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Phyllis Diller: The Consummate Performer

Yesterday we lost a comedic legend when Phyllis Diller died at the age of 95. I remember watching her on Bob Hope specials and on so many variety shows when I was growing up. The sight of that crazy hair and wardrobe never failed to bring a smile. And that awesome laugh. If you didn’t laugh at the joke she was telling (and that was rare), you laughed when she laughed. It was contagious.

She was born Phyllis Driver in Lima, Ohio to Perry and Ada Driver in 1917. Perry is listed as an insurance salesman in the 1920 census.

By the time she was almost seven, Phyllis Driver was already a rising star in Lima. Her mentions in the Lima News are numerous, for her musical talents playing the piano and saxophone.

Lima News, 4 May 1924

The social pages chronicle her visits home to see her parents when she went off to the Sherwood School of Music in Chicago, as well as her recitals in Chicago.

Lima News, 24 May 1936

When she returned to Allen Co., Ohio, to attend Bluffton College as a music major, the Bluffton College yearbook notes her contribution to the school newspaper, the debate club, and the drama club.

After she married Sherwood Diller in 1939, the birth of her first child landed the proud mother back in the social pages of the Lima News in September 1940.

Phyllis went on to give birth to five more children, one of whom died just shy of two-weeks old.  She and her family moved to California where she would begin her career in a San Francisco nightclub called the Purple Onion. This article tells of her double-life as a mother and comedienne.

From her nightclub days, she went on to become a star in movies, on Broadway, and even on two of her own television shows, all whilst appearing as a guest on many others. She periodically returned to her hometown of Lima to perform, including a 1973 musical performance with the Lima Symphony Orchestra that raised money for music scholarships at her alma mater. In return, Lima pulled out all the stops. Saturday and Sunday were declared Phyllis Diller days, and the Lima News ran a full-page story titled “This Was Your Life,” filled with reminiscences from local friends, former teachers, and even the doctor who delivered two of her children.

Phyllis Diller once said, “A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”  As I pored over the clippings and various records Phyllis left behind in Ohio, it became very clear that she spent a good portion of her life passing out those smiles that set everything straight. Thanks Phyllis.

If you want to take a trip down memory lane and see Phyllis combine her musical and comedic talents, I found this clip on YouTube from The Muppet Show. Enjoy!