One normally does not associate Halloween with incoherent homosexual anarchy, yet the tricks and treats from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” take the autumnal spookfest and give it a new queer meaning. And by “queer” I mean every possible definition of the word.
Broadcast in October 1976 on ABC, but never shown again in its entirety on television afterwards, “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” gave the campy funnyman a unique chance to be the star of his own variety production. Long relegated to supporting roles in second rate films and guest appearances on TV shows (most notably as zany Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched”), Lynde found an unexpectedly large cult following in the 1970s in his role as the “center square” on the “Hollywood Squares” game show. In this capacity, Lynde let loose with a barrage of naughty one-liners which convulsed audiences with the wicked edges of his humor and his bitchy delivery, which was usually accompanied by a self-satisfying guffaw at his own jokes.
For “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” the star found himself recruited by two witch sisters to become the celebrity spokesman for the Wiccan set. The witches are the most famous of their sisterhood: Margaret Hamilton in her green skin-black robed “Wizard of Oz” character and Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo from “H.R. Pufnstuf.” In exchange for Lynde’s celebrity association, he is granted three wishes by the witches.
The first wish finds Lynde wanting to explore his desire to become a trucker. Yes, Paul Lynde as a truck driver. Needless to say, he is turned into a Liberace-version of a trucker complete with a sequined jumpsuit. In his fantasy, Lynde competes against a fellow trucker (Tim Conway) for the love of a diner waitress (Roz Kelly, doing her Pinky Tuscadero character from “Happy Days”). The humor gets surprisingly mature at times, given the time it was made and the fact it was intended for family viewing (Lynde refers to Kelly as “Kinky Pinky” and states there is going to be a movie of his life called “Deep Truck”) and the action expires into a hoedown wedding celebration with Lynde and Kelly tying the knot in a square dance worthy musical number.
The second wish puts Lynde in the Sahara as a sheik of the Valentino ilk, trying to melt the heart of a proper British aristocrat he has kidnapped (Florence Henderson…yes, that Florence Henderson!). When asked why he is wearing a hoop earring, Lynde responds: “I’m a real chick sheik. They call me Florence of Arabia.” The scene is interrupted by Tim Conway (again?) as a Foreign Legion scout sent to arrest Lynde, but Lynde sends him off with a cockatoo because “it can get lonely in the Foreign Legion.” Nothing like b********y humor in the family hour!
For the third wish, Lynde allows the witches to make a choice. Stunned that anyone would show them kindness, the witches huddle and come up with their wish: they want to go to a Hollywood disco. A wave of the wand and Lynde (in a sequin-rich dinner jacket) and the witches are in a Hollywood disco (or an unreasonable facsimile). After engaging in some more inappropriate joking (“A disco is the one place you can hustle and not get arrested!”), they introduce their “special guest star” Florence Henderson. Yes, that Florence Henderson, who emerges in a tight sequined black gown to perform an off-key disco version of “That Old Black Magic.” This is clearly the most insane thing ever put on camera, with disco diva wannabe Henderson hitting (and missing) high soprano notes to cap off her mangling of the cherished standard.
How can one follow Florence Henderson? Obvious: with a performance by KISS. Yes, that KISS. Don’t ask who thought KISS belonged in a Paul Lynde special, and don’t ask who thought it was a good idea to have Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch bring Paul Lynde over to meet KISS and to have Lynde flirt with the band (“Four KISSes on the first date!” he exclaims while the rockers clearly look away in shock). Eventually this all winds up with the entire cast assembling for a performance of “Disco Baby” (with Lynde and Roz Kelly singing the tune)…except for KISS, who look on from a balcony clearly confused why they are present.
The saving grace to this madness is Paul Lynde. It is difficult to capture his style, since he was very much a performer who needed to be seen and heard in order to be truly appreciated. With his bitchy sing-song voice, a head that shook slightly while talking, eyes that narrowed with undisguised malice and lips that sneered into a snarl, Lynde was truly the queen from hell and his one-liners and putdowns were masterworks of gay venom. When Betty White makes a cameo appearance as the winner of a witch’s beauty contest, Lynde remarks how much that particular witch resembled Betty White. Then he paused, grimaced, and bleated: “But then again, so many witches do!” Ouch!!!
Yet “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” is so bizarre and over-the-top in its acid-camp that it is almost impossible to believe anything of its kind could ever be shown on TV in 1976. In today’s culture, the hinges have been ripped off the closet door and it is impossible to find a program in the mainstream media that does not have some homosexual character mincing about. But for the time when Lynde’s show was broadcast, gay camp was not a staple or even an option. Yet this program somehow got on the air and did not raise one iota of criticism from the gay-bashing right.
It is difficult to determine why “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” never got released on home video. There may be problems clearing some of the musical numbers from the show, which is possible given that KISS is also featured in another Bootleg Files MIA title KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Also, ABC may be slow in recognizing Lynde’s posthumous appeal as an icon of the gay cultural revolution. Or even worse, the original materials from the program could be lost or in an advanced state of decay (the bootleg videos on the market were videotaped from the program’s sole 1976 airing).
In any event, “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” is among the strangest and most fascinating productions to go with this particular season. Eat your heart out, Jamie Lee Curtis!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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