The show business world is mourning the loss of one of its most iconic theater stars. Carol Channing, known mostly for her role as clever matchmaker Dolly Levi in Broadway’s Hello Dolly! musical, passed away on Tuesday at age 97. Channing was part black and spoke often of the need “to pass” to achieve success.
The actress, singer, comedian, and dancer was a fixture on Broadway and on television, appearing in guest roles on shows including Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, The Love Boat, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and more.
In her autobiography, “Just Lucky I Guess,” published in 2002, Channing revealed that she was in fact, part African American. According to Wikipedia, Channing’s mother Adelaide Glaser was German Jewish and her father, George Christian Channing, was African American and German. Her father was a journalist and a Christian Scientist.
In an interview with former talk show host Larry King in 2002, Channing described her reaction to learning her father was half-black.
…when I found out. I was 16-years-old and my mother told me. And you know, only the reaction on me was, Gee, I got the greatest genes in show business. … Every time I start to sing or dance, I know it, and I’m proud of it.
She revealed in another interview that her mother told her about her father’s heritage because she didn’t want her to be surprised if she “had a black baby.”
In her biography, Channing wrote that she kept her heritage secret so she wouldn’t be typecast on Broadway and in Hollywood.
During her interview with King, Channing spoke about her friendship with Louis Armstrong, the musician who helped make the Hello, Dolly! title song a hit.
“[I] campaigned with Louis Armstrong for President Kennedy. We were in the Armory in Washington. We were in the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis..… And we dressed together in this huge locker room, it’s a city block long. But we already knew each other and we’d sit right close together. The most adorable, he wore a handkerchief.
Black Enterprise editor Lydia T. Blanco, recalls a memory when Channing visited her school:
I had the opportunity to meet Channing while in middle school in San Francisco. She prided herself on being a native and visited us during an assembly to talk about her work as an actress. We had the conversation about white-passing and Channing shared that that was a part of her story. I believe that her mother shared that her grandmother was black. She even signed my year book!
Later on in college, a play was given in the Little Theater at Bennett and “white-passing” was a subject matter and Carol Channing’s name and career were also mentioned in that setting.
Channing leaves behind one son, Channing Lowe.