Carol Elaine Channing (born January 31, 1921) is an American actress, singer, dancer and comedian. Notable for starring in Broadway and film musicals, her characters typically radiate a fervent expressiveness and an easily identifiable voice, whether singing or for comedic effect. Carol Channing also studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City.
She began as a Broadway musical actress, starring in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, and Hello, Dolly! in 1964, when she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She revived both roles several times throughout her career, most recently playing Dolly in 1995. Channing was nominated for her first Tony Award in 1956 for The Vamp followed by a nomination in 1961 for Show Girl. She received her fourth Tony Award nomination for the musical Lorelei in 1974.
As a film actress, she won the Golden Globe Award and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Other film appearances include The First Traveling Saleslady (1956) and Skidoo (1968). On television, she appeared as an entertainer on variety shows, from The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1950s to Hollywood Squares. She had a standout performance as The White Queen in the TV production of Alice in Wonderland (1985), and had the first of many TV specials in 1966, An Evening with Carol Channing.
Channing was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981 and received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 1995. She continues to perform and make appearances, singing songs from her repertoire and sharing stories with fans, cabaret style. She released an autobiography, titled Just Lucky I Guess, in 2002, and Larger Than Life, a documentary film about her career, was released in 2012.
Channing was born in Seattle, Washington, on January 31, 1921, the only child of George (1888-1957) and Adelaide Channing (née Glaser; 1886–1984). Her mother was of German-Jewish descent, and Channing considers herself "part-Jewish".:51 Her father was a Black American of mixed ancestry, was born George Christian Stucker but changed his surname before his daughter's birth.:50 A city editor at the Seattle Star, he took a job in San Francisco and the family moved when Channing was two weeks old. He became a Christian Science practitioner, editor, and teacher.
Channing attended Aptos Junior High School and Lowell High School San Francisco, graduating in 1938. She won the Crusaders' Oratorical Contest and a free trip to Hawaii with her mother in June 1937.
When she was 16, she left home to attend Bennington College in Vermont, and her mother told her for the first time that her father's mother was African American and his father was German-American.:8
Her mother felt that the time was right to tell her since now that she was going off to college and would be on her own, she didn't want her to be surprised if she ever had a black baby.:8[a] Channing writes:
I know it's true the moment I sing and dance. I'm proud as can be of [my black ancestry]. It's one of the great strains in show business. I'm so grateful. My father was a very dignified man and as white as I am. My [paternal] grandparents were Nordic German, so apparently I [too] took after them [in appearance].
She majored in drama at Bennington, and during an interview in 1994 admitted that she first wanted to perform on stage as a singer when she was in the fourth grade. She recalls being emotionally drawn to the stage after seeing Ethel Waters perform.
She has stated that in the fourth grade she ran for and was elected class secretary: "I stood up in class and campaigned by kidding the teachers. The other kids laughed. I loved the feeling—It was a very good feeling; it still is." She read the class minutes every Friday, often impersonating the children who were discussed. She also considers the fact that she was able to see plays while very young to have been an important inspiration:
I was lucky enough to grow up in San Francisco, and it was the best theater town that Sol Hurok knew, and he brought everybody from all over the world. And we schoolchildren got to see them with just 50-cent tickets.
Her election to class secretary continued through grammar and high school: "It was very good training—like stock" Those weekly sessions in front of students became a habit which she carried to Bennington College, where she would entertain every Friday night. During her junior year she began trying out for acting parts on Broadway. After playing a small part in revue, the New Yorker magazine noted her performance: "You'll be hearing more from a comedienne named Carol Channing."
The inspiration she received from that brief notice made her decide to quit school. However, it was four years before she found another acting job. During that period she performed at small functions or benefits, including some in the Catskill resorts. She also worked in Macy's bakery.
Channing was introduced to the stage while helping her mother deliver newspapers to the backstage of theatres.[b]
Her first job on stage in New York was in Marc Blitzstein's No for an Answer, starting January 5, 1941, at the Mecca Temple (later New York's City Center). She was 19 years old. Channing moved to Broadway for Let's Face It!, in which she was an understudy for Eve Arden, who was 13 years older than Channing. Decades later, Arden would play Dolly in a road company after Channing finally relinquished her signature role.
Five years later, Channing had a featured role in Lend an Ear (1948), for which she received her Theatre World Award and launched her as a star performer. Channing credited illustrator Al Hirschfeld for helping make her a star when he put her image in his widely published illustrations. She said that his drawing of her as a flapper was what helped her get the lead in her next play, the Jule Styne and Anita Loos musical, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. From that role, as Lorelei Lee, she gained recognition, with her signature song from the production, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," among the most widely known. In January 1950, Time magazine ran a cover story about her becoming a new star on Broadway, followed by cover stories in Life magazine in 1955 and 1964.[c][d][e][f]
In 1956, Channing married her manager and publicist Charles Lowe. During the 1950s, he produced the Burns and Allen comedy show, which starred George Burns and Gracie Allen. When Allen was forced to discontinue performing due to medical problems, she saw that Burns was in need of a partner to play off of on stage since he was best as a straight man. She remembered that Channing, like her, had one of the most distinctive and recognizable voices in show business, and Lowe asked Channing if she would perform with Burns during his shows. She accepted immediately, and Channing worked on and off with Burns through the late 1950s. Burns also appeared in her TV special, "An Evening with Carol Channing", in 1966.
In 1961, Channing became one of the few performers nominated for a Tony Award for work in a revue (rather than a traditional book musical); she was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for the short-lived revue Show Girl.
Channing came to national prominence as the star of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly! (1964). Her performance as Dolly Levi won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. She recalls that playwright Thornton Wilder so loved the musical, which was based on his play, The Merchant of Yonkers, that he came once a week. He also planned to rewrite his 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth, with Channing playing the parts of both Mrs. Antrobus and Sabina, but died before he could finish it.
Her role became widely popular in the 1960s, and she was often invited to major events, including those at the White House, where she might sing. In 1964, for instance, she was invited to the Democratic convention where she sang a take-off song, "Hello, Lyndon", for Lyndon Johnson's campaign. She was a favorite of Lady Bird Johnson, who once gave her a massive bouquet after a show. The old-fashioned plot of Hello, Dolly, when first described, might seem uninspired, says columnist Dick Kleiner:
But then you sit in the audience and 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...It is hard to imagine her doing anything else but making people smile. She is that human curio, the born female comic.
The show had first opened on Broadway on January 16, 1964, and by the time the show closed in late December 1970, it had become the longest running musical in Broadway history, with nearly 3,000 performances. Besides Channing, six other stars played the title role during those seven years: Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman.
Al Hirschfeld's illustration of her was printed on the front page of the "Sunday Theatre" section of the New York Times, which she feels captured the essence of her character: "How did the great Hirschfeld know precisely what I was thinking?...To be Hirschfelded is an eerie experience. You better not have anything to hide, because he'll expose it like a neon sign", she wrote.:68[g] The illustration was also printed on the cover of magazines, including Horizon. She later appeared in the movie biography about his life, The Line King, in 2004.
Channing reprised her role of Lorelei Lee when the musical Lorelei, directed by Robert Moore and choreographed by Ernest O. Flatt, premiered in 1973 at the Oklahoma City (6000 seat) Civic Center Music Hall and broke all box office records after six days' worth of performances sold out within 24 hours.
To commemorate this record event, the street running in front of the Music Hall was renamed Channing Square Drive in her honor. Also in the cast were Peter Palmer, Brandon Maggart, Dody Goodman, and Lee Roy Reams. For nearly a year, the stage musical then toured 11 cities across the country. Lorelei had already earned a hefty profit by the time it opened on Broadway at the Palace Theatre on January 27, 1974, and ran for a total of 320 performances. Channing also appeared in two New York City revivals of Hello, Dolly!, and toured with it extensively throughout the United States.
She performed songs from Hello, Dolly during a special television show in London in 1979.
She also appeared in a number of films, including The First Traveling Sales Lady (1956; with Ginger Rogers and Clint Eastwood), the cult film Skidoo, and Thoroughly Modern Millie (starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, John Gavin, and Beatrice Lillie). For Millie she received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and was awarded a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture. Channing said she was especially grateful to Andrews for helping her develop her character: "She will forever be my angel," she says.
Due to her success on Broadway in Hello Dolly! and her co-starring role in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Channing attracted the attentions of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were interested in starring her in a sitcom. Directed and produced by Arnaz and written by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis (who co-wrote I Love Lucy and The Lucy Show), The Carol Channing Show starred Channing as Carol Hunnicut, a small-town girl trying and failing to make it in New York City show business. Character actors Richard Deacon and Jane Dulo were in the supporting cast. The pilot was filmed in front of a live audience (with a laugh track added) at Desilu in 1966, but did not sell as a series.
In 1966, she won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. During her film career, Channing also made some guest appearances on television sitcoms and talk shows, including What's My Line? where she appeared in 11 episodes from 1962 to 1966. Channing did voice-over work in cartoons, most notably as Grandmama in an animated version of The Addams Family from 1992-95.
During most of her career, she was asked to perform in various skits or appear as a guest on regular shows. In the 1960s, she was on The Andy Williams Show. In 1985, she played the role of the White Queen in the television special Alice in Wonderland. In 1986, Channing appeared on Sesame Street and sang a parody of the song "Hello, Dolly!" called "Hello, Sammy!", a love song being sung by Carol to a character known as Sammy the Snake (as voiced by Muppets creator Jim Henson). Carol, in this parody segment, serenades Sammy telling him just how much she loves and adores him while Sammy coils himself around Carol's arms. Carol's song includes lyrics such as: "So..turn on your charm, Sammy/Coil yourself around my arm, Sammy/Sammy the Snake, I'll stake a claim on you". Songwriter Jule Styne, who wrote the score for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, invited her on his television special in 1987 where she performed another one of her signature songs, "Little Girl from Little Rock".
In 1993, she poked a little fun at herself in an episode of The Nanny. The episode "Smoke Gets in Your Lies" shows the producer auditioning for a new musical and Channing, playing herself, is trying out. Just after the producer announces he wants a stage presence that is instantly recognizable to the entire country, Channing begins with her signature "Hello, Dolly!", but he stops her with a resounding "Next!".
In January 2003, Channing recorded the audiobook of her best-selling autobiography Just Lucky, I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts, directed and produced by Steve Garrin at VideoActive Productions in New York City. It was during the recording sessions that she received a phone call from her childhood sweetheart Harry Kullijian that rekindled their romance and led to their marriage a few months later. In January 2011, the documentary Carol Channing: Larger Than Life (which chronicles Channing's life and career) was released.
Channing has been married four times. Her first husband was Theodore Naidish, whom she married when she was twenty in 1941. He was a writer, who in 1944 wrote Watch Out for Willie Carter,:52 but during the nearly five years of their marriage, earned little income: "There was no money for food, clothing or housing.":52
They lived near his grandparents in Brighton Beach. She remembers his grandfather, Sam Cohen, describing his life back in Russia before he immigrated. Cohen also introduced her to some of his neighborhood friends, who were amazed that she enjoyed hearing their funny stories. "They were delighted that I almost ate them up alive," she says, "because they were so funny, especially since such appreciation was coming from what we all thought then was a shiksa (me)." She learned to speak fluent Yiddish from "Grandpa Cohen", a skill which helped her understand the boardwalk conversations that went on around her in town.:51
In 1956, Channing married her manager and publicist Charles Lowe. They remained married for 42 years. During this time, her son Channing Carson took his stepfather's surname; he publishes his cartoons as Chan Lowe and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Channing filed for divorce from Lowe in 1998, but her estranged husband died before the divorce was finalized.
After Lowe's death and until shortly before her fourth marriage, the actress's companion was Roger Denny, an interior decorator.
In 2003, while recording the audiobook of her autobiography Just Lucky, I Guess, at VideoActive Productions, NYC, Produced and Directed by Steve Garrin, she rekindled her romance with her junior high school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, and they married on May 10, 2003. They later performed at their old junior high school in a benefit for the school. They also promoted arts education in California schools through their Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation. The couple resided in Rancho Mirage, California. Harry Kullijian died on December 26, 2011, the eve of his 92nd birthday. The recording of Carol's autobiography has never been publicly released.
Channing has unique dietary habits. She has not eaten restaurant food since at least 1963. In 1978, she said she hadn't eaten restaurant food in 15 years, and preferred only organic food. When invited to restaurants, she would bring several sealed containers with her own food, such as zucchini or chopped celery, and simply ask for an empty plate and glass. For dessert, she would eat seeds. Nor would she drink alcoholic beverages of any sort.
|1956||Tony Award||Best Actress in a Musical||The Vamp||Nominated|
|1968||Academy Awards||Best Supporting Actress||Thoroughly Modern Millie||Nominated|
|Golden Globes||Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture||Won|
|Tony Award||Special Award||Won|
|1974||Best Actress in a Musical||Lorelei||Nominated|
|1979||Olivier Award||Best Actress in a Musical||Hello, Dolly!||Nominated|
|1995||Tony Award||Lifetime Achievement Award||Won|
|1996||Drama Critics Circle||Lifetime Achievement Award||Won|
|2002||Grammy Awards||Grammy Hall of Fame||Hello, Dolly! Original Broadway Cast Recording||Won|
|Tony Awards (West)||Lifetime Achievement Award||Benefit for Aids and Actors' Fund||Won|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Carol Channing.|