When Jackie Kennedy made her first public appearance after her husband’s death, she brought her kids to see a matinee of Carol Channing in the hit Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! Caroline Kennedy, then just 7 years old, was taken with a purple velvet bag the star carried onstage. “I grabbed the bag and gave it to her,” Carol once recalled to Closer Weekly. “The wardrobe department went crazy because we had to do the show again that night, and they had to make another one!”
That was Carol — she gave everything to her fans, and they adored her for it. “When you send love out to an audience, they return it sevenfold,” she said in what would be her last interview with Closer. “Applause is obligatory, but laughter is a reward.” It was a gift her admirers kept giving her until her death on January 15 at age 97 from natural causes.
Growing up in San Francisco, Carol discovered her love of theater at an early age. She would save up her allowance to buy tickets to see shows, which she would memorize and perform for her parents. After studying at Bennington College, she moved to New York and became a star in the 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. “Most actors are lucky to have one defining role on Broadway,” she said. “I had two — Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! I’m grateful and blessed.”
Carol also found success on the big screen, winning a Golden Globe for the 1967 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. “I won it because of Julie Andrews,” she said, with typical modesty, of her costar. “Her dedication to me contributed to giving the best performance I could.” Carol was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Bonnie & Clyde’s Estelle Parsons. “Those were two completely different projects and roles, and she was excellent,” Carol said selflessly.
She endured heartbreak and hardships in her personal life with similar grace. In the ’60s, Carol successfully battled ovarian cancer — while still performing in a Broadway musical. “I had a show to do and a cast depending on me,” she said. “I am convinced the most healing experience in the world is work, if you enjoy what you do.”
Married four times, she finally found happiness in 2003 when she reunited with a childhood sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, whom she had written about fondly in her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess. “That was my first love — he was a football hero,” she gushed. Sadly, he died of an aneurysm at 91 in 2011.
Carol was a doting mother to son Chan Lowe, from her 1950 to 1956 marriage to Canadian football star Alexander F. Carson. “I’m proud of Chan’s work as an editorial cartoonist,” she told Closer (he worked for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 1984 until 2015).
Over the course of her 75-plus-year career, she was involved in some flops; her first Broadway play, No for an Answer, ran for only three shows. Still, she told Closer she regretted “nothing. Even the poor choices contributed to lessons I needed to learn and God’s ultimate plan for my life.”
Carol kept performing well into her 90s, appearing onstage to share stories about her life and career — and inevitably breaking into song. “A bright theatrical Klieg light has gone out,” her longtime friend Ruta Lee told Closer following the star’s passing. “The world is now a dimmer place.” (In fact, the lights on Broadway’s marquees were darkened in Carol’s honor after her death.)
Out of all her roles, Carol refused to pick a favorite. “The next one is always my favorite,” she once explained. “You can’t pick one over another, because in order to do a good job, you have to be completely in love with that character. If you’re not, the audience knows. Love and laughter may be the most important ingredients to achieve longevity.”
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