Carol Channing, the Broadway legend best known as the scheming Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”, died yesterday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 97. The Tony Award winner had strong North Shore ties.
Swampscott was her home for several years in the 1950s, and her acting career took off on the stage of Boston’s Wilbur Theatre. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. George Channing, lived at 15 Cliff Road for many years.
In 1998, she and fellow Tony Award winner Chita Rivera co-headlined a song-and-dance show, “Broadway Legends: Together at Last,” for three weeks at North Shore Music Theatre. I interviewed Channing at the Beverly venue before that show opened and she was friendly and quick-witted. She burst into the room, holding out her hand and warbling “Hellooooo, how are yooouuu?” in that wonderfully exaggerated voice.
“When I was out of Bennington (College), carrying my son, I spent seven glorious months with my dad and mom at that gorgeous old house in Swampscott. I walked and walked near the water. I read an article that said mothers-to-be should walk and get exercise. … a couple of times I walked up to Marblehead,” she said.
That day, she also recalled that in 1952, when she was starring in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” at the Shubert Theatre, she was awarded the Item’s Bouquet of the Week on stage, which honored local persons who had done something noteworthy. A yellowed clip in the Item’s files shows the actress clutching a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and reports that “Miss Channing halted in the middle of her final bows to read aloud a letter from Item management. Her announcement that the bouquet was from the Lynn Item drew a thunderous round of applause from the many Greater Lynn folks in the audience.”
North Shore Music Theatre on its Facebook page yesterday paid tribute to Channing: “Carol Channing’s unique personality and gifts for musical comedy have made her a superstar of both the stage and screen. Through her talent, and the joyous memories she has left with all of us, she will truly live on forever. Many of our long time patrons will never forget the 3 weeks she spent with us in the summer of 1997 sharing the North Shore Music Theatre stage with Chita Rivera in the once in a lifetime show featuring the two Broadway legends, together at last. Our deepest condolences go out to her friends and family, and anyone feeling this profound loss to our community today.” The post also said that Channing was a cast member of “Show Girl” at NSMT in 1961.
Kevin P. Hill, NSMT’s current producing director, began his theatrical career as a dancer and actor and appeared in national touring companies of “Hello, Dolly!” with Channing.
In a 1955 cover story, Life magazine said of Channing: “Finding roles that suit the strange and wonderful charms of Carol Channing has always been a problem to Broadway showmen. She looks like an overgrown kewpie. She sings like a moon-mad hillbilly. Her dancing is crazily comic. And behind her saucer eyes is a kind of gentle sweetness that pleads for affection.”
Channing starred in other Broadway shows, but none with equal magnetism. She often appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour. She made only a few movies, notably “The First Traveling Saleslady” with Ginger Rogers and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews.
Over the years, Channing continued as Dolly in national tours, the last in 1996, when she was in her 70s. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called her “the ninth wonder of the world.”
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. The 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.
Channing 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 in Boston 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. 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.
Channing had two early marriages that ended in divorce — to novelist Theodore Naidish and pro footballer Alexander Carson, father of her only child, Channing Carson. Her son became a successful political cartoonist. In 1956 she married television producer Charles Lowe, who adopted Channing’s son. Lowe died after a stroke in 1999. Channing moved to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, Calif., in 2000 to write her memoirs. She titled the book “Just Lucky I Guess.”
Channing remarried in 2003 to Harry Kullijian, her childhood sweetheart from 70 years before. He died in 2011.