MOUNT VERNON -- Politicians and generals get statues made of them after they're gone.
Entertainers, not so much, particularly an entertainer with a controversial private life and issues with alcoholism. So, in place of a statue, a granite tombstone in Pike Township's Amity Cemetery has become a memorial for comedian and actor Paul Lynde.
During his heyday, Lynde was one of the most popular television stars in the United States, appearing on sitcoms such as Bewitched, where he played Uncle Arthur, and being featured in the center square on the game show Hollywood Squares.
Before that, Lynde had success on Broadway, playing Harry MacAfee in the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie, delivering the song “Kids.” He reprised that role for the 1963 film, and had begun a long string of guest appearances on TV shows even before that.
As is still well-known in the area, Lynde was a native of Mount Vernon, where his father Hoy served for a time as the Knox County sheriff, as had his father before him. If anyone would have been likely among Hoy's children to follow in his footsteps, perhaps it was Corodon, known as Cordie, who was given his father's middle name.
But Cordie, three years older than Paul, lost his life during World War II's ferocious Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
Paul had no interest in either law enforcement or the military, having been devoted to school theatrical productions during his teen years. He knew where his strengths lay. By the fall of 1944, he was entering Northwestern University in Chicago, studying theater. By the late 1940s, Lynde was working as a stand-up comedian in New York City.
By 1952, he'd made his Broadway debut, and by 1956 was beginning to appear on television. His campy, snarky style was instantly memorable and wickedly fun.
His star continued to rise.
At a time when being gay was generally regarded as a shameful secret, Lynde became famous (or infamous) for being just barely in the closet. He regularly wrote jokes for Hollywood Squares that allowed him to get a lot of comedic mileage out of his hinted-at orientation. While later on, his behavioral problems cast Lynde's personal life in a troubled light, his boldness was astonishing for the 1970s, and he became something of a gay icon for that reason.
But Lynde had problems with alcohol and drugs, and, according to Hollywood legend, when he was intoxicated, things could get ugly. While his comedy often trafficked in ridiculing himself, the flip-side would come to light when he was drunk and would begin ridiculing other people.
He became notoriously difficult to work with and had numerous run-ins with law enforcement during the late 1970s. His career began falling apart.
Determined to get his life back on track, Lynde got clean and sober in 1980. Unfortunately, years of rough living had already taken their toll. Lynde died of a heart attack in 1982, at age 55. He was brought home to Knox County and buried in the family plot in Amity Cemetery.
There he shares a stone with a sister and brother. Other family members are adjacent, including Cordie, whose grave is regularly dedicated for his service and sacrifice.
Over the years, I've stopped by the cemetery periodically to see how ol' Paul is doing. He's still there, naturally, probably thinking up more than a few barbed witticisms. Every so often, I'll find little gifts or mementos left for this troubled man who brought so much laughter into the lives of others.
Flowers are most commonly left, though this year I found a necklace there. At other times, I've seen stuffed animals, toys, and coins. As the years go by, the gifts are being left less often — after all, it's been over 35 years since he passed away, over 40 years since he was at the peak of his fame.
But Paul Lynde cast a long shadow over the landscape of our popular culture. Today, one can still bump into imitations of his distinctive campy patter in animated cartoon characters, something in which Lynde led the way by lending his voice to portray Templeton the Rat in the 1973 animated classic Charlotte's Web.
In the end, in his own peculiar way, Paul Lynde was a personal hero to a lot of people, for trying to be who he was in an age where that wasn't deemed proper. He was also a hero to generations of comedians who watched him closely to study the art of comic timing.
Lacking a statue, his grave stone will have to do.
Author's Note: There is one other object that also stands as a memorial for Lynde, and that is his 1964 Ford Thunderbird, which is on display at the Knox County Historical Society's museum. The museum also has an extensive collection of Paul Lynde memorabilia, which I'll explore in future columns.
Do you have any Paul Lynde stories? If so, write to me at HistoryKnocks@sinisterhandmedia.com. I'll collect those stories for another future column.