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Jan 15 2019

Carol Channing (1921-2019)

by Nathaniel R


Carol Channing shouted that inexplicable fruit slang out with such gleeful fervor in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967),thatthisfruit couldn't stop quoting it as a child.It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Ms Channing has died just two weeks shy of her 98th birthday.Still,Carol wouldn't approve of a heavy heart.She lived a long full life and if she saw anyone frowning,she'd undoubtedly shake out that round white wig in a joy frenzy while shouting something insane to change the mood of the room...

Born in Seattle to a biracial father and white mother who were not in showbusiness,Channing was raised in San Francisco but found stardom on the opposite coast.She was a stage star by the age of 28,creating Lorelei Lee inGentlemen Prefer Blondes,the iconic ditzy blonde role that Marilyn Monroe would ace a few years later on the big screen (albeit in a much different interpretation).Fifteen years later she originated the role that would become her signature Dolly Levi in Hello,Dolly!for which she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.Channing would perform the role periodically well into her seventies,though she wasn't able to transfer it to the big screen in 1969,despite already being an Oscar nominated actress (Thoroughly Modern Millie,1967),because Barbra Streisand wanted it for a star vehicle.

Carol Channing on "The Love Boat"with Betty White.She had a recurring character named "Aunt Sylvia"

The lack of a substantial film career aside,she was hard to cast after all,she was a cross medium sensation.She lent her event-worthy razzle dazzle to all three actor's mediums: stage,television,and film,and found at least one signature role and beloved star turn in each: Dolly & Lorelei on stage,The White Queen on TV'sAlice in Wonderland(1985),and Muzzy Van Hossmere inThoroughly Modern Millie(1967) for the big screen.

I had the unforgettable pleasure of attending the premiere of the documentary about herCarol Channing: Larger Than Lifeat the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 with Ms Channing in attendance.After the very fun doc ended --it's available to rent online so have at it --  a frail Carol stood up to speak to the crowd and proceed to tell us at least three anecdotes we'd just heard in the film.We didn't mind the repetition,laughing and smiling from ear to ear all over again.This Broadway Baby had just received a standing ovation and was essentially treating us to an encore.

There's no people like show people ...especially none that will ever be anything like Carol Channing.

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Reader Comments (16)

You know you've made it when one of the queens on Drag Race do you on Snatch Game :)

January 15,2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

Almost 98 years is a hell of a long run and most of it seemed joyful so no tears but I can't help but feel the loss of such a distinctive life force.There really was no one else like her.

Like Ethel Merman she was just too big for the screen and presented best in person.Still it will always be a pity that Hello,Dolly was taken from her,one of those classic case of a perfect melding of performer and part.

Of her small film output the most bizarre instance must be the Ginger Rogers latter day vehicle The First Traveling Saleslady where Carol was romantically paired with a just starting out Clint Eastwood.Talk about your oil and water combination!But that's what makes it such a fascinating view.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I had the unusual experience of learning about this news via my child's elementary school parent listserv -- of which Channing was an alum!I relish the thought that my theatrical,performative kid is walking the same halls that a little Carol once roamed.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterRV

Such a unique performer that surely will be missed.As a kid I loved that Alice in Wonderland mini series.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph

Irreplaceable.Every gay kid should watch Thoroughly Modern Millie.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@ Peggy Sue Everybody should watch Thoroughly Modern Millie.If only to learn how to choreograph an entire dance number in a moving elevator.

She was a life force and lived a long time but it stings that darling Carol is no longer here.I wish she would have still be able to have been active.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

god bless carol.she did a great deal of good HIV / AIDS work in recent decades,as was once said,if carol channing didn't exist,no one would have made her up.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

It seems rather unfair to state that Carol Channing was denied the chance to play Dolly in the film version BECAUSE of Barbra Streisand,and specifically because Streisand wanted a star vehicle.Streisand was very ambivalent about taking the role.She was quoted at the time as saying:

"There was a big struggle in the beginning.I didn't want to play this role because the part of Dolly that is me I don't like to be shown.But once I accepted the fact that I was going to do it,from then on,it was fun."

Jerry Herman noted that Streisand's work on the character paid off:

"I like the film more every time I see it.And it's a great credit to Barbra because she knew she was too young.She's a smart cookie.She knew she was 27 years old playing a 60 year old woman.And she devised a way to do it that works today,that's lasted.She used that kind of pseudo Mae West,you know,whatever she devised.She's just so clever.And my God,she sang the hell out of it.I love the film much more than I did when it was released."

It should be possible to honor Ms.Channing's work without tearing
Down another actress.If anything,Carol and Barbra always managed to have kind words for each other.When Streisand's casting was announced,Channing publicly expressed her happiness for Barbra "and for Dolly."After Channing saw the film,she was quoted as saying "Barbra has a tremendous creative force—she is so good."Streisand,for her part,remembered Channing as "a true life-force…a kind and effervescent woman who never allowed the parade to pass her by!"

The truth is that Channing's artistry was better appreciated on the stage,not the screen.Had Streisand not accepted the role,it would likely have been offered to someone else: Streisand certainly didn't steal it.

Hat tip to

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterDavide

RIP Carol!
We all know Barbra wanted Dolly in film as a revenge for Carol deservedly winning the Tony over her Fanny.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Davide -- i've ready *VERY* different things about what went down on Hello Dolly.I believe it was in the book ROADSHOW: THE FALL OF FILM MUSICALS IN THE 1960s that you get quite a different take on what went down there than Streisand and Herman's accounts (who both had everything to gain by people loving the film version).

Nevertheless,saying that "Barbra Streisand wanted it for a star vehicle"is not tearing Barbra Streisand down.That's not a judgment just an assumption of fact based on everything else we know about Streisand and musical casting and so on.Streisand likes her star vehicles.And why shouldn't she?As she sings so perfectly in Funny Girl "in all of the world so far,I'm the greatest star!"

January 16,2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The Carol Channing reference in Pretty Woman sticks with me.And knowing her partial Black heritage makes it exciting for me that we can claim her as one of our own.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Carol Channing was a touchstone back to a different era.I remember my mother liking her so much after seeing her on Channing's TV special.How natural and funny she was about herself and life.Is it possible that funny people live longer?(Dick Van Dyke,Mel Brooks,Carl Reiner,Betty White...?)
Well loved by all who worked with her too.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I am fairly obsessed with TTM,so if she had never done anything but play Muzzy,I would adore her.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

oops,meant TMM

January 16,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

One of a kind to be sure.May she RIP.Thank you,Carol Channing.

January 16,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I tend to agree with Davide about Barbra Streisand,however I do not discount Nathaniel's take.Truth can take many forms.

Remember that when Streisand signed to star in "Hello Dolly","Funny Girl"had not even been released so her Box Office power was not truly known.I doubt that Barbra had much clout at that time...BUT we must always keep in mind that after all,she was/is STREISAND!

I will say that that Barbra did a spectacular job singing that score,her performance was certainly good enough even if she was somewhat miscast,particularly since many of the films supporting players were kinda bland.

In conclusion we can appreciate both CC and BJS as Dolly Levi....why not.

PS - I wonder if Ethel Merman regretted turning the original Broadway production down...Especially since it was written with her in mind...

January 16,2019 | Unregistered CommenterGay Senior

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