Effervescent ‘Hello, Dolly!’ icon Carol Channing mourned
Carol Channing, the lanky, ebullient musical comedy star who delighted American audiences over 5,000 performances as the scheming Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway and beyond, died last week at 97.
Publicist B. Harlan Boll said Channing died of natural causes at not long after midnight on Tuesday, Jan. 15 in Rancho Mirage, California. Boll says she had twice suffered strokes in the past year.
Besides “Hello, Dolly!,” Channing starred in other Broadway shows, but none with equal magnetism.
She often appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour.
Her outsized personality seemed too much for the screen, and she made only a few movies, notably “The First Traveling Saleslady” with Ginger Rogers and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews.
Over the years, Channing continued as Dolly in national tours, the last in 1996, when she was in her 70s. Tom Shales of The Washington Post called her “the ninth wonder of the world.”
Messages of love and appreciation lit up Twitter early Tuesday, with the League of Professional Theatre Women saying Channing “was a gift of inspiration to so many.” Fans who saw her work also took to social media, calling her a “firecracker” and saying she was “matchmaking for the angels now.”
Veteran actress Bernadette Peters said Channing “was show business and love personified” and Margaret Cho said “you will forever be missed.” Viola Davis mourned: “You had a great run! Rest well.”
Channing was not the immediate choice to play Dolly, a matchmaker who receives her toughest challenge yet when a rich grump seeks a suitable wife. The show, which features a rousing score by Jerry Herman that’s bursting with joy and tunes like “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” ‘’Before the Parade Passes By” and “It Only Takes a Moment,” is a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker.”
Theater producer David Merrick told her: “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears.” Even though director Gower Champion had worked on her first Broadway hit, “Lend an Ear,” he had doubts about Channing’s casting.
She wowed them in an audition and was hired on the spot. At opening night on Jan. 16, 1964, when Channing appeared at the top of the stairs in a red gown with feathers in her hair and walked down the red carpet to the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, the New York audience went crazy. The critics followed suit. “Hello, Dolly!” collected 10 Tony Awards, including one for Channing as best actress in a musical.
Channing was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor. When his only child was 3 months old, he moved to San Francisco and worked as a writer for The Christian Science Monitor and as a lecturer. He later became editor-in-chief of Christian Science publications.
At the age of 7, Channing decided she wanted to become an entertainer. She credited her father with encouraging her: “He told me you can dedicate your life at 7 or 97. And the people who do that are happier people.”
While majoring in drama and dance at Bennington College in Vermont, she was sent off to get experience in her chosen field. She found a job in a New York revue. The show lasted only two weeks, but a New Yorker magazine critic commented, “You will hear more about a satiric chanteuse named Carol Channing.” She said later: “That was it. I said goodbye to trigonometry, zoology and English literature.”
For several years she worked as an understudy, bit player and nightclub impressionist, taking jobs as a model, receptionist and sales clerk during lean times. Landing in Los Angeles, she auditioned for Marge Champion, wife and dance partner of Gower Champion who was putting together a revue, “Lend an Ear.” Marge Champion recalled: “She certainly was awkward and odd-looking, but her warmth and wholesomeness came through.”
Channing was the hit of “Lend an Ear” in a small Hollywood theater, and she captivated audiences and critics when the show moved to New York. As the innocent gold digger in the musical “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” her stardom was assured. One reviewer reported she “hurls across the footlights in broad strokes of pantomime and bold, certain, exquisitely comical gestures.” The show’s hit song, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” became her signature number.
Over and over again she returned to the surefire “Hello, Dolly!,” which earned her $5 million on one tour. She considered Dolly Levi “a role as deep as Lady Macbeth,” but added that “the essence of her character was her unquenchable thirst for life.” That description fit Carol Channing, who attributed her sunny optimism to her lifelong faith in Christian Science.
Others who have played the role include Pearl Bailey, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Ethel Merman, Martha Raye, Ginger Rogers and Barbra Streisand, who played Dolly in a 1969 film version directed by Gene Kelly. Bette Midler won a Tony Award in the role in 2017 and a current national tour stars Betty Buckley.
The tour of “Hello, Dolly!” said Tuesday it would honor Channing at its current stop in California. “We are deeply saddened by the passing of the one and only Carol Channing. She was a ‘Dolly’ for the ages, and a true icon of the American theater. Betty Buckley and the cast will dedicate tonight’s performance in San Diego to her memory.”
Channing had two early marriages that ended in divorce — to novelist Theodore Naidish and pro footballer Alexander Carson, father of her only child, Channing. Her son became a successful political cartoonist.
Highland Rivers Health is a type of agency called a Community Service Board (CSB). There are 25 CSBs in Georgia that provide the same services Highland Rivers does, and these agencies are a critical part of the state’s healthcare system.
But if you’re unfamiliar with the term Community Service Board, you’re not alone. Not many people know the term, and fewer probably understand what they are. I’ll be one of the first to acknowledge that ‘Community Service Board’ isn’t very descriptive and doesn’t tell you anything about what we do. So let’s start there.
Community Service Boards are state-designated agencies that provide behavioral health services – treatment, support and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual a n d d e v e l o p m e n t a l disabilities. These types of disorders, especially mental illness and substance use, are called behavioral health conditions because they can cause unusual behaviors in individuals who have them.
At the state government level in Georgia, services for individuals with mental illness and substance abuse and for individuals with disabilities are overseen by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), an agency whose name, thankfully, describes its focus exactly.
DBHDD coordinates appropriations from the state legislature and federal government (for example, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, SAMHSA) to fund behavioral health and disability treatment services across Georgia. The agency also establishes policy that governs the operations of CSBs and the use of state and federal funds.
CSBs like Highland Rivers Health are the front-line of providing behavioral health and disability services in Georgia. Even if the term Community Service Board doesn’t describe exactly what we do, there is one word that is essential: community. CSBs operate in communities, where people live, work and raise families, providing crucial access to services for community members.
As you may know, Highland Rivers serves 12 counties in northwest Georgia. We operate community outpatient clinics in nine of those counties, as well as residential treatment programs, crisis units, peer programs, disability services and so much more, providing services that are close by and convenient for people living in our service area.
We also partner with hospitals, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), emergency departments and primary care providers across northwest Georgia to ensure behavioral health services are available as part of a comprehensive and coordinated community healthcare system.
But there are two other characteristics that distinguish Community Service Boards from other behavioral health and disability providers. First, CSBs are what the state calls Comprehensive Community Providers. That means CSBs provide a comprehensive set of 15 mental health and substance use treatment services, as well as crisis stabilization, intensive community-based services, peer services and more (collectively known as “core” services). Highland Rivers provides all of these services, which is one reason we employ more than 600 professionals across our service area.
Second, and perhaps more important, CSBs are safetynet providers. According to DBHDD, safety-net providers exist to serve the most vulnerable members of our communities and provide critical access to these services – regardless of ability to pay. In other words, CSBs provide services to individuals who, if we did not exist, would not have access to mental health, substance use or disability services. This is one of the most important aspects of who we are, what we do and why we are a critical part of the communities we serve.
Like the state’s broader healthcare system, the behavioral health and disability services system in Georgia is a network of both public and private providers that offer varying levels and types of services. But underlying this system are the state’s Community Services Boards, which help ensure every Georgian has access to critical mental health, substance use and disability treatment and recovery services.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.