Hollywood Squares was a popular game show on television in the 1960s, patterned on the pencil and paper game of tic-tac-toe. The studio set had nine small cubicles, stacked three high and three wide. Within each open-faced square sat a celebrity. The two contestants, X and O, took turns choosing squares. The emcee asked a question of the celebrity sitting in the square and contestants had to decide whether they agreed or disagreed with the celebrity’s answer. When contestants guessed right, they won the square. When they guessed wrong, their opponent won the square. Play continued until someone won three squares in a row, horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
Peter Marshall (real name Ralph Pierre LaCock) was the host
For the most part, the stars of the show were B-list celebrities looking to revive careers and faded stars playing out the string. Most of the regulars were comics from back in the days of vaudeville and the Borscht Belt: Charley Weaver, George Gobel, Kaye Ballard, Morey Amsterdam, Rose Marie, Totie Fields, Buddy Hackett and Marty Allen. A few notables appeared from time to time, including Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers and Vincent Price, along with hundreds of other celebrities who made guest appearances on the show.
It was gag comedy more than a game show
The questions asked by the emcee were deliberate setups for one-liner responses. The comedians sometimes gave their own funny answers spontaneously, but most of the real zingers were written by staff writers who shared them with the stars in pre-show briefings. All that was missing were the rimshots.
- If you meet an attractive stranger at a party, is it okay to ask him if he’s married? Rose Marie: No, wait until morning.
- Does it take more than three words to say I love you In Hawaiian? Vincent Price: No, you can say it with a pineapple and a twenty-dollar bill.
- How many balls do you expect to see on a pool table? Charlie Weaver: Depends upon how many guys are playing.
- True or false – a pea can last as long as 5,000 years? George Gobel: It seems that way sometimes.
- According to Ann Landers, what are two things you should never do in bed? Paul Lynde: Point and laugh.
The show became a big hit when Paul Lynde took over the prestigious center square
Lynde had an undistinguished career on the stage and in four sitcoms that didn’t make it. He made a living doing guest appearances on programs like the Munsters, F Troop, I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched, all shows that featured lowbrow comedy.
- His biographers described him as “Liberace without the piano.”
- Mel Brooks said Lynde was so funny that he could get laughs reading from a seed catalog.
- His campy, snarky jokes and flamboyantly gay persona won Lynde three daytime Emmy nominations.
- Lynde graduated from Northwestern University in the same drama class with Cloris Leachman and Patricia Neal.
- He played small parts in Beach Blanket Bingo, Bye Bye Birdie, Son of Flubber and Under the Yum Yum Tree.
- Lynde earned enough money on Hollywood Squares to buy a Hollywood Hills mansion that had once been owned by swashbuckler Errol Flynn.
Because the rules are so simple, it’s one of the first games kids learn to play. Early versions of games where you tried to make three in a row on a three-by-three grid were played by the Romans, who called theirs terni lapilli (three pebbles at a time). Two closely related games are three men’s morris and picaria, the game played played by the Pueblo and Zuni peoples of the American Southwest. Brits call the game Noughts and Crosses, Norwegians call it Twiddles and Bears and some regions of Ireland call it Boxin’ Oxen.
- If both players play strategically, no one can win and every game will end in a tie.
- No one knows how tic-tac-toe got its name, but some historians think it has to do with the sound of making marks with chalk. Others say the name originally applied to a game of throwing a pencil at a slate covered with numbers, sort of like darts without the points. The sounds made by the pencil hitting the slate were supposedly tit-tat-toe.
- In 1975, students at MIT took 10,000 wooden spools and rods from 500 Tinkertoy sets and built a computer that played tic-tac-toe perfectly, never lost to any challenger and for a time was on display in Boston’s Museum of Science.