Anyone who ever met Carol Channing will tell you that there was no greater thrill than to walk into a room and find her there. Those giant saucer eyes, whether bedecked in black daisy lashes or, as in later years, peering out at you from behind mammoth eyeglass frames, were alit with humor and intelligence, endless curiosity and welcome. There was no smile on this planet that engendered more joy than hers. Her marionette arms embraced you with a love that sent electric shocks straight to your soul–and her voice, that unmistakable trumpeting growl, invited imitation by even the least talented mimic, because you just had to know what it felt like to sound that way.
Carol Channing, who died Jan. 15 at 97, was so much more than an actress or a performer or even a star. She was an icon, a true legend, completely original, absolutely singular, recognizable a mile away all around the globe. She will always be remembered for her stage persona in Hello, Dolly! and film performances in movies like Thoroughly Modern Millie, but it didn’t matter what material she was performing. Classic role or cheesy TV special, all you cared about was spending as much time as you could in the glow of that magical firelight that was Carol Channing.
Fierstein is a Tony Award–winning actor and playwright
This appears in the January 28, 2019 issue of TIME.