Carol Channing, who died on Tuesday at 97, was a Broadway legend, an actress who toured well into her 70s and remained a cultural fixture long after that. Those who knew her remembered her as both a larger-than-life presence and a woman who was delightfully unpretentious, a tireless performer who would ignore doctor’s orders to go onstage and a tireless promoter of her shows, even in front of a crowd of Brownie scouts.
A rave review was her best medicine
Lee Roy Reams performed with Ms. Channing in several shows, including “Hello, Dolly!” Ms. Channing originated the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi on Broadway and reprised it several times. Mr. Reams said she was a performer who tried to never — never, ever — miss a show.
When she injured her arm on a tour of “Dolly” in the 1990s, Mr. Reams said, she performed in a sling, switched out periodically to coordinate with her costume. When that tour went through Reno, Nev., he said, both of them lost their voices, so they went on anyway and talked through their songs. And when the show was in Denver, she hurt the ball of her right foot. A doctor said she could not go on for at least two to three weeks.
That night, Ms. Channing went onstage in a pair of flats, which had been covered in spats to match her costume. No one seemed to mind: The reviews were raves.
The next day, Mr. Reams arrived at the theater to find Ms. Channing back in her original costume, high-heeled boots and all.
“I said, ‘You can’t do that, you heard what the doctor said,’” Mr. Reams recalled. “And then she said — in that voice of hers — ‘Isn’t it a miracle what a good review can do?’
“She wore her heeled boots from that point on,” he said.
She once set Bernadette Peters straight
“A few years ago I was performing in Palm Springs, and Carol was in the audience,” Ms. Peters said in an email. “I introduced her and said, ‘Can you believe she’s going to be 94?’ Just then I heard this very strong voice correcting me: ‘95!’”
“She had humor,” Ms. Peters said, “and personified the love of performing.”
Celebrities are honoring her on Twitter
She celebrated at Subway
Dori Berinstein, a Broadway producer who directed the documentary “‘Carol Channing: Larger Than Life,” described her as someone who stood by people with AIDS at a time when that was rare, as a vocal supporter of civil rights, and as a public figure who was “very, very proud to be on Nixon’s enemies list.”
“To Carol, every night was opening night,” she said.
After several years of shooting for the documentary, when that process was finally complete, Ms. Berinstein said she wanted to take Carol and her husband, Harry Kullijian, out to dinner.
“I had these restaurants in mind that were really special,” Ms. Berinstein recalled.
“But Carol wanted to go to Subway,” she said. “She was so completely down to earth. So off we went to Subway.”
She said Ms. Channing ordered a turkey sub.
She rarely missed a promotional opportunity
Joshua Ellis, Ms. Channing’s publicist for many years, said that part of his job was to monitor what they called the Channing Art, which were file cabinets filled with hundreds of pictures of Ms. Channing with famous people, including actors, politicians, athletes — anybody. When a celebrated person died, his office was to send copies of Ms. Channing with that person to news outlets including The New York Times, The New York Post and The Daily News.
“She was larger than life onstage and offstage,” Mr. Ellis said. “It wasn’t like you came back stage and somehow she was diminished in size. Some actors are quite big onstage but kind of small offstage. She was big all the time.
“And I truly believe she would do absolutely anything to publicize whatever show she was in,” he said.
He recalled that she was once asked to make a presentation to 5,000 Brownies, the junior Girl Scouts, in Central Park. He remembered wondering what she would possibly have to say to thousands of little girls who probably had no idea who she was. It was 9 a.m. on a roasting hot Saturday when she took the stage.
“She knew who the woman was who founded the Girl Scout movement — whose name I do not remember,” Mr. Ellis said. “She said that she was a woman of independent thought, very much like the character she played, Lorelei Lee, in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ — she was pushing her show and found a connection between the Brownies and Lorelei Lee!”
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