Phyllis Diller wore this dress decorated in cut-glass gems and silver sequins while performing as a solo pianist under the virtuoso pseudonym Dame Illya Dillya. The costume also includes an opera coat trimmed with a white fur shawl collar and wrists and decorated with plastic beads, a pair of white opera-length gloves (one of which is almost 8 feet long) and a tiara (which originally held a large white feather plume). Diller, while known for her stand-up comedy, was also an accomplished pianist. After graduating high school, Diller studied piano for three years at the Sherwood Conservatory of Music (at Columbia College Chicago), but eventually decided against a career in music.
After finding success in comedy, she received a call from the Pittsburgh Pops asking if she would do a show. With her mind in the music world, Diller responded and said she would love to and that she would play some Bach and Beethoven. The caller was so stunned that he did not let on that he only intended for her to perform her comedy. Thus began Diller’s career as an accomplished pianist. From 1971 to 1982 Diller performed with over 100 symphony orchestras across the United States and Canada in a show called The Symphonic Phyllis Diller. During these performances she would seriously perform pieces by Beethoven, Bach, and others as a solo pianist with an orchestra while integrating comedic elements.
The first half of The Symphonic Phyllis Diller was a performance by the symphony without Diller. After being dramatically introduced, Diller would sweep onstage in this concert dress and opera coat and proceed to peel off her white gloves. After peeling off the right glove and throwing it to the floor she would begin with the left which appeared to be endless because it is almost 8 feet long. After finally throwing the second glove to the ground Diller would toss the white fur around her neck to the ground and face the conductor, with her back to the audience, to unzip her long coat. The conductor would appear surprised, as if she was wearing nothing under the coat. Diller then proceeded to step out of the coat fully dressed and clap her hands, summoning two people carrying a stretcher onto the stage. These men then carefully arranged the clothes on the stretcher like a body and removed them from the stage. Next, Diller looked to the piano, ready to play, but discovered there was no piano bench. She then took the concert master’s chair who would proceed to take someone else’s chair, which continued until it reached the last violinist in the section, who was caught sleeping and grabbed the piano bench from backstage for himself before Diller snatched it. She then stepped over the bench in her long dress and bowed to the conductor 3 times before he started the music. During this musical prologue she dusted the piano, checked her sheet music, and looked at the audience through her binoculars before her entry into the piece. Despite the comedy pantomime up until this point, as soon as she began playing she was serious and generally impressed the audience with her musical skill.
Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.