Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
Nobody had a voice like Carol Channing.
And what exactly was it about that voice?
It was raspy and endearing, like your favorite aunt gushing about you at Thanksgiving. It was endearing and kind, a pat on the hand when you needed it. When I was growing up, Channing was always on television, be it singing “Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend” with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show or chatting with Phil Donahue. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out how, even when Hollywood passed her over several times, she just kept going.
Channing was born and raised in San Francisco. Her dad was African American, something she didn’t know about until she left for college at age eighteen. She was proud of her heritage and wrote about it in her memoir Just Lucky I Guess. After dropping out of Bennington College, she worked at Macy’s until she got an acting job on Broadway. She kept at it and in 1950 she finally got a big break: the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She sang “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” and no doubt the audience probably wanted to give her diamonds right there on the spot.
There was no doubt she would be in the movie version.
Marilyn Monroe was the one who would be Hollywood’s version of Lorelei Lee.
Still, Channing kept going. She appeared on television throughout the fifties, teaming up with George Burns when Gracie Allen became too ill to work. After being nominated for a Tony for the musical Show Girl, Channing was cast as Dolly Levi in what would be her biggest part yet.
In 1964, Hello Dolly appeared on Broadway. Based on the play The Matchmaker, Dolly Levi is known far and wide for her matchmaking skills. Long before side gigs were a thing, Dolly also teaches dance and the mandolin. A man Horace Vandergelder (David Burns) wants Dolly to set him up with a love match. One teeny tiny thing: Dolly wants to marry him herself.
And just like that, we have a musical!
Channing was major a hit as Dolly, winning the Best Actress Tony in 1964 for the role. The same year, she went to the Democratic National Convention where (according to the New York Times) she sang “Hello Lyndon” upon Lady Bird Johnson’s request. She made appearances on Kellogg’s cereal commercials with Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) where of course she sang “Hello Gomer.” And, in an odd guest-starring turn, she had cereal with the cast of Hogan’s Heroes.
Channing was Dolly, so there was no doubt she would be in the movie version this time!
Barbra Streisand, fresh off her Funny Girl success, was Hollywood’s version of Dolly Levi. Yet Channing did have one Hollywood hit: her role of Muzzy Van Hossmere in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, a rich widow who was fond of saying “Raspberries!” for no reason and stole the show from Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. Channing won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, only to lose to Bonnie and Clyde’s Estelle Parsons.
Through the years, Channing kept working. She did a song for the Free to be You and Me album, made appearances on game shows and reprised her role as Lorelei Lee in the music named, what else? Lorelei. She married several times and a son named Channing Lowe. When she was going to perform the audiobook version of her memoir, she met again her middle school boyfriend Harry Kullijian. They got married in 2003 when she was eighty-two years old. If that doesn’t give you faith that a person can find love at any age, I’m not sure what will.
Kullijian died in 2011 at age ninety-two.
When word came out that Channing died this morning two weeks before her ninety-eighth birthday, it wasn’t really a shock. She lived a long, happy life and with her fabulous voice, radiant smile and vibrant eyes, she was the perfect embodiment of show business.