The entertainment world lost a legend with the passing of Phyllis Diller.
According to TMZ.com, the 95-year-old comedian died in her sleep at her Brentwood home in Los Angeles, where she was surrounded by family.
While most sources cite Diller as being survived by her son, Perry; her daughters, Sally Diller and Suzanne Mills; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter, she also had a large extended family which spanned the United States and even reached places like Pasco County.
Among that extended family is our very own local connection to the Queen of Comedy, Realtor Steve Diller, who fondly shared with me a few memories of his legendary aunt.
But first, let’s take a look back at the early years.
Born in Lima, Ohio on July 17, 1917, to parents Frances Ada and Perry Marcus Driver, at a young age Phyllis Ada Driver realized that she loved to make people laugh.
According to the L.A. Times she once said, "When I realized I looked like Olive Oyl and wanted to look like Jean Harlow, I knew something had to be done. From 12 on, the only way to handle the terror of social situations was comedy—breaking the ice and making everybody laugh. I did it to make people feel more relaxed, including myself."
After high school she went on to study music and voice at a conservatory in Chicago, then she met 24-year old Sherwood Diller at Bluffton College, now Bluffton University, in Ohio.
In 1939, Sherwood and Phyllis eloped, she dropped out of school, and both settled into married life in Bluffton.
During WWII they moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where Sherwood worked building B-24 bombers and in 1945, he was transferred to the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California.
After working a series of jobs including woman’s editor at a small newspaper, an advertising copywriter for an Oakland department store and later an Oakland radio station, Phyllis Diller eventually landed a job as director of promotion and marketing at San Francisco’s top radio station KSFO.
But, it was her husband, Sherwood, better know to the audience as “Fang,” who pushed her to become a professional comedian. “It took two years of nagging by my husband to get me on that stage”, she said.
After auditioning at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, she opened at the club on March 7, 1955, and as they say, the rest is history.
In the early 1960s, after making her big break in comedy, Phyllis and Sherwood purchased an old four-story, Victorian style home in the affluent community of Webster Grove, just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.
Steve Diller, Phyllis Diller’s nephew, said, “It was about this time that I started to realize who my aunt was. I was only 7 or 8 years old at the time, but we lived about 10 minutes away in St. Louis.”
He went on to say, “Sometimes we saw her four or five times a week when my mom took us over to the big house to play with my cousins. I remember sneaking down into the basement and seeing all that she had collected—it was like a museum down there.”
Phyllis’ on-stage life was somewhat of a family affair too. Steve reminisced about how his grandmother Amanda Carter sewed the elaborate dresses she wore on stage, while his mother Evelyn Diller often helped with booking gigs.
And, while the memories of his famous aunt are mainly of the “good family times,” he says Phyllis was also a talented musician, writer, artist, cook, and of course, most of all, a housewife—the latter being a muse for her on-stage talents of making people laugh.
Not only did she play the piano and saxophone, but she loved to paint and always designed her own, personal Christmas cards.
Steve said, “Every year I’d get one of her specially designed Christmas cards and even have some of her artwork hanging on the walls at home, she was a talented woman.”
One attribute that Phyllis instilled in her young nephew was her passion and eye for art. Steve remembers when she bought him his first camera—a little Kodak brownie.
Later in life Steve even took photography in college and still today enjoys peering through the viewfinder of a camera as a favorite hobby, something he can thank his aunt Phyllis for.
In 1970, when Steve moved to Pasco County with his parents, he said they still kept in contact with his famous aunt.
He said, “Anytime she had a show in the Bay area, she would stop by my mom’s house in Holiday just to visit. It was always great to see her driving through the neighborhood in her big limo and pulling up to the house—we knew Aunt Phyllis was here to visit.”
While Steve was saddened with the recent passing of his aunt, he knows she had a good life filled with laughter.
She remained spunky to the very end and, in 2005, famously appeared in the movie "The Aristocrats," telling an x-rated joke ... better than most comics half her age.
According to TMZ.com, Joan Rivers recently said, Diller "broke the way for every woman comedian” and even named her favorite comedian of all time.
The family held a private funeral service and, according to find-a-grave.com, Phyllis Ada Diller was cremated and the “ashes given to family and friends.”