Carol Channing, Broadway Legend, Dies at 97

Broadway legend Carol Channing, best known for her starring role in Hello, Dolly! died Tuesday. She was 97.

Channing's publicist, B. Harlan Boll, confirmed to CBS News that Channing died at 12:31 a.m. in Rancho Mirage, California, of natural causes.

The iconic actress, singer and comedian had suffered strokes over the past year, Boll said. No memorial events have been scheduled, as that was her wish.

carol-channing_getty-Photoshot : Contributor
(Photo: Photoshot / Contributor, Getty)

Channing won a Tony award for her performance in the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, which opened on Broadway almost exactly 55 years ago, on Jan. 16, 1964.

She was also known for numerous films like Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews and The First Traveling Saleslady with Ginger Rogers. A fixture on a variety of TV shows, Channing also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and Hollywood Squares. She also appeared in nightclubs, and for a time partnered with George Burns in Las Vegas and on a national tour.

Her husband, former rancher and local political leader Harry Kullijian, died in 2011 the day before his 92nd birthday.

Channing continued as Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge when a rich grump seeks a wife, in national tours over the years, with her final performance as Dolly coming in 1996 when she was in her 70s.

Hello, Dolly! is the musical version of Thornton Wilder's play The Matchmaker, and features a Jerry Herman-scored soundtrack of songs like "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Before the Parade Passes By" and "It Only Takes a Moment."

Born on Jan. 31, 1921 in Seattle, Channing's father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor. When Channing was 3 months old, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a writer for the Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He'd go on to become editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications.

Channing credited her father with her dream to become an entertainer. "He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97. And the people who do that are happier people," she said, according to CBS News.

She majored in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont and found a job in a New York revue, which lasted just two weeks. Despite the short run time, a New Yorker magazine critic commented, "You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing."

"That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature," Channing said later.

She eventually landed in Los Angeles after working as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, and auditioned for Marge Champion, the wife of Gower Champion, who was producing the revue Lend an Ear. Channing became the hit of the show in a small Hollywood theater, then again when the show moved to New York.

Her stardom grew with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, when a reviewer wrote that she "hurls the footlights in broad strokes of pantomime and bold, certain, exquisitely comical gestures." Her signature number became the show's hit song, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

In the early days, Channing married and divorced twice: once to novelist Theodore Naidish and once to pro footballer Alexander Carson, who was the father of her only child, Channing, who became a successful political cartoonist.

In 1956 she married TV producer Charles Lowe, who adopted her son and became her manager. In 1998 she sued for divorce after 41 years of marriage, alleging that he misappropriated funds and humiliated her in public.

"The only thing about control freak victims is that they don't know who they are," she told The Washington Post. "It's taken me 77 years to figure that out. I was miserable. I was unhappy. And I didn't realize it wasn't my fault. But I'm going to survive. I'm going to live. I'm free."

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Lowe died of a stroke in 1999. The year after, Channing moved to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs to write her memoir, Just Lucky, I Guess.

In 2003, she remarried to Harry Kullijian, her childhood sweetheart.