Channing’s trademark platinum blond hair framed a face that always seemed to be smiling, her wide-eyed innocent style belied a very savvy mind, and her voice was unmistakable. She died Tuesday morning, her publicist told Broadway World. She was 97 years old.
Born in Seattle, Wa., in 1923, Channing’s parents were Christian Scientists. She recalls that she got her first glimpse of backstage delivering copies of The Christian Science Monitor to theaters.
“It came over me that I was looking at the stage and backstage of a cathedral, a temple, a mosque, a mother church,” Channing wrote in her memoir Just Lucky, I Guess. “I know I’m using adult words to describe a child’s feelings, but I don’t know how else to tell you this simple reaction of a child to a holy place.”
Channing’s near religious connection to her audience gave her an astounding amount of energy, and she grew irritated with those who tried to diminish the importance of theater in people’s lives.
“Live theater is something that can’t possibly die because we’re working on their metabolism,” said Channing. “Some nights they’re hyper, some nights they’re slow, some nights they’re sleepy, we have to nurse them; we have to find the way in to communicate with them and slowly the anodes and cathodes in and it’s an electric thing for the performer; it’s like plugging me in the wall.”
Channing’s first great role was also her first big break as Lorelei Lee in the 1949 original Broadway production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But the role with which Channing will always be identified is Dolly.
It was this role in Hello, Dolly! that Channing loved most because it was life affirming in every sense. She had great respect for the show’s creator, Thorton Wilder, and was deeply touched by the character’s gradual ascent in this most optimistic of Broadway shows.
“It’s easy to slide downhill, but who are the ones that just won’t do it? Who are the diamonds in the rough that go upstream against everything?” said Channing. “That’s what it was all about, that’s what Thornton Wilder kept writing about.”
It was the same lesson she shared with the audiences who watched her perform thousands of times in Hello, Dolly!: “Dolly Gallagher Levi stop talking to your dead husband and rejoin the human race!”