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Perry's Treasure Chest: Phyllis Diller

Frosene Phillips is on vacation. During her absence from this space, she shares another gem from her father’s archives. Perry Phillips’ Night Sounds column ran in the Oakland Tribune from 1962 until his passing in 1991. Today’s column originally appeared December 29, 1987 when Phillips received a visit from legendary comic Phyllis Diller before she opened at Bally’s Reno, now the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. It has been reported that Diller died peacefully “with a smile on her face” August 20, 2012. Diller was 95. Enjoy the trip down memory lane!

Any time I've an occasion to chat with Phyllis Diller, and I've had many over the years, inevitably the conversation will turn to the days she resided in Alameda, her various jobs in Oakland, and to San Francisco's Purple Onion where her show business career began. And so it was last week when Diller paid me a visit two days before she opened a four-week engagement as the headliner in Donn Arden's "Hello Hollywood, Hello!" at Bally's Reno.

Though I've seen Phyllis perform many times, and reviewed a number of her shows over the years, I hadn't touched bases personally with her for a spell. I welcomed this opportunity to do so. Let me first point out one thing. Any conversations I've ever had with Phyllis Diller have been nothing less than stimulating. This one was no exception.

Her memory (which I've admired for so long) I soon discovered was as sharp as ever. Fantastic would be more like it as Phyllis turned 70 this year and has the recall of a person 30 years younger. Her mind has always been a busy one and, I gathered, will remain so for a long time to come. "I lived at 1841 Fremont Drive in the Fernside district of Alameda," she reminded me. "My first job was with the old San Leandro News Observer."

Her visit to The Tribune also stirred some memories. "I applied for a job at KLX (the Tribune's onetime radio station) as a music librarian and was turned down. "It was a good thing," she added, "as I would probably still have been here." She then let loose with the hearty, and sharp, laugh for which she is famous.

The KLX disappointment aside, Phyllis went to Kahn's department store (now the Rotunda) and landed a job as an advertising copywriter. Her work at Kahn's impressed the owner of Oakland's other radio station KROW (now KABL) who offered her a job (at more pay, of course) to write commercials for his station. "His name was Sheldon Sackett," she recalled instantly, "famous manic depressive."

Today’s column appeared in the Oakland Tribune on Tuesday, December 29, 1987

KROW proved an important stop along the way for Phyllis for it was at this small station (at the corner of Broadway and 19th Street) that she worked with staff members who would one day be well known, both locally and nationally, in the field of entertainment. "Can you believe who came out of that little studio right here in downtown Oakland?" she asked. She then named Ralph Edwards, Art Linkletter, Rod McKuen, Jack Clark, Russ Coughlin and the late Don Sherwood. For a town that was said to have "no there, there" that's a pretty good list.

When Phyllis speaks of the Purple Onion she does so almost in reverence and with much affection. Even more so when she recalls the late, Barrymore "Barry" Drew who booked her into the Purple Onion after she had put together her comedy act. Phyllis signed on for two weeks and stayed for 89. Her career had been launched with a bang and the rest is history. Phyllis described Drew as a "genius for spotting talent." "Did you know that the Kingston Trio was originally a quintet?" she added. "Barry pulled them aside, after their Purple Onion audition, and said 'Three of you have jobs.'" The three, as the country would learn, were Dave Guard, Dick Shane and Nick Reynolds.

Phyllis' list, of those who made it at the Purple Onion (all booked by Drew) is impressive. In addition to the Kingston Trio there were the Smothers Brothers, Maya Angelou, Alan Sues, Randy Sparks, Ronnie Schell, Ketty Lester, Jackie and Roy, Will Holt, Milt Kamen and Rod McKuen, her onetime co-worker at KROW, among others. "Not a single act," she noted sadly, "went on to national fame after the death of Barry Drew." I must note that McKuen and Sparks are native Oaklanders.

All in all, it was another rewarding trip down memory lane with Phyllis Diller. We touched on a lot more such as today's new talents and the importance of working clubs, among other things, but these will have to wait for a later column. After, that is, I've seen her show at Bally's and had an encore session with her. As Phyllis was leaving, I told her that I couldn't help but notice her fondness for Alameda and Oakland. "This," she said with a smile, "was my home."

Frosene will be back with you again June 16 with some thoughts from Guy Fieri of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives fame who will be in Lathrop, CA, at the Dell'Osso Family Farm hosting the first annual Baconfest Chef Cooking Contest on Father's Day weekend.

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