Carol Channing, the Broadway legend best known for big personality, smoky belt, and dedication to the musical Hello, Dolly!, is dead at 97. The New York Times confirmed the news, writing that Channing died at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, Tuesday morning and that she had suffered two strokes in the past year. Born in Seattle to a family of Christian Scientists, Channing went to Bennington College in Vermont, before moving to New York to work as an actress and sustain herself with survival gigs. Her first big break came with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1949, in which she played Lorelei Lee and made “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” into a signature song. But the role that cemented Channing’s legacy came with Hello, Dolly!, the adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker with a score by Jerry Herman, in which Channing played Dolly Gallagher Levi herself, and of course, famously descended the staircase of the Harmonia Gardens hotel bedecked with jewelry, plumage, and her signature wide smile.
Channing won the 1964 Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical for Hello, Dolly!, but she also returned to the role throughout her career, on Broadway in 1978 and 1995 and on numerous national tours. (The Times estimates that she played Dolly Levi more than 4,500 times.) Though other many actresses have starred in Dolly!, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey to Bette Midler, Channing made the musical, which celebrates a woman’s decision to step back into the world and celebrate, into a sort of vocation. Even after decades of performing in Dolly, Channing continued to appear in cabaret acts. She even appeared at a celebration in honor of Dolly!’s anniversary in 2014. “It’s easy to slide downhill, but who are the ones that just won’t do it? Who are the diamonds in the rough that go upstream against everything?” Channing once said of the musical. “That’s what it was all about, that’s what Thornton Wilder kept writing about.”