Beloved Comedian Phyllis Diller Dies at 95

Diller got her start right here in Alameda, entertaining fellow PTA moms at Edison School.

Comedian Phyllis Diller, whose wild hair, trademark laugh and mix of bawdy and self-deprecating humor made her a variety show and nightclub favorite, died in Los Angeles Monday at age 95.

Diller died at 9:30 a.m. at her home, according to her longtime manager Milt Suchin.

"The world has lost a true trailblazer, a gracious and classy woman who blazed the way for all other female comics," Suchin told City News Service. "She was a very special, special lady, very supportive of young comics."

A cause of death was not immediately released, though website TMZ.com reported that Diller had been sick in recent months after hurting her wrist and hip in a fall.

She was found by her son Perry, "with a smile on her face," Suchin said.

"Ms. Diller'sapproach to comedy is unique," the CCPA news release promoting Diller's2001 performance stated. "She writes most of her own material, editing her words to be able to tightly deliver 12 punch lines per minute.  And she strictly avoids off-color jokes and situations, even in today's permissive atmosphere. There is seemingly no particular order to her zaniness, but, simply stated, she is always funny."

Phyllis Diller in Alameda

Diller got her start as an entertainer in Alameda, according to ar article by Ron Ucovich in The Alameda Museum Quarterly Newsletter, Spring 2009. The museum was mounting an exhibit featuring diller at the time.

"After her high school education, Phyllis got married and moved to Alameda, where her husband, Sherwood Diller, sought employment at the Naval Air Station," Ucovich wrote. "They moved into the Encinal housing project near Webster Street. Her first impression of Alameda was not favorable. She lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a cement floor and plywood walls. She claims that the walls were so thin, you could hear your neighbor’s heartbeat. The ground between the buildings was paved with blacktop tar. It was strung with clotheslines where all the neighbor ladies hung out their wet laundry.

"In the late 1940s, the Diller Family moved to a two-story Victorian home on San Jose Avenue, between Willow and Chestnut Streets. She liked this house because she had a view of the bay, but the house was divided into apartment units, and she didn’t like living with that many people in the same building.

"In the early 1950’s, the Diller Family moved to a modest home on the corner of Fernside and Fremont Street. She often would entertain the PTA ladies at Edison School, where her children attended. Many of them encouraged her to pursue a career as an entertainer. She also played the organ at the First Presbyterian Church on Santa Clara. The parishioners, also, recognized Miss Diller’s talent as an entertainer."

Her Brush With Death in 1999

Diller suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999. She told "Entertainment Tonight" at the time that she had considered suicide.

"Yes, I would have (committed suicide)," she said. "But see, when you want to and you can't move, there isn't anything you can do about it. There isn't anything around here that I could use for suicide.

"I'm terribly glad that I didn't do it because I will be working again ... I'll be around to watch my grandchildren. I love to work, you see. I got new jokes."

A Late Bloomer to the Comedy World

Born Phyllis Ada Driver, the comic didn't start her show biz career until the age of 37.

At the time, she was a working housewife and a mother of five, employed as a publicist, newspaper writer and columnist at a San Francisco radio station.

Urged by her husband, Sherwood Diller, she prepared a nightclub act and was booked into San Francisco's Purple Onion.

She slithered around the piano, lampooned current celebrities, brandished a cigarette holder and made fun of high fashion. Originally booked for two weeks, Diller's act received such rave reviews that it was extended for almost two years.

Combining wild costumes, untamed hair and a raucous laugh with self- deprecating monologues, she won national acclaim with her mid-1960s television routines featuring "Fang," her imaginary husband.

In addition to television, film and stage work, Diller made five records, wrote four best-selling books and has performed on piano with more than 100 symphony orchestras.

Although she largely retired about 10 years ago, Dillerwould still show up in bit parts, including lending her distinctive voice to the animated Fox comedy "Family Guy."

"I adored her," singer Barbra Streisand said of Diller. "She was a wondrous spirit who was great to me."

Comedian Bob Newhart also hailed Diller as a trailblazer who had a unique style that will never be repeated.

"The thing that strikes me most about Phyllis, aside from a joy to be around, was her uniqueness," Newhart said. "There was no one like Phyllis before, and I doubt if there will be anyone after."

Funeral services were expected to be private.

- City News Service


Were you a fan of Phyllis Diller? What is your best memory of her?

Nancy Johnsen Horton August 21, 2012 at 03:18 PM
A family story dating back to when Phyllis Diller was an Alameda housewife: My cousin, to his mother: "Peter Diller's mother is really funny!" His mother: "That's not polite, you shouldn't say that about the lady." "No, mom, she's really REALLY funny." A few months later, Phyllis Diller opens at the Purple Onion (or maybe the hungry i) in SF. My cousin: "See Mom? I told you Peter Diller's mother was really REALLY funny!"
Jack Buckley August 21, 2012 at 05:35 PM
As our church approached the centennial of our main building, I tracked down an address for Phyllis Diller and sent her a formal invitation to come celebrate the event with us. "An Evening With Phillis Diller" seemed a good bet to draw in the curious along with longtime Alamedans who would remember her from way back when. What a happy surprise it was to receive a handwritten note politely declining my offer, beginning with "Dear Jack" as if I too were one of her local friends from long ago. Such grace.
Marilyn Singleton August 22, 2012 at 04:20 PM
You left out that her high school was Central HIgh in Lima, Ohio. This is the setting of the TV show, Glee. We discovered that my mother was in her high school class through an invitation to a reunion to the handful of classmates who were still with us. Quinn said to Finn in one Glee episode, "don't be another Lima loser!" Phyllis certainly was not.
Mari August 26, 2012 at 12:59 AM
She was a brilliant entertainer. RIP Phyllis.


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