Archive for September, 2012

Dear Phyllis Diller

There are so few people in this world who lived as fully — and as lovingly — as Phyllis Diller.  I was always deeply inspired by her, and when Phyllis died on August 20, 2012, it was like a bright light went out in this world.

Diller was an entertainment icon, with a stand-up, television and motion picture career that spanned six decades.  A pioneer in women’s comedy, she was known for her over-the-top wit, outlandish outfits and her parodies of domestic life.   She was completely different, utterly outrageous, and truly unforgettable.  The younger generations may not be as familiar with her, but there was a time when everybody knew and loved Phyllis Diller.  She had a universal quality about her that helped her stay relevant so long — it was something she always strived for.

There were times in my life when I needed a bit of laughter to get through difficult situations.  And Phyllis Diller was one of the biggest sources of laughter and warmth.  I used to listen to Phyllis Diller Laughs, one of her first comedy records, over and over again.  Laughter helped me go on, no matter what was happening around me.  And that’s when I started developing my own comedic sensibilities, trying to be just like the wonderful performers I knew on television.   As a child I would even work out little comedy bits as I walked to school, which I could sprinkle throughout the day.  It definitely made life more manageable, and gave me footing and an identity.

I looked forward to any appearance by Phyllis Diller on television, even in the briefest cameo.  They were always great, because Phyllis was always on.   Incredibly sharp and quick as a flash, Diller was a lot more than just her stand-up routine: she had a fantastic and diverse mind, a wellspring of creative abilities, as well as well as those famous comedy chops.   You truly never knew what to expect from Phyllis Diller.   One moment she would be telling a joke, the next playing classical piano, or maybe discussing life philosophy with a real understanding of the world.

Diller constantly credited one book as being the key that unlocked her potential: Claude M. Bristol’s The Magic of Believing.   She said as soon as she started to read it, everything started to make sense, and she knew exactly where she had to go with her life.   It was what gave her the courage to do something that women simply did not do in the 1950s (stand-up comedy), and allowed her to focus — undeterred — on her creative and spiritual goals.   As Bristol says, “…Thoughts become things,” and you will become precisely what you allow yourself to be, as long as you truly believe it.  That amazing little book is what allowed the Phyllis Diller we all came to know to come into being.

Diller genuinely cared for her fans.  If somebody wrote her a letter, Phyllis would respond personally… and in short order.  She knew that the fans, and the love that she received from them, were why she was able to have her wonderful career and live the life she wanted to live, so she always took the time to acknowledge them.   You will find accounts from people all over saying how Phyllis wrote to them personally, and how it really touched them.  It is a simple thing that really means a lot.

Of course, I know, from personal experience, the true generosity and love that Phyllis Diller could offer.  On a few occasions, I wrote her and received hand-written notes, as well as autographed photos… and I didn’t even ask.  Phyllis just gave, for that was in her nature.  She was thrilled that I used a manual typewriter still, and could tell what kind of typewriter it was from the font!  (To be frank, for the longest time I was afraid to write her anything by hand because I knew she was keen on handwriting analysis, and I did not want her to psychoanalyze my penmanship.  But I finally did write her by hand, and she still seemed to like me.)

In the late 1980s, Diller had her own line of canned chili called Phyllis Diller’s Original Recipe Chili, later dubbed Philli Dilli Chili.  Man, was that ever good!  I would stock up on cans of it (both chicken and beef), and eat it all the time.  It did not last long on the market, sadly.  Knowing how much I enjoyed it, Phyllis was kind enough to send me her personal  recipe, along with a few others.  Phyllis had a real gift in the kitchen, let me tell you!

Diller was also a fine painter.  I would not count her as a master, but her paintings were a great deal of fun, and a definite representation of who she was.   She was certainly prolific, and had gallery shows all over the country.  At a time when I could ill afford making a major purchase, I decided to buy a painting of hers that really spoke to me.  I’m so glad I did!  The painting hangs above my bed like a smiling, radiant sunbeam, and brightens my every day.   And I can definitely say that Phyllis’ loose, no-nonsense, whimsical approach to painting has been a direct influence on my own watercolor style.

It’s hard to put somebody like her into one word.  But, if I had to, it would probably be “love.”  She loved life, loved to give, loved the people in this world, and it was constant.  And she loved herself enough to allow her life to be precisely what she wanted, so she had an open channel for that love to filter through.  There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from that.

When I think of Phyllis Diller, I think of a person who lived life to the fullest, without compromise.    I would like to be just like her.  Don’t we all?

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It’s September 11th

I’m following the same ritual this morning that I have had all of these years on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks:  I rise up early, whilst it is still dark, so I can sit in solitude and ponder everything that happened on that day.   It is the best way for me to assimilate everything and remember.  September 11th, 2001 changed our world forever here in the United States.  With time, it has started hurting less.  But we can never forget.

I am also thinking of Jerry Lawler, professional wrestling’s “King of Memphis,” who suffered a heart attack last night on-air during an episode of RAW on the USA Network.  This came completely out of nowhere, of course, and in a world where the fans are accustomed to being hoodwinked there was early debate whether it was staged or not.  Unfortunately it was real.  But Lawler could not have been in better hands, with a fully trained medical staff waiting in the wings, who rushed to his aid in mere moments.   Lawler is one of the true greats of wrestling — one of my absolute favorites — and I sincerely hope he pulls through this without any problems.  A lot of people are praying for you, King.

As I sip my black coffee and watch the morning unfold before my eyes, I wish I had something silly or lighthearted to say at this moment (it is my way).   Sometimes, though, you just have to let things be what they are.  So, today I’ll just be thinking about the fragility of life, as well as the goodness within, ever thankful for the blessings we have in this world.


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Keeping It Light

Well, friends, I have to admit I have a whole pile of obituaries to write here, but I am going to take my time putting them out.  I just wrote two today, and that’s enough to take a toll on somebody for a very, very long time!  Phyllis Diller, Andy Griffith, Robin Gibb — they will get their proper tributes.  But one can only get so morose in one sitting.

I think I’ll be keeping it light for the rest of the day.

Lately I have been into the whole art of proper grooming, and all the frilly stuff that goes with it.  I got tired of the disposable razor scene, which I found to be wasteful and expensive.   There is a reason why men used to groom and maintain themselves a certain way years ago… and they looked fantastic.  I decided to throw myself into that world.  Oh, the education I got!  I’m going to write a whole piece on safety razors, talcum powder and my love for Pinaud products.  But that will be coming soon.  It’s worth the wait.

This morning I treated myself to coffee at a local restaurant, but took the added measure of bringing my own container of real cream, instead of subjecting myself to the stabilized coffee whitener  in little plastic cups that most places offer you, which floats about like an anonymous mass and tastes like nothing from the dairy universe.  And the coffee tasted so much better!  I am not above doing such things, of course, and feel it’s perfectly acceptable to eat on your own terms.  If you like fresh ground pepper, why subject yourself to stuff that has been sitting on the table for years, pre-ground and thoroughly without identity?  Bring your own pepper mill with you.   If you don’t like margarine on your toast (as many will serve it), ask for it dry, and take a container of real butter out of your satchel and live like a king, to the envy of all around you.  Food should be as YOU want it, not as THEY want it.  Restaurants are there to serve you, and if they can’t do that by all means serve yourself!

I just ordered the new Don Williams album (on vinyl, of course) and I can’t wait to hear it.  That boy is just pure, sweet, understated greatness.  Not familiar? Here you go… Good Ol’ Boys Like Me

Recently I have been watching the old Dark Shadows television series, enjoying the absolute heck out of it.  The acting, the wacky storylines, and the overall camp of it make this an irresistible and enthralling experience. I always seem to catch on to certain things long after they are current, don’t I?  Well, that’s just the way of things.  After this I plan on catching Fanny Brice down at the Palladium.  I hear she’s an absolute howl!

I need to get myself some lunch before I fade away to nothing.  But I thank you for your time.



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Paint it Red

Rolland “Red” Bastien, the “Flying Redhead,” was one of the top professional wrestlers in the Golden Age of the sport (back when it was called a sport).  The younger generation may not be familiar with his name, but he was a legitimate legend, and could tie anybody into knots in his heyday.  After all, Red started out on the old carnival circuit, where you had to be tough or you would never survive.

When I started to watch professional wrestling in the late 1970s, Red was working the San Francisco territory.  He was in his late 40s and his career was coming to a close.  Red’s knees were shot after decades of abuse.  He could not move as well as he could in earlier years — it was quite obvious — so he made up for it by being extra stiff in the ring.  Playboy Buddy Rose once told me that Red worked that way so the other wrestlers still gave him the respect he deserved.  But, by that point, his reputation was enough to carry him through anything, and he was definitely respected everywhere he went.

I was lucky enough to call him my friend.  We spent many a time together getting snockered on red wine (his potable of choice) at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Studio City, CA.  One night he arrived just after his artificial hip snapped.  Though he must have been in considerable pain, he refused to let it sideline him from his activities.  He only wanted to go to one hospital — in Minnesota! — and went on as if nothing was amiss.  We spent several hours together that night talking and drinking like nothing was wrong.  I cannot tell you how impressed I was by his fortitude and spirit.

It’s like the old quote of Ray “The Crippler” Stevens (which Red constantly referred to) goes: “In life, you can either choose to have a good time or a bad time.  I choose to have a good time!”

Red was as sweet and charming and interesting as you could ever imagine.   A dear man, beloved by all.  And that’s no malarkey: EVERYBODY loved Red Bastien.  What more could any person ask for in this world?


Hal David

Can we be living in a world made of paper mache?
Everything is clean and so neat.
Anything that’s wrong can be just swept away.
Spray it with cologne, and the whole world smells sweet.

– Lyrics from the song “Paper Mache’” by Bacharach & David

Those are words from my childhood that still stick with me to this day.  Simple, effective, thought-provoking.  Those are words of the great Hal David.

David — the outrageously talented lyricist, who partnered with music great Burt Bacharach to create some of the most iconic songs of the 1960s and 1970s — died just a few days ago at the age of 91.  Partnered with the vocally-agile Miss Dionne Warwick, they took pop music to incredible heights and created tunes that are beautiful, unique and timeless.

When I was starting to write my own music, I looked to Bacharach and David for inspiration constantly.  From an early age, their music resonated within me, and when I began developing my own style I wanted to know why.   Bacharach’s tunes were catchy and unusual, taking twists and turns you would never suspect, almost as if they were a hybrid of pop and classical.  David’s words were earthy and heartfelt; simple, yet sophisticated.  Whilst the tunes of Bacharach took you all over the stratosphere, the words of David kept things grounded and accessible.   (Look at Burt Bacharach’s work post Hal David and you will see that things never really worked so well without him.)  They were the perfect balance of innovation, sentimentality and tradition.

Warwick said of David in his book What the World Needs Now and Other Love Lyrics, “Hal doesn’t just write songs.  He writes himself.  There’s nothing contrived in what he does.  He doesn’t use a formula.  He goes by feeling.”  It is a basic approach, yet one that very few are willing to take.  And it is that willingness to express himself so freely and revealingly that made the words of Hal David so effective.

David never really got the credit he was due, and that’s part of why he split with Bacharach.  To this day, many think that Bacharach wrote all those songs by himself.  Their partnership truly was a partnership, and each played a pivotal role.  I saw Bacharach & Warwick in Long Beach several years back, and Hal David came in as a surprise guest toward the end of the show.  I knew immediately who it was, jumped to my feet and started to applaud.  I was the only one.  Bacharach actually had to introduce the audience to Hal David, saying, “He is the one who wrote all these wonderful lyrics.”

Though he may always have to play second fiddle in the big scheme of things, Hal David was a superstar in his own right, and those who care to know will always appreciate the love and wonder he brought to the world.

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