sent off to get experience in her chosen field. She found a job in a New York revue. The show lasted only two weeks, but a New Yorker magazine critic commented, “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing.” She said later: “That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”
For several years she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, taking jobs as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times. Landing in Los Angeles, she auditioned for Marge Champion, wife and dance partner of Gower Champion who was putting together a revue, Lend an Ear. Marge Champion recalled: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”
Channing was the hit of Lend an Ear in a small Hollywood theater, and she captivated audiences and critics when the show moved to New York. As the innocent gold digger in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her stardom was assured. One reviewer reported she “hurls across the footlights in broad strokes of pantomime and bold, certain, exquisitely comical gestures.” The show’s hit song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” became her signature number.
Over and over again she returned to the surefire Hello, Dolly, which earned her $5 million on one tour. She considered Dolly Levi “a role as deep as Lady Macbeth,” but added that “the essence of her character was her unquenchable thirst for life.” That description fit Carol Channing, who attributed her sunny optimism to her lifelong faith in Christian Science.
Others who have played the role include Pearl Bailey, Phillis Diller, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers and Barbra Streisand, who played Dolly in a 1969 film version directed by Gene Kelly. Bette Midler won a Tony Award in the role in 2017.
Channing had two early marriages that ended in divorce — to novelist Theodore Naidish and pro footballer Alexander Carson, father of her only child, Channing. Her son became a successful political cartoonist. In 1956 she married a television producer, Charles Lowe, who seemed like the perfect mate for a major star. He adopted Channing’s son and supervised every aspect of her business affairs and appearances. He reportedly viewed every one of her performances from out front, leading the applause.
After 41 years of marriage, she sued for divorce in 1998, alleging that he misappropriated her funds and humiliated her in public. She remarked that they only had sex twice in four decades. “The only thing about control freak victims is that they don’t know who they are,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s taken me 77 years to figure that out. I was miserable. I was unhappy. And I didn’t realize it wasn’t my fault. But I’m going to survive. I’m going to live. I’m free.”
Lowe died after a stroke in 1999. Channing moved to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, California, in 2000 to write her memoirs. She called the book Just Lucky, I Guess. Channing remarried in 2003 to Harry Kullijian, her childhood sweetheart from 70 years before. He died in 2011.
In her book, Channing recounted an early story from her childhood that showed a budding audience-pleasing performer. She wrote that she came home from kindergarten and noted that all the little girls hit the little boys.
Her parents asked: “Do you?”
She responded: “Oh no, I pet them.”