Death of a Saleslady

Monday, January 21, 2019

This past Tuesday January 15th, the world bid a sudden farewell to a legend. Carol Channing, a vibrant entertainer unmatched in her spunk, contagious happiness and talent for making people laugh passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage, California at 97 years old. A tragic loss to the Broadway community, her legacy will be preserved forever in the form of television appearances, film roles, and the fond memories of her closest friends and from the countless lives she impacted and brought joy to with her performances.

Carol Channing took musical theater by storm in the late 1940s with important roles in "Lend an Ear" and the widely successful Anita Loos musical "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." From there, she would become one of television's most recognizable funny faces and made a name for herself in many films, even receiving an Oscar nomination for her role as Muzzy in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). She is best known for her portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi in one of the longest running, most celebrated Broadway shows, "Hello, Dolly!"

Carol played a significant role in Ginger's story. In 1956, the team starred in The First Traveling Saleslady. Although Saleslady famously gained a reputation for being the hokey western that ended up being the last film produced by RKO, it was Carol's film debut and offers a wonderful glance at the real life friendship between the two leading ladies. Ginger portrays Rose Gillray, a woman in the 1800s with her heart set on proving that salesladies can be just as valuable as salesmen. Carol is Molly Wade, her comical sidekick who models the corsets that Rose is selling. They are such a delight to watch on screen together. This is a film that, while it may not be mine or perhaps anyone's favorite, I do enjoy because I have always loved watching these two charismatic ladies interact. For many years after the release of Saleslady, Carol and Ginger (although more so Carol) often joked that the film was so bad, it forced RKO to close its doors. On a 1965 episode of "What's My Line," Carol jokingly referred to the picture as "Death of A Saleslady."

Carol and Ginger in The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

Fast forward to nearly a decade after Saleslady was released and Carol Channing was chosen for what would become the most memorable role of her career. She introduced the world to Dolly Gallagher Levi, a character that was actually first written with Ethel Merman in mind, in January of 1964. She portrayed the wacky, charming matchmaker through August of the following year. When Carol departed "Hello, Dolly!"to join the national troupe, Ginger was brought on to replace her, or as Carol liked to say, she "hatched" Ginger, a term that she loved to use to refer to the many Dollys that followed her. Both ladies got their big breaks on Broadway, Ginger having become an overnight sensation in 1930 for her role as Molly Gray in the original Gershwin production of "Girl Crazy."

Carol Channing and Ginger Rogers as Dolly Levi

On Sunday, January 20, I finally got my own taste of "Hello, Dolly!" when the national tour came to San Diego. No sooner had I learned they would be stopping here than our tickets were booked. I was so excited to finally get to experience a show I had always wanted to see. However, only days after purchasing tickets, Carol Channing passed away. My excitement about the show was still there, but it was different. I was now dealing with processing the death of a beloved star and a valuable connection to Ginger. 

All of that changed when I was physically at the event. It was halfway through the title song "Hello, Dolly!" that the atmosphere transformed and a joyful feeling arose within me. At the performance I went to, Jessica Sheridan (a stand-in for Betty Buckley) was floating across the stage, red feather headdress bouncing along with her. Then suddenly she wasn't Jessica Sheridan anymore. For a moment she morphed into Ginger and I got a glimpse through a window into the past. Then she became Betty Grable, Martha Raye, and all the Dollys of the past that ever glided across the stage in that famous bright red gown before finally ending on Carol Channing. It was as if I could hear her. It was as if I could hear the past. I will never forget that night. It is a strange feeling, but somehow I will always remember Carol Channing as the bubbly light haired beauty bouncing around in that magnificent gown belting her heart out to the smiles of crowds across the country, even if I was not around back then to know what it was really like. "Dolly’ll never go away" is certainly true. Carol you'll never go away, we'll always remember you.

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