Carol Channing has worked primarily as a comic stage actress and singer, along with occasional movie and television appearances. A leggy blonde with popping eyes and a voice that ranges from a baby squeal to a baritone growl, she has an oversized style that was best expressed in her two signature roles: as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!
Channing attended Bennington College where she studied dance and drama, then headed for New York, where she performed in clubs before making her Broadway debut in the chorus of the musical No for an Answer (January 5, 1941. She was an understudy in the musical Let's Face It! (October 29, 1941). Moving to Los Angeles, she worked as a model and also performed on the nightclub circuit. She landed a part in the revue Lend an Ear, which began on the West Coast, then moved to New York, opening on Broadway on December 16, 1948, for a run of 460 performances. In it, she spoofed a 1920s flapper, which led to her starring role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (December 8, 1949), based on Anita Loos' novel, in which, as gold-digging Lorelei Lee, she became a Broadway star singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." The show ran 740 performances, and the cast album was a Top Ten hit in 1950.
Channing appeared in her first film, with a small part in the drama Paid in Full in 1950. She worked in clubs and on television in the early '50s. In 1954, she replaced Rosalind Russell in the Broadway musical Wonderful Town, then starred in the Broadway musical The Vamp (November 10, 1955), which had only a brief run. In 1956, she was in the film comedy The First Traveling Saleslady. She returned to Broadway in the musical Show Girl (January 12, 1961), a virtual one-woman show, which ran for three months and then toured successfully. The Broadway musical Hello, Dolly! (January 15, 1964) was her crowning achievement; she won the Tony Award for her performance, and the cast album was a gold-selling number one hit. She starred in the show for a year-and-a-half on Broadway, then toured with it into 1967. That year, she was featured in the movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, earning an Academy Award nomination, and in the following year was part of the all-star cast in the film comedy Skidoo.
Channing appeared on television in the late '60s and '70s, while touring and performing around the world in a series of musicals, plays, and revues that included Carol Channing with Her Stout-Hearted Men (1970), Four on a Garden (1971), Cabaret (1972), Festival at Ford's (1972), and Carol Channing and Her Gentlemen Who Prefer Blondes (1972). In 1973, she undertook a tour of a revised version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes under the title Lorelei. It opened on Broadway on January 24, 1974, and ran out the season, then returned to the road into 1975. In 1977, she returned to her most popular role with a national tour of Hello, Dolly! that opened on Broadway on March 5, 1978. Also in 1978, she had a cameo in the film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 1986, she toured in the play Legends with Mary Martin. She toured in a 30th anniversary production of Hello, Dolly! in 1994 that brought her back to Broadway in 1995. ~ William Ruhlmann