She's Penny Orloff, and she's already been to 42 cities with Jewish Thighs on Broadway, her one-woman show that's subtitled Misadventures of a Little Trouper. In her 280-page memoir of the same title (and subtitle), published by AuthorHouse ($18.95), Orloff disguises herself as chubby Miriam Rosen, who grows up loving musical theater and opera. She buys standing room but isn't above moving into an unoccupied seat where, next to her, "bejeweled crones rustled their taffeta disapprovingly, while elderly gents in pleats and shirt studs grunted their displeasure."
But what Miriam really wants to do is perform. She auditions for a Broadway choreographer, who tells her, "You have great balance for someone with such massive thighs. Next!" She auditions for a G&S troupe -- and says that, considering how they cast, G&S must stand for Goyim & Shiksas. So she reinvents herself as Abigail Paine, and when the troupe is so desperate that they hire her for Pinafore on a phone interview on the condition that she start tomorrow, she's on her way. This does not sit well with Millicent Avery Donahue Lancaster, the ample dowager understudy who was rarin' to go on. Says Miriam -- uh, Abigail -- "Her voice was clear and shimmery and would have sounded perfectly lovely in Josephine's music, but what can you do with a woman who looks like a cross-town bus?" Still, Abigail finds performing in this theater (which sounds suspiciously like the now-defunct Light Opera of Manhattan) a Pyrrhic victory at best: "The mice nibbled my stash of whole grain crackers and pissed and defecated in my wigs."
This is quite a problem, for Miriam does have an excellent appetite. She tells of the time she runs into a two-pints-for-the-price-of-one sale at Häagen Dazs. "I'll just dole it out to myself a bite at a time over the next week," she says. Her next paragraph begins, "The first pint of ice cream lasted 22 minutes." There's plenty more, including but not limited to some international espionage into which she inadvertently gets sucked. Now, Orloff is bringing her Thighs to the stage, starting March 16 at the Clurman. Maybe she'll say a little more than she does in the book about her experiences as an original cast member of Comden and Green's (and Grossman's) A Doll's Life, the 1982 five-performance flop in which she sang "Rats and Mice and Fish." She didn't get to sing "You Interest Me" in that musical, but Penny Orloff sure interests me-- and I suspect that she and Jewish Thighs on Broadway will interest you, too.
On to the second of the two ladies in question: Every musical theater enthusiast can tell you that during the original Broadway run of Hello, Dolly!, 1964-70, the first Mrs. Levi was Carol Channing and the last was Ethel Merman. Many know also that Ginger Rogers succeeded Channing, and that Pearl Bailey made the show a hot ticket all over again in 1967. The true connoisseur can usually name Betty Grable and Martha Raye as additional Dollies, for these women were no stranger to musicals and one can see them playing the role. But during the run, there was another Dolly who was, it would seem, a real stranger to musicals: Phyllis Diller.
Yes, Phyllis Diller, the stand-up comic whose acerbic and self-deprecating wit have convulsed audiences for more than four decades. (My favorite Diller-ism? "I once flew an airline so cheap that instead of showing a movie they put on a high-school play." If you know the lady's delivery -- and I weep for you if you do not -- you can imagine the level of disgust she brought to the words "high school play" as she droned them out.) Diller has already been a best-selling author. No, really: Back in 1966, she cracked the Top 10 Non-Fiction list. Granted, it wasn't for a biography of Winston Churchill or an exposé of the Kennedy Assassination but for Phyllis Diller's Housekeeping Hints. The next year, she made it again with Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual.
I hope she makes the Top 10 again with her memoir, the tastefully titled -- well, tastefully for Diller -- Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, which she wrote with Richard Buskin (Tarcher Penguin, $24.95). The title refers to Diller's belief that if she were to apply for a job in a brothel, the only position she'd get would be as a lampshade.
I was given the chance to chat with Diller and, of course, immediately asked about her Dolly experience. "After Pearl Bailey," she said, "David Merrick knew he needed something that would grab the public attention again. His great idea was to have Jack Benny do it in drag with George Burns as Vandergelder. He figured they just might do it, because they were bosom buddies. I can't say for sure if both of them or just one of them didn't want to be in New York for even a short while, but it never happened. So one day David Merrick was telling his Dolly! dilemma to Abe Burrows, who said, 'Why don't you get Phyllis Diller?' Now you have to understand that I never met Abe Burrows. I guess he'd just seen my work. So when David offered it to me, I said yes -- for three months only, because that's all I could afford to do. Let's say that David Merrick was only willing to give me what I'd call a 'very reduced rate.' He was NOT a big spender."
I'm sorry I didn't get to see her do the show. In those days, I was living in Boston, and trips to New York meant seeing the new shows. But since I've moved to New York, I've met many, many people who did see her do Dolly! Every one of them has lowered his voice in admiration and said, "She really was the character. There wasn't a bit of Phyllis Diller about her."
"Oh, yes," said Diller, when I mentioned this. "I played it straight. I was a little apprehensive about the dancing, and I did feel as if I didn't get enough time to rehearse -- did I mention that David Merrick was a little on the cheap side? But I have to say, I don't know if there's any bigger thrill than coming down that stairway and having all those guys singing and dancing about you. And there's the excitement that happens when people come to see you. Bob Hope and his wife Dolores came one night and, after the show, he came on stage and we did 20 minutes together. Then we went back to my dressing room and drank so many margaritas. I remember, too, the night Ethel Merman came to see me because she was going to do the show next. She came backstage, and when I asked her 'Are you going to use the chest mike?' she said, 'Are you kidding?'"
This was not Diller's only foray into musical theater. "I was the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at the St. Louis Muny," she said. "God, I love doing tough ladies! For The Wizard of Oz, that meant being Miss Gulch, too. So there I was, held up by wires, riding a bicycle in the air. It gets hot in St. Louis, so I liked the nice breeze. What I also liked is that, when I did the show, it was the Muny's 75th year -- and mine, too," says Diller, now a still-youthful 87. "And in 1960, in summer stock, I did Wonderful Town. No, I didn't play Eileen, though my Eileen went on to marry the guy who owned the National Enquirer. I was Ruth." When she told me this, I gave out with a smile and a knowing nod. Can't you just hear Diller in "One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man)" when the music stops and she delivers those one-liners about fixing a stalled car, offering baseball strategy, and so on?
"I loved doing Ruth," says Diller. "A perfect role for me. I always thought I was going to grow up and be a writer." In fact, that's just what she did.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]