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OBITUARIES / Lloyd Thaxton, 1927 - 2008

Zany host of popular television dance show

October 08, 2008|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Lloyd Thaxton, the host of a popular Los Angeles TV dance show in the 1960s who memorably injected a visual zaniness into his daily rock 'n' roll party for teenagers, died Sunday. He was 81.

Thaxton, who later became the Emmy Award-winning producer and director of TV's long-running consumer advocacy program "Fight Back! With David Horowitz," died of multiple myeloma at his home in Studio City, said his wife, Barbara. He had been diagnosed with the disease in May.

A television personality from Toledo, Ohio, who arrived in Hollywood in 1957, Thaxton launched "Lloyd Thaxton's Record Shop" on KCOP-TV Channel 13 in 1959. The show featured records, guest stars and Thaxton's flair for humor.

Revamped and renamed "Thaxton's Hop" in 1962, the live, low-budget, late-afternoon program became such a hit with young Southern Californians that it was syndicated nationally in 1964.

Like "American Bandstand," Dick Clark's popular TV dance show out of Philadelphia that went national in 1957 on ABC-TV, what came to be called "The Lloyd Thaxton Show" featured teenagers dancing to records and guest appearances by top recording artists such as the Byrds, Jan and Dean, the Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, and the Turtles.

But new viewers quickly realized that the 30-something Thaxton was more than just a genial, dapperly dressed host.

Humorously lip-syncing -- and doing assorted variations thereof -- to the hit records of the day was his signature.

For a Herb Alpert instrumental version of "Zorba the Greek," Thaxton donned a fez and moved around the teenage dancers as he "played" two trumpets in his mouth.

Another time, he sat at a grand piano "playing" Roger Williams' "Summer Wind" as a huge off-screen fan increasingly blew newspapers, toilet paper and assorted other debris at him.

Thaxton would even cut a singer's lips out of an album cover and mouth the lyrics by putting his lips through the hole.

And then there were Thaxton's famous "finger people" (painted faces on his thumb and/or other fingers), who would "lip-sync" to a record as Thaxton slightly bent his finger joints to open and close the painted-on mouths.

In one "finger people" routine of Linda Laurie's recording of "Jose He Say," Thaxton wore a large sombrero and a droopy mustache and lip-synced the male part in a duet with his thumb, which was topped off with a small sombrero, doing the female part.

The group of about 30 teenage dancers on each show, who came from different Southern California high schools, also got into the act in various contests, including lip-syncing contests in which the boys might lip-sync the girls' parts and vice versa.

"It was an anything-for-a-laugh type of approach," said Dan Schaarschmidt of Research Video, who has been editing a pending "Best of" DVD of Thaxton's show.

"A favorite quote of his was from a fan who wrote one time and said, 'When I first saw your show, I thought you were making fun of rock 'n' roll. And the more I watched, I realized you were making rock 'n' roll fun,' " Schaarschmidt said. "He really took that to heart as a mission statement of his show."

The point of the lip-syncing and performing "other wild and crazy production numbers" was "to make the music visual and more entertaining to watch," Thaxton wrote on his blog, www.lloydthaxton.blogspot.com.

"People started calling me a musical Ernie Kovacs," he said in a 2003 interview with The Times, referring to the late, visually creative comedian.

Thaxton, who produced his dance program, would sign off by saying, "The name of the show is 'The Lloyd Thaxton Show,' and my name is Lloyd Thaxton."

To which the teen dancers in the studio would shout, "SO WHAT!"

"I was addicted to the show," said Jon Burlingame, a film and television music historian who teaches at USC and watched "The Lloyd Thaxton Show" on the NBC affiliate in Schenectady, N.Y., as a young teenager in the '60s.

"The show was constantly entertaining," Burlingame said. "And I think the reason it was so entertaining was it wasn't just about spinning the current hits; it was funny in a way that didn't talk down to young people."

During his peak as a TV dance show host in 1965, Thaxton's face appeared at the top of the newly launched Tiger Beat magazine (then known as "Lloyd Thaxton's Tiger Beat") for which he did a column.

The son of a newspaperman, Thaxton was born May 31, 1927, in Memphis. He grew up in Toledo and enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school near the end of World War II.

Thaxton used the GI Bill to attend Northwestern University, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in speech. He also participated in the university's radio, television and theater offerings. Thaxton launched his career in television in 1950 as a staff announcer at WSPD-TV in Toledo and soon was the host of "Leave It to Lloyd," a live afternoon show featuring guests, music and comedy.

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