FOR BABY BOOMERS like me, watching the original version of The Hollywood Squares, hosted by Peter Marshall, and featuring the acerbic wit of the “Center Square,” Paul Lynde, always promised a half hour full of belly-aching laughter. However, my childhood naïveté shrouded me from understanding how Lynde taunted acceptable social norms with campy gay humor at a time when being “outed” would ruin a Hollywood career.
Marshall: “Is Billy Graham considered a good dresser?”
Lynde: “No, but he’s a terrific end table.”
Lynde was born on June 13, 1926 in nearby Mount Vernon, Ohio. After graduating from Mount Vernon High School in 1944, he went on to study at Northwestern University, where his fellow students included Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman. Upon graduating in 1948, he set his sights on the bright lights of New York City, where he first worked as a stand-up comic, and later made his first appearance on the Broadway stage in New Faces of 1952. After appearing in a short-lived television sitcom with Buddy Hackett, he returned to Broadway in the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie as Harry MacAfee, and later reprised the role in the Hollywood production of the show.
During the 1960s, Lynde was a frequent guest star on many television sitcoms, but it was his first-season appearance on Bewitched as Samantha’s nervous driving instructor that led to a recurring role on the show as the jokester Uncle Arthur (appearing as this character 10 times during the run of the popular show). From there, he became a regular cast member of The Hollywood Squares from 1968 until 1981.
Marshall: “Nathan Hale, one of the heroes of the American Revolution, was hung. Why?”
Corbett Reynolds, creator of Columbus’s legendary Red Parties, once noted that when Paul Lynde would visit his family in Ohio, he could sometimes be found perched on the bar at the Kismet (the predecessor to the former Columbus Eagle on Third Street.), signing his autograph on cocktail napkins and passing them out to whoever walked by. In fact, Lynde was a legendary lover of “the sauce,” and following his failed attempts at several television series, in addition to the ratings decline of The Hollywood Squares, his drinking and substance abuse went out of control.
Lynde continued to work in Hollywood, despite his demons and received an Emmy award in 1976 for being named Entertainer of the Year. He finally got sober in 1980, but his many years of addictions had taken their toll. Lynde was found dead at his Beverly Hills home, having apparently succumbed to a heart attack, on January 10, 1982 at the age of 55. His cremains were returned to Ohio, and if you want to pay homage to him at his final resting place, just head north out of Mount Vernon on State Route 3, and make a right on Gilchrist Road. He rests along with his family in tiny Amity Cemetery.
Paul’s distinctive snarky delivery continues to influence performers today, even serving as the inspiration for the character of Roger the Alien on Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad!, but it’s the legacy of his work bringing campy gay humor with an open secret wink and nudge into America’s living rooms on The Hollywood Squares that continues to make us laugh.
Marshall: “What do you call a man who gives you diamonds and pearls?”
Lynde: “I’d call him ‘darling’!”
Read more about Paul Lynde in the book Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story, by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski. And if you want a night of surreal television-watching, find a copy of the 1976 Paul Lynde Halloween Special, with guest stars Donny and Marie Osmond, Margaret Hamilton, Betty White, Florence Henderson and musical guest KISS!