A couple of weeks ago I received an invitation to speak at today’s television class at UNLV. Since Phyllis Diller didn’t do a lot of television I wasn’t sure how well this would go, and racked my brain for her television-related appearances. Turned out I needn’t have worried.
The instructor, Kevin, started the class by showing the clip of Phyllis’s appearance on “You Bet Your Life,” which was hosted by Groucho Marx. I remembered Phyllis saying she had not been happy with that show; it was only a couple of years after her debut at the Purple Onion in San Francisco and she was still very much a house-wife, still struggling to make it in show business.
As I watched it this afternoon, it was clear that Phyllis was very nervous. In a PBS interview many years later said she hadn’t been nervous — she had been petrified! But still, there was something sweet about her.
When the clip ended, Kevin called me up to the front of the room to introduce me and I noticed that my black jacket sported a noticeable amount of cat hair. I’ve always wanted a fur jacket, but not a cat-fur jacket! And I’d spent twenty minutes (TWENTY!) with the lint roller before I left the house. My black slacks weren’t much better. No wonder this outfit was on sale! But I digress …
“Phyllis was always pretty,” someone remarked. “Pretty?” I thought. “Not hardly.” Phyllis’s nose was too long, her teeth were crooked and she was thin as a rail. However, as I watched this clip, I could see that there was something about her. Not glamorous, not drop-dead gorgeous, but well, maybe a little pretty.
Kevin was a good interviewer and among many things I would not have thought to mention, he asked how she was as an artist. I find this a bit difficult to answer because while I don’t know a lot about art, I know what I like. (Gee, I think I’ve heard that somewhere before.) Phyllis’s paintings were not to my taste and I would probably categorize them as “primitive.” But then you have Grandma Moses, so who am I to judge? I went on-line when I got home and found pictures of some of Phyllis’s paintings. Here’s one of a cat — not her cat, which was white, but somebody’s cat or perhaps an imaginary cat. You get to decide if this is art you like.
So all-in-all a fun afternoon talking about Phyllis and my adventures with her. And I am always happy to hear all the good memories people have about her. She truly was an American icon. As for a painter … ? Well, you decide.