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Paul Lynde play at Exit Theatre gets pulled over copyright claim

February 28, 2009 | 12:30 pm

Paul Lynde In a game of theatrical tic-tac-toe over who has the right to tell comic Paul Lynde's story on stage, a West Hollywood writer-actor has put a big X in the path of a small San Francisco theater company that had scheduled its own solo-actor take on the "Hollywood Squares" celebrity.

The Exit Theatre announced Friday that Sean Owens wouldn't be doing his play "Center Square" after all -- the title alluding to the spot on the tic-tac-toe TV quiz-and-comedy show gameboard that Lynde occupied on "Hollywood Squares." Owens was going to perform it twice in April in a 70-seat house that is the largest of three Exit spaces. Then theater officials got a "cease and desist" e-mail this week from Matzoball Entertainment LLC, and canceled the show.

"I guess I'm the big bad wolf, but I don't mean to be," said Michael Airington, who since 2004 has been performing "Off Center: the Paul Lynde show." Under the Matzoball corporate banner, Airington licenses the rights to Lynde's name, image and story from Lynde's estate. "I felt bad, but it's infringing on something we've been working on and putting a lot of sweat into, and we paid a lot of money to obtain the rights," Airington said. "When we first started, I didn't do my homework and we were told, 'You have to have permission to do this.' "

Michael Airington in 'Off Center: The Paul Lynde Show' Airington said his show, last seen locally at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park, is based on research he did, including interviews with "Hollywood Squares" host Peter Marshall, Karen Valentine, Cloris Leachman, Kay Ballard and Andy Williams. The premise of the show, he said, is that Lynde is trying to tell his life's story, but keeps getting interrupted by game-show questions from Marshall, who did voiceovers for the production.

An Exit Theatre spokesman, Gary Carr, said Friday that Owens' play is very different: instead of impersonating Lynde, he was going to play himself talking about Lynde's life and pop-cultural milieu, and how Lynde's television persona influenced him when he was growing up. The two staged-reading performances were going to take place during DIVAfest, an annual Exit event showcasing women playwrights -- Owens, who is a man, getting included because he's noted for performing in drag.

Carr said Exit officials may check with lawyers as to whether Matzoball really has the right to quash Owens' show, but it's not a priority. Any attempt to revisit the show "probably won't be for months." As for Owens, he said, "Sean's got a lot of other things to do," including a play called "End of the Trail" that is currently in New York City as an Exit contribution to an annual winter theater series called FRIGIDfest.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: Paul Lynde (top) on "The Dating Game" Credit: ABC Archive

Photo: Michael Airington in "Off Center: The Paul Lynde Show" Credit: Jim Cox