By Melissa Rose Bernardo
January 15, 2019 at 08:28 AM EST
Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images

Carol Channing, the Broadway legend who starred on stage in Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, has died. She was 97.

Her publicist B. Harlan Boll said Channing died early Tuesday of natural causes at home in Rancho Mirage, California. According to the Associated Press, Boll said she had suffered strokes twice in the last year.

You can probably count on one hand the number of shows Channing missed during her entire seven-decade career. And we’re talking about a woman who racked up 5,000-plus live performances in Hello, Dolly! and some 3,500 in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The three-time Tony winner and much-caricatured comedian was a firm believer in the healing power of applause.

“I would get everything under the sun,” she told the Austin Chronicle in 2005. “I fell off the stage all the time because I’m nearsighted. Everything went wrong with me. I even got cancer …. There’s something healing about just going ahead and doing the show anyway.”

Channing was the San Francisco-bred daughter of Christian Scientists (she claimed her father was half-black, a fact her mother revealed to her when she was in her teens). She made her Broadway debut understudying Eve Arden in the 1941 musical comedy Let’s Face It — many years later, Arden would don the famous feathered headdress as one of Channing’s many successors in Hello, Dolly! In 1949, she broke out as the “little girl from Little Rock” Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Unfortunately, Marilyn Monroe was the one who got to croon “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in the 1953 movie version … and the same thing happened with the Hello, Dolly! film.

Channing won the 1964 Tony — beating out, among other actresses, Funny Girl‘s Barbra Streisand — for her iconic turn as meddling matchmaker extraordinaire Dolly Gallagher Levi. But though she had earned a Golden Globe (and an Oscar nom) by dancing on a xylophone and getting shot out of a cannon in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, she lost the chance to reprise the title role in the film version of Hello, Dolly! Instead, Streisand headlined the Gene Kelly-directed 1969 film — which turned out to be a massive flop. Channing, meanwhile, would tour the country and return to Broadway in her signature role in 1978 and 1995.

Incidentally, Channing only landed the show after Ethel Merman — producer David Merrick’s dream Dolly — declined. (The Merm eventually wised up and went in as a replacement Dolly.) No wonder Channing’s 2002 memoir was titled Just Lucky I Guess.

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