The evolution of Phyllis Diller's career in 7 objects
Phyllis Diller is widely considered the first female stand-up comic to perform as a solo act. While she is mainly known for her career in comedy, there were many other dimensions to her life. Not only could she tell jokes, but she could sing, act, paint, play piano, and more. Follow along as I trace the many talents of Phyllis Diller through time using objects in the museum's collection. You can help us learn even more about Diller's work by helping to transcribe jokes from her gag file with the Smithsonian Transcription Center.
1. The gag file
Diller began performing stand-up in 1955. As her act grew, she began to use a filing cabinet to store and organize the plethora of jokes she used on stage. Diller's gag file consists of a steel cabinet with 48 drawers, along with a three-drawer expansion, containing 52,569 three-by-five index cards that each hold a typewritten joke or gag. These index cards are each dated and organized alphabetically by subject, ranging from accessories to world affairs and covering almost everything in between. Throughout her career Diller would often be asked to perform a short comedy set on one particular topic. This gag file would help her quickly gather individual jokes to create a set about a specific theme. Diller continued to add to the file and edit jokes through the 1990s.
2. Pink dress from The Pruitts of Southampton
Diller's first television show, The Pruitts of Southampton, debuted in September 1966. She wore this dress during the title sequence for the show. The show focused on the main character, Phyllis Pruitt, and her family living in their large mansion and attempting to keep up appearances after losing all of their money. The show struggled to gain popularity and changed its title to The Phyllis Diller Show in January 1967 before airing its last episode in April of that year. While The Pruitts of Southampton was not a success, Diller starred in another television show in 1968 titled The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show, as well as many other TV specials and guest appearances throughout her career.
3. 1966 USO Christmas Tour dress
After meeting him early in her career, Diller and Bob Hope became lifelong friends. She starred in three movies with him and appeared in many of his television specials. She also joined him for two of his USO Christmas tours. On the 1966 USO Christmas tour she wore this ensemble as she toured around Vietnam, Thailand, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines entertaining troops. Diller also joined Hope on his USO tour of the Persian Gulf in 1987 and was awarded the USO Liberty Bell Award "for demonstrating concern for the welfare and morale of America's armed forces" in 1978.
4. Hello, Dolly! costume
In 1970 Diller starred as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! for three months at the St. James Theatre on Broadway. Diller followed Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Pearl Bailey (in a version with an all-black cast) and Betty Grable in the role and was replaced by Ethel Merman, who closed out the show in December 1970.
5. "Miss Fun Fishing 1973" trophy
In 1973 Diller was named "Miss Fun Fishing 1973" after posing nude for Field and Stream magazine. The award was presented "on the occasion of her selection as the first centerfold in the magazine's 78 year history." The trophy goes on to explain that "fishing and humor are two universally popular sources of entertainment for people of all ages." The centerfold in the June 1973 issue of Field and Stream showed Diller wearing fishing waders that covered her entire body except for her shoulders and arms.
6. Beaded dress from The Symphonic Phyllis Diller
While known for her stand-up comedy, Diller was originally trained as a classical pianist. She returned to the piano in the early 1970s, and from 1971 to 1982 she performed with over 100 symphony orchestras across the United States and Canada in a show titled The Symphonic Phyllis Diller. She wore this dress during the performances when she would seriously play pieces by Beethoven, Bach, and others as a solo pianist with an orchestra while integrating comedic elements.
Diller began painting for pleasure in the mid-1980s. During this time she was staying in a large suite at Harrah's in Reno, Nevada, where she had enough space to set up several easels and canvases. She describes her technique as painting quickly and without too much thought about each individual painting. This quick style allowed her to complete anywhere from ten to 25 paintings per day. She mainly painted faces, including this self-portrait.
Although Diller was most known for her comedy success, she was able to explore her numerous other talents throughout life. Diller continued to perform stand-up comedy routines until she retired in 2002 at the age of 85. But along the way she honed her other skills to create an incredible, multifaceted career.
Hanna BredenbeckCorp is a project assistant in the Division of Culture and the Arts.
The digitization of Phyllis Diller's index card collection was generously supported by Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan.