Akron Beacon Journal, May 13, 1963
Some call comedienne Phyllis Diller the Grandma Moses of show business. Not that Ms. Diller is THAT old. She’s only 45. But she did wait 37 years before making her debut as a professional entertainer. By that time she was the mother of five children.
By show business standards, that was like starting a career with one foot in the grave. Overnight success is considered a myth; it usually takes several years to advance from novice to star, particularly in the field of comedy.
Diller was lucky. She’s gifted with a wonderfully mobile face that wildly punctuates every punch line. She also has a quick and intelligent wit. As a result, she became a success rather quickly.
It helped considerably that she wasted no time establishing a basic premise from which she builds her humor. Several stand-up comics don’t find their special voice until they’ve spent years sounding as though they got their act from “The Joe Miller Joke Book.”
“Jack Benny is supposedly tight and cheap,” Ms. Diller explained. “I operate on the premise I used to be quite beautiful until I went to a supermarket and got my face caught in the automatic door . . . No, really . . . when I was young I decided to emphasize inner beauty . . . I only wish I had had a choice.”
She had been on the brink of show business several times during her first 37 years. She wanted to give it a try, but didn’t . . . because it wouldn’t seem right. In her case, she didn’t want to leave her family to become a performer. Then her husband, Sherwood Diller, gave her the push she needed. You can bet Ms. Diller has never regretted her husand’s decision.
Phyllis Diller is a native of Lima, Ohio. She met her huband while both were students at Bluffton College. They eloped to Covington, Kentucky, to get married.
Until 1955, the Dillers often had trouble making ends meet.
“Sherry had several jobs along the way,” says Diller, “but he never was happy in his work. For awhile he was a successful freezer salesman, but he quit to sell encyclopedias. Can you picture it? The most introverted introvert selling encyclopedias!”
By 1961, six years after her debut, Mother Diller, the extroverted extrovert, was raking in $4,000 a week . .. . and she was doing it by carrying on in public just the way she had done for years in her own home.
She got her start at San Francisco’s Purple Onion in 1955.
“I auditioned jut for laughs and the hope it would lead to a little loot,” she recalled.
Things worked out much better than that. She was hired and played the club for 89 weeks.
Her big break came when she went to New York City to play the Blue Angel. This earned her an audition for Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show.” Paar liked her and invited her back 49 times.
Phyllis Diller was a star. Offers flooded her agent.
“I’ve been approached about doing a TV series,” she said. “I like the idea, but I asked for for money. I never heard from those people again, although I understand they hired Jayne Mansfield to take my place in the pilot film. Can you picture it? Jayne Mansfield taking MY place?”
Diller invaded Cleveland recently to be a guest on KYW’s “Mike Douglas Show.” I say “invaded” gecause she arrived with 22 pieces of luggage, including many samples of her huge collection of weird hats — “My weakness.”
She was a big hit on the Douglas show, and also packed ‘em in at a Lakewood nightclub.
Accompanying her was her husband Sherwood — better known to her fans as “Fang.” The rest of the Diller family — three daughters and two sons — remained at home in St. Louis.
“We lived in California for several years,” she explained, “but Sherwood has relatives in St. Louis, and that became handy when I started traveling so much. I can usually stop there on my way from one end of the country to the other.”
The Cleveland edition of Phyllis Diller looked lightly different from what I recalled from her most recent TV appearance. He hair, for instance. I was expecting something whiter than white, but it was a short and shaggy glob of assorted colors, like a blond mop lying on top of a brown mop.
This was because the platinum hair we see on her national television appearances is a wig. Douglas viewers were seeing “the real me.”
She gets a lot of mileage out of her unusually animated face, and her outfit is usually a sack dress. Her trademark is a piercing laugh that explodes after every joke.
“It wasn’t particularly hard for me to break into show business,” she said. “Without realizing it, I had been building a routine every time I went to a party,”
She used to write all her material, but now she buys jokes whenever anyone has original lines to sell.
“Many people who send me letters are potential comedy writers,” she said. “I encourage them and it’s paid off. Now I have about 10 writers who send me stuff regularly.. Oh, it backfires occasionally. I bought some jokes from a woman last year, then learned she had gotten five of them from magazines.”
Ms. Diller is relaxed and friendly in conversation, but the person on the otxher end can’t help but feel being used as a proving ground for new jokes.
When she learned I had ridden from Akron to Cleveland in my photographer’s Volkswagen bug,s he looked at my six-foot-three-inch frame and snapped, “For you that must have been like wearing a girdle with wheels.”
A few minutes later she talked about a recent experience that is sure to become part of her act.
“Are you ready?” she yelled. With Ms. Diller, she often begins a joke this way, or by saying, “You won’t believe this, but . . . ” or “Can you picture this?”
Anyway, she shouted, “Are you ready?” and continued with the story.
“I got contact lenses about a month ago. No trouble. The first night after I wore them, I put them in a glass of water next to my bed. The next day I woke up, drank the water and swallowed my glasses.”