Monday, 30 March 2020

The Squares' Master

Something didn’t seem right.

It was 1986. La Cage aux Folles was in performance at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver and the ads proclaimed the star of the show was Peter Marshall.

Peter Marshall? The Hollywood Squares Peter Marshall? What was he doing singing and dancing?

I suspect the first exposure many people had to Mr. Marshall’s talents was as the emcee of a game show and didn’t realise he had a whole career before that, including being part of a stand-up comedy team. The latter would come in handy on Hollywood Squares as he set-up gag answers from celebrities (in some cases via staff writers).

The show first aired on October 17, 1966 replacing a forgotten half-hour starring Joe Pyne called Showdown which had been on the air a whopping 3½ months. The Associated Press review the next day wasn’t all that favourable (read it to the right) but audiences liked the mix of the show and it’s been off and on the air a number of times over the decades.

Let’s pass along a couple of profiles of Mr. Marshall. The first appeared in papers around April 29, 1967, the second in Harvey Pack’s “TV Key” column of July 3, 1969. Casual viewers of the show may not have realised Paul Lynde was not a regular member of the cast at the beginning. “Mumbles” Dalton and Morey Amsterdam fell out as the series carried on, while Cliff Arquette died while still playing Charley Weaver.
Personality, Wit Mark Emcee

HOLLYWOOD — At first glance NBC's Monday through Friday mid-morning celebrity game show, Hollywood Squares, looks like a retirement home for out of work TV series stars.
The permanent panelists are Morey Amsterdam, Wally Cox, Rose Marie, Abby Dalton and Cliff Arquette.
But look closer and you'll see the Who's Who of Hollywood guest-starring at one time or another to play the game — a TV adaptation of the familiar Tic Tac Toe — emceed by Peter Marshall. Four stars, In fact, appear in week-long guest stints along with the regular panelists.
One guest star has been known to upset many a TV show, but when they add up to NINE, well —
"Well, it may sound fantastic, but I've had trouble with only one guest since we started the show last October," says Marshall, who started big time show business life as Tommy Noonan's partner in a nightclub and TV variety show comedy-singing act. Marshall was the straight man who also sang.
The guest star with whom Marshall clashed on the show was a woman, and, he says, "she was unbelievable. She never stopped talking and she even tried to rewrite the questions I ask on which the whole game is based."
By contrast, Zsa Zsa Gabor is a dream, he reported. “She's been on the show 10 times and has never interrupted anyone.”
The need for a personality who could banter ad libs with the likes of Amsterdam & Friends was the reason Marshall landed the job after co-starring for a year on Broadway with Julie Harris In the hit musical "Skyscraper."
"I guess they figured I had been through the mill with Noonan because I knew nothing about the workings of a TV game show and I still don't know."
What Marshall does know is that Hollywood Squares is climbing in the popularity ratings and that he has never before enjoyed such personal recognition.
"For 15 years I've lived next door to the same neighbors who I guess never knew exactly what I did because now all of a sudden I'm a celebrity to them."
About Amsterdam, he has great praise. "He never knows what category the questions will be in, but if it's diamonds, for example, he has three jokes about diamonds even before I get to the questions."
About ex-partner Tommy Noonan, Marshall tells you:
"We're great friends. He's delightfully crazy. I appreciate his insanity — now."
Peter Marshall's Diverse Background Helps Him Emcee ‘Hollywood Squares’

NEW YORK—Peter Marshall, the hip guy who rides herd over the “Hollywood Squares,” NBC's popular daytime game show, was in New York recently to plug his new record album "For the Love of Pete." By his own admission Pete would go anywhere to put in a pitch for his singing career because as happy as he is picking up a weekly paycheck on "Hollywood Squares" he's put in too many years in this business to relegate himself voluntarily into the category of quiz show emcee.
"When I was first approached for the job on 'Squares' a lot of my friends advised against it claiming it would be the end of me as an actor But I kind of liked the format and since I do have a wife and four children I thought I'd give it a go."
Pete was picked because of his background as an actor and the experience has paid off for the show. Marshall's theatrical background goes back almost 20 years and includes such diverse activities as page boy at NBC, co-starring in a Broadway musical with Julie Harris and being part of a successful comedy team, Noonan and Marshall. "Now I'm asked to play straight man to nine performers five times a week and that not only calls for a lot of timing but even requires continuous change of pace. For example you can't throw a straight line to Wally Cox the same way you feed one to a comic like Jan Murray.
When “Hollywood Squares” first premiered all the guest stars had a ball and everybody around the production thought it was going over great. Everybody that is except host Peter Marshall who took time off from the golf course to watch the show on TV. "I noticed it had no pace." explained Pete, "and I blamed the whole* thing on me.
“I was giving the stars a chance to go off on tangents as they tried to be funny and often succeeded. But by not sticking to the basic game we were letting the thing get away from us and while we were enjoying it—it meant very little to viewers.”
Marshall spoke up and the producers listened. The game became the thing, stars were told to shorten up their anecdotes and gags and emcee Marshall kept the game going. The amount of questions asked doubled and the rating went up. The idea of selecting an emcee with theatrical experience paid off and "Hollywood Squares" became an NBC daytime staple.
"No matter who the guest is I don't let him run off with one of his answers," says Pete. "Except for Wally Cox. Wally must set his own pace and it generally works out funny."
Delighted with the security he has achieved with "Squares," Marshall has obviously not given up on other aspects of his career. In addition to the new record album, Peter is still shopping around for Broadway roles, will spend his summer vacation appearing in a play in Chicago and has written four screen plays.


  1. Around 1972, Peter came to the Hampton Roads area and did " The Music Man ". Very impressive!

  2. Hollywood Squares was really the first of the 'bells and whistles' game shows, where the set and the various flashing lights were almost as important as the people on the show. But the show's location also made that important.

    Most of the game shows prior to 'Squares' had been New York-based and decidedly low-tech, and where many of the celebrities on those shows, being New York-based, might have been more familiar to Broadway theater-goers. But TV had been migrating more and more dayparts from the east to the west coast starting in the late 1950s. By setting up in Burbank instead of in New York, Marshall's show had access to a lot more celebs people regularly saw on other nighttime TV shows, and other game shows in the 1970s would follow that formula, in either getting glitzier or using more well-known celebs as a way to boost ratings.

  3. Hans Christian Brando31 March 2020 at 18:00

    Even if you knew of Peter Marshall's musical theater background before you went to "La Cage," I'd think the real surprise would be that was playing gay. (Most of the men who played the two leads in "La Cage" actually were straight.)