She was an extremely versatile performer – actress, singer, dancer and comedienne. She starred on Broadway, in movies and on tv. Her career spanned eight decades.
Carol Elaine Channing was born on January 31, 1921 in Seattle, WA. She was an only child. At the time of her birth, her father worked as an editor at “The Seattle Star,” but, a mere few weeks afterward, the family moved to San Francisco, where Channing was raised and where her father became a Christian Science practitioner, teacher and editor.
Channing’s father was half African American on his mother’s side. She was unaware of this until, at the age of 16, she left home to attend Bennington College. At that time, her mother told her because, as Channing put it, “she didn’t want [me] to be surprised if I ever had a black baby.” I would guess Channing was shocked at this revelation, since both she and her father had the Nordic, Germanic coloring and appearance of Channing’s paternal grandfather.
Channing always said she had decided by the age of nine that she wanted to perform on stage, preferably as a singer. Around that time, she also discovered she could make people laugh, for example, by imitating the voices and mannerisms of her classmates. As a child, she got some exposure to the theatre when she would accompany her mother when she delivered newspapers backstage.
During her junior year at Bennington she began auditioning for parts on Broadway. After one performance the theatre critic of “The New Yorker” presciently wrote “you’ll be hearing more from a comedienne named Carol Channing.” Soon afterwards, perhaps, inspired by that lavish praise, she quit school and pursued her career fulltime. Predictably, there were some bumps in the road as, for a time, Channing was limited to small roles at minor functions or benefits and appearances at some of the Catskills resorts. In addition, she had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, all in all, a typical story with respect to a struggling young entertainer.
Channing landed her first job on stage in “No for an Answer” in 1941. Small and understudy rolls followed. Then, in 1948 she landed a featured role in “Lend an Ear.” She received the Theatre World Award, and illustrator Al Hirschfeld featured her image as a “flapper” in his widely distributed drawings. That notoriety helped her get the lead in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” which turned out to be one of her most famous roles.
Her most famous and enduring role, however, was as Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly” in 1964 for which she won a “Tony.” “Dolly” is probably one of the most famous roles in theatre history. Channing created the role, which, subsequently was played by such luminaries as Ginger Rogers, Ethel Merman, and Martha Raye, among others. Audiences and critics, alike, loved it. For example, columnist Dick Kleiner wrote: The plot seemed “old-fashioned” and “uninspired, but then…Carol Channing comes out, turns on her huge eyes and monumental smile – and you sit there with a silly grin on your face for 2 1/2 hours, bathed in the benevolent spell of a great comedienne…” “The show ran for 3,000 performances, which, at the time, was the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
Additionally, Channing appeared in many films. Probably, her best was “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” for which she won a Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 1968.
Channing appeared frequently on tv. In the 1950s she appeared on the “Burns and Allen Show” and later with George Burns on various specials. Beginning in the 1960s she made frequent appearances as a guest on various comedy, sitcom, and variety shows, such as “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Nanny,” and “Sesame Street,” among many others. Additionally, she appeared on the popular quiz shows “What’s My Line (a dozen or so times) and “Hollywood Squares.” From 1992 – 1995 she did voiceovers for animated shows, such as that of “Grandmama” in an animated version of “The Addams Family.” Through this wide variety of roles, she was able to demonstrate her versatility as an actress, singer dancer and comedienne.
Channing was married four times. Interestingly, her last one was to her junior high school sweetheart with whom she reconnected in 2003 while recording the audiobook of her autobiography.
Some interesting tidbits about Channing:
1. She had some highly unusual dietary habits. For one thing, she avoided eating restaurant food for some 15 years. On those rare occasions when she could not avoid a restaurant she would bring her own food, for instance, zucchini or chopped celery, in sealed containers. She would order an empty plate and glass and dig in. She would eat seeds for dessert. In the mid 1990s she relented and did begin to eat restaurant food.
2. She avoided alcoholic beverages of any kind.
3. In 1964 she was tapped to perform at the Democratic Convention. She sang a parody of “Hello Dolly” called “Hello Lyndon.”
4. Channing was an ovarian cancer survivor.
5. In 1970 Channing became the first celebrity to perform at a Super Bowl halftime show, and she is one of the few to have performed at more than one.
6. In 1973 it was revealed that she was on President Nixon “Enemies List.” Channing always said that was the “highest honor” of her career.
Channing was the recipient of many awards, too many to mention here. As I said above, she was one of the most versatile and enduring performers ever. Her initial appearance was in 1941 at the age of 19, and she continued to perform well into her 90s. That’s eight decades, folks. Quite a run.
Channing died on January 15, 2019 of natural causes at the ripe old age of 97. Rest in peace Carol. You entertained us and made us laugh. You will be sorely missed.