By Marilyn Welch
Though nonexistent in the reality-TV dominance of today, variety shows were a whoop-di-doo at the advent of television—The Jack Benny Show, The Judy Garland Show, The Toast of the Town (later changed to The Ed Sullivan Show). Then there were “specials” too, like An Evening With Fred Astaire in 1958, and holiday extravaganzas like the Bob Hope Christmas Variety Special that aired in 1965. The variety-show format carried on into the 1970s, though the genre’s popularity began to wane in that decade. Still the ’70s gave us Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Carol Burnett Show, and four episodes of Ben Vereen…Comin’ at Ya, featuring comedy sketches, musical numbers and lotsa dancing, in the summer of 1975. The period had some TV specials like ABC’s The Lola Falana Show—four variety programs throughout the winter of 1976. Specials were often in sync with some occasion. Which brings us to the show we want to talk about: The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which aired in October 1976 on ABC.
Paul Lynde was initially a stand-up comedian before achieving success on the stage—in Bye Bye Birdie (1960) where he first made his mark performing his signature song “Kids” that he recreated for the big screen. However, his renown grew as a comedic character-actor mainstay in scripted TV programs like The Phil Silvers Show, The Munsters, Bewitched (hilarious as Uncle Arthur), various segments of Love, American Style, I Dream of Jeannie, plus dozens of one-time memorable guest spots in shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies, The Flying Nun, and That Girl. In all these roles, Lynde basically played Paul Lynde, a snarky, sharp-tongued nasally queen who exuded something outside the box that resonated bigtime to television audiences. Paul’s wisecracking lead him to permanently assume the center square position on the Hollywood Squares game show. His style of camp humor implied he was gay—never out of course, the verboten subject danced around with saucy innuendos—his bawdy wit shining in off-the-cuff quips or “zingers,” suggestive double entendres, punctuated by his distinctive guffaw.
He was in demand. In the teevee field that included the closeted likes of Jim Nabors, Merv Griffin, Liberace, even Charles Nelson Reilly, Lynde was a standout phenomenon—wacko, almost obscene, yet an invaluable asset to the entertainment establishment. This writer’s mother was a devout fan, tuning in for Lynde’s appearances on Dinah!, The Tonight Show, The Mike Douglas Show. He starred in a short-lived sitcom, The Paul Lynde Show (1972-1973), as a family man, not a good fit for an entertainer audiences already associated with flamboyant behavior. Lynde was best at inside-joke guest spots on sitcoms, or in fluid, “spontaneous” circumstances of Hollywood Squares. This success as a hilarious oddball earned him a great living—he owned a luxurious Beverly Hills home previously inhabited by Errol Flynn—but he wasn’t the star of any one thing. Bewitched creator William Asher said networks were generally reluctant to develop a Lynde series because of “rumors of his homosexuality.” According to Hollywood Squares writer Bruce Vilanch, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special was a bone ABC threw to Lynde. TV veteran Sid Smith would direct what would become an elusive cult relic, though Sid and Marty Krofft have their imprint all over the thing, notably the inclusion of Witchiepoo (acted by Billie Hayes) from H.R. Pufnstuf.
Let us have a “blow by blow” [please imagine hearing this phrase in a Paul Lynde cadence] of the highlights of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, which we believe is among the gayest things you will ever see.
A show of cheap production values, it opens with a super goofy bit with Lynde in Santa Claus drag, singing Christmas carols and decorating a tree inside his “home,” with Margaret Hamilton playing his housekeeper. She informs him he’s got the wrong holiday—he tries Easter in a bunny suit, Valentine’s Day in a smoking jacket, slipping in a Hollywood Squares joke amid canned laughter.
After the credits that promise a kitchen-sink array of players, Lynde does some stilted standup surrounded by jack-o’-lanterns, eventually breaking into the song that put him on the map, “Kids,” but with trick-or-treat lyrics and Happy Days (also on ABC) name-dropping. There’s a good ol’ dance number that looks haphazard and includes Margaret talking her song lyrics and an uncredited appearance by Donnie and Marie Osmond (Lynde frequently appeared on their ABC weekly variety show created by the Kroffts).
Margaret then takes Paul to her sister Witchiepoo’s spooky manor. Lynde gawks at Witchiepoo in shock, then turns back to Margaret who has transformed into her most famous green-faced role of The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West. Little person Billy Barty shows up as Witchiepoo’s servant. Betty White shows up as Miss Halloween of 1976. When Betty White asks why did they bring Paul Lynde instead of Paul Newman, Margaret Hamilton says, “He was available.” Betty White leaves, and Lynde delivers a bitchy punchline (written by Vilanch?): “She has a striking resemblance to Betty White, but then so many witches do.”
Through continued stilted dialogue that somehow works while processing it in this year of 2017, the witch sisters grant Lynde three wishes that pan out as three comedy sketches.
Lynde’s first “wish” has an underlying rough trade joke, as he chooses to become a trucker, a “Rhinestone Trucker” specifically, decked out in a white-studded suit, silver boots, driving a red, white and blue truck. Tim Conway enters, he of The Carol Burnett Show hilarity, who plays a couple different truckers speaking to Lynde on the CB radio. What does this have to do with Halloween? Let’s ignore that question to say that the two truckers start a race towards the woman they both love, Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly, who works at a diner. The character of Pinky originated as the girlfriend of Fonzie on Happy Days, the only connection to The Paul Lynde Halloween Special being the shared ABC lot.
After Lynde, Conway AND Billy Barty squabble over Pinky, she decides to marry the richest one. Lynde pulls out a stack of money, saying it’s his advance in a movie he’s to star in, called Deep Truck. Bam! The rough trade gag goes full circle, long before all those revelations about Freddie Mercury! A CB hoedown/square dance ends the skit.
Returning to Witchiepoo’s, we see Margaret reading Rosemary’s Baby next to Billie engrossed in The Exorcist book. Paul magically reappears much as he did as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched. The witch sisters summon KISS to perform. This is supposedly their first primetime TV appearance (previously appearing on The Midnight Special according to Bruce Vilanch).
For the next wish/skit that has nothing to do with Halloween, the witches turn Lynde into a rich Rudolph Valentino sheik in the Sahara. Here he tries to seduce Florence Henderson who probably walked over from taping The Brady Bunch. “Why are you wearing that earring?” asks Carol Brady. “Because I’m a very chic sheik. That’s why they call me Florence of Arabia,” snorts Paul. Why did Paul Lynde kidnap her? “Because I’ve lusted for you from the first day I saw you in the bazaar when you were milking a cobra. I said, ‘That’s class.’” There are more brazen gay double entendres, plus Conway reappears as a Foreign Legionnaire.
Though the schlock and canned laughter makes it all so much more awkward, Lynde’s off-kilter delivery is still brilliant. It gets more silly when Lynde turns Witchiepoo’s living room into a Hollywood disco. There are hustler jokes, and Florence Henderson sings a discofied “Old Black Magic.” KISS reappears around a piano while Peter Criss sings the rock ballad “Beth.” A meet-and-greet segment with KISS follows, and Paul says, “Hi fellas. Well, just what I’ve always wanted, four kisses on the first date,” followed by his signature laughter. This is a good time to say that Paul Stanley is known to cruise in supermarket parking lots. Lynde’s third wish is one more KISS song, “King of the Night Time World,” ending with pyrotechnics.
You will feel your blood curdle watching the grand finale: Pinky and Paul “flirt,” and she teaches Paul disco moves to “Disco Baby” (a Halloween version of Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”), everyone breaking into dance, even Billy Barty, with Lynde displaying a distinctive jig.
Despite the insane, so-bad-it’s-good quality of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, during his send-off, the usually caustic Lynde states one particular sentence with heartfelt sincerity and near melancholy: “Thank you for making me feel wanted.” This conjures a sadness made more profound when considering Lynde’s well-known battles with substance abuse that lead to his untimely death at 55. Perhaps The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is the apex of his career, when he could command a television special program, however campy. Though he has been derided in the gay community as perpetuating a stereotype of “self-loathing,” his unique talent, schtick, and theatrical impact lives on in Snagglepuss, Squidward, and Roger the Alien on American Dad and Megan Mullally.
If you decide to watch the full hour of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, hopefully while high as a kite or at least tipsy, follow it up with the anecdote told by the program writer Bruce Vilanch, that puts Lynde in witch drag for the promo photos.