A blinged-up beacon called Carol Channing
"I call it my diamond dress," cooed Broadway star Carol Channing in her distinctive voice, which combined little-girl innocence with great-lady authority. Channing donated her dress to the museum on January 28, 2008, at a ceremony at the El Portal Theatre in Hollywood, where it was collected along with a treasure trove of other objects associated with the careers of a number of feminine luminaries of stage and screen, including Florence Henderson, Julie Newmar, Rose Marie, June Lockhart, and Tippi Hedren.
Channing's glittering costume, a dusty pink sheath covered with large Czechoslovakian rhinestones, is one that she wore in the 1974 stage musical Lorelei to perform her signature song, the merrily mercenary "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," written by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Leo Robin. Lorelei allowed her to reprise the song and the character of the bizarrely logical 1920s gold digger Lorelei Lee, which she had flamboyantly introduced in the 1949 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her memorable performance in that show catapulted her to instant and enduring fame.
The dress, a perfect match for the endearingly avaricious character of Lorelei, was created by legendary costume designer Bob Mackie, who also designed Carol Burnett's "Went with the Wind" dress, also in the museum's collection. Channing's costume, as dazzling as her oversized personality, is made of silk and cotton and is emblazoned with large imitation stones that became eye-popping when caught in the glow of a spotlight's beam.
Though beautiful, the costume presented special challenges in performances. Its sleeves prevented the quick change the production required. "I told Bob that getting out of that dress in one minute was almost impossible," Channing recalled, "so he said 'take off the sleeves.'" A second dilemma was its excessive weight, of nearly forty pounds, caused by its abundant bling. She observed, "The first time I took a bow, I fell over forward and almost broke my teeth."
The costume met with further problems when, in 2007, Channing brought it to Los Angeles to have it appraised, prior to its donation. It was stolen from the hotel luggage carrier en route to her room. Happily, it was found and retrieved several days later, reuniting the star with her distinctive costume and allowing her to donate it to the national collections.
Dwight Blocker Bowers is a curator in the Division of Culture and the Arts. He has also blogged about Davy Crockett's coonskin cap.