Monday, 20 August 2012

Mrs. Fang

It’s highly likely that none of the ladies who heard a six-year-old girl playing the saxophone at a Methodist Church club meeting on May 6, 1924 suspected she would go on to become a trailblazer and then to worldwide fame. Then, again, it didn’t happen because of the saxophone. Or the piano, which she also played for the church ladies. Or her soprano voice. Or her dramatic acting while in college.

Or her bi-weekly newspaper column, for that matter, though they might have got a hint. “Around the Horn” was inside the paper of Bluffton College in 1940 and written by a senior whose last name was Driver. She was nicknamed “Screwy” Driver, not because it’s an obvious pun, but because it described the content of her stories. Her name actually wasn’t Driver by then. The local paper in Lima, Ohio, which reported on almost her every move, had announced her wedding on November 4, 1939.

That’s when Phyllis Driver became Phyllis Diller.

There were women comics who headlined in vaudeville, in burlesque, on radio and on television. But until Phyllis Diller, few headlined in nightclubs, and she was the first stand-up comedienne to go on to enormous, lasting success.

It wasn’t without a lot of work. Diller had gone west and landed a job as a continuity writer at a radio station in Oakland; in those days it involved writing comedy material for shows like one called “Nick and Noodnick.” Salesmen sold the station. She sold herself. Constantly. She wrote gag letters-to-the-editor. One stated a crap game was more appealing to TV-watching kids than the puppet show Kukla, Fran and Ollie. She got noticed.

Here’s the Video Notes column by T.R. Temple in the Hayward Daily Review of November 19, 1952.

The first letter I ever received from KROW’s female Barnum, Phyllis Diller, began with the salutation, “Lover Boy!”
Later her correspondence blossomed into a veritable garden of publicity releases, all unconventional, about the various radio personalities she was trying to make me listen to. After a while, by george, I did listen to them.
Now Phyllis has branched out. She’s currently filming a show for TV titled “Phyllis Dillis, the Homely Friendmaker.” It's enough to make Marjorie King’s hair turn grey.
Dillis [sic] portrays a bumbling fraud who can’t boil water. She urges housewives to try “something different”, and brother, it’s different all right. Hubby will get ulcers just watching her.
The show hasn’t been picked up by a sponsor yet, but we can almost promise you'll be seeing it soon. It’s a riot.
Miss Dillis, dressed in an evening gown, goes through the first demonstration in a nightmarish episode on how to make tossed green salad.
We have a female Robert Benchley, I think.
(P.S. Dillis in real life has five children, used to work for the San Leandro local newspaper and—she informed me—her house has termites).
The 15-minute series is a BART (Bay Area Radio-Television) production, directed for TV by ABC’s Jim Baker, and will be available outside Northern California via telefilm. Don Sherwood will be the announcer.
He just presents Phyllis and gets away as quickly as possible from the scene of action.

She changed radio stations. She judged a beauty contest—“Maid of San Leandro, 1954.” And she started working the local clubs; the Hungry i was the first. By August 1955, she was headlining at the Purple Onion in San Francisco (four shows daily) at a reported $500 a week. She stayed for 107 weeks. And she got her first national exposure—in a story by United Press, dated November 14, 1955. One would expect a wisecrack-filled interview, with the standard gags about looking ugly and her husband Fang. But she’s serious and subdued. She was only a regional comic. She wasn’t the Phyllis Diller yet.

She's Mother of Five During Day; Turns Comedy Artist Every Night
SAN FRANCISCO — (UP) — Phyllis Diller, 38, is one gal who could give even Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll lessons on how to live a double life.
By day, the willowy blonde is the stay-at-home spouse of an Alameda, Calif., insurance salesman and the hard-working mother of five children. But at night, it’s an entirely different story.
Each evening about nine, Phyllis trades her apron for a slinky gown and the rubber face of a night club comedienne to become the feature attraction at an intimate basement bistro here known as The Purple Onion.
Since Age of Three
“Sometimes I realize what I’m doing—cooking all day and clowning all night—is impossible,” she says. “But all the world’s energy is yours, and it’ll work for you if you only meet it half-way.”
Mrs. Diller sings, mimics and composes much of her own material.
“I’ve felt the need to be funny and musical—to make people laugh—since I was three,” she said. “Just last year I realized that it would soon be too late in life to build such a career, unless I went ahead and did the thing I’ve always wanted to do.
Co-operative Spouse
“Now instead of telling my grandchildren what a great comedienne I could have been,” she continued, “I can let my scrapbook speak for itself.”
Mrs. Diller’s husband really set the whole frenetic scheme in motion. He urged her to go right ahead and "be funny.”
“My husband’s a real doll,” Phyllis said smilingly. “He cooperates in every way possible to make our family life a happy, full one.”
And the children, ranging in ages from five to 15, are being taught self-sufficiency by their mother’s nightly trips to the microphone.
“The kids fix their own breakfast,” she said. “I feel I’m setting them a good example in fulfilling my deep personal ambitions,” she says.
“They will learn from me and this will lead them on the way to living satisfying lives of their own.”
Phyllis would like to keep going “right on up” in the entertainment world, but she never intends to lose sight of the fact she’s wife and mother.
“I don't believe in baby-sitters. But then, who needs them when your children are as level-headed as mine,” she said.
“Besides raising a fine family,” she says with a grin, “I’d also enjoy becoming the funniest female who ever lived.”

Finally in 1958, NBC gave her a national audience—at both ends of the broadcast day. In May, she guested as the Women’s Editor for a week on the “Today” show. And by the time this story appeared in print on December 27, Diller had made five appearances on the “Tonight” show with Jack Paar.

The Phyllis Diller Saga: From Kitchen to Comedy
National Enterprise Association Staff Correspondent

NEW YORK (NEA) — Shari Lewis got a letter from a young fan that read like this:
“Dear Shari:
“I like your morning program, but I have a problem. My father sleeps late, so I have to turn the sound on the program down. And I can’t hear you. Could you talk a little louder?”
If you’ve always had a desire to get into show business, but somehow never had the nerve to try it, take heart at the story of Phyllis Diller.
She’s a comedienne who got a big break with Jack Paar not long ago, and has since been back and back and back. And now she’s about set for a spot in the next edition of “New Faces” on Broadway. Yet, up to four years ago, she was a contented housewife, with five contented kids and a contented husband.
The story of Phyllis Diller, strange even in the strange world of show business, begins in Lima, Ohio. She was born there, grew up wanting to be a singer, but never got around to it. So she went to Bluffton, Ohio, college and just two months before her graduation, eloped.
For 10 years, she was strictly a housewife. There was a boy, three girls and then another boy. They’re now nine through 18, and her oldest son is in college.
"I was the kind who was funny at parties,” she says. “Gradually, I got asked to entertain whenever we went out, and I worked up something like an act. But still she never worked at it, nor thought she would. And then came a time of financial crisis for the Dillers—“the roof fell in on us”—and she had to work. At first, she tried advertising, and had progressed until she was merchandise manager of a San Francisco radio station.
“My husband kept after me,” she says, “to be a comedienne. Isn’t that a switch? Most husbands are after their wives to stay in the kitchen—and mine was kicking me out.”
Phyllis resisted. She says she thought, at first, that it would be “morally wrong” to leave the children to go on the road. But her husband persisted and finally she gave it a whirl. That was 3½ years ago, after she’d been married for some 16 years. Now, except for being away from her brood—“that's the thorn in my side”—she’s happy. She hopes to get to the point where she can settle down, reunite all seven Dillers, and live happily ever after. It should happen soon.

Her dream of reuniting her family didn’t last. She and Sherwood—who she later pointed out in interviews was not her husband “Fang” in her act—divorced. But she did accomplish something she hoped for in that interview in 1955: “I’ve felt the need to be funny and musical—to make people laugh—since I was 3.”

That’s why the world misses her today.

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