Interview with Robin Skone-Palmer, author of Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller
Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller is the story of my two year adventure as personal/private/executive (take your pick) secretary to the legendary comedienne, Phyllis Diller. When I went to work for her in the early 70s, she was in her heyday, at the top of her game. She played the big showrooms in Las Vegas, guest-hosted the Tonight Show in New York, and played all manner of venues including small towns in America that I had never heard of: Sedalia, Missouri; Elwood, Indiana and many others. But there was also London to tape Tom Jones’s show. We traveled a lot. And, hey, sometimes I was almost a celebrity in my own right: (“Look, that’s Phyllis Diller’s secretary!”) but mostly I was the general dogsbody who schlepped the bags, fended off over-eager fans, and had to be ready to leave for a trip on a few hour’s notice. So this is the true behind-the-scenes story of what it’s like to work in the (maybe not so) glamorous world of show-business. I think you’ll laugh at some of the things that happened and probably think “I wouldn’t have expected that,” in some instances. I wanted to show what it was really like to be “up close and personal” with a true show-business icon. It was exciting, demanding, exhausting, sometimes downright scary, but never boring.
Did I love working for Phyllis Diller? You bet! Would I want to go back and do it again? Not on your life!
What genre is this book?
It’s memoir, comedy, biography.
What kind of readers will it appeal to?
People who remember Phyllis Diller, who like comedy, who are intrigued by show business and are curious about what goes on behind the scenes.
For those who don’t remember Phyllis Diller, can you remind us who she was?
Phyllis Diller was the woman who opened the door for female stand-up comics back in the 60s. Her break into show business was partly desperation (a husband who couldn’t or wouldn’t hold a job, and five young children) and bad luck (somebody else’s bad luck which turned out to be her good luck). Phyllis’s humor was self-deprecating: “My going to a beauty parlor makes about as much sense as an ashtray on a motor cycle…” and stories about her fictional family. Her husband, Fang: “he couldn’t remember names so he named all the kids, ‘Kid.’ There was Hey Kid, Dumb Kid, You Kid …” her obnoxious and fat mother-in-law: “Picture Jell-O with a belt…” Fang’s skinny sister: “she had a striped dress – it only had room for one stripe…” and her glamorous sister: “she was so sure of herself, she wrote her diary three weeks in advance.” And she had a trademark raucous laugh which people sometimes didn’t believe was real. But it was. Oh, yes, it was! And in the confines of an elevator or a limousine, positively riveting!
So it’ll be a trip down memory lane for many readers?
I’d like them to smile, perhaps feel a little nostalgic remembering when they saw Phyllis on TV, and wish that there were a couple more chapters.
Phyllis Diller passed away recently. Is this why you wrote the book?
When I worked for Phyllis, she said, “Robin, you should write a book.” So I did. I sent her the manuscript and she liked it a lot. In addition to her comments, she wrote me a little post-it note. After she died last year, I was reading the comments on the obituaries in the L.A. Times and New York Times and was struck by all the lovely memories that people had of seeing Phyllis Diller on TV or in a showroom. There was not one bad word said about her. I started to add my thoughts, but realized it would take a book to write about all the things that happened. Then I thought, “I’ve already done that!” I wanted to share my memories of this remarkable (but by no means perfect!) woman with so many who had adored her. My publisher took the little post-it note and stuck it on the cover.
Why did you name the book Beyond The Spotlight?
I wanted the reader join me backstage. Of course the book is about Phyllis Diller, but it’s also about an entire bunch of people who made it possible for her to step in front of a camera or on the stage and make it all seem spontaneous.
You are one of those people; tell us about yourself.
Me? You want to hear about me? Okay! I’m retired now, but before I worked for Phyllis I was in the Foreign Service as a secretary at the American Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, and after that in London. After Phyllis, I worked for her manager a few years. Candice Bergen, Al Pacino, Jack Jones, George Gobel, Dyan Cannon and many other celebrities were in and out of the office. Pretty exciting. But show business is an artificial business and I decided to do something completely different. I moved to Houston and worked for a judge, but even though ten years had passed, I’d been keeping in touch with that stage manager in Las Vegas and when he said, “marry me,” I said “you betcha!” So the last 30 years I’ve lived in Las Vegas. I spent 20 of those years as Victim-Witness Coordinator at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, helping victims and witnesses of federal crimes. Now I share my home with 3 cats and I spend my time playing golf, throwing pottery (not at the wall – on a potter’s wheel), and teaching after-school Bible clubs in elementary schools. Yeah, and writing. I love writing.
Have you got a website?
It’s http://phyllisdillerandwine.wordpress.com I blog about the two things I know. Phyllis is one of them. I put little stories of my adventures with her that are not in the book.
What about social media? Do you use it?
I have a facebook page: Robin Skone-Palmer.
As soon as I get “Beyond the Spotlight: On the Road with Phyllis Diller” off the ground, I’m hitting my editor/publisher with a manuscript about working in the Foreign Service which has many funny and sometimes incredible anecdotes.