Thursday 27 June 2019

Obituary: Carol Channing

Sparkling comedienne and star of Broadway shows such as 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'

SHOWTIME: Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing
SHOWTIME: Mary Tyler Moore, Julie Andrews and Carol Channing

Carol Channing, who died last Tuesday aged 97, was one of Broadway's most vivacious comediennes, best known for creating the roles of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!

A forthright exponent of musical comedy and revue, she brought to the stage a beguiling energy, striking presence and a dazzling song-and-dance technique. Her frantic delivery, huge, saucer-shaped eyes and remorselessly wide grin came to epitomise Hollywood's idea of the dizzy blonde.

In her early career Carol Channing was compared to the great Tallulah Bankhead, but in later life her height, her perennial choice of blonde wigs and her flamboyant clothes occasionally caused her to be mistaken for the female impersonator Danny La Rue.

Her first big Broadway success was in Jule Styne's musical version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, set in the American Roaring Twenties and based on the novel by Anita Loos, who chose Carol Channing to play Lorelei Lee after seeing her in a revue in the mid-1940s.

Although Lorelei was described in the novel as tiny, and Channing stood "six feet tall in her stockings", Anita Loos felt she was perfect for the part and wrote Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend with Carol Channing in mind. As the show's hedonistic gold-digging heroine, the actress also introduced other memorable musical numbers such as A Little Girl From Little Rock and Bye Bye Baby.

After a run of appearances in largely feeble films, she re-established herself as a top box office attraction on Broadway in 1964 when she starred as the pushy Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! It was her finest hour. Carol Channing appeared in every one of the 1,272 consecutive performances and the show - then the longest-running in Broadway history - grossed more than $17m. Although earning the New York Drama Critics' and Tony awards, she was again passed over when the film version was made in 1969 starring Barbra Streisand in the lead role.

Noel Coward was so smitten with Channing's stage presence that he wrote a song especially for her London debut in Carol Channing With Her 10 Stout-hearted Men in 1971. In this, she appeared on stage at the Drury Lane Theatre singing London's a Little Bit of Alright in a Cockney accent worthy of Dick Van Dyke. Surprisingly for an actress renowned for such saucy-sounding stage revues, she was a committed and practising Christian Scientist ("because they don't believe in ageing").

Carol Elaine Channing was born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle, the daughter of a newspaper editor, George Channing, and his wife Adelaide. The family moved to California when Carol was only a fortnight old and she grew up in San Francisco.

She claimed that her earliest memories were of wanting to be a performer, and at 18 she began to study drama at Bennington College in Vermont. Hoping to make a success on Broadway, she left college in the early 1940s without finishing her degree. After a Broadway debut in 1941 in the chorus of Marc Blitzstein's opera No For an Answer, she understudied and occasionally appeared for the comedienne Eve Arden in Let's Face It later that season.

In 1942, she appeared in the Broadway drama Proof Through the Night before beginning a stint on the New York nightclub circuit. Returning to California in 1946, she appeared the following year in a stage revue, Lend an Ear. The show proved successful and transferred to Broadway, where Carol Channing won the New York Drama Critics' Award.

Anita Loos, who saw the production, immediately invited Carol Channing to take the part of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

"She was far too tall," Anita Loos recalled. "Lorelei was supposed to be tiny, but I wanted Carol's interpretation of Lorelei, not a carbon copy."

When the show opened in 1949, Carol Channing dazzled The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who reported that she went through the play "like a dazed automaton - husky enough to kick in the teeth of any gentleman on the stage, but mincing coyly in high-heel shoes and looking out on a confused world through big, wide starry eyes. There has never been anything like this before in human society".

Other critics were equally breathless, hailing her as "the performer of the decade and the most fabulous comic creation of this generation". Channing starred in the show for the whole of its three-year run. After 740 Broadway performances, it transferred to Chicago and then toured for two years. She then returned to the "legitimate" stage, as Eliza Doolittle in a tour of Shaw's Pygmalion.

Throughout the 1950s she continued to star in musicals and revues, but was passed over the film version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in favour of Marilyn Monroe. She took over from Rosalind Russell as Ruth in Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town (1953), and took the title role in The Vamp (1955) and Show Business (1959), but never matched the success of her earlier stage role. Carol Channing made her film debut in 1956 in a flaccid comedy, The First Travelling Saleslady, starring Ginger Rogers. She looked too tall opposite the petite Rogers and, at 35, was hopelessly mismatched with a callow Clint Eastwood as her military boyfriend.

After her initial lack of success on the big screen, Carol Channing did not make another film for more than a decade. In 1967 she starred as Mary Tyler Moore's mother in Thoroughly Modern Millie but despite being cast as a youthful, fun-loving character, Carol Channing looked drawn and almost manic in many of her scenes. Nevertheless, she won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress.

She followed Thoroughly Modern Millie with the disastrously unfunny Skidoo in 1968. Audiences were astonished at the plot, which starred Frankie Avalon as a singing gangster, and the film was most notable for Groucho Marx's final screen appearance, as a mobster called God.

Carol Channing was continually popular as a stage entertainer, however. Throughout the 1950s she had starred at cabaret venues such as the Tropicana in Las Vegas, and continued to top the bill and to break box office records throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In January 1965, gowned in sequins and vulture plumes, she sang Hello, Lyndon! at the inauguration of President Johnson.

Then, in 1970, came her London debut. Accompanied by a troupe of male dancers she starred at the age of 50 in Carol Channing With Her 10 Stout-hearted Men, a revue which ran for a year at the Drury Lane Theatre.

"It seems odd to find an intimate revue at Drury Lane," mused The Daily Telegraph's Eric Shorter, "but that is what we have in Carol Channing With Her 10 Stout-hearted Men. It would seem odder without Miss Channing, of course. For this assured, skilled and wholly likeable Broadway comedienne comprises almost all it has to offer. True, there are those 10 nimble men to support her. But since all they do is dance and pay choreographic homage, their services hardly stick much in the mind."

In an attempt to regain her earlier popularity, she starred in a revival of her first major role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1974, although at 53 she was too old for the part. She had better luck reviving the part of Dolly Levi for an American tour of Hello, Dolly! in 1977. Two years later, and 15 years after her Broadway triumph, she returned to London with the show in 1979.

Having decided which parts suited her best, Carol Channing re-embraced Lorelei Lee, reviving the part for a third time in 1983. She also revived Dolly Levi for a short American tour the same year. In 1985 she made another unsuccessful attempt at film when she played the White Queen in a made-for-television remake of Alice In Wonderland. In later life Carol Channing, who won a Tony award for lifetime achievement in 1995, concentrated on making celebrity appearances on talk shows and starring in a number of her own television spectaculars.

She was still performing one-woman stage shows well into her eighties. In 2002, she published a memoir, Just Lucky I Guess.

Carol Channing was married four times. In 1998, aged 77, she filed for divorce from her third husband, of more than 40 years, and former business manager, Charles Lowe (86) claiming she had not had sex with him since Dwight Eisenhower was president in 1957; he died the following year before the divorce was finalised. In 2003 she was married for a fourth time to Harry Kullijian; he died in 2011. She is survived by a son from her second marriage, the cartoonist Chan Lowe.

© Telegraph

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