Carol Channing, Broadway Legend, Dead at 97

The actress died at 12:31 a.m. in Rancho Mirage, California, of natural causes.

Carol Channing — the Broadway immortal, the film and TV star who headlined her own Las Vegas show, the first celebrity to make the Super Bowl halftime show something worth watching, and who befriended one president while making herself the enemy of another — died at 12:31 a.m. in Rancho Mirage, California, of natural causes, her publicist, B. Harlan Boll, confirmed to CBS News. She was 97.

Channing had suffered strokes over the past year, Boll said. No events have been scheduled, as was her wish.

"It is with extreme heartache that I have to announce the passing of an original industry pioneer, legend and icon - Miss Carol Channing. I admired her before I met her, and have loved her since the day she stepped ... or fell rather ... into my life. It is so very hard to see the final curtain lower on a woman who has been a daily part of my life for more than a third of it," Boll said in a statement to ET. "We supported each other, cried with each other, argued with each other, but always ended up laughing with each other. Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I know that when I feel those uncontrollable urges to laugh at everything and/or nothing at all, it will be because she is with me, tickling my funny bone."

The triple-threat star sang and spoke with an inimitable rasp and cartoonish twang. She wore flamboyant outfits and capped her head in shiny blonde wigs. (It had to be wigs, she said, because she was allergic to bleach.) Everything was big with Channing: her broad smile, the frames of her glasses, and even simple gestures, like waving hello. 

Channing, was born in Seattle, Washington in 1921, to a German-Jewish mother and African-American and German father. Her father, who was a newspaper editor, Christian scientist and lecturer, moved the family to San Francisco when Channing was an infant. 

Channing graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School in 1938. After high school Channing, then only 16 years old, enrolled in Bennington College, a liberal arts school in Vermont. It was around this time that Channing’s mother revealed that her father was of mixed race (his mother was African-American and his father was white). In her memoir Just Lucky, I Guess, Channing wrote in part that her mother wanted her to know about her heritage because she could potentially give birth to a black child. 

The revelation delighted Channing, a sentiment that she reiterated in numerous interviews, including a 2002 sit-down with Larry King. When King asked if she was “proud” of her heritage Channing replied, “Very, when I found out. I was 16 years old and my mother told me. And you know, only the reaction on me was, 'Gee, I got the greatest genes in show business!'”  

Channing majored in drama at Bennington College, but fell in love with the stage after watching Ethel Waters (the famed actress and chanteuse who became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy Award, and the second African-American woman to be nominated for an Oscar) in concert. The two became friends later in Channing’s life. 

By age 19, Channing landed her first stage role in the off-Broadway production of  No for an Answer. She made her way to  Broadway soon after, appearing in the 1941 musical Let’s Face it! as an understudy to Emmy-winning actress and comedian, Eve Arden. 

On Broadway, Channing originated the role of Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But it was for starring in Hello, Dolly! as a wacky, meddlesome matchmaker that she won her first of three Tony Awards. (Controversially, the Dolly role went to Barbra Streisand on the silver screen, something Channing partisans resented, and a few still do.) 

Her offstage resume was expansive, often curious and relentlessly fun. She is, for example, the original Super Bowl celebrity. Before 1970, the halftime shows were humdrum marching band affairs. Then came Channing, who on short notice and without rehearsal, belted out the classic show tune (of course, a show tune), When the Saints Go Marching In. It was a smashing success, the crowd roared, and the organizers asked her back two years later for a salute to Louis Armstrong, making Channing the only celebrity ever to do the show twice, an “experience equal to the opening night of Hello, Dolly!she said in 2014. 

Ever the bold, free spirit, Channing gladly joined ranks with Marlo Thomas in 1972 on the iconic children’s album, Free to Be... You and Me, which encouraged equality, gender neutrality and self-determination. Diana Ross sang of friendship and self-respect; football great Rosie Grier sang of the virtues of crying; Channing told a short story of the drudgery of housework, the point being that it’s best to cooperate and get it done faster.

Like anyone with a lengthy show business career, Channing had her foibles. She took a recurring part on The Love Boat, an affably tacky rom-com TV series known as a stopgap for celebrities in search of work.  Her most notable episode brought her together with fellow singing luminaries Della Reese, Ann Miller and Ethel Merman (who had turned down the title role in Hello, Dolly! nearly 20 years prior). The plot was thin: the crew wrote a musical revue and asked their diva relatives to perform it for the passengers. But whatever the shortcomings and however unintentional, the result is now a cultural heirloom, a charismatic collection of campy song and dance.

Every Channing performance was something audacious by virtue of her personality. No matter the part, she made it her own, including a 1985 reinterpretation of the White Queen in a made-for-TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Hers was a maniacal, physical performance, turning simple gestures — a roll of her eyes, a toss of her hair — into something theatrical. She sang about jam with glee and abandon. It was amusing, and at moments freaky, the stuff of children’s nightmares. It was supremely Carol Channing.

Perhaps because of her fame, but more likely because of the power of her charm and optimism, political power players sought out Channing. President Lyndon Johnson was a huge fan and liked to listen to her songs while he worked. Channing sang a reworked version of Hello, Dolly!Hello, Lyndon! — on the opening night of the 1964 National Democratic Convention. 

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, liked her less. In fact, he put her on his infamous “Enemies List,” along with Streisand. This, Channing later said, was the highest honor of her career. 

Her high rank in the American popular culture canon is fixed in place with a wide-ranging set of tributes: a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; one of her dresses, a red satin, sequined costume she wore in a Hello, Dolly! revival, is part of the Smithsonian’s American History collection; she was on Sesame Street. There’s even a Carol Channing ventriloquist dummy.

Life wasn’t always easy for Channing, a mother of one son, who had four marriages, battled cancer and struggled with food addiction, but she loved to entertain (she performed Hello, Dolly! over 5,000 times) and was loved for doing it.

In celebration of her 93rd birthday, which was also the 50th anniversary of the Hello, Dolly! premiere, Channing reminisced onstage with kindred cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. She was philosophical about her life, and joked about death, saying that she wanted to be buried between two of San Francisco’s most famous theaters, the Geary and the Curran, reported “There’s a fire escape there,” she said, “but they’ll have to take that out.”

Additional reporting by Latifah Muhammad.