Paul Lynde and Provincetown
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo, Lynde, and Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West. Photo © American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
“Incoherent homosexual anarchy.”
That’s how one television critic described The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. And they were right. This sparkling gem of the golden age of the variety show aired only once on October 29, 1976 on ABC and has since become a cult classic for its bizarre mélange of stars of the 1970s as well as for Lynde’s campy zingers and quips that often were thinly veiled gay references that viewers were either hip to or not. The narrative of this holiday special has Lynde visiting Gloomsbury Manor at the invitation of his maid who offers to take him on a visit to her sister to escape Halloween night pranks the kids always play on him. As it turns out, both his maid and her sister are witches and offer him three wishes in return for help in improving the image of witches in society. And then glorious, strange, classically 70s wackiness ensues with a cast that included Tim Conway, Betty White, Donny and Marie Osmond, Florence Henderson, Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly, Billy Barty, Billie Hayes as Witchiepoo and Margaret Hamilton reprising her role as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Oh, and it was also the prime time television debut of KISS.
When legendary television and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch was offered the job to become part of the show’s writing team he says he “jumped” right at it. Lynde was enormously famous from his star-making role in the 1963 film adaption of the musical Bye, Bye Birdie, his scene-stealing appearances as Uncle Arthur on the sitcom Bewitched, and of course as the center square on The Hollywood Squares, a gig he had from 1968 to 1981. But he also had several flops, including two failed sitcoms with him in the leading role. To fulfill his contract, ABC threw a bunch of variety shows his way, says Vilanch, as Hollywood and audiences just didn’t see him and his brand of humor as more than a second banana taking abuse and delivering bitchy one-liners, which upset Lynde greatly. And then there were of the course the rumors about his sexuality, which were dead-on accurate, but nevertheless forced Lynde into the closet very much against his will. But true to form, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, as with almost all of his work, would be a gay affair.
“We were queens in the 70s,” says Vilanch about him and the only other gay writer on the show, Billy Barnes. “We were campy and we had that attitude. It was never openly discussed, but the other writers thought that people who would be offended wouldn’t get it anyway. That’s what got Paul through Hollywood Squares.”
It really got him through his whole career. In a scene set in Arabia on the Halloween Special Lynde as a sheik hands Tim Conway, who is playing a Foreign Legion scout, a cockatoo because “it can get lonely in the Foreign Legion.” This double-fisted, double entendre was pure Lynde. On The Hollywood Squares Lynde’s lavender humor was more pronounced with famous jokes like when, in response to host Peter Marshall’s question “Why do motorcyclists wear leather jackets?” Lynde quipped, “Because chiffon wrinkles too easily.” The stealthy gay humor made him a star, but being gay limited him in Hollywood. In addition, severe insecurities brought on by childhood obesity, perceived and real limits of his talent, and loneliness all made his addiction to alcohol worse. Most everyone that knew him said he could be monstrously cruel and obnoxious anyway, but when alcohol touched his lips it seemed a more appropriate Halloween costume would have been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than a witch on his variety show. Vilanch recalled Lynde being “all over” a young John Travolta on the ABC lot, who was there filming Welcome Back, Kotter at the same time as the Halloween show. Throughout his life Lynde didn’t do himself many favors.
“He was bitterly unhappy,” says Vilanch. “He was the only person I know who was only happy when the lights were on him. Him and David Letterman, but David Letterman was never mean about it. Paul was. He wouldn’t do well today at all. He would have been canceled more than a stamp from Monaco.”
His arrest record for public intoxication, vicious verbal outbursts, and molesting men spanned the nation, everywhere from Salt Lake City to Miami, including here in Provincetown, where he was a frequent presence for almost 20 years up until his death from a heart attack at the age of 55 in 1982. During those years here Lynde was a household name, and it was impossible for him to move about town incognito. That didn’t seem to worry him though, and most everyone who recalls seeing him in Provincetown has a story of his obnoxious behavior. He often would harass men he felt attracted to, yell at children who annoyed him, heckle performers at shows, or worse, go up on stage for an unsolicited opening act and humiliate himself in the process. He occupied this strange space in town of beloved celebrity and repellant town drunk.
“I can still see him sitting by the pool at the Crown and Anchor at this little cocktail table,” says Paul Asher-Best, a former Truro Select Board member. “I walked by and said hello and he said this nasty remark in a bitchy, queeny way back. He was a nasty guy.”
Despite all of his bad behavior, Lynde also elicited a distant empathy, as his unhappiness was so palpable, and perhaps even recognizable to many LGBTQ+ people facing pressures of their own. And while veiled, he was the pinnacle of gay visibility for the time, particularly on The Hollywood Squares, one of the most subversively queer television show, which would later feature Wayland Flowers and Madame, a connection Lydne made in Provincetown, as well as Vilanch himself, who has been a frequent visitor to town for the past 40 years and also performs one-man shows about his adventures in Hollywood.
It’s his gay rebel role that keeps him in pop culture and gay history. His legacy is going to get another look as Billy Eichner, who was recently in town filming his gay romantic comedy Bros, is starring in and producing Man in the Box, a biopic about Lynde. And not everyone in Provincetown has bad memories of Lynde. Former Paper magazine film critic Dennis Dermody lived in Provincetown in the 1970s and for a time worked at the hot spot Piggy’s on Shank Painter Road. He recalls that he was the one who owed Lynde an apology.
“Paul Lynde came in one night with a gaggle of gays as his entourage to see a show, Michael Greer, who did this great Mona Lisa act,” says Dermody. “There were about nine men with him and they were all drinking really heavily, but were a very good audience. I was bringing in a case of beer from out back and pushed the door open hard and hit Paul right in the face as he was heading to the bathroom. Really hard. My jaw dropped and I apologized and he said, ‘Oh honey, I don’t feel a thing’ and just walked away. I kept thinking oh my God I just hit Uncle Arthur right in the face.”
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is available on a variety of streaming platforms and YouTube. It is also available on DVD at the Provincetown Public Library, 356 Commercial St. To request a copy visit the library in person or online at provincetownlibrary.org, or call 508.487.7094.