'Hello, Dolly!' Broadway Star Carol Channing Dies At 97

Jan 15, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 6:25 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Carol Channing, Broadway's original Dolly in "Hello, Dolly!", died early this morning at 97. She was a performer of many gifts, as critic Bob Mondello remembers.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: She had a wide-eyed innocence...

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES")

CAROL CHANNING: (As Lorelei Lee, singing) I'm just a little girl from Little...

MONDELLO: ...That somehow seemed knowing...

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES")

CHANNING: (As Lorelei Lee, singing) We lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

MONDELLO: ...And a rasp that was unforgettable. The combination made her a star as the gold digger Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," but it served her just as well in plays by George Bernard Shaw. One critic after, she'd reduced him to tears of laughter, came away talking about mascara to swim in and a nobly tragic mouth. Carol Channing was both a critic's darling and a remarkable comedienne.

In elementary school, she won a student election by doing dead-on impressions of her teachers instead of giving a speech. And that was a talent that also worked in her nightclub act, where she'd segue from a wicked Marlena Dietrich...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANNING: (Impersonating Marlene Dietrich, singing) Ich bin von kopf bis fuss...

(LAUGHTER)

CHANNING: (Impersonating Marlene Dietrich, singing) ...Auf liebe eingestellt.

MONDELLO: ...To a character she'd invented...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANNING: (As Cecelia Sisson) My name is (whistling) Cecelia Sisson.

MONDELLO: ...Who was a huge star in silent films, but for reasons she just couldn't fathom, never made the transition to sound. Channing herself never really clicked in the movies, though she made a few, including "The First Traveling Saleslady," in which her first on-screen smooch was also the first for a kid named Clint Eastwood. To her great disappointment, both of the roles for which she was famous on stage went to other stars on screen, Lorelei Lee to Marilyn Monroe and Dolly to Barbra Streisand. But Channing, who'd started playing Dolly in her early 40s, kept coming back to the part on stage between other projects, more than 30 years of revivals and some 5,000 performances.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

CHANNING: (As Dolly Levi, singing) Hello, Harry. Well, hello, Louie. It's so nice to be back home where I belong.

MONDELLO: Legend has it that Channing missed only one performance in all those years to accept a Tony Award for a lifetime achievement. Being her understudy must have been a thankless assignment. She played Dolly with a fever, with a cast, even in a wheelchair.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY SHOW, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

CHANNING: (As Dolly Levi, singing) Wow, wow, wow, fellas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Hey, yeah.

CHANNING: (As Dolly Levi, singing) Look at the old girl now, fellas.

MONDELLO: Late in life, she was still wow-wow-wowing audiences in a one-woman show called "The First 80 Years Are The Hardest." Carol Channing, glowing, growing, going strong. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.