Okay, change of plans.
Originally I intended to recommend five Halloween-themed episodes of comfort TV, and save Halloween specials for next week. But then I watched The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, and I can’t wait any longer to talk about it.
Sometimes you have to listen to your heart – or whatever vital organ responds most intensely to really, really weird television.
Let’s hop into the WABAC machine and set the dial for 1976. This was the golden age of holiday specials, when Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Dean Martin were always there to wish us a Merry Christmas, and Kraft would unveil new holiday recipes rich in processed cheese during every commercial break.
Paul Lynde decided to jump the competition by saluting Halloween, and cut out the middleman by integrating processed cheese into the actual show. The result is not Star Wars Holiday Special bad, but like that iconic disaster it has moments for which the only rational response is utter bewilderment.
We fade up on our confused host in a Santa Claus suit trimming a Christmas tree, followed by similar vignettes themed to Easter and Valentine’s Day. We then segue into an opening monologue that achieves the near impossible – making the usually hilarious Paul Lynde not funny.
That leads, as it always does in these specials, to a big dance number. Paul reprises the song he introduced on Broadway in Bye, Bye Birdie – “Kids” – with new Halloween-themed lyrics. The troupe of dancers is garbed in traditional Halloween costumes, including one of the creepiest looking clowns since Pennywise in Stephen King’s It.
The number ends with Paul getting dumped into a trashcan by Donny and Marie Osmond. And we’re not even at the weird stuff yet.
In the next scene Paul and his maid, played by Margaret Hamilton, arrive at the home of Margaret’s sister – Billie Hayes in full Witchiepoo makeup. That prompts Hamilton to don the costume of the character she made legendary – the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. Watching these two witches trade punch lines is a remarkable event that will be savored by classic film and television fans.
They are then joined by Miss Halloween of 1976 – Betty White – which somehow leads to Paul getting three wishes. His first wish, surprisingly, is to be a truck driver. Thus Paul is transformed into Ruby the Rhinestone Trucker, complete with costume from Liberace’s closet, for a series of CB radio jokes opposite Tim Conway. It is during this bit that both discover they are engaged to the same diner waitress, played by – wait for it – Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly.
And just when you think this show could not possibly get any better, Margaret Hamilton suggests some quiet chamber music, and out comes KISS, in full makeup, to rip through an energetic (if lip-synched) “Detroit Rock City.”
Paul’s second wish is to be a wealthy sheik. In a flash he is transported to the Sahara Desert where he romances Florence Henderson, who by this time was wondering if she’ll ever be cast in a love scene opposite a straight actor.
For his third wish, Paul offers to take his two witchy friends anywhere they wish to go. Turns out the two hags have always dreamed about seeing a real Hollywood disco. Paul knows all about Hollywood discos (you bet he does), and we’re off to our final stop. Florence Henderson returns for a disco version of “That Old Black Magic” and suddenly I was having Brady Bunch Variety Hour flashbacks. All that was missing was Fake Jan.
As the festivities wind down, Paul says “Thank you for inviting us into your homes,” back when people said stuff like that on TV and made it sound sincere. And as the band cues up “Disco Lady,” viewers can only gaze in wonder at the assemblage of talent gathered for the finale; there’s Paul in his sparkly tuxedo, flanked by KISS and the Wicked Witch of the West. And there’s Pinky Tuscadero, Witchiepoo, Billy Barty and Mrs. Brady.
Savor that sight, because that’s what 1970s television was, kids – performers from different generations and genres inexplicably swept into each other’s orbits on a bizarre Pacific Princess cruise that we hoped would never end.
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is available on DVD, and also on YouTube. Watch it. Study it. Make it a part of your holiday celebration. And if you’re still stuck for a Halloween costume, look no further for inspiration.