Phyllis Diller: An Inspiring and Very Funny Life
During the late 1960s I was an adolescent living with my parents in the New York City area. Because I was an only child and my parents were older, I learned to appreciate a very eclectic assortment of entertainments which included Broadway Plays. At that time one of the biggest hits on Broadway was Hello Dolly. Although the role of Dolly was made famous by both Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey on Broadway, various television, film and other well known stage actresses took it on from time to time. One of them was Phyllis Diller.
My parents had already taken me to several Broadway productions during the middle to late 1960s, but the one I really wanted to see was Hello Dolly. At that time the movie version had not yet been made and I was curious about why so many people liked that play about a scheming matchmaker who was trying her best to fix up a wealthy Yonkers merchant with a wife, but actually wanted him for herself. The play took place in the late 1800s in New York City, a time I became fascinated with as a youth. Needless to say, I was thrilled when my dad told me that he had managed to get some tickets to see the almost always sold out show.
Although I had hoped to see Carol Channing in her signature role as Dolly, I was equally thrilled when my dad said that Phyllis Diller was starring in the current production while Carol took a break from playing that part. I knew Phyllis Diller from television. She was an extremely popular comedienne who appeared on television variety shows often enough so that I immediately recognized her name and knew her style very well. At that time Phyllis performed her act in a housedress, playing the part of a modern and progressive housewife whose long suffering husband Fang was the constant subject of unflattering jokes which made you laugh until you almost cried.
Phyllis Driver was born in Lima, Ohio, on July 17, 1917. I guess you could say her first foray into entertainment was learning to play the piano and studying classic music at Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago. She later attended Bluffton University in Ohio where she was a classmate of Hugh Downs, who later worked for NBC News and became a long-running host of The Today Show. In 1939 Phyllis married Sherwood Anderson Diller and the two headed off to live and work in California. They had six children together, but were divorced in 1965. Diller married Warde Donovan sometime shortly after her divorce, but that marriage also ended in 1974.
Before her career as a comedienne, Phyllis struggled to help take care of her family. That was what lead to her first job as a journalist at a local newspaper where she was paid a very meager salary. Her husband held various jobs, but never stayed at one for very long. Always in a state of financial distress, Diller often made light of her situation by sarcastically describing her life to other homemakers that she met at local Laundromats, food stores and PTA meetings. She also injected her unique brand of humor in her newspaper articles.
As friends, neighbors and newspaper readers became familiar with her own humorous take on a life filled with challenges, they began inviting Phyllis to speak at local clubs and events. Most of these gigs were unpaid, so her husband encouraged her to start charging for her performances. After developing several comedy routines and studying under a drama coach to improve her on stage presence, Phyllis Diller began receiving rave reviews as a paid local performer. That lead to a small radio gig which also helped to increase her popularity.
Although she began her professional career as a journalist for the San Leandro News-Observer, Diller garnered national attention after appearing as a contestant on You Bet Your Life, a popular TV game show hosted by comic legend Groucho Marx. Phyllis Diller’s comedic banter with Marx and her trademark drawn out laugh caught the attention of the owner of The Purple Onion Comedy Club in San Francisco. He invited her to perform there and she was an instant hit with the live audience. Her one liner’s like “I once wore a peekaboo blouse... People would peek and then they’d boo..." were just the kind of self-deprecating jokes that endeared her to fans.
Diller’s stint at The Purple Onion quickly paid off big as invitations to appear at other large clubs poured in from across the country. In 1958 she was invited to perform on The Tonight Show, which was hosted by Jack Parr at that time, and made a huge splash with the late night national audience. She appeared on that show many times afterward and was said to be one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests after he took over The Tonight Show’s hosting duties. Bob Hope also took notice of Phyllis Diller. He had been her comedic inspiration and she admitted adapting his style into her own act. Hope liked Diller’s stage persona and began inviting her to join him on USO Tours, to appear with him on TV, and in several of his movies.
During the 1960s Phyllis Diller was a staple on network TV variety shows. By the time she took on the role of Dolly on Broadway, she had already appeared as an actress in an impressive number of films and stage shows. The fondest memory I have of watching her play Dolly live was when she was in a scene that took place in a restaurant. She had some meat, vegetables and several unusually large baked potatoes on her plate. While trying to cut into one of the potatoes and then take a bite out of it, she noticed it was badly over-cooked and began to make faces as she tried to chew it. Phyllis spit out the piece of potato she was chewing on, stopped her scripted dialogue and told the audience, “If I try and eat this lousy over-cooked potato, I’ll bring new meaning to the phrase dying on stage!” She followed that statement with her signature drawn out laugh and brought the house down.
To me, that was classic Phyllis. She had great comedic intuition, timing and delivery. She made light of everyday situations that anyone could relate to and always did it in a way which made you crack up with laughter. A multi-talented individual, Diller fulfilled a lifelong dream performing as a solo pianist with various well-known symphony orchestras throughout the USA during the 1970s and 1980s. She also wrote a number of popular books and became known as a talented artist who created a number of well-received paintings. In all she did, Phyllis Diller always stood out as someone that attracted, rather than demanded your attention.
If I have to choose one thing that would make me admire Phyllis Diller the most, it was how she reinvented herself. Just think of the odds against a woman living during the 1950s being able to go from being an unknown suburban housewife with money troubles who told a few jokes about her life to anyone who would listen, to a famous comedienne who earned millions over a lifetime and made the world laugh at and with her. Known as a person with boundless energy and a strong work ethic, Phyllis finally retired from performing live in 2002 after a gig in Las Vegas. During a 2005 interview, she mentioned how much she missed performing and the high she got from making people laugh.
Phyllis Diller is an inspiration because she never allowed anything to stop her from achieving her goals. She looked at challenges as opportunities and left those of us who were fortunate enough to watch her perform on television or in person with the gift of laughter. Phyllis died at the age of 95 in her Los Angeles home during August of 2012. She will be missed, but never forgotten and always admired as someone who would not allow life’s road blocks to block hers.