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Obituaries : Charles Lowe; Husband of Carol Channing

September 05, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Lowe, the estranged and publicly maligned husband of entertainer Carol Channing who managed her successful career for more than four decades, has died. He was 87.

Lowe, a veteran producer and writer who brought George Burns and Gracie Allen to television, died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said his publicist, Alan Eichler. The octogenarian had been in poor health since suffering a stroke two years ago when an operation to replace his pacemaker sent a blood clot to his brain.

The famous and seemingly inseparable Hollywood and Broadway couple of Channing and Lowe took on a tinge of infamy in May 1998 when Channing sued him for divorce in Los Angeles County Superior Court. She accused him of squandering her fortune, abusing her mentally and physically, and having sex with her only once or twice in their long marriage.

Lowe adamantly denied the charges, and earlier this year sued Channing in Santa Monica Superior Court for defamation. He claimed that she had spread false stories that he was gay and mismanaged her money and abused her, adding that she abandoned him four days after his stroke.

Although the lawsuits remain pending, Reuters reported that the couple had reached a partial settlement calling for Channing to retract her public statements about Lowe.

In early 1998, gossip columnist Liz Smith tried to explain why Channing left Los Angeles soon after Lowe's stroke, offering insight into the troubled relationship.

Noting that Channing had gone to live with the couple's adopted son, political cartoonist Channing Lowe, in Florida, Smith wrote: "One insider theorized, 'Carol is a Christian Scientist who doesn't believe in illness. Charles was her rock and she just can't face what has happened to him.' Others think there were problems between Charles and Channing and that Carol has taken her son's side. Carol says she is merely away from Charles because she needs and wants to work and the work isn't always in Los Angeles."

Before Lowe met and married Channing in Boulder City, Nev., in 1956, he had already established himself in television with "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show." He was working as an account executive with the Wasey, Ruthrauff & Ryan advertising agency in New York when he got the idea of bringing the vaudeville and radio couple to television.

Lowe became writer and producer of their show, which ran from 1950 to 1958, and pioneered a seamless way of incorporating commercials for one of his former agency's clients, the sponsoring Carnation Milk Co. He made announcer Harry von Zell one of the characters and had Gracie Allen serve coffee with cream or talk about her new Carnation recipe book.

After Lowe married Channing, who had just hit a career low with the Broadway flop "The Vamp," he took a leave from Burns and Allen to put Channing's name in brighter lights. He created and booked a new nightclub act for her, and arranged for Channing to team with Burns on stage after Allen's retirement.

Lowe produced a 1959 revue for Channing called "Show Business," which became the Broadway musical hit "Show Girl." The 1961 opening performance was broadcast live from the Eugene O'Neill Theatre as an innovative pre-cable, pay-per-view event beamed to other theaters.

As Channing's manager, Lowe also engineered her plum role in the 1964 Jerry Herman musical that became her signature, "Hello, Dolly!" for which she won a Tony Award. The couple revived the show periodically and took it around the country, to Japan and Europe. Tour stops included the Los Angeles County Music Center in 1982 and the Orange County Performing Arts Center and Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1995. They staged the show in 1978 for the opening of Long Beach's Terrace Theatre.

In addition to managing Channing's stage and recording career, Lowe also produced five television specials for her, co-starring such guests as Burns, Sir John Gielgud, Danny Thomas, Carol Burnett, Walter Matthau and Pearl Bailey.

Born in Steel City, Neb., Lowe studied acting and writing at Doane College, the University of Minnesota and USC. A one-act play he wrote during that time, "Gooseberry Tarts," was published and later produced at UCLA.

An innate promoter, Lowe worked as an advance man for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson before enlisting in the Army during World War II. He served in the Armed Forces Signal Corps and Special Services, writing and directing Army radio productions.

Lowe is survived by his estranged wife and their son; a brother, Dwight; and two nieces.

Eichler said a memorial service will be planned.

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