It’s Still Her Dream House
Phyllis Diller likes to stay put when it comes to where she lives.
Other celebrities may move as frequently as they change wardrobes. Not Diller. She’s in her 37th year in her 10,000-square-foot Brentwood home.
“It was the house I always dreamed of,” she said of the 1914 residence, “and here it was, already built.”
Diller bought the Country English-style house in the fall of 1965, and she’s still having sweet dreams in it.
An energetic 84, she is still acting and already appeared this year in the recurring role of Titus’ grandmother on the Fox sitcom “Titus.”
She’s doing stand-up comedy and just finished a week-plus run on stage at the Mohegan Sun Casino near New London, Conn.
She’s playing the piano. Classically trained in the ‘30s at the Sherwood Music Conservatory in Chicago, Diller played with 100 symphony orchestras in the U.S. when she was in her 70s.
And she’s painting. That’s a love she has had since 1963, when she did an oil painting of a nightclub stage with a spotlight and titled it “And Now ... .” The still-life hangs in the 18-foot-long hallway entry of her home with dozens of her other acrylics, watercolors and oils.
“And now a comic comes and stands in front of the spotlight,” she said, jumping in front of the picture to demonstrate how it works.
So prolific is Diller as an artist that the upstairs gallery and many of the other walls in her house are also filled with her work, much of it created in the last year.
Many of her earlier paintings were sold to collectors. When one canvas sold at auction in the ‘80s for $5,000, she turned one of her upstairs rooms into an art studio.
That’s where her works-in-progress can be found, including one that she has been working on for 15 years. “I like the face on the woman now,” she said. “At one point, she had too many wrinkles.”
Diller doesn’t think of the painting as a self-portrait despite her well-publicized penchant for cosmetic surgery. “I was called the Queen of Plastic Surgery,” she has been reported as saying. “I did bring it out of the closet.” She even wrote about it in her 1981 book, “The Joys of Aging and How to Avoid Them.”
Diller never had formal art instruction. “I just do what I do, sometimes without even testing the water,” she said. “I don’t let fear or criticism stop me.”
It’s a philosophy she started practicing after reading the book “The Magic of Believing” by Claude Bristol. It prompted her to become a comic when she was nearly 40 and a mother of five.
Since her stand-up debut at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, she appeared in the movie “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), the sitcom “The Pruitts of Southampton” (1966-67) and the variety show “The Beautiful Phyllis Diller Show” (1968).
In 1970 she starred in “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway after Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye and Betty Grable. Diller was then in more than a dozen movies--often with Bob Hope--and she was in countless TV specials, including every Bob Hope Christmas Special from 1965 through 1994.
She calls Hope her mentor and named her living room the Bob Hope Salon, where she keeps a large oil painting of the comedian on an artist’s easel. “Sitting at the knees of the master,” she said, taking a seat beside the portrait.
Diller has names for many of the 22 rooms in her house.
There is the Edith Head, a powder room named after the famous costume designer; and the John Wilkes Booth, a telephone room named for the actor who shot Abe Lincoln.
There was the Lincoln bedroom, complete with furniture from Lincoln’s time, but the bedroom became an office after Diller’s children grew up and left home.
The Sarah Siddons Room, named for a wildly popular 18th century English actress whose portrayals of victims epitomized suffering, is the dining room. Diller is known as a fine cook, but she laughingly calls one of her own recipes “Garbage Soup.”
The Canary Suite is a yellow guest room.
The Giuseppe Verdi Suite, named for the Italian composer, is another guest room, decorated in green. (The Italian word for green is verde.)
The Pump Room has a pump organ in it.
The Bach Room, named for the German composer, is her office, which, despite her large, somewhat cluttered desk at one end, could be a salon for recitals. On a stage at the opposite end of the room sits a Kawai grand piano, which Diller doesn’t need much persuasion to play. Her concert grand, a Chickering, is in the Hope Salon off the Gothic Alcove, where she keeps a hand-painted 17th century Italian chest.
Her wig and costume room is upstairs. In it are wigs of every color. How many? She responds with her signature laugh. “I never counted.”
Downstairs is the loggia, which Diller calls “the heart of the house, because everyone stops here, between the front door and the bar.” Beyond the loggia are Diller’s gardens, filled with roses, stocks and pansies. The stucco house, on an acre, is built around a courtyard.
Diller likes to sit by a window in the loggia and read scripts, the newspaper, art books and the mail. “I love the friendly feeling of this room,” she said.
Nearby is the Scarlet Scullery, her name for the kitchen, where she often makes salads and pastas or sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and pork. She is also known to make her own recipe for Glory Glory Cacciatore, and she once marketed something she labeled Philly Dilly Chili.
True to its name, the Scarlet Scullery is painted red. It wasn’t red when she moved in. She first painted it that way 20 years ago.
Red is her favorite color. “I think that’s because in my childhood, everything was very dull,” she said. “Red represents my newfound happiness.”
Much of that happiness came with buying her house in sunny Southern California, far from the cold temperatures of Ohio, where she was born and studied music before heading to Chicago. But total happiness came, she said, “quite late in life.”
Last year she was the first woman to be honored on the Friars Club Wall of Fame, a reflection of her having made it as a female comic in what was then a male profession. The Friars Club of California, started by comic-actor George Burns and his friends in 1946, has more than 400 members, mostly in the entertainment industry.
While gratified by the Friars Club honor, Diller said she is proudest of her kids. Not surprisingly, her fondest memories of the house have had to do with her children. “The fun times were the outdoor times because I have these huge lawns where we flew kites and played baseball and croquet.”
But she didn’t move even after her children left home because, she said, “this house is perfect for me. I never want to leave. In fact, when I moved in, I said, ‘I hope I go out of here feet first.’”