Goodbye, Dolly. Broadway legend and onetime Modestan Carol Channing dies at 97

Carol Channing, the star of stage and screen who lived in Modesto for the better part of a decade after marrying her high school sweetheart in 2003, has died, her publicist reported early Tuesday. The 97-year-old, best known for her Broadway roles in “Hello, Dolly!” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage.

A who’s who of celebrities spanning generations lovingly remembered the actress/singer. Pee-wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, said of her on Twitter, “One of the nicest, sweetest people I ever had the pleasure of working with. What an original, one of a kind, LEGEND!”

Wrote Bette Midler, who revived the role of Dolly on Broadway in 2017, “She was a complete original, and there will never be another. Blonde, 6 ft tall and utterly hilarious, she was a legend. My condolences to the world; to those who knew her or saw her and those who never got the chance.”

Barbra Streisand, immortalized as Dolly in the movie version of the musical, tweeted, “Carol was a true life-force … a kind and effervescent woman who never allowed the parade to pass her by!”

George Takei, best known as Sulu on “Star Trek,” posted, “She rejoins the heavens as a new diamond in the night sky, and as she famously sang, they are a girl’s best friend.”

Among the many others who tweeted about Channing were “Laugh-In” alum Ruth Buzzi (“You defined Broadway”), Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, actress/comedian Margaret Cho, “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson and fellow Tony Award winners Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kristin Chenoweth. The latter wrote, “Carol Channing was one of the few who paved the path for so many women in theater and beyond ... I will forever admire and look up to you, Carol.”

The Modesto chapter of Channing’s life began when her seventh- through ninth-grade San Francisco sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, read the mention of himself in her 2002 memoir, “Just Lucky I Guess.” Kullijian, a Turlock native and longtime Modesto resident, businessmen and former city councilman, gave her a call.

The two reconnected, got engaged and married in May 2003. Kullijian had lost Gerry, his wife of 60 years, in June 2002. Channing, twice divorced, had been widowed since 1999.

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She joined him in Modesto, which she embraced as home. Before they even wed, she’d scheduled a July ‘03 performance at the State Theatre, did a book signing at Barnes & Noble and joined him as he played the keyboard at Dale Commons Assisted Living, which he often did.

In July that year, the newlywed sat down with The Bee’s Marijke Rowland and told her, “I’ve spent my life traveling. I was always on Broadway or touring. This is my first home.”

During her time here, she did such things as sing with MoBand a few times; do a benefit show at the State Theatre for it and the Stanislaus Arts Council; walk the red carpet at the May 2005 Modesto premiere of native son George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith”; and receive an honorary doctoral degree from California State University, Stanislaus.

In 2005, the couple helped establish the Doctor Carol Channing School of Fine and Performing Arts Scholarship and Endowment at the Turlock university. “Having received the doctorate degree, we thought this is the opportunity for her to give to young people and refocus them on the arts,” Kullijian said. “She wants to enrich the lives of people and inspire them.”

The two also set up the Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, funded in part by the sale of her CDs and DVDs.

On their fourth anniversary in May 2007, the childhood friends who spent more than 60 years apart were honored at the Great Valley Center’s 10th annual two-day conference for their support of arts in education. The audience of several hundred people gave three standing ovations to the couple, and Channing crooned, a cappella, “Water, wealth, contentment, health — who could ask for more? Modesto is my hometown!”

Channing and Kullijian were generous with their time and money. When in May 2010 Big Valley Christian High staged “Hello, Dolly!” Channing attended on closing night and told the young cast before the show, “Stage fright is a gift from God. Your best performances are the ones you don’t feel ready for.” That same year, the husband and wife donated $5,000 each to the Youth Entertainment Stage Company and Great Valley Academy, both in Modesto.

Kullijian died Dec. 26, 2011, at age 91. Channing was at his side. He fell ill at their Rancho Mirage home in Southern California, where Channing did a Christmas show on Dec. 21.

In the summer of 2013, an estate sale was held at the East Rumble Road home Channing and Kullijian shared. Channing, having returned to living in Rancho Mirage sometime after her husband’s death, was not present.

Channing was born Jan. 31, 1921, in Seattle, where her father, George Channing, was a newspaper editor. At the age of 7, she decided she wanted to become an entertainer, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

On Broadway and beyond, she gave more than 5,000 performances as matchmaker Dolly Levi. Channing starred in other Broadway shows, but none with equal magnetism, the AP reported. She often appeared on television and in nightclubs, for a time partnering with George Burns in Las Vegas and a national tour.

Her outsized personality seemed too much for the screen, the AP story said, and she made only a few movies, notably “The First Traveling Saleslady” with Ginger Rogers and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” with Julie Andrews.

Channing won the 1956 Tony Award for best actress in a musical for “Dolly” and was a 1968 Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for best supporting actress in “Millie.”

Broadway will pause on Wednesday to honor Channing by dimming all theater marquees for a minute at 7:45 p.m., the AP reported.

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