Carol Channing, a Broadway legend who was known for her signature lead role in Hello, Dolly! and continued performing well into her 90s, has died of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, CA. She was 97.
B Harlan Boll, Channing’s publicist, confirmed the news to multiple news outlets. “It is with extreme heartache that I have to announce the passing of an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon – Miss Carol Channing,” Boll said in a statement to Broadway World. “I admired her before I met her, and have loved her since the day she stepped … or fell, rather … into my life.”
A native of Seattle, Channing’s distinctively gravelly enunciation, lanky, energetic frame and carefree laugh marked her many decades in show business. Along with her remarkable 4,500 performances in the title role of Hello, Dolly!, she appeared in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Vamp and Lorelei. On movie screens, she received a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for her performance in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and also appeared in the films Skidoo and The First Traveling Saleslady. On television, she appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Hollywood Squares.
Channing was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995 and was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
The company of the current production of Hello, Dolly! issued a statement about Channing. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of the one and only Carol Channing,” the company said. “She was a ‘Dolly’ for the ages, and a true icon of the American Theater. Betty Buckley and the cast will dedicate tonight’s performance in San Diego to her memory.”
Born in Seattle in 1921, Channing gravitated toward performing at an early age, eventually studying drama and dance at Bennington College. While still in college, she got cast in No for an Answer, an opera by Marc Blitzstein, that closed in just three days. Undeterred, and buoyed by a positive review in the New Yorker, Channing kept at it, though it would be years before she would break out beyond gigs in nightclubs and the Catskills.
True fame arrived in 1949 with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Playing the role of the flapper Lorelei Lee, she sang “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The show ran for two years on Broadway and Channing then toured with it for another year.
A decade and a half later came her signature role, Dolly Gallagher Levi, in producer David Merrick’s musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker. A hit from its opening night in 1964, Hello, Dolly! went on to win 10 Tony Awards, and Channing won for Best Actress in a Musical.
Many distinguished performers have played Dolly Levi, among them Barbra Streisand, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye and Ginger Rogers. Streisand was Dolly in the 1969 film version directed by Gene Kelly. Bette Midler won a Tony Award in the role in 2017.
Channing would make her final Broadway appearance in a 1995 revival of the show. “Performing is the only excuse for my existence,” she said at the time. “What can be better than this?”