The Bootleg Files: Storybook Squares

BOOTLEG FILES 689: “Storybook Squares” (TV game show that aired in the 1969 and 1976-77 seasons).

LAST SEEN: Three episodes are on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A mostly-lost series.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely unless the lost shows are recovered.

One of the most popular game shows in U.S. television history was “Hollywood Squares,” which placed nine celebrities in an oversized tic-tac-toe set for a game that mixed trivia questions with laughs. The series ran from 1966 to 1981 and appeared in a daytime show that aired on weekdays and a syndicated nighttime version that initially aired once a week and was later made into a twice-a-week offering.

In 1969, the producers of “Hollywood Squares” decided to spin the series into a Saturday morning show aimed at the kiddie audience. “Storybook Squares” was created with the concept of having the stars on the panel dress up as historical or literary figures. Some of the choices were rather loopy: Wally Cox appeared as Paul Revere and Davy Crockett, Soupy Sales was Henry VIII, black comic Stu Gillam was the Arthurian wizard Merlin and ventriloquist Paul Winchell was Romeo while his dummy Jerry Mahoney cross-dressed as Juliet.

The 1969 show also recruited some popular TV actors to recreate their roles for this show: Arte Johnson was the German soldier from “Laugh-In” (complete with his cigarette), Carolyn Jones was Morticia Addams, Barbara Eden was Jeannie, Bob Crane was Col. Hogan, Jim Backus was Mr. Magoo and Ron Ely was Tarzan. Peter Marshall, who carried over his “Hollywood Squares” hosting duties for the Saturday morning show, later recalled that the female staffers at NBC turned out to see the shirtless and studly Ely on the show, but the actor brought along the chimpanzee Cheetah and the primate disrupted that day’s taping by defecating during the broadcast and smearing its feces on the set.

Cliff Arquette was also featured in his Charley Weaver character, which he played on the regular game show. And, of course, center square Paul Lynde would be dolled up in outrageous outfits, including drag selections as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Evil Queen from “Snow White.” Despite the Saturday morning slot, Lynde also brought his barely disguised camp with him – when he was cast as Attila the Hun, he beckoned Marshall with a suggestive, “Call me Hun!”

“Storybook Squares” would begin on a set designed to look like a fairytale kingdom. Announcer Kenny Williams was dressed as a town crier and heralded the show while introducing Marshall. Marshall, in turn, would announce each star, who walked out in costume. This took up a considerable amount of time for the half-hour episode (actually, 22 minutes with commercials), and by the time the child contestants were introduced and the rules were laid out, almost one-quarter of the running time was gone.

NBC debuted “Storybook Squares” on its Saturday morning line-up in January 1969. Sixteen episodes were taped, allowing the series to get an initial run through April before going into reruns into August. Oddly, the show didn’t click with the kiddie audience. In retrospect, “Storybook Squares” was not necessary since kids loved to watch the regular show’s line-up – and from personal experience, this was among my favorite programs when I was a child back in the 1970s, as it brought together my favorite TV stars and comedians with some surprising celebrity visitors that you did not normally see on daytime game shows (including Burt Reynolds, George C. Scott, Helen Hayes, Diana Rigg, Alice Cooper and Tina Turner). And, really, why would any kid back in the day want to see Soupy Sales dressed as Henry VIII when they could see Redd Foxx, Zsa Zsa Gabor or Buddy Hackett being their zany selves on the grown-up version?

“Storybook Squares” was quickly forgotten after its run, but in 1976 the game show’s producers opted to bring it back, this time as a series of specials folded into the regular daytime game show. The same format was used, except that parents and children competed as teams in the game. Among the more notable guests was William Shatner as Captain Kirk, which marked his only appearance as that character outside of the “Star Trek” franchise, and Big Bird from “Sesame Street.” Thirty episodes of “Storybook Squares” were shot for the 1976-1977 season.

But the same mistakes from the earlier edition were repeated here: the endless introductions of the stars in their storybook characters – although some, like Milton Berle as Old Mother Hubbard and Rip Taylor as an arrow-punctured General Custer, made the most of their entrances – plus the introductions of the contestants diluted the 22-minute running time. While Lynde could occasionally sneak in a mild innuendo, the level of humor on the show was too heavily watered down for grown-up viewers. And, again, “Storybook Squares” did not appeal to the kids who enjoyed the adult production and were not enchanted with seeing Karen Valentine as Mona Lisa or Jo Anne Worley as Martha Washington.

After “Hollywood Squares” went off the air, NBC believed the old episodes had no more commercial value and many of the tapes were wiped for reuse. Today, only three “Storybook Squares” episodes have found their way to YouTube in unauthorized postings, and a few others are believed to be in the possession of private collectors. While “Storybook Squares” was never as satisfying as the original “Hollywood Squares,” it can be seen today as an intriguing curio. Hopefully, more lost episodes turn up and this odd endeavor can be given a second look.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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