Carol Channing, whose incandescent performances as the gold-digging Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and the matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” made her a Broadway legend, died early Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 97.
Her death was confirmed by her publicist, B. Harlan Boll, who said she had two strokes in the past year.
Ms. Channing was bringing audiences to their feet night after night in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” when she was 74, singing, “Wow, wow, wow, fellas, / Look at the old girl now, fellas,” resplendent in her scarlet gown and jewels, her platinum hair crowned with red plumage.
Ten years later she was still getting applause, this time for a cabaret act. Nine years after that, just a few days before her 93rd birthday, she appeared at Town Hall in Manhattan as part of a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the night “Dolly” opened.
“Performing is the only excuse for my existence,” she said during her last Broadway appearance, in the 1995 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” “What can be better than this?”
Ms. Channing was one of the most recognizable presences in the theater world. Her tousled hairdo, headlight-size eyes and exaggerated mouth were the subject of countless caricatures. For many years her real hair, damaged by bleaching, was covered by a wig.
Her false eyelashes, worn at a fantastic length since she was a teenager, posed a more serious problem. The glue that was used to attach them gradually pulled out her natural lashes, and Ms. Channing began painting on the long spikes.
By then her vision had become impaired, but she was philosophical about her somewhat hazy view of her fellow actors. “I know what they look like,” she said.
The generous mouth was put to amazing use in “Hello, Dolly!” In one scene she shoveled into it, with assembly-line speed, one potato puff after another. The stage puffs, made from Kleenex and tinted with powdered Sanka, were spit out into a napkin when the audience’s attention was directed elsewhere. As Ms. Channing told the story, her mouth held 22 puffs with ease, and 27 with no great difficulty; her standby could manage only three.
Ms. Channing’s voice, gravel-toned and capable of sinking to subterranean levels, was as distinctive as her appearance. When she sang a song in her exaggerated growl, it belonged to her forever; only Louis Armstrong’s own growling rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” was a match for hers.
Her speech in public, described as everything from a “raspy yawp” to a foghorn, was deceptive, friends said: When alone with them, she was perfectly capable of less stylized enunciation and enjoyed serious conversation.
The critic Walter Kerr called her “maybe the only creature extant who can live up to a Hirschfeld,” explaining that the theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld “always lives up to the people he draws, but the people he draws don’t always live up to him.” Mr. Kerr added, “Here’s the exception: mascara to swim in, nobly tragic mouth, the face of a great mystic about to make a terrible mistake.”
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SOURCE: NY Times, Enid Nemy