Village News

Driving Miss Diller

20 February 2024

Phyllis Diller at the Hillsborough Heights opening

Rumour has it that 36 years ago, management at Hillsborough Heights Village asked New Zealand’s Prime Minister at the time, David Lange, if he would do the honours of officially opening their brand-new village.

When he declined, who did they ask to step in? Why, American stand-up comedian and Golden Globe-winning actress, Phyllis Diller of course. And better yet, she said yes!

On 12 December 1987, Phyllis delighted Hillsborough Heights’ residents, family members and staff as she graciously opened the village and mixed and mingled with starstruck guests over club sandwiches and cups of tea.

Many will remember the eccentric Phyllis Diller, famous through the 70s, 80s and 90s, for her self-deprecating humour, flamboyant stage persona and wild fashion sense.

For 92-year-old Claude Coumbe, now a resident at Hillsborough Heights Village, he remembers “a real character” from almost two decades earlier, when he spent an entertaining few hours driving the famous actress around Auckland in 1970.

“I was a 38-year-old reporter for The Star newspaper at the time, and I think I was driving an Austin or a Morris.

I made an appointment to interview her while she was visiting New Zealand, and what a character she was! She had me in fits of laughter the whole time!”

The duo enjoyed a drive around Auckland, including scenic Tamaki Drive, where Claude enjoyed listening to her many stories.

“Like all Americans I’d met at that time, Phyllis was very charismatic. She was naturally very funny, and never stopped talking!”

However, Ms Diller wasn’t the only famous person Claude interviewed during his time as a reporter and remembers some amusing moments.

“I interviewed dozens of famous people from overseas. Back in those days you could just request an interview, and nobody ever turned me down. Except Prince Charles and Princess Anne, but nobody was allowed to talk to them anyway,” said Claude.

From Star Trek’s William Shatner, described as “just a young fella then”, to Shirley Bassey, the Bee Gees and The Beatles, Claude has many memorable stories.

“John Lennon was as sharp as a tack. We got into an argument over the definition of ‘mass hysteria’. He was easy to get in a row with!”

“And the youngest Bee Gee was very skinny. A woman I worked with said she wanted to take him home to give him a good feed,” laughed Claude.

However, Phyllis struck a chord with a young Claude, who fondly remembers the special day on 12 May 1970. Best of all, he still has a signed keepsake from the funny lady herself, thanking him for his hospitality all those years ago.

Claude Coumbe with a signed Phyllis Diller book
Hillsborough Heights Village official opening plaque

Latest news.