Larger than life Broadway legend
by David Wolfe
Legends are made, not born and Carol Channing's stellar place in Broadway history was confirmed by two roles that she was born to play. First came Lorelei Lee, a diamond-loving gold digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the musical that shot her to fame. Later, she scored an even bigger hit as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!
Carol Channing is larger than life, quite inimitable (although many impersonators do so). Her raspy voice and comic delivery are unique. Her body language, that of a big rag doll, is genuinely laughable. She opens her eyes wide, blinks and smiles from ear to ear. Her attitude is one of innocence and her giddy persona is heartwarming. And yet, this comic genius also exudes glamour as she sweeps her ever-blonder hair aside, delivers a comic zinger and bursts into song. Her fashion image is a finely honed style overstatement, a quality that makes her the ideal doll paper as the outfits in this book clearly demonstrate. White is most often her wardrobe color of choice, as if a blinding spotlight is constantly shining on her.
Stars are born, but Carol Elaine Channing was born to star. It was obvious from her birth in Seattle in 1921 that she was naturally gifted. In grade school she was often sent to the principal's office for performing comic imitations of her teachers. She studied drama for two years at Bennington College until she was told she didn't need any more training, so she headed straight to Broadway. Quickly, she made her debut in Let's Face It, a 1941 revue starring Danny Kaye and Eve Arden. When it closed, she worked as a stand-up comic on the summer resort circuit in the Catskills.
Big time recognition came her way when she sang five show-stopping songs in Lend an Ear, a hit musical revue. Carol left the show because she landed the lead inGentlemen Prefer Blondes, a 1948 musical based on the Roaring Twenties book by Anita Loos. The rave reviews were unanimous. "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" became her theme song. That same famous blonde character , so indelibly created by the young star, was reprised in 1974 when Carol again delighted audiences in a show simply entitled Lorelei. (Even though Carol Channing was so closely identified with the not-so-smart-but-crafty blonde, the movie version was updated from the '20s to the 1950s and starred Marilyn Monroe. )
Two star vehicles were created to showcase Carol Channing's unique gifts. The Vamp (1956) wasn't a hit but its star was nominated for a Tony. She was again nominated for Show Girl in 1961. Other successes included George Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess and a trans-Atlantic tour of Carol Channing and her Ten Stout Hearted Men. Later in her career, she shared the stage with Mary Martin in Legends, a show that toured for a year but never made it to Broadway.
On January 16, 1964, Hello, Dolly! opened on Broadway with Carol in the role of Dolly Levi, the wacky and wise matchmaker. With songs by Jerry Herman and directed brilliantly by Gower Champion, the show was the biggest hit of Carol Channing's career. When she made her grand entrance to the title tune, she was bedecked in a dazzling red gown with a fan of feathers exploding atop her cotton candy wig and audiences cheered. Her exuberant portrayal won her a Tony (beating out Barbra Streisand's debut in Funny Girl. It is ironic that Streisand eventually played Dolly in the movie version. Carol was heartbroken. ) The show ran on Broadway for years and the star never missed a performance until she left in 1967. Many actresses followed in her footsteps, playing the title role: among them, Ethel Merman, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers, Dorothy Lamour and Phyllis Diller. Carol Channing repeated her triumph as Dolly in two revivals (1978 and 1995) as well as a London production of the mega-hit.
Hollywood tried to make a movie star of Carol Channing without great success ever since 1956 when she starred in The First Traveling Saleslady with a young Clint Eastwood as her love interest. It was as if her persona was just too big to be contained on the silver screen or the small TV tube. However she scored a significant hit in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie, a '20s pastiche starring Julie Andrews. She played a zany jazz baby heiress, was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. Her TV appearances were many, as a star in specials, making guest appearances and lending her voice to several cartoon characters. She played a memorable White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, serenaded Sammy the snake on Sesame Street and was the voice of Grandmama on The Addams Family.
Carol Channing was married four times and has a son, Channing Carter, a successful cartoonist. In 2003 she wed her junior high school sweetheart, Harry Kullijan. She has been honored again and again. She was given a special Tony 1968 and in 1995 received a Lifetime Achievement Tony. She received Chicago's Sarah Siddons Award and San Francisco proclaimed "Carol Channing Day" in 2003 in recognition of her gay advocacy.
When her autobiography was published in 2002, she revealed that her ancestry includes an African-American grandmother. The book, "Just Lucky I Guess" is described as "a memoir of sorts" and reads like a funny yet insightful conversation with a true Broadway legend, the blonde that gentlemen and everybody else, too, prefer.Carol Channing!