Okay, how many of you remember a show with Ralph Edwards called “This is Your Life”? The show was originally on radio and started back in the 50s, I believe. You could even call it the very first reality show. It worked like this: a person would be chosen by the producers, or perhaps Ralph Edwards the moderator, and then surprised by an announcer who would approach them at some function and pronounce like: “Trudy Snoffitz! This is Your Life!”
After Trudy recovered from the shock of being chosen for this exciting event, she would be taken by limousine to the studio where everything was set up. In the television version the guest of honor sat on stage with Ralph Edwards who would say: “Do you remember when you were 8 years old …” and a voice would come over the microphone saying something like, “Little Trudy was my best student. I remember the day I had stepped away and the fire alarm went off. Little Trudy organized all the students and led them outside.” And then Trudy screeches, “Oh my gosh, that is Mrs. Maguilicuddy — my third grade teacher!” And the curtain would open and out would toddle Mrs. Maguilicuddy and there would be hugs and laughter. The show would continue with several mystery voices and anecdotes and touching reunions.
SO, now that you remember how that worked, I am going to spill the beans. I was sworn to secrecy, but that was 40 years ago and I’m pretty sure all the players are now beyond caring.
Phyllis Diller was chosen to be honored and have her life showcased. Whether it was her manager or her agent or her publicist who did the arranging, I’m not sure, but the whole thing was a set up. Phyllis was to present an award of some kind to somebody for something and as she was doing that, the announcer would step up on stage and announce, “Phyllis Diller! This is Your Life!” However, there were a couple of glitches.
The first glitch was that about two days beforehand, Phyllis decided she didn’t want to do the presentation and told me to cancel it. “There’s plenty of time for them to find someone else,” she assured me. However, I knew the real reason she had been asked to do this presentation and knew that she couldn’t beg off. I tried to persuade her.
“It won’t take all that long,” I told her. “And I’m sure this award coming from you will make it really special.” Phyllis did not like to be argued with or contradicted. I was on thin ice.
“No,” she told me. “Cancel it.”
It was not worth my job to argue further so I simply had to tell her it was a set-up for “This is Your Life!” I thought she’d be thrilled, but she was lukewarm to the idea. However, it was obvious that this was a major production and she could not bow out. So on the appointed day at the appointed time, Phyllis was at a little meeting in Hollywood presenting an award to someone she had never heard of for something she knew nothing about. And that was the second glitch.
As she preparing to hand the man his plaque, someone bounded up on stage and interrupted her. Phyllis did not take kindly to being interrupted. In fact, she was quite peeved and it showed. I believe she said, something like, “Excuse me, we’re in the middle of something here …” and the intruder was a little taken aback. He was probably used to people being so astonished that they simply stood there. Phyllis snarled. However, he did regain his composure and continued with the famous line, “This is Your Life!”
We were immediately taken to the theater on Vine Street just down from Hollywood Boulevard. The show proceeded as planned, and by then Phyllis had gotten over her annoyance and everything went on smoothly. People from her past spoke from behind the curtain and Phyllis, of course, would respond with “That was my landlady when the family first moved to San Francisco,” or “That was the man who gave me my first break in show business,” and on and on.
One voice totally baffled her, however. The anecdote was about something that had supposedly happened in third grade. Phyllis — who had a phenomenal memory — had no recollection at all. The woman came out and Ralph Edwards introduced her as Phyllis’s third grade teacher. Phyllis smiled sweetly and the woman to prattled on for a few minutes before it was time for the next mystery voice.
The show finally wrapped up with hugs and laughter and we were once again back in the limousine headed to Phyllis’s house. Once we were safely away from the studio, Phyllis turned to me and said, “That third grade teacher? I have no idea who that was. I’ve never met that woman before in my life!” We had a good laugh about it. Phyllis had an unbelievable memory. If she said that was not her third grade teacher, you could bet the farm that it was not her third grade teacher.
To this day I wonder how that lady wormed her way in. And what would have happened if Phyllis had said on live television, “I have no idea who you are. You were never my teacher.” It would have made for an interesting show! But Phyllis believed in acting like a lady and that’s not anything she would do.
Phyllis never would have made it on a present day reality show! Thank goodness.
Shameless Plug: Although this incident is not in my book, there are many more tales of working for Phyllis Diller. Check out my book: “Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller.” It’s available at http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Spotlight-Road-Phyllis-Diller/dp/0985972882