Carol Channing was a big-eyed, blonde Broadway bombshell who left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry. Known for her sense of humor and broad smile, Channing made her mark in musicals like Hello, Dolly! and kept performing well into her 80s. But her life wasn’t always as happy as her cheery films. Buckle up for the true story of Carol Channing, the first lady of musical comedy.
Carol Channing Facts
1. A Family Secret
When a 17-year-old Carol Channing left home to go to college, her mother revealed a family secret to the future Broadway star. Since Channing would be on her own and engaging in relationships, her mom figured that the time had come to tell her that if she became pregnant and gave birth to an African American baby, she shouldn’t be surprised. It turned out that Channing’s paternal grandmother was African American.
2. Looks Can Be Deceiving
Hollywood didn’t have a great track record of giving racialized people equal opportunities as white stars, leading performers like Merle Oberon and Rita Hayworth to hide their ancestry. While Carol Channing was “as proud as can be” of her African American heritage, it took until 2002 for her to publicly acknowledge her ancestry.
3. Class Clown
Carol Channing practiced her entertainment chops as a young student in San Francisco. Always effervescent, she was elected class secretary in the fourth grade, thanks to a campaign where she poked fun at her teachers. She impersonated students and learned how to work an audience…or maybe she was just born with the gift.
Carol Channing’s parents were Christian Scientists and this religious background had a huge impact on her life. She never drank or smoked, and it was while delivering copies of a Christian Science newspaper to the backstage of theatres that Channing first developed her love for the stage.
5. Mommie Dearest
But Channing didn’t pursue the stage just out of passion. Instead, she had a far sadder reason. Channing and her mother didn’t have a very loving relationship, with Channing remembering that her mother once telling her, “You’re revolting. And on top of that, you’re not very feminine.” In search of comfort and acceptance, Channing pursued the theater.
6. It’s My Party and I’ll…Not Have One
As part of her Christian Science upbringing, Carol Channing did not celebrate her birthdays when she was young. However, as she grew older, that changed, thanks to some A-List guests. The first birthday party that she remembered celebrating was at the White House…with the Kennedys. Most folks just swing blind-folded at a piñata—or crawl under the covers and hope this isn’t the year they go bald.
7. The Revue Review
While attending classes in her first year of university, Carol Channing auditioned for shows on Broadway and landed a part in a humble revue. When The New Yorker singled her performance out for praise, Channing responded with a jaw-dropping gestured. Based on that review alone, Channing dropped out university, expecting that she’d made it—sadly, she was so, so wrong. It took four years of odd jobs before she landed another paid acting gig.
8. Dying to Be Famous
A big part of Carol Channing’s famous personage was her peroxide blonde hair—however few people realized that the platinum locks weren’t even hers. Channing was allergic to bleach—and really, who isn’t to some degree—and so wore elaborate wigs instead of dying her own hair. Rumors swirled that underneath her poofy hairdos, Channing was actually bald. In reality, the truth was less dramatic: Her hair was just greyish brown.
9. Giving Credit Where it’s… Not Due?
Carol Channing was mostly known for her bombastic stage performances but the famously big-eyed comedienne had some success on the big screen as well. But there was a disheartening detail when her “big break” finally came: Her debut film performance in 1950’s Paid in Full wasn’t even credited. Ouch…
10. Let’s Be Honest
We’ve all done some work that we’re not too proud of. Carol Channing and the Hollywood icon Ginger Rogers are no different. They starred in a flop called The Traveling Sales Lady but privately referred to the failed picture with another name: “Death of a Sales Lady.” At the least they knew that the picture was no good?
11. Whose Line Is It Anyway?
Academy Award winning actress, Judy Holliday, turned down the iconic role of Lorelei Lee in the 1953 screen adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for a heartbreaking reason. Apparently, Holliday felt that no one other than Carol Channing, who originated the role, should play the part. Despite Holliday’s ringing endorsement, Hollywood had other plans…
Ultimately, the role of Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes went to another blonde pop culture icon—Marilyn Monroe.
12. Pick Me! Pick Me!
Carol Channing’s most memorable role is certainly Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! Many people couldn’t imagine another actress playing the part, but the role was originally written for another person: Channing’s idol, Ethel Merman. When she turned it down, the producers were forced to hold auditions. They didn’t think anyone could live up to Merman, but Channing proved them wrong. She secured the iconic role and with it, her place in showbiz history.
13. Practice Makes Perfect
Over the course of her career, Carol Channing reprised her iconic matchmaker role Hello, Dolly! in two New York City revivals and toured with it extensively. By the end of her career, Channing had taken on the role of Dolly Levi a staggering 5,000times. She must have been able to do the part with her eyes closed and hands tied. But even this strong track record didn’t guarantee Channing’s role…
14. Ain’t It Funny Girl
Despite her resounding success on the stage as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, Carol Channing was in for a world of pain when the 1969 movie adaptation came around. Everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Julie Andrews was considered for the part that would eventually go to Barbra Streisand. Even though she’d made her mark as Dolly, Channing didn’t get the role.
15. For Whom the Tony Tolls
Carol Channing was heartbroken to hear that Barbra Streisand had stolen the role of Dolly right out from under Channing’s feet. But Streisand didn’t always have the last laugh when it came to their feud. When Channing won her first Tony Award in 1964, she beat out Streisand for what is likely her own most iconic performance in Funny Girl. Take that, Babs.
16. Opening the Show
Beyoncé, Gloria Estefan, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and Lenny Kravitz: One thing that all of these stars have in common is that they performed in the highly coveted Superbowl Halftime Show. Believe it or not, we have one woman to thank for this strong tradition: Carol Channing. She was the very first celebrity to perform at the halftime show all the way back in 1970.
17. A Girl’s Gotta Eat
When Carol Channing was just 20 years old, she walked down the aisle for the first of four (!) times. She wed the Jewish writer Theodore Naidish and though the couple was very much in love, times were tough. According to Channing, they were so poor that “There was no money for food, clothing or housing.”
Channing took to her husband’s Jewish culture like a bee to honey. She already had Jewish ancestry and embraced her roots by learning to speak Yiddish from her grandfather-in-law, Sam “Grandpa” Cohen. While Channing and Naidish had a deep bond, unfortunately, they were doomed to a sad end. They split in 1944…and a new love interest was right around the corner for Channing.
19. She was a Trooper
According to showbiz lore, Carol Channing performed Hello, Dolly! with more than one painful injury. When she hurt her foot, Channing insisted that the costumers make flat shoes so she could go on stage. Then, when she lost her voice, she talked through her songs. When her arm hurt, the actress didn’t let the pain impact her show-stopping performance. Later on, she learned the dark truth.
It turned out that Channing’s arm wasn’t just bruised, it was fully broken. She performed future shows with a sling. But that was nothing to her next health scare…
20. The Show Must Go On
In the 1970s, Channing saw her doctors about some bleeding. When they came back with a diagnosis, she was floored. Tragically, it turned out that Channing had ovarian cancer.
21. I’m So Over Ovarian
Carol Channing was never one to lie down and give up. The Broadway star managed to beat ovarian cancer, crediting her success with an early diagnosis and an upbeat and positive outlook. Her words in an interview with OUTInPerth are quite inspiring: “Don’t let the idea or thought of illness stop you from doing what you can or want. Don’t let anyone convince you to slow down or stop.”
22. Axing the “Axe”
Channing’s second marriage saw her the drama kid tie the knot with a major jock: Alexander F. Carson—a Canadian football player—in 1950. The Ottawa Rough Rider had somehow earned himself the macho moniker of the “Axe” or, more ominously, the “Murderous Axe.” But after six years and one child, however, it was Channing doing the chopping, not Alexander…
23. Moving On
In September 1956, Channing filed for divorce from Carson. While she absolutely adored their little boy, the spark between her and Carson had fizzled out for a dark reason: It turned out that Carol had already moved onto her next conquest before the ink on the divorce papers was even close to dry…
24. Runaway Bride
Hot off the heels of her divorce from the “Axe”—as in, later that same month—Channing sprinted down the aisle with her manager and publicist, Charles Lowe. At first, things went so well for the happy new couple that both Channing and her son showed their devotion by adopting Lowe’s surname. But the newlyweds wouldn’t be so joyous forever—not by a long shot.
25. Husband Number Three
Sadly, after 42 long years of marriage, Carol Channing and her husband Charles Lowe became estranged from one another. But before the divorce could be finalized in 1998, fate had another tragedy in store for the unhappy couple. Charles died of declining health. Only after his death did the world learn the real story of Carol Channing’s utterly twisted third marriage.
26. The Real Truth
Back in old Hollywood, it wasn’t okay to identify as part of the LGBTQ community. Many gay stars like Rock Hudson hid their orientation by marrying women and remaining closeted for the majority of their careers. Sadly, Carol Channing experienced this situation: She wasn’t gay, but her third husband Charles Lowe was—and that’s not even the worst part about their marriage.
27. Unhappily Ever After
It turns out that Lowe’s preference was well known in showbiz. When Hollywood gossip Scotty Bowers, who had introduced Channing and Lowe, found out that they were getting married, he didn’t feel happiness but “guilt.” He knew that Lowe couldn’t love Channing in the way she needed. And here’s the kicker: Throughout Lowe’s marriage to Channing, he continued to see other men. Poor Carol.
28. Dining In… and Out
One of the perks of being famous is always getting prime seating in the trendiest restaurants. But for 15 years, Carol Channing didn’t even eat restaurant food, except for the occasional trip to, of all places, Subway. Apparently, when the Broadway star was invited to restaurants, she would bring her own food and simply ask for an empty plate. What was on the menu? Vegetables and seeds.
29. Beloved by the Nation
America adored Carol Channing, but the biggest sign of their approval had a heartbreaking backstory. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his widow Jackie Kennedy was distraught. Months later, when she finally recovered enough to go out in public, she knew exactly where she wanted to be. She found relief in Carol Channing’s positive, hilarious performance as Dolly Levi. The first lady was so moved that she visited Channing backstage after the show.
Carol Channing didn’t mince her words in her jaw-dropping 2002 autobiography, but she kept some secrets, like her ex-husband Charles Lowe’s homosexuality. She didn’t comment on his orientation at all and even dropped another bombshell in its place. In the book, she admits that she was in love with another man during their marriage: the handsome singer, Jerry Herman.
31. What Happens on the Road…
Some Broadway actresses have a reputation for being nightmare divas, but not Carol Channing. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, James Kirkwood Jr., said that Carol Channing was a joy to work with and a “true professional.”
32. Puppy Love
Carol Channing’s fourth and final marriage is the stuff of a romantic comedy. She reunited with her childhood sweetheart—at 82 years of age. Channing rekindled her old flame with Harry Kullijian while recording the audiobook for her bestselling autobiography. In May of 2003, the octogenarians tied the knot. It really is never too late to find love…or re-find love.
Channing and Charles Lowe’s courtship doesn’t sound like much of a fairy tale romance. In her autobiography, Channing recalled a brutal interaction between them when they were engaged. Channing once asked Lowe why pretty girls were always so nice to her. He tartly replied that it was because she wasn’t their competition. Um sorry, but we have to ask: why exactly did she still marry him after that comment?
34. Stay-at-Work Mom
Most new parents would jump at the opportunity to extend their maternity or paternity leave. Or, we should say, most parents who aren’t Carol Channing. A short ten months after giving birth to her son, also named Channing, Carol was back to work. She stepped in for Rosalind Russell—in the starring role no less—in the Tony Award-winning production of Wonderful Town.
35. TV Turndown
Carol Channing went through an intense career disappointment that, had it worked out, would have seen her conquer not just Broadway and film but TV as well. The husband-and-wife team behind I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, filmed a sitcom pilot starring Channing. Sadly, the episode was a complete bust. They never filmed another episode and Channing’s TV appearances were limited to talk shows and guest spots.
36. Nixed by Nixon
Carol Channing was adored by many—minus one. Former president of the United States, Richard Nixon, included Channing on a list of people he didn’t like called “Nixon’s Enemies List.” How does one get to be on such a list? Apparently being liked by Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was grounds enough. Channing didn’t seem to mind—she later called it the highest honour in her career.
37. Wednesday, Pugsley, Gomez… Carol?
One might not associate the macabre and darkly comedic style of the Addams Family with Carol Channing—her platinum blonde hair might send Morticia over a cliff. But Channing was the voice of the character Grandmama Addams in 15episodes of the animated series The Addams Family in the 1990s. Oddly enough, she seems more at home at the Addams Family manse than in the next place…
38. Family Gal
It’s a very long way from the lights of Broadway to the means streets of…Quahog, Rhode Island. Carol Channing made a voiceover guest appearance as herself in the long-running series Family Guy. Not only is that maybe the last place you’d think to see the real-life Lorelei Lee but it was for an episode that saw her character boxing.
39. Oh, For Heaven’s Sake!
Carol Channing recalled that her biracial father used to connect to his roots by singing gospel music to her when at home. Years later, she paid him homage with a tender gesture: She recorded a gospel album, For Heaven’s Sake, in 2010 in honor of his memory. Channing would have been 87 years of age when she recorded the album but, if you could believe it, it wouldn’t even have been the last album that she released! What’s retirement anyway?
40. San Fran-Channing
If you happen to be in San Francisco on Valentine’s Day, be sure to flash those pearly whites and wear a platinum blonde wig over your natural hair. In 1988, the city of San Francisco officially named February 14, 1988 to be “Carol Channing Day.” It’s not clear exactly what perks someone might enjoy from having a day named after them but hey, it can’t hurt, right?
41. That’s Dr. Channing to You
Carol Channing was a university dropout but that didn’t stop her from excelling academically. Channing was awarded an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts in 2004 from California State University, Stanislaus. While she might not have earned her doctorate through academics, she did attend the school of hard knocks and probably had a thing or two to teach the teachers.
42. Going Golden Globe-al
Channing’s star turn in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie was a huge hit. On top of netting her an Oscar nomination and cementing her place in the upper echelons of entertainment, it also saw her conquer the Globe. As in, the Golden Globe Awards. Channing won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture in 1968. In her speech, she thanked co-star Julie Andrews for helping her to develop her character.
43. Submit Your CV (Cartoon Vitae)
Carol Channing got the lead role in the Broadway show, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes thanks to a lucky break and a very strange story. According to Channing, her initial success is thanks to, at least in part, the American cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. His depiction of Channing as a flapper, she claimed, increased her fame and helped her land the part. Hey, it beats writing a cover letter.
44. Third Time’s the Charm
The Tony Award is the highest accolade that a theatre performer can receive. As a beloved fixture in Broadway, it comes as no surprise that Carol Channing was nominated for four of them in the Best Actress in a Musical category for The Vamp (1956), Show Girl (1961), Hello, Dolly! (1964) and Lorelei (1974). Channing clinched the award on the third go around for what is her most iconic role in Hello, Dolly!.
45. All Hail the Queen!
One key to becoming a pop culture sensation and icon; get in deep with the drag queens. Carol Channing was a favorite on the drag queen circuit and in the LGBT community at-large in her day. Even recently, Bob the Drag Queen won a challenge on the hit series Ru Paul’s Drag Race in which he portrayed the comedienne. The joke was him, however, when she surprised audiences with a thank you video in the season’s finale.
46. Edward Channing-Hands?
On the topic of drag queens…Johnny Depp has a lifelong ambition to portray Carol Channing in a biopic. It’s a fact that he’s stated on a few occasions and even copped to dressing up as Channing as a child. While I’m sure there are at least a half a dozen actresses who could pull off the platinum blonde, Johnny Depp in a shock white wig would certainly get audiences talking.
47. A Little Less Bright
The lights of Broadway are quite famous and many people dream of standing underneath their warm glow. On January 16, 2019, those bright Broadway lights were dimmed in honor of Carol Channing, one day after the theatre legend had passed. The lights might be shining brightly now but the stage is still down one very bright star.
48. Physical Distancing
In jaw-dropping divorce filings made in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Channing stated that she and her longtime husband Charles Lowe had only lain together once or twice…in over 40 years of marriage. Even that wasn’t enough distance, though. When the duo finally split, Channing went to stay with their son in Florida, some 2,500 miles away from Lowe in Los Angeles.
49. She was a True Ally
Carol Channing was known for being larger than life, but nothing was quite as big as her heart. When she learned about the AIDS epidemic, Channing leapt into action. She became one of the first celebrity activists to raise awareness about the disease, but sadly there was a terrible reason behind her actions. Channing once said that most of the male chorus line from Hello, Dolly!‘s original production had perished of the disease.
50. Smack Talk
More than 30 years after the Hello, Dolly! movie came out, Channing was still ticked, and she didn’t hold back about her bitterness. In interviews and Channing’s 2002 autobiography Just Lucky, I Guess she didn’t mince words about how furious the Hello, Dolly! movie made her. She wrote that when she found out Streisand got the part, she “felt suicidal; I felt like jumping out a window.” She also compared the loss to feeling “like someone had kidnapped my part.”