The groovy, goofy Paul Lynde Halloween Special could only have existed in the 1970s
KISS and Betty White, together at last.
Some consider disco to be the boiled-down essence of Seventies pop culture. But that doesn't quite cover it. Not everyone liked disco. In fact, a bunch of head-banging, beer-crushing rock jocks blew up a pile of disco records in the Chicago White Sox outfield, as you might remember.
No, if any art form truly encapsulates the entirety of '70s culture, it is the variety show. After all, the variety show was not an art form, it was all art forms.
A variety show packed sketch comedy, dance choreography, guest celebrities and concert performances (okay, lip-synching) into one anything-goes show. A variety show is Broadway meets Solid Gold meets Saturday Night Live meets Saturday morning. The things spread like a fly-collar across the television landscape, faster than you could say "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour."
Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, Captain & Tennille, Tony Orlando & Dawn, the Brady Bunch, Starland Vocal Band, Hee Haw, Sha Na Na…. It was hard to go a night without a variety show hosted by some groovy, hot act. And those were merely the series. That doesn't count the specials.
Few variety shows were as delightfully weird as The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. It was the Star Wars Holiday Special of Halloween specials. Because it does not involve Star Wars characters and unmitigated disaster, this jack-o'-lantern jamboree from October 1976 goes overlooked. We hope to fix that.
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special scores high on the what-am-I-even-watching-right-now novelty meter because it amps up two key factors that make a '70s variety show a '70s variety show: the number of fads and the utter randomness of its guest list. This baby had everything — children's television characters, heavy metal, trucking, disco, Betty White, 1930s Hollywood stars, minor sitcom actors, monsters, cowboy hats and buckets of rhinestones.
Just look at this guest list. Who was the casting director? We're going to assume that the little robot from Wonder Woman drew names out of one of Elton John's hats.
You had Tim Conway of The Carol Burnett Show, Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly of Happy Days, Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz, Billie "Witchiepoo" Hayes from H.R. Pufnstuf, Billy Barty, Florence Henderson, Betty White and KISS — not to mention a special guest appearance by Donny and Marie Osmond. In other words, "whoever could come over to ABC at 4PM on a Tuesday."
Written by Bruce Vilanch (Hollywood Squares, joke-crafter for the Oscars) and Ronny Graham (The Brady Bunch Hour, Spaceballs), The Paul Lynde Halloween Special gets off to a goofy start and our host sings a Christmas carol while dressed as Santa Claus. His housekeeper, who we are led to believe is the actress who played the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, informs him he has the wrong holiday. Cue the Easter number, with Lynde wearing a bunny suit. Cut to a romantic Valentine's ballad.
At last, the host remembers that it is October, which leads us into our first big song-and-dance routine, a reworking of "Kids," Lynde's big number from 1963's Bye Bye Birdie. Oh, that brings us to a matter that might be swirling in your mind. Why was Paul Lynde hosting a Halloween special in 1976? Well, a decade earlier he played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, as that was about witches? Whatever the case, the special poked fun at the choice of host, which we will get to later. First, the dance with the devils.
You have to give the song credit. What other tune in history had the brilliance and audacity to rhyme "burn your lawns" with "funky Fonz"? As satanic teens swirl around him, Lynde laments how kids only "break into your windows and break open your flower pots," before yelling at them, "Go to a cemetery, that's where you oughta play!"
The big shebang ends with Donny and Marie stuffing Lynde into an exploding trash can.
Next, Lynde arrives at a haunted house called Gloomsbury Manor, where most of the action takes place. There he meets Witchiepoo and the Wicked Witch of the West, played by the original actors. Witchiepoo, as you will remember, was the recurring baddie on H.R. Pufnstuf, the psychedelic kiddie program from the wild minds of Sid and Marty Krofft. In fact, if you made it to the very end of this special, the voice-over announcer said over the credit roll, "The character of Witchiepoo is from the world of Sid and Marty Krofft." But this show, despite sharing several cast members, had no production ties to the Krofft brothers.
An angelic Betty White soon arrives via a nifty bit of budge effect, spinning onto the screen. She wears a sash proclaiming her Miss Halloween. "You promised me a date with Paul Newman!" she blurts when she sees the host.
"If you couldn't get Paul Newman, why didn't you get some other famous Paul? Paul Williams… or Paul McCartney… Les Paul, Pall Mall, St. Paul… why Paul Lynde?" White asks, for all of us, for perhaps even the network heads. "He was available!" the witches explain. There's probably some truth to that punchline.
Time for another song and another guest! Lynde slips into a red wig, mat of chest hair and white Elvis jumpsuit covered in several Bedazzler-loads of rhinestones. He calls himself the Rhinestone Trucker and engages in a big of big-rig humor with Tim Conway, a.k.a. "Long Haul Howard." The two crack jokes into C.B.s and realize they're driving to meet the same woman, Kinky Pinky.
"Hug that shoulder, grab that curve, bump that bumper if you've got the nerve," Lynde sings with Roz "Kinky Pinky" Kelly. The combination of her big bouffant and his deadpan, sarcastic voice brings to mind the B-52s, who were just getting started as a band in 1976.
This all leads, naturally (at least in variety-show logic), into a performance by KISS.
A dizzying camera trick swirls us into the heavy riffs of "Detroit Rock City." Starchild, the Demon, Space Ace and the Catman will be back for more later.
After a dose of platform boots and silver codpieces, America's favorite TV mom enters the stage. Yes, it's Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch, ready to give her all in a labored skit.
"Darling, prepare to call your lawyer. I'm about to give you a case of liplash," Lynde tells her before pushing in for a kiss. The appearence of KISS was less awkward than this kiss.
Henderson then puts on a black sequin boogie dress for disco version of "That Old Black Magic." Neon bats hand behind the sparkling disco balls. If Adam West's Batman come along a decade later, it might have looked like this.
Lynde, Witchiepoo and the Wicked Witch then welcome back KISS by hyping their Billboard chart numbers. Peter Criss settles behind a grand piano to belt out his No. 1 ballad "Beth."
At last, the Wicked Witch introduces her "friends" KISS to Lynde, "This is Gene, Ace, Peter and Paul."
"I love a good religious group," he cracks.
Time for the funky finale! The cast hits the dance floor to do the electric slide to a reworking of "Disco Lady," changed to "Disco Baby." KISS, not wanting to sully their metal reputation, watch from a balcony.
Lynde steps forward from the groovy throng to thank the audience. "Now, if you'll excuse me," he says as we all did in 1976, "I'm going back to my group to trip the heavy fantastic."
We all said that, right?