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Phyllis Diller's about-face: a chance visit to a neighborhood church changed her outlook on life from negative to positive.

Thirty-six years ago, America's most well-known female comic didn't feel much like laughing. Phyllis Diller, a middle-aged housewife in Alameda, California, had hit rock bottom.

"It was awful," she remembers. "My husband was fired from his job. We owed back mortgage payments. We knew that any day we would lose our home. The local grocer wouldn't give us food or credit. The power company threatened to turn off the electricity. "

Pressures at home became unbearable. Phyllis had to get away to someplace where she could sort things out. She walked-alone-around her neighborhood. She passed an open church and, on impulse, went inside.

"Empty churches are retreats for me," she says. "Even today, whenever I really want to think, I visit an empty church. The vibes, especially in a large cathedral, are powerful. An empty church is the one place I can go to get in touch with the 'inner me.' "

As she meditated there in solitude, she realized she was being dominated by negative-thinking people and negative circumstances. She made a private vow not to allow this to happen to her again.

"It seemed as though God Himself wanted me to get that message," she says. "Of course, my life didn't turn around instantly. But that new conviction got me pointed in the right direction. I had read books on the subject of self-motivation, but putting it to practice is much different. My first step was to realize that I had to stop wallowing in self-pity and negative thoughts about what a hard time I was having.

"I had a new confidence," she says. "I went out and got a job as a writer and publicist for KSFO-a local radio station. Sure, I still got scared at times, but I faced all my fears eyeball-to-eyeball and never let them get the best of me."

But writing for a radio station was not what she wanted. She knew she wanted to be in some kind of show business. She learned songs she could sing and melodies she could play on the piano. "Heck, I had never been on the professional stage before. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do," she says. "And every day I reminded myself to avoid the negativity of others who will engulf you with their pessimism."

She learned to hate the word "quit."

In 1955-just two years after her low point-she resigned from her job at the radio station to pursue a career as a stand-up comic. When she handed in her two-week notice, her station manager promised to keep her job open in case she failed to make it. Without hesitation, Phyllis did a "reverse MacArthur" and promised him, "I shall not return."

It was actually Phyllis' husband who talked this 37-year-old housewife into auditioning as a nightclub comic. She was nervous, scared, and unsure of herself. But she galvanized her gumption, walked onto the stage, and gave it her best shot. She passed the

test and was signed to perform for two weeks at the famous Purple Onion in San Francisco.

Her act was filled with jokes about the one subject she knew best-being a housewife. Patrons howled with laughter. Many returned to hear more. The owner was pleased enough to extend her contract. Diller stayed at the Purple Onion for nearly two years.

"I had never been in a nightclub before," she says. "When you're a mother and wife with five kids and a station wagon in the suburbs, you don't go to nightclubs. In Lima, Ohio, we didn't have any such places. Frankly, I used to think that only sleazy people went to places like that.

"The Purple Onion wasn't a nightclub, really. It was a high-class 'discovery club.' Acts such as the Kingston Trio and Smothers Brothers opened for me while I was there."

Her first national exposure was on the "Tonight Show" in 1959. When Jack Paar introduced her, the audience was taken aback; they were not accustomed to seeing female stand-up comics. But within minutes she had the studio audience and TV viewers laughing as she stood, wearing a pair of black leotards, on top of a grand piano. " I did a musical number, " she says. "It was a parody of Eartha Kitt, who had sung a rather sensual number called 'Monotonous.' I titled my song Ridiculous.' I slithered all over that piano like a cross between a snake and a black cat."

Her "Tonight Show" appearance catapulted her into the national spotlight and into demands for concert appearances throughout the country. Phyllis Diller became the nation's first touring female comic.

In a profession dominated by men, she experienced absolutely no special problems. "I was prepared," she admits, "and I could get laughs. Who could argue with that?"

Phyllis distinguished herself in yet another way. She refused to use obscene four-letter words in her act. And she has never compromised on that principle. To this day, whatever she says onstage can be said on television during the family hour.

"Comics who use profanity to shock an audience are copping out," she says. "It's a shame to constantly throw in shock buzz words. They have nothing to do with good material. When I listen to a comic, I want to hear great ideas and funny stuff. Those words add nothing.

"Sure, it may be harder to get a clean laugh than a dirty laugh," she adds, "but that's something I owe my audience. "

Although Phyllis Diller didn't start her nightclub act until she was 37 years old, she was no stranger to performing in public. She was trained from early childhood as a classical pianist. During her college days at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music, where she was a piano major, and at Bluffton (Ohio) College, in music education, she often gave concerts both as a pianist and as a lyric soprano. She certainly would have continued performing had her career not been interrupted by marriage and babies.

After she gained fame as a standup comic, she dusted off her old piano music and performed as a soloist around the country. From 1971 to 1982, she soloed with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, and more than 100 other symphony orchestras.

"I don't do that anymore," the comedienne says. "I'm just too busy to practice, and I travel too much to have a piano at my fingertips. I can't carry a violin like Jack Benny did and practice all the time. "

There's a subtle connection between her musical training and her success in show business. "Rhythm has a lot to do with comedy, " she explains. "If you don't do comedy in a rhythm-timing, they call it-you're dead. The better your timing, the more perfect your show will be. If you're not going to give an audience time to laugh, you're not going to hear it. In comedy, that's like losing a diamond-it's a terrible loss."

Those who follow Phyllis' career know that she is a walking medical-school visual aid for plastic surgery. "I've had everything done that could be done," she admits. Her list of surgeries includes two complete facelifts, a breast reduction, a tummy tuck, a nose job, cheek implants, an under-eye lift, a chemical peel, and straightened teeth.

"It cost me over $50,000, but it was worth it," she says with the zeal of an evangelist. "It has changed my life. I want everyone to know why I look better at 71 than I did when I was 30 or 40. I never liked the way I looked. Now I do. I used to be young and ugly. Now I'm old and gorgeous. "

Today, at her 22-room mansion in Brentwood, California, she's writing-off and on-her autobiography. "Don't worry," she says with that famous laugh. "This won't be a kiss and tell' book. I won't include anything that will reduce my self esteem or that of anyone else. I have no envy or jealousy. I'll not let anyone take away what I am or what I have done."

The book will cover her childhood in Lima, Ohio, her early career, her two marriages, her five children, her four grandchildren, and her dreams for the future.

Many people think Phyllis is still married, because of the many references in her routines to her husband, "Fang." "'Fang' is a myth, " she says. "He doesn't exist. However, that didn't stop my first husband's relatives from filing a quarter-million-dollar suit because of the jokes I made. It never reached the courtroom.

"When I compare my life 36 years ago with what it is today, it seems like a fairy tale," she says. "I got to where I am because of hard work and positive thinking.

"I sometimes wonder, however, where I would have been had I not visited that little church."
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Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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