There are few Broadway stars that achieve the kind of recognition that Carol Channing did in her lifetime. The 97-year-old was renowned far and wide for her ability to captivate audiences.
With over six decades in the business, she left a lasting impression as a true icon of her era. From her surprising ancestry to the great loves of her life, join us as we take a look at the radiant life of Carol Channing.
She declared she was as “proud as can be” when she learned about her roots.
From African-American Roots
Carol Channing was the only child of Adelaide Glaser and George Channing. The small family started out in rainy Seattle, Washington and Carol was the apple of her parents’ eyes.
Her great-grandmother on her father’s side was African American, while her great-grandfather was the son of German immigrants. Despite her rich cultural history, Channing never met her grandparents and didn’t become privvy to her ancestry until she was well into her teens.
A bright young thing, Channing was about to set off to college when her mother decided to come clean.
Fourth Grade Fancy
From an early age, Carol Channing knew that she wanted to be a singer. In a 1994 interview, she recalled watching Ethel Waters perform and feeling an instant attraction to the stage. When she decided to run for class secretary, it only cemented her love of the spotlight.
“I stood up in class and campaigned by kidding the teachers. The other kids laughed. I loved the feeling – it was a very good feeling; it still is,” she explained. Channing was elected and tasked with standing up in front of the class every Friday to speak, a role that stood her in good stead for the future.
“I’m As Proud As Can Be!”
Carol Channing was 16 years old and ready to head off to new pastures, having been accepted at Bennington College in Vermont. When she was preparing to leave, her mother told her of her African-American roots as she didn’t want her to be surprised if she gave birth to a black baby one day.
“I know it’s true the moment I sing and dance,” Channing later said. “I’m as proud as can be of my black ancestry. It’s one of the great strains in show business. I’m so grateful. My grandparents were Nordic German, so apparently, I took after them in appearance.”
Friday Night With Carol
Carol Channing was continuously reelected class secretary throughout her school years. When she left school behind, Channing continued entertaining her peers every Friday night. It became clear that the youngster had a calling that must be pursued at all costs – and Broadway was calling.
After trying out for multiple roles, Channing eventually landed a small part in a series of short sketches. A critic from The New Yorker mentioned her by name, saying, “You’ll be hearing more from a comedienne named Carol Channing.” On cloud nine after the impressive review, Channing quit school.
Unfortunately, she wouldn’t land another acting job for four long years.
She Worked for Little to No Pay
Like many out of work actors, Carol Channing was forced to take on other jobs just so she could eat. She kept on top of her showbiz dreams by performing at small functions and benefits where she could, often for little to no pay.
She turned to the Catskill resorts during the summer months, hoping that performing as part of the entertainment team might land her a big break somewhere along the line. When the worked dried out there, she joined the team at Macy’s bakery in order to make ends meet. Surprisingly, she ended up on the New York City stage purely by chance, but not before a marital detour.
She Got Married at Just 20 Years Old
Carol Channing married Jewish writer Theodore Naidish in 1941 when she was just 20 years old. The pair struggled, bringing in little to no money. While the marriage would be ill-fated, Channing spoke fondly about the Naidish family for the rest of her life.
“There is nothing so safe and secure as an immigrant, foreign-language-speaking family all around you. It was a dream come true for me. They look after you, you look after them. They make chick’n in the pot if you’re sick. You learn marvelous new-sounding words every minute.” Her grandfather-in-law taught her fluent Yiddish, but the family ties weren’t enough to secure the marriage.
Newspaper Girl Turned Performer
Still out on her luck, Carol Channing resorted to helping her mother as she delivered papers to the backstage of theatres. Enamored by the buzz of larger performance areas, the young performer soon started sniffing out potential leads.
In 1948, she finally got her big break in Lend an Ear, a role that saw her scoop a Theatre World Award. Suddenly, Channing was in a prime position, thanks in part to illustrator Al Hirschfeld who used her image in his widely distributed work. One particular drawing of his helped her to snag the lead in her next play, a musical by Jule Styne and Anita Loos that would later become a motion picture starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
Carol Starred In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Al Hirschfeld’s drawing of Carol Channing as a flapper caught the attention of Styne and Loos, who was gearing up to open their number, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Channing dazzled as Lorelei Lee, the character who was later taken on by Monroe. The famous song, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend helped catapult her into stardom.
Everyone on Broadway suddenly knew the name Carol Channing, and doors began to open for the young starlet that she could’ve never imagine. By 1950, she was featured on the cover of Time magazine, who dedicated the issue to Broadway’s brightest young star.
Channing was unstoppable, but it wasn’t just her career that was heating up.
She Got Married Again and Became a Mother In the ’50s
By the early ’50s, Carol Channing was a staple on Broadway and her career was still on the rise. Shortly after the demise of her marriage to Naidish, she found love once more with Ottawa Rough Riders Canadian football player Alexander F. Carson. They had one son together before divorcing in 1956.
Motherhood was turbulent at first for Channing, who was dealing with the breakdown of yet another marriage while also raising her son, Channing Carson. She divorced Carson in 1956 and almost immediately married her manager and publicist Charles Lowe. Carson’s parental rights were terminated and Lowe formally adopted the child. Lowe had already proved invaluable to Channing in both her work life.
George Burns Comes Knocking
In the 1950s, Charles Lowe worked closely with popular actor George Burns and comedienne Gracie Allen. Lowe produced their comedy show when Allen was forced to retire due to heart problems. Although devastated, Allen remembered Carol Channing, the Broadway star with a distinct voice and punchy attitude.
When Channing was approached by the duo, she jumped at the opportunity to take Allen’s place. For the next few years, George and Carol frequently performed together to the delight of audiences. It helped boost Channing’s notoriety, but little did she know the best was yet to come…and it would be better than she could’ve ever imagined.
Few stage actresses are able to touch upon a role that becomes synonymous with them, but Carol Channing was one of the lucky ones. In 1964, she landed the part of Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly! The play was a hit and made Channing a household name.
Playwright Thornton Wilder wrote The Matchmaker which later turned into Herman’s hit musical. Wilder had big plans for Channing, whom he adored. He planned to rewrite his 1942 play The Skin of Our Teeth with Channing playing two of the lead roles. Unfortunately, he died before he was able to complete it. Although saddened by the loss of an advocate, Channing was hot property.
Even the White House wanted her.
Carol Channing received such widespread acclaim for her role in Hello, Dolly! that she gained fans across the board – even in the White House. President Lyndon B. Johnson frequently invited her to his events, where she would sometimes sing.
As a registered Democrat, Channing was invited to perform at the Democratic convention in 1964 in Atlantic City. She won over the audience with a parody song, “Hello, Lyndon”, making a life-long fan of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, who presented her with a bouquet of flowers after the show. Channing was riding the waves of success, with no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Goodbye, Dolly, Hello Lorelei Lee
After playing the title role in Hello, Dolly! for a number of years, Channing was inundated with calls. Director Robert Moore invited her to reprise her role as Lorelei Lee in a musical based solely on the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes character. The show was so hotly anticipated that when it premiered in 1973, it broke box office records. A week’s worth of performances sold out in 24 hours.
It was such a momentous event that the street in front of the Music Hall was renamed Channing Square Drive in her honor. Carol stayed with the hit show for eleven months while it toured 11 cities across America.
Silver Screen Shots
Despite working predominantly on the stage, Carol Channing had dipped in and out of movies since the late ’50s, starring alongside the likes of Ginger Rogers and Clint Eastwood. As her stardom grew, so did the offers.
TV actress Lucille Ball encouraged her to shoot a series of her own in the late ’60s, and The Carol Channing Show was born. Channing played the role of Carol Hunnicut, a small-town girl trying to make it in New York. The pilot was filmed, but the show never sold and was promptly dropped. The actress continued to dip in and out of the television world across her career, but nothing quite stuck.
A Bitter Divorce
By the mid-’90s, Carol Channing was winding down her work schedule and performing ad-hoc. Now approaching her 80s, she had been married to Charles Lowe for over 40 years. In 1998, the actress filed for divorce, leaving her husband five days after he became dangerously ill.
Lowe had suffered a stroke the previous December and had just turned 86. He was living apart from the star and was reportedly taken aback by the news. For the public at large, no one could’ve predicted what bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Carol Channing had been hiding for the past four decades.
It certainly wasn’t pretty.
“I’m Going to Live. I’m Free.”
The media swarmed over the divorce papers, dissecting them with a fine tooth comb. Carol Channing said, “I’d rather not go into this rot,” but added that young women with their lives before them might benefit from her experience.
The 20-page document listed years of marital abuse, with Channing claiming that her husband bruised her regularly, recklessly spent her money. What’s more, Channing stated that they had only been intimate on two occasions, despite being married for 40 years. “I don’t hate Charles,” she said in a statement. “I just want my life to count for something. Everyone thinks I just walked out on a paralyzed man…I’m going to live, I’m free.”
Lowe’s Camp Fights Back
Despite her detailed accusations, the majority of people that knew the couple well were shocked by Carol Channing’s revelations. Charles Lowe himself was reportedly dazed and confused by his wife’s actions.
“It’s a crime to think that this man has devoted his life to two people – Carol Channing and Chan Lowe (their son) – and that he has to go through all this at this time of life,” said a producer friend. Another longtime employee of the couple backed up that statement, saying, “Charles is floored by all this. It has hit him hard. It may kill him. And he doesn’t deserve it.”
Just Lucky, I Guess
Charles Lowe passed away before the divorce could be finalized, leaving Carol Channing to pursue a relationship with interior decorator Roger Denny. The pair enjoyed a few years of romance before they split, but it would be her high-school sweetheart Harry Kullijian that would become her fourth and final husband.
The pair met when Channing was recording her memoir, Just Lucky, I Guess. Not keen to waste more time, the pair tied the knot in 2003, enjoying eight years of happiness before Harry passed away just before his 92nd birthday. Channing would never marry again and talk lovingly about her fourth and final husband until the end of her days.
Secret Cancer Struggles
In 2012, Carol Channing opened up about her battle with ovarian cancer decades previously. Although she wasn’t specific about the details surrounding her battle, Channing did tell the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition that she was honoring a jam-packed Broadway schedule at the time she was undergoing treatment in the ’60s.
This information led many to speculate that she was battling the illness while performing in Hello, Dolly! but this was never confirmed by the star. Thankfully, Channing overcame her illness and managed to keep it out of the public eye, going on to live until the ripe old age of 97.
The Curtain Falls
On January 15, 2019, Carol Channing passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, of natural causes. Channing left behind a legacy that won’t be forgotten, having forged her way in a notoriously difficult industry.
Tributes poured for the actress. Viola Davis tweeted, “RIP Carol Channing. The original Dolly and a “helluva” performer! You had a great run! Rest well.” Carol’s unique charm, unparalleled stage presence and ability to light up a room will be greatly missed. As the star herself famously said of her life, “The first 80 years are the hardest.” But hey, that’s show business!