Carol Channing, actress

Carol Channing
Carol Channing
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The actress Carol Channing, who has died at 97, delighted Broadway audiences across nearly 5,000 performances as the scheming Dolly Levi in the 1960s musical, Hello, Dolly.

She starred in other Broadway hits, too, but that one topped them all. She also appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour.

But her outsized personality, tailored though it was for the stage, seemed too much for the screen, and she made only a few movies – notably The First Travelling Saleslady with Ginger Rogers, and another musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews.

Over the years, she continued to play Dolly in national tours, the last in 1996, when she was in her 70s. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called her “the ninth wonder of the world”.

The show, with a rousing score by Jerry Herman, was a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker.

Channing was not the immediate choice to play Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife. “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears,” the theatre producer Merrick told her.

The actress and choreographer, Marge Champion, recalled: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”

Channing was born on January 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor.

When his only child was three months old, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a writer for the Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He later became editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications.

At the age of seven, Channing decided she wanted to become an entertainer. She credited her father with encouraging her: “He told me you can dedicate your life at seven or 97. And the people who do that are happier people.”

While studying drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she was sent off to get experience in her chosen field, and found a job in a New York revue. The show lasted only two weeks, but a New Yorker magazine critic commented: “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing.”

She said later: “That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”

For several years she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, taking jobs as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times.

Landing in Los Angeles, she auditioned for Ms Champion, the wife and dance partner of Gower Champion, who was putting together a revue called Lend an Ear.

In a small Hollywood theatre, she was the standout act, and when the show went to New York, so did she.

As the innocent gold digger in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, her stardom was assured. The show’s hit song, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend, became her signature number.

She had two early marriages which ended in divorce – to the novelist Theodore Naidish and the footballer Alexander Carson, father of her only child, Channing, who became a successful political cartoonist.

In 1956 she married a television producer, Charles Lowe, who adopted her son and supervised every aspect of her business affairs, reportedly watching all her performances from out front and leading the applause.

But after 41 years of marriage, she sued for divorce in 1998, alleging that he misappropriated her funds and humiliated her in public. She said they had only had sex twice in four decades.

Lowe died after a stroke in 1999, and Channing moved to Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs, California, to write her memoirs. She called the book Just Lucky, I Guess.

She remarried in 2003 to Harry Kullijian, her childhood sweetheart from 70 years before. He died in 2011.