“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” So said Mark Twain, and so it feels to have seen my name in the news recently.
The real Phyllis Diller lived to age ninety-five, and strange as it may seem, I admit to a small feeling of personal loss when I heard of her death. I never met her, never even saw her show when she was in Toronto, but she was a part of my life in a way that’s difficult to explain. About the time Ms. Diller became widely known and her crazy face began appearing in magazines, I was just a little girl, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Diller who had innocently named me Phyllis. They could never have guessed all the interesting things that came about because of it.
When I was about ten I began taking accordion lessons (don’t ask), and each year the conservatory held a concert in a large auditorium. The MC would talk up the audience, making them wait and wait for a duet by “Louise, and the one, the only …. Phyllis Diller!!” Loud applause greeted my cousin and me as we walked onto the stage, spindly little kids wearing accordions three sizes too big.
On the first day of high school this shy country kid, who had always attended a school with under a hundred kids, was thrust into a student body of 2,500. To my horror I found out that class lists showed students’ last names and first initials only. In each new class we had to give our first names when asked, and I can’t begin to describe some of the reactions to mine.
One day I was sick and had to call home from the school pay phone. Back then it was long distance to call across Scarborough, so I called collect. I’d never done that before and when the operator asked for my name I said, “Phyllis Diller”. She kept asking for my real name and wouldn’t accept my answer. Finally she told me to stop giving her grief and hung up on me. I was almost too shaken to try making the call again but I did, and gave only my first name.
In my mid-teens, a group of us went to the Science Centre. You know the show that they do there? The one where you put your hand on a big silver ball, become electrically charged, then shake your head so your hair stands on end? I was volun-pushed forward by my friends who shouted, “Her name’s Phyllis Diller”, and the demonstrator went for it. I had hair hanging halfway down my back in those days, and at the end of the show I looked worse than Ms. Diller during her heyday.
And if I had a dime for every time someone said, “Did you know that there’s a famous comedienne with your name?” or asked me how Fang was doing, then I’d be as rich as she was, although far less funny.
Many years ago I photocopied my birth certificate and enclosed it in a letter to the other Phyllis. In return I received one of her books and an 8 x 10 glossy like this one, both autographed, but the picture made me smile. She’d written, Dear Phyllis Diller, you poor thing!! Love Phyllis Diller
Despite the silliness though, here’s something interesting. I come from a Mennonite family, and that makes the Phyllis Diller connection incongruously funny. Everyone knows the crazy-looking, wise-cracking, fright-wigged jokester, but the other Phyllis attended a Mennonite school, Bluffton College in Ohio (Class of ’41), and it was there she met her husband, Sherwood Diller. Oddly enough, that Mennonite thing is one small connection we shared.
Following her death I saw this interview with Ms. Diller at age eighty-eight. That energy and smile is one more similarity I hope to share someday.