Memories of A Funny Lady, The Wizard of Oz, and a Birthday Cake

I was at work today when a co-worker told me she had just gotten a notice on her cellphone.

“Phyllis Diller passed away”, she said.

Sometimes, when a celebrity passes, we think about moments when we saw them on TV or heard them on a song.  But sometimes, we have the rare occasion to reflect on a personal memory.   My personal memories of Ms. Diller involve the Wizard of Oz…and a birthday cake.

Back in 1991, I was working at the Marriott on Main, just off of the Plaza.  Many times, entertainers stayed at the hotel because it was close to venues in Westport or The Starlight Theater.  That summer, the hotel secured a contract with Starlight Theater to host touring companies of Broadway shows.  The cast and crew of A Chorus Line, South Pacific and My Fair Lady stayed at the hotel that year.  But there was also The Wizard of Oz.

My friend, Brent Ott and I worked at the front desk area.  We ended up working very closely with the show directors, crew members, tour managers, etc.  With the Wizard of Oz, we got to know the director, Phillip McKinley.  He was a funny and engaging man.  And he was really enjoying doing the Wizard of Oz.  And he was enjoying working with the star of the show, Miss Phyllis Diller.

Director Phillip Wm. McKinley, director of the Broadway show, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. Photo credit:

Coincidentally, during the run of the show, Miss Diller would turn 74.  So my friend Brent was inspired to work with the director and arrange a birthday party for Miss Diller.  He came to me to do the cake.

What sort of cake do you make for a famous entertainer?  At first, I stressed about it.  Then, I realized there was only one cake.  It was not going to be a round cake with HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PHYLLIS DILLER scrolled across the top.  It was not going to be a themed cake with a hat and a broom on it.  We were serving champagne.  This needed a classy, tasteful cake.  There was only one cake.

I had started a very small dessert catering business, A Piece of Cake, for extra income.  And my baking career took off when I made a cake for someone else’s birthday.  It was a chocolate cake, 2 layers, flavored with cinnamon and coffee.  And the icing was a buttercream, also with chocolate and coffee.  And I decorated it with chocolate leaves – leaves made by coating the backs of lemon leaves and peeling the green leaves away.  No matter how hard I tried, I could never make roses so I had a fellow baker, Donna, make my roses.  A local chef tasted the cake and told me it was the best cake she had ever tasted!  That cake became my signature cake.  It carried me from that first birthday to Miss Diller’s birthday, morphing into a groom’s cake for 75 to 100 people, to even landing me a job as an executive chef…in a miniature version.  Today, I went looking for a picture of one of those incarnations but they’re all packed away.  But…..the original version looked something like this:

So I had met Miss Diller but I was still a little worried about the party.  Since we didn’t have an exact count of how many people were coming, I made 2 cakes.  After awhile, I stopped worrying about it and got more excited about people celebrating Miss Diller birthday and her success with the show.

It did turn out to be a great evening but for a particular reason.  Yes, she asked who made the cake and she complimented me on how good it tasted it.  But she did something I had only seen one other person do before.  She “worked” the room.  Even though it was her birthday party, she spent a lot of time talking with the cast,  crew and even hotel guests.  But she would meet someone new, ask a few details about them, then introduce them to others.  And she talked to everyone in the room!  It wasn’t about her…it was about her fans and guests.

That run of The Wizard of OZ broke attendance records for several nights.  And there was talk about submitting Miss Diller to the Guinness World Book of Records for being the oldest person to fly across the sky as the Wicked Witch.  And because we had developed a good relationship with her, the director and others, we got tickets to see her as she rode that broom high over the stage.


Sometime later, after the Starlight season was over, a package came in the mail.  The return address was on Rockingham Drive in California.  At the time, I didn’t know anyone in California.  But when I opened it, I realized it was from Miss. Diller.  She wrote a note and sent a purple and green Geoffrey Beene tie.  To this day, I have never worn that tie.  It’s packed away in a box somewhere.

It’s funny,…I couldn’t find any pictures from that period today.  And I couldn’t even find the tie and note she sent.  But it didn’t take a lot of work to find the memory of meeting her and talking with her.

There’s a whole generation who probably don’t know who Phyllis Diller is.  But I do.  She’s the lady who made people laugh.  She’s the lady who fought to be funny at a time when women weren’t supposed to be.  She’s the lady who didn’t mind making fun of her looks because she knew she was beautiful in other ways.  She’s the lady who didn’t know a stranger and took the time to introduce herself and introduce others.  She’s the lady who decided to defy gravity and age to fly.  And she’s the lady who appreciated my Chocolate Mocha Cake.

So what is your dream?  Do you want to fly?  Do you want to bake cakes..or cupcakes?  Do you want to be on the Broadway stage…or maybe attend a Broadway show?  What’s stopping you?  Spread your wings and take a leap!

God bless you…and Miss Diller



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