From fan to friendship – what I learned from Phyllis Diller

I was 15 years old when I first corresponded with comic Phyllis Diller. As a fan, I was seeking an autograph from a celebrity whom I’d seen on TV.
It never occurred to me that she was 70 years my senior or that others my age probably weren’t familiar with her illustrious career. I just thought she was very funny.
After nearly a decade of correspondence with one of the world’s most beloved entertainers, I came to understand that it was quite extraordinary.
People began to tell me how awesome it was that I wrote Phyllis. In my letters, I would often request autographs, extend greetings and let her know how much I admired her career.
We exchanged Christmas cards and for the past several years, I sent her birthday gifts and cards — anything to let her know that she was being thought of and appreciated.
And to my great surprise, she seemed to take an interest in me. It was “a thriller from Diller,” as she jokingly called the correspondence, to go to the mailbox and see an envelope with her return address label affixed to it.
I amassed quite a collection of memorabilia associated with her career including dozens of signed photographs. I even purchased a few memorabilia items at auctions including some autographed handbags.
When I was growing up, I watched Phyllis on television. I was also interested in watching video tapes containing recordings of her appearances on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roasts, The Tonight Show and other programs.
Bounding out on stage wearing a wild wig, gaudy dress, zip-up boots, and shiny gloves, she held a long cigarette holder into the air.
Phyllis spoke a few keen comedic lines, just enough to get the audience roaring with laughter, and then proceed to arch back and belt out her signature cackling laugh. “ Ahhh-haaaa-ha-ha-ha !”
On a trip to Los Angeles in May, I finally got the chance to meet Phyllis Diller. Her personal assistant invited me over.
As I toured her home in amazement, it seemed that she really considered it to be an oasis where friends were welcome and entertaining came second nature. On the walls were framed photographs of her and dozens of fellow comedians including Jack Benny, Milton Berle , Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.
On one table sat a framed picture of Bette Midler. On a grand piano sat photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Hope, Mr. and Mrs. Jim Backus and Betty Ford.
Phyllis’ office was filled with plaques and awards. Framed pictures of her posing alongside American presidents including Ronald Reagan and Lyndon B. Johnson were on display.
The legendary comic greeted me and my friend Lauren Foulk in a sunroom of her home overlooking a courtyard. I made Phyllis laugh without realizing it; she thought my southern accent was hilarious.
Commenting on how much she admired Lauren’s eye makeup, Phyllis asked me several questions and then I casually made conversation.
“What’s old Fang been up to?”
She cackled and held her arms in the air and exclaimed, “Same as always… nothing!”
Lauren and I were laughing as Phyllis leaned back on a sofa she was sitting on. She observed us chuckling and suddenly let out her signature bellowing laugh that went on and on. The antic sparked even more laughter.
“They’re funny and they don’t even know it,” Phyllis told her assistant, as she looked at me and Lauren.
I thought for a moment – is this really happening? Is Phyllis Diller really entertaining me? If this is a dream, please don’t wake me.
She then took my hand as we adjourned to the Bob Hope salon in her home where Phyllis played several songs on the grand piano.
Even the instrument itself was famous, being played decades earlier by Liberace.
After the short concert, Phyllis posed for a few pictures with us. I was incredibly excited as a sat on the piano bench with her and the camera flashed.
As Phyllis stood from the bench, I thanked her for a memorable afternoon.
“Look around, laugh and be happy,” she said, as her assistant accompanied her to the rear of the home where Phyllis was going to rest.
Lauren and I stood in the beautifully-appointed room, speechless from the experience we’d just shared.
I looked around the Bob Hope salon at the regal fixtures and decorative items. She had a charming, picturesque living environment. A large painting of a distinguished-looking Hope sat on a wooden easel by the piano.
About 15 minutes later, Lauren and I left the home and drove to the Santa Monica Pier for sightseeing. We sat on a bench at the end of the pier, talking each other’s ears off about how cool the day had been.
I’m grateful for what Phyllis subtly taught me – to exercise generosity, show genuine interest, and share humor with others.
That’s why I’ll always be a fan of Phyllis Diller.

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