Oscar Actors: Channing, Carol: Legendary, Iconic Musical Stage Star (Hello, Dolly!) Dies at 97.

Carol Channing, the legendary stage actress, who played memorably the characters of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, has died. She was 97.

Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, California.

Her publicist B. Harlan Boll, who confirmed the news, wrote, “It is with extreme heartache, that I have to announce the passing of an original Industry Pioneer, Legend and Icon — Miss Carol Channing. Saying good-bye is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I know that when I feel those uncontrollable urges to laugh at everything and/or nothing at all, it will be because she is with me, tickling my funny bone.”

Channing won a Tony as best actress in a musical in 1964 for Jerry Herman’s musical version of Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.”

She made a name for herself as the gold-digging Ms. Lee in the 1948 musical adaptation of Anita Loos’ flapper-era novel.

Channing lost that part to Marilyn Monroe when the stage musical was made into a big Hollywood picture, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, co-starring Jane Russell, which was a smash box-office hit.

Channing beat Barbra Streisand for the Tony in 1964, when Streisand was nominated for “Funny Girl,” but, again, she was passed over for the 1968 Gene Kelly-directed Hello, Dolly! movie in favor of the much-younger and then more popular singer Streisand.

Channing was not considered a “big name,” who could carry over a big-budget Hollywood musical films.

During her career Channing made few films. But one of them, the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews, brought Channing her only Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, and the Golden Globe.

Rather unusually, at age 72, Channing returned to Broadway as Dolly Levi. The husky-voiced performer still continued to captivate audiences on Broadway and around the country in various national tours.

Carol Elaine Channing was born in Seattle and raised in San Francisco, the daughter of a noted Christian Science lecturer George Channing.

In her 2002 autobiography, Just Lucky, I Guess: A Memoir of Sorts, she revealed that her father had been a light-skinned African-American who used two different accents, one to help “pass” in the white world, and another around the house, where he sang gospel music to his daughter.

Channing studied dance and drama at Bennington but dropped out to appear in Marc Blitzstein’s “No for an Answer,” which opened at the Mecca Temple (later renaned New York’s City Center) in 1941. It ran only for three days, but that was enough for Channing to make an impression.

Channing developed a satirical night club act and appeared around town at Cafe Society Uptown and Downtown and at Catskills Mountain resorts.

By 1946, she returned home to San Francisco, whereupon her father gave her another chance to succeed.

She then moved to Los Angeles, where she auditioned for Marge and Gower Champion’s revue Lend an Ear, which ran for five months on the West Coast before landing in 1948 at the National Theater, where it continued for a year.  As a result, she was declared “a brilliant new comedienne,” in various publications, even though she had been around for a while.

When Herman Levin and Oliver Smith were preparing “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Channing was their first and only choice for Lorelei Lee. On December 8, 1949, Channing debuted to great acclaim, drawing comparisons to Beatrice Lillie and Fanny Brice. She spent two years on Broadway with the show and another one on the road.

In 1953, she replaced Rosalind Russell in Wonderful Town, and she toured for two years with the musical version of My Sister Eileen. (Russell had received Best Actress Oscar nomination for the 1942 film version of My Sister Eileeen).

Another musical attempt, “The Vamp,” based on the life of Theda Bara, closed after 60 performances in 1955, but she received a Tony nomination for best actress in musical.

Channing made her film debut in Paid in Full, in 1950 and then appeared with Ginger Rogers in 1956’s “The First Traveling Saleslady,” which she once joked should have been called “Death of a Saleslady.”

Once again she turned to nightclubs, opening at the Tropicana in Las Vegas and touring major boites for the next three years.

Some of the nightclub material was incorporated into the Broadway revue “Show Girl,” which opened in 1961 and ran for 100 performances; Channing drew her second Tony nom.

After that she toured with George Burns and then in stock in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess.” Her TV special “George Burns and Carol Channing” brought her an Emmy Award.

Under the direction of Gower Champion, Channing became the toast of Broadway again in “Hello Dolly,” which won 10 Tony awards, including best actress. She appeared off and on in the tuner for the next 30 years.

In 1968 Channing received a Tony Special Award. She appeared on Broadway in a reworking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” called “Lorelei” In 1974 and drew a Tony nom.

Channing later toured in “Sugar Babies” on the road and a revue based on Herman’s musicals “Jerry’s Girls.” In 1986-87, she toured in “Legends” with Mary Martin; the production drew most of its notoriety for the fights between its two stars, and the show never reached Broadway. The playwright, Pulitzer Prize winner James Kirkwood Jr., wrote a book about the experience, “Diary of a Mad Playwright: Perilous Adventures on the Road With Mary Martin and Carol Channing.”