When someone tells me a good story, I always tell them to write it down. They often say they can’t. “If you don’t tell that story, who will?” I ask. They get silent and I know they are thinking about it but will probably never do it. When I came around that corner in the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, recently, I saw a photo of Phyllis Diller and thought about my mother. She and Phyllis were friends. I have never told the story of my mother, who in many ways was a Renaissance Woman. I applied my advice to myself and so….
Phyllis Diller made more than 40 movies and was on hundreds of TV programs. She didn’t become a performing stand-up comic until she was 37 but lived to be 95. She had 5 children to raise and wanted stability for them, so she and her husband bought a home in Webster Groves, a community in the St. Louis area where he had roots and relatives. Phyllis Diller’s career took off. After 4 years in the St. Louis area, she moved to LA and divorced her first husband. He had already become a comic invention named Fang. It was during her time in Webster Groves that she and my mother became friends. My mother had 6 children.
When I was about 12, it became necessary for my family to move. My parents were renting 3 rooms in what was called a 4-family-flat. Two of the 3 rooms were bedrooms in which my parents and their 5 children slept. The only way they could afford to move was if my Mom went to work. She began as a part time typist for a TV station, an NBC affiliate. Within a few years she was floor directing a popular TV show. She did so well that she became the writer-producer-director of a radio show starring a local big-band conductor. It was on weekdays for 1½ hours and played before a live audience. Any celebrity who came to St Louis was on this show, so Mom got to meet many famous people. She worked for 17 years, had a 6th child in her 40s, and got measles when she was 50. This devastated her health and Rita Eileen, who was proud of her Irish heritage and had 7 brothers and sisters, died 6 years later.
One article in local media called her a dynamo, which she was. It called her show a free-wheeling variety program. It was and she loved doing it. The writer of the article called Mom “a small, grey-haired streak of energy”. She was. Very good at her job, which required lots of time and stamina, she expected her children, especially the 2 oldest, to help out at home. We did. I was the 2nd oldest. My brothers and sisters somewhat considered me a 2nd father, especially my youngest sister, who was only about 14 when Mom died.
In the last couple of years before her health made it impossible, Mom began to travel. One years she was invited to LA by herself to see the Rose Bowl Parade and the game that followed. My great love of travel partially resulted from this late-developing passion of hers. Thanks, Mom.
June 1st, 2019 at 9:55 pm
Thanks for the lovely tribute, Hank. I didn’t know or had forgotten about the measles. I think Mom went to work part-time in 1952 @ KSD. We moved out of the flat and into the house on Juniata in 1955. Of course one of the main reasons why she went to work was Daddy’s drinking and gambling.
And one of the things that hastened her death, I think, was having the Russ David Show leave KSD in 1969 or 1970. She felt compelled to stay with KSD. Or so I remember it.