It’s a throwaway line in her obituary that generations of fans had little reason to know, but Phyllis Diller, the comedic icon who died in her bed in Los Angeles today at age 95, was an Alameda housewife when she entered show business at the late age of 37. Her first meaningful standup was at the Purple Onion in North Beach in 1955. Her career took off slowly, then mushroomed in the early 60s—after she moved to St. Louis.
But before that, she and her first husband, Sherwood (who worked at the naval air station) and their five kids lived in at least three different places in Alameda from the late 1940s through much of the ‘50s.
From the Alameda Museum’s quarterly newsletter from spring 2009:
They moved into the Encinal housing project near Webster Street. Her first impression of Alameda was not favorable. She lived in a two bedroom apartment with a cement floor and plywood walls. She claims that the walls were so thin, you could hear your neighbor’s heartbeat. The ground between the buildings was paved with blacktop tar. It was strung with clotheslines where all the neighbor ladies hung out their wet laundry.
In the early 1950’s, the Diller Family moved to a modest home on the corner of Fernside and Fremont Street. She often would entertain the PTA ladies at Edison School, where her children attended. Many of them encouraged her to pursue a career as an entertainer. She also played the organ at the First Presbyterian Church on Santa Clara.
The hook for the newsletter item: Diller’s donation of the family’s antique pump organ to the museum.