Entertainment

Phyllis Diller, a beloved witch for KC audiences

She was famous for her cackle and her cosmetic surgery, but in Kansas City, comedian Phyllis Diller is known for something else: being an absolute witch.

And a very, very popular one.

Diller, who died Monday at age 95, starred in Starlight Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” in July 1991 as, naturally, the Wicked Witch of the West. Six of seven nights were sellouts. Diller’s week of tormenting Dorothy Gale ended up setting a Starlight record: highest weekly attendance of any show up to that point. Starlight opened in 1951.

Once the outdoor theater enlarged its stage, bigger tours came to town and broke Diller’s record. Good thing the Wicked Witch never got wind of it.

Diller later called the “Oz” experience “the thrill of a lifetime,” adding: “It isn’t every old lady that can go up on the wire” to fly on a bicycle and a broomstick.

She turned 74 that summer.

“She was perfect, absolutely perfect,” says Bob Rohlf, Starlight’s former president and executive producer. “Everything she did on stage was right on the mark. She brought her comedic timing to everything she did, and her comedic timing was just incredible.”

Diller was “always ad-libbing,” remembers Jan Morevitska of Overland Park, a longtime Starlight subscriber and volunteer. “She also kind of picked her own place to stand sometimes. The (spotlight operators) would say, ‘I wonder where Phyllis is going to stand tonight.’ ”

That production was also memorable for Miss Gulch, the witch’s alter ego, “flying” out over the audience. It was a dummy, not Diller, although plenty in the crowd were fooled, Morevitska says.

Four years later, Diller returned to Starlight as the evil stepmother in “Cinderella,” the same summer she got a bronze star on Starlight’s Walk of Stars.

She was known to favor the meatballs served up by Starlight’s backstage canteen. Diller would take them back to her hotel room with her.

She is also immortalized at Leila’s Hair Museum in Independence. Diller donated a “wreath” of hair.

Diller came through Kansas City several times before her Starlight engagements. In June 1976, when she came for a standup show, the airline lost her luggage, The Star reported, “so she sat there without eyebrows and false eyelashes, wearing glasses and a pale green pantsuit, her white-blond hair pulled back in a knot, taking it all in stride.”

In May 1982 Diller performed five shows at, appropriately the Folly Theater — “Me and the theater have both been done over!” she said. The Star’s critic called her “surprisingly political … taking jabs at Britain’s royal family, Nancy Reagan and (then-Secretary of State) Alexander Haig, ‘the whoopee cushion in the seat of power.’ ”

The Star later reported that “in the flush of her fame” in the 1960s, Diller lived and worked out of the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves. “It was a wonderful place to be. St. Louis was nice and central, and homey for the kids,” Diller said.

Her longtime manager, Milton Suchin, told The Associated Press that Diller “died peacefully in her sleep and with a smile on her face.” She had suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1999.

She was found by her son, Perry Diller. The cause of her death has not been released.

Diller was a staple of nightclubs and television from the 1950s — when female comics were rare — until her retirement in 2002. Diller built her stand-up act around the persona of the corner-cutting housewife (“I bury a lot of my ironing in the backyard”) with bizarre looks, a wardrobe to match (by “Omar of Omaha”) and a husband named “Fang.”

She inspired a generation of female comics, including Ellen DeGeneres and Whoopi Goldberg.

“We lost a comedy legend today,” DeGeneres tweeted Monday. “Phyllis Diller was the queen of the one-liners. She was a pioneer.”

Diller didn’t get into comedy until she was nearly 40, after her first husband, Sherwood Diller, prodded her for two years to give up a successful career as an advertising and radio writer. Through it all, she was also a busy mother.

“We had five kids at the time. I don’t how he thought we’d handle that,” she told The AP in 2006.

Her husband managed her career until the couple’s 25-year marriage fell apart in the 1960s. Shortly after her divorce she married entertainer Warde Donovan, but they separated within months.

Through both marriages and other relationships, the foibles of “Fang” remained an integral part of her act.

“Fang is permanent in the act, of course,” she once said. “Don’t confuse him with my real husbands. They’re temporary.”

She also appeared in movies, including “Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number” and “Eight on the Lam” with Bob Hope.

In 1966-67, she was the star of an ABC sitcom about a society family trying to stave off bankruptcy, “The Pruitts of Southampton.” Gypsy Rose Lee played a nosy neighbor. In 1968, she was host of a short-lived variety series, “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show.”

But standup comedy was her first love, and when she broke into the business in 1956 it was a field she had largely to herself because female comics weren’t widely accepted then.

Although she could be serious during interviews, sooner or later a joke would pop out, often as not followed by that outrageous “AH-HHAAAAAAAAAAAA-HA-HA-HA!” laugh.

“It’s my real laugh,” she once said. “It’s in the family. When I was a kid my father called me the laughing hyena.”

Her looks were a frequent topic, and she did everything she could to accentuate them — negatively. She wore outrageous fright wigs and deliberately shopped for stage shoes that made her legs look as skinny as possible.

“The older I get, the funnier I get,” she said in 1961. “Think what I’ll save in not having my face lifted.”

She felt different about plastic surgery later, though, and her face, and other body parts, underwent a remarkable transformation. Efforts to be beautiful became a mainstay of her act.

Commenting in 1995 about the repainting of the Hollywood sign, she cracked, “It took 300 gallons, almost as much as I put on every morning.” She said her home “used to be haunted, but the ghosts haven’t been back since the night I tried on all my wigs.”

She recovered from the 1999 heart attack with the help of a pacemaker, but finally retired in 2002, saying advancing age was making it too difficult for her to spend several weeks a year on the road.

“I have energy, but I don’t have lasting energy,” she told The Associated Press in 2006. “You have to know your limitations.”

After retiring from standup, Diller continued to take occasional small parts in movies and TV shows (”Family Guy”) and pursued painting as a serious hobby. She published her autobiography, “Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse,” in 2005. The 2006 film “Goodnight, We Love You” documented her career.

Her other books included “Phyllis Diller’s Housekeeping Hints” and “Phyllis Diller’s Marriage Manual.”

Includes reporting by The Associated Press’ Sandy Cohen.
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