Legendary Broadway star Carol Channing died January 15, 2019, just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday. Her long, storied career includes her hit Broadway shows Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Hello, Dolly!, and her lovably wacky roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Alice in Wonderland. Her 70+ year entertainment presence has garnered a Tony (plus two honorary ones), a Golden Globe, and an Academy Award nomination.
1. AS A YOUNG GIRL IN SAN FRANCISCO, CHANNING FELL IN LOVE WITH THE THEATER.
Born in Seattle on January 31, 1921, Channing moved with her family to San Francisco shortly after birth. Her father worked as editor-in-chief of several Christian Science newspapers, and as a young child, she accompanied her mother to the Curran Theatre to help distribute these newspapers backstage. Channing recalled a powerful feeling that overcame her as she felt the theater was a sacred place. "I stood there and realized—I'll never forget it because it came over me so strongly—that this is a temple," she told The Austin Chronicle in 2005. "This is a cathedral. … This is for people who have gotten a glimpse of creation and all they do is recreate it. I stood there and wanted to kiss the floorboards." She used her weekly allowance of 50 cents to buy tickets to see live theater in San Francisco.
2. HER FIRST BIG STARRING BROADWAY ROLE WAS IN GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES.
In 1949, Channing landed her first lead role in a Broadway musical, playing Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. "Bye Bye Baby" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" became the most well-known songs from the show, though Channing often performed another of her character's big numbers, "I'm Just a Little Girl from Little Rock," throughout the years. The part made her a star. In the 1953 film adaptation, Marilyn Monroe played Lorelei Lee, a role that also cemented her celebrity status.
3. SHE PERFORMED HELLO, DOLLY! MORE THAN 5000 TIMES.
In January 1964, Channing originated the role of matchmaker and general busybody Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! The show was a huge success, and Channing later starred in Broadway revivals and in touring productions, performing the musical more than 5000 times. Even if she was sick, she almost always chose to go on stage, feeling healed by the audience’s positive energy.
4. CHANNING WAS INCREDIBLY BITTER WHEN BARBRA STREISAND WAS CAST AS DOLLY IN THE FILM VERSION.
Streisand's performance on Broadway as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl is legendary, but one musical swept the 1964 Tony Awards, and that was Hello, Dolly! Channing's musical won 10 Tonys (out of 11 nominations), including a statuette for Channing's Dolly over Streisand's Fanny. A few years later, however, when casting for the movie version, the screenwriter felt Channing's outsized personality (as evidenced in her performance in 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie) wouldn't play well for an entire movie. Streisand, who was only 25 at the time, was cast as the middle-aged matchmaker. "I felt suicidal; I felt like jumping out a window," Channing told a newspaper years later. "I felt like someone had kidnapped my part." In her 2002 autobiography Just Lucky I Guess, Channing admitted that even though she views Streisand as a great creative force and that she admires her, the bitterness remains. "Her movie of Dolly was the biggest financial flop Twentieth Century-Fox ever had," Channing wrote. "There! I said it."
5. HER SUCCESS IN HELLO, DOLLY! ALLOWED HER TO BEFRIEND PRESIDENTIAL FAMILIES.
A year after JFK's assassination, Jackie Kennedy and her two kids saw Hello, Dolly! and met Channing backstage. In the summer, Channing would visit the Kennedy family in Hyannis Port every other weekend on her days off. After Channing sang an adapted version of "Hello, Dolly" for Lyndon Johnson's 1964 election campaign, she became friends with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, later visiting the Johnsons' family ranch.
6. SHE PARTNERED WITH DESI ARNAZ FOR HER OWN TV SHOW.
In 1966, Channing filmed a pilot episode for The Carol Channing Show with Desilu, Lucille Ball’s production company that she had originally founded with ex-husband Desi Arnaz. Directed and produced by Arnaz, the episode never turned into a series, which Channing attributes to the mismatch between her comedic style and the I Love Lucy writers who wrote the episode.
7. CHANNING APPEARED ON TV SHOWS RANGING FROM THE LOVE BOAT TO SESAME STREET TO THE ADDAMS FAMILY.
Channing guest-starred on TV shows like Sesame Street, singing a "Hello, Dolly" variation called "Hello, Sammy," as well as The Red Skelton Show, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., and The Drew Carey Show. She also appeared on classic TV game shows What's My Line? and Hollywood Squares, and voiced characters on The Addams Family and The Magic School Bus.
8. SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS PART AFRICAN-AMERICAN FOR MOST OF HER LIFE.
In Just Lucky I Guess, Channing revealed that before she went to college, her mother told her that her father was born in the south and that his mother was African-American. Channing hadn’t revealed that she was part black until 2002, but eight years later she backtracked on Wendy Williams's talk show. She explained that she doesn’t know for certain if she’s part black or not because when her mother claimed her father was half black, she was angry at him and may have wanted to get back at him for something. Plus, the census records from 1890, which should hold the key to her father's parentage, were destroyed in a fire, so that portion of Channing's heritage may always remain a mystery.
9. SHE RELEASED A GOSPEL ALBUM IN MEMORY OF HER FATHER.
In 2009, Channing released a gospel album, For Heaven's Sake, in memory of her father, who sang gospel songs to her when she was growing up. Channing included spirituals like "Joshua Fit' the Battle of Jericho" and classic Americana songs that her father had taught her. "I can hear my father's voice harmonizing with me every time I sing them although he's long gone," she said in 2010.
10. AT 82 YEARS OLD, CHANNING MARRIED HER CHILDHOOD SWEETHEART.
In 2003, at 82 years old, Channing married her fourth husband, Harry Kullijian. The couple had met in middle school but lost touch over the decades. In her autobiography, Channing devoted a passage to describing her "first love" experience with Kullijian, whom she "went steady" with for two years. "I was so in love with Harry I couldn’t stop hugging him," she wrote. He heard about the passage in the book and contacted her, and they got engaged two weeks after their reunion. They remained together until his death in 2011.
11. SHE FOUNDED A NON-PROFIT TO SUPPORT ARTS EDUCATION.
In 2004, Channing received an honorary doctorate from California State University, Stanislaus. Inspired to support arts programs in schools, she founded the Dr. Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts with her husband. Now called the American Foundation for Arts Education, the non-profit works to make arts part of schools' core curriculums. Channing herself visited schools and taught master classes.
12. JOHNNY DEPP’S DREAM ROLE IS TO PLAY CHANNING.
Johnny Depp has mentioned a couple of times that he'd love to play Channing in a biopic; in 2009 he called it a "dream role," and in 2013 he reiterated that point. "I mean it. She's fantastic," he told reporters. Depp's appreciation runs deep: he also revealed that he used to dress up as her as a kid. Channing, for her part, loves the idea. "Men have been imitating me for as long as I can remember," she quipped. "In fact, most of the impersonations I have seen have had a five o'clock shadow."
This story first ran in 2016.