Originally published on Torontoist on August 28, 2012.
Toronto Star, August 16, 1962 (left); Globe and Mail, August 21, 1962 (right).
When Phyllis Diller, who died last week at the age of 95, began her career in the late 1950s, female stand-up comics were a rarity. Figuring out how to book them could be a challenge, which led to some odd bills. Take one of Diller’s earliest appearances in Toronto, where she shared the spotlight for two weeks in August 1962 with an ice revue presented by Broadway producer Alexander H. Cohen.
The mix didn’t work for Globe and Mail reviewer John Kraglund, who was unimpressed by the first hour-and-a-half of the evening. He didn’t feel any sparks until Joe Jackson Jr., “a ragged tramp of a clown with an almost guileless smile and a bicycle” performed a quiet but funny routine about his disintegrating bike.
Jackson was followed by Diller, who Kraglund considered one of the night’s highlights. He wrote:
A few minutes later Phyllis Diller slithered sexily on to the stage, then became herself and proceeded to convulse the audience with skillfully timed, loud, earthy humour. At 10:45 p.m., I left the theatre, firmly convinced there is nothing like a couple of topnotch professionals to pep up an amateurish production.
It was back at her early days at San Francisco’s Purple Onion that I first met Miss Diller. In those intimate quarters she was funny, for one could not ignore her wickedly lusty laugh, broad gestures and constantly changing facial contortions. She is one of those rare performers who can project most of this through the vast expanse of the O’Keefe Centre.
Perhaps last night there was too much of her own laughter and too much bobbing and weaving; although she may feel this necessary if she is to reach the most distant observers. But I do not suppose the humour would have been lost if she had stood still to describe her badly dressed hostess: “If her neckline had been any lower she would have been barefoot.”
Even with these reservations, Miss Diller was rather like a breath of fresh air after a rather lengthy period in the doldrums, which had only been relieved by Mr. Jackson.
Additional material from the August 21, 1962 edition of the Globe and Mail.
Good time: Comedienne Phyllis Diller checks out budget-priced watches at a Kensington Avenue stall. She’s a self-confessed shopaholic. Photo by Bernard Weil, 1991. Toronto Public Library from the Toronto Star Archives, tspa_0043919f.
When updating this piece, I dove into the Toronto Public Library’s Toronto Star photo archive to see if there were any contemporary pictures of Diller. There weren’t (the oldest were from 1972), but this image stood out, showing the comedian having what might appear to be an ordinary day for anyone wandering Kensington Market. According to a November 28, 1991 Star article, besides browsing watches, Diller stopped at Courage My Love (“this is my kind of place,” she said as she bought a lilac velvet lounging jacket and a black cotton top hat), a sock stall, and Tom’s Place.