Carol Channing

Active - 1949 - 2014  |   Born - Jan 31, 1921 in Seattle, Washington, United States  |   Died - Jan 15, 2019   |   Genres - Comedy, Music, Musical, Children's/Family, Theater

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of a Christian Science lecturer, Carol Channing endured the rigors of Bennington College for one year before dropping out to try her luck as an actress in New York. Channing made her first Broadway appearance in 1941's Never Take No for an Answer; two years later, she understudied Eve Arden in the musical hit Let's Face It. Developing her own inimitable personality -- the wide-eyed, raspy-voice soubrette who is neither as dumb nor as crazy as she seems -- she scored her first hit in the 1948 revue Lend an Ear, which won the New York Drama Critics Award. In 1949, she starred as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, introducing the immortal golddigger's anthem "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." She lost the Lorelei Lee role to Marilyn Monroe in the 1952 film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and not without some justification: Like Bert Lahr, Fanny Brice, and other larger-than-life Broadway luminaries, Channing was simply too overpowering for the more intimate medium of film.

Proof that her million-watt personality was best suited to the stage can be found in her one starring film, the unsuccessful The First Traveling Saleslady (1956). Though she remained an audience favorite in nightclub and review appearances throughout the 1950s and early '60s -- at one point, she was teamed with George Burns -- Channing would not find a Broadway vehicle to match the success of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes until 1963, when she was cast as Dolly Gallegher Levi in the blockbuster musical Hello, Dolly!. She won a Tony Award for her work in this production, repeating the role in periodic revivals and eventually toting up over 1,400 performances. Again, however, she was denied the opportunity to repeat her stage role onscreen; it was a young Barbra Streisand who starred in the 1970 film version of Hello, Dolly!. Channing was awarded an Emmy for the 1966 TV special An Evening With Carol Channing, and an Oscar nomination for her supporting performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). After co-starring in the Otto Preminger disappointment Skidoo (1969), Channing confined her big-screen activities to cartoon voice-over work (Shinbone Alley, Happily Ever After, and Thumbelina); she has also supplied voices for the animated TV series Where's Waldo?, The Addams Family, and The Magic School Bus. In 1995, Carol Channing was honored at the Tony Awards presentations with a lifetime achievement award. Channing would particupate in documentaries about Broadway and her life, like Carol Channing: Larger Than Life.

Movie Highlights

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  • Made her stage debut in the chorus of 1941's No for an Answer. Her Broadway career took off in 1949 when she landed the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, introducing what would become her signature song, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."  Originated the role of Dolly Levi in the blockbuster Hello, Dolly!, which she performed worldwide more than 5000 times. Published a 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky I Guess, in which she mentioned her junior-high-school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian. They were reunited after 70 years and married in 2003. Created the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts in support of the arts in California's public schools. In her 80s, toured the country performing a one-woman show, The First Eighty Years Are the Hardest.