Carol Channing, the Broadway legend who died Tuesday at 97, was as big a star to ever land in Baltimore, and she played her part beautifully on stage and off. Each time she came to Charm City in the 1970s, dramatic things happened. One time, someone stole her full-length mink coat. Another time, she played the diva in distress during a five-alarm fire.
In 1978, she brought her award-winning role in “Hello, Dolly!” to town for a pre-Christmas run at the now-demolished Morris A. Mechanic Theater. She logged her 2,000th performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi during that run, and the reviews were still smashing 14 years after she won a Tony for her role in the original Broadway production.
While here, Channing took part in a local television special to promote the Baltimore arts scene, conducted acting workshops and headlined a benefit for the Heart Fund.
One frosty morning, Channing appeared on the sidewalk outside the Lord Baltimore Hotel, wrapped against the cold inside her husband’s fur parka. Twice someone — later identified as a hotel employee — had started a fire in the Lord Baltimore after midnight, the second time prompting firefighters to evacuate the hotel’s 425 guests, including a convention of cow doctors, the entire cast of “Dolly” and its famous star.
Reporters and photographers scrambled from The Baltimore Sun building on Calvert Street to the hotel, and, as we turned the corner from West Fayette to the lobby entrance, there she was: Carol Channing, larger than life, on the sidewalk, escorted from the ninth floor by a firefighter and a police officer, and greeted by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Fire Chief Tom Burke and, of course, reporters, photographers and crews from the Baltimore television stations. It was, from a news perspective, a big moment — fortunately, with no major injuries. “I’m still shaken,” Channing told us. “At one point, when the black smoke was coming under the door, the idea crossed my mind to hold hands with Charles and jump out the window.”
Charles Lowe was her husband and manager. He had given Channing his fur parka to wear out of the hotel that December morning, then wrapped himself in his wife’s full-length, eggshell white mink coat with the notch collar and tie belt. While that might seem odd, it made sense to those of us who knew what happened the last time Carol Channing had played Baltimore.
In 1976, while Channing and Lowe were asleep in a two-floor suite at the downtown Hilton Hotel — now the Radisson — someone managed to get away with that same $30,000 custom-tailored mink. At the time, Channing was in Baltimore to perform in a pre-Broadway production of “The Bed Before Yesterday” at the Mechanic.
Her coat was not gone for long, however.
Within a day or two, police detectives got word that someone was looking to sell it on a downtown street, so they arranged to buy it. Undercover detectives arrested two young men and charged them with receiving stolen property.
Several months later, in June 1977, when the pair went to trial, Carol Channing again made a splash in Baltimore. She caused a buzz in the courthouse on her way to the witness stand to testify. “I thought it was my civic duty,” she said.
She identified the coat as hers and said it was a gift from the company that had tailored it for her. Channing had posed for an ad in the coat. The ad asked, “What becomes a legend most?”
Of course, after the trial, Carol Channing posed in the mink for photographers, though, by then, the steamy Baltimore summer weather had set in.