LIDSVILLE -Sid Krofft talked to me over the phone. That’s almost as wild and weird as the shows he created with his brother Marty that dominated the ’70s. Their live action Saturday morning series mixed puppets and people went perfect with the sugar rush from a fresh bowl of Count Chocula. This was like a weird childhood dream as I had so many questions that had puzzled me since childhood. Krofft was eager to give answers.
He was excited about Vivendi Entertainment’s recent release of H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series Collector’s Edition. There’s also a normal H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series. What’s the difference? A cool bobblehead of H.R. Pufnstuf. I’ve had little contact with the bobblehead since my two year-old has turned it into her new best friend. I told Sid Krofft how another generation has embraced the lizard hero of my youth.
“Oh God, that is so cool,” Krofft said. “I have a two year old living here who is acting the same way. His favorite thing. He has all these boxes of toys, but the bobblehead is what he has to sleep with.”
For those who bought the original Rhino release, you should feel tempted to buy the new DVDs. The transfers are cleaner with a higher resolution. Did he knew what the restoration involved?
“I don’t know exactly what they did technically, but it looks great. They used our original masters,” he said. “It’s amazing that’s 40 years ago. I look at the show now because it’s on KCET every Saturday and Sunday and whoa! It looks like it was made today.”
The show hasn’t aged like an episode of Romper Room. Jimmy’s haircut comes back into vogue every 10 years. There is an eternal look to Living Island.
“I got to tell you how that look came about,” he insisted. “Saturday morning 40 years ago was all cartoons. When we were picked up, I said, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if it had the feeling of a cartoon. Let’s not jar the kids cause that’s what they tune into on all three networks. It would almost be like a 3-D cartoon without using the glasses.’”
The show’s unique look adds to making it unforgettable for the wee minds that absorbed it when it first aired in the fall of 1969. The show also created quite a few tunes that have stuck in the ears.
“It’s amazing that everybody who watched it as a kid knows the words of the songs. They approach me and seem to know more than I can remember,” he said.
H.R. Pufnstuf evolved from Sid and Marty’s work on another classic Saturday morning series.
“We did the Banana Splits because in our puppet shows we always had little people and put strings on them. The press never knew that,” he said. “The audience never knew that. The reviews we got said, ‘The Krofft puppets are life-like.” We put strings on them and mixed them with the marionettes which were the same size in our big puppet shows. At one point in the show, the little person in the costume would rip his strings down, an elevator would take him down to the front row and he’s start to walking up the row with his strings and his control dragging behind him. It would freak out the audience.
“Now Hanna-Barbera approached us on the Banana Splits. We had something called the Show business Factory. We were the creative heads of all the Six Flags parks. They built this huge place for us near the Burbank Airport. Hanna-Barbera approached us because they knew we built suits. When they walked out with the suits that we built for them in our factory, I looked at my brother and said, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to make a fortune. We gave it away.’
“The network was very nervous about the Banana Splits. They didn’t think it was going to work. They would come and spy on how we were doing it all. The head of the network said, ‘You guys are out of your minds. You got to create your own show.’ And that’s how I came up with Pufnstuf.”
His main source of inspiration was The Wizard of Oz’s colorful alternate world full of magic and strange creatures. The film had a major impact on his life.
“The Wizard of Oz was the very first movie I saw. I was 10 years old. My dad took me to see it. The first time I was ever in a theater. We slept in the street the night before in front of the theater because we were going to see the very first showing of it. It was seventy five cents to see it. It made a huge impression on me. I think Pufnstuf has that kind of a feeling. In The Wizard of Oz, it was just a few of the trees that were living. Every thing on Living Island regardless of what it was alive. Instead of a little girl, it was a little boy. It had a witch.
“There’s a great story about Margaret Hamilton who played the witch in The Wizard of Oz,” Krofft sidetracked. “She was retired and I wanted her to be the crazy lady next door in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. And I called her on the East Coast and she said, ‘I would come out of retirement if I can meet Witchiepoo. Witchiepoo is the greatest witch of all time.’ That was a helluva compliment from Margaret Hamilton. She came out and we had Billie Hayes, who played Witchiepoo, at the airport to meet her. They became incredible friends.”
Hamilton wasn’t the only star of the inspirational film to work with the Kroffts.
When I did see The Wizard of Oz, I had never seen… in those days they called them midgets,” he said. “It was pretty wild that thirty years later, that we hired more little people than were in The Wizard of Oz. Even the little people that were in The Wizard of Oz were on our show. They said that we gave little people a huge job and they hadn’t worked that much since The Wizard of Oz. That was great.”
The show inspired quite a few famous people.
“Judy Frog in the “You Can’t Have Your Cake” episode did what we called in that time, what was 1969, the Moonwalk. Michael Jackson was a great friend of mine,” said Krofft. “I knew him for years. He came to my house many times. I went to Neverland many, many times. He was a huge fan of everything that we did just like the Beatles. When we did Pufnstuf, the Beatles were locked in their hotel rooms cause they were so huge. Every time we finished an episode, we sent it to them so they could see it in their hotel rooms. Michael Jackson years later did the Moonwalk (on Mowtown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever). That came from Pufnstuf. It’s pretty wild and a helluva compliment.”
Very quickly the Kroffts discovered they had plenty of viewers.
“At the end of the show Pufnstuf would say, ‘Keep those letters and postcards coming in. See you next week.’ We wanted them to tune in next week,” he said. “Oh my god, we used to get 10,000 letters from kids wanting pictures and autographs from Jimmy or whatever. We didn’t know what to do with all this mail. We cleared out a huge room and had all these kids answering the mail. We started a fan club. Most of the mail came from college kids. That was the big thing to do is to wake up Saturday morning and watch Pufnstuf the way the would do years later with Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.
Do college kids watch the paltry offerings on TV that get passed off as Saturday morning cartoons? Can a 20 year old stomach Dora the Explorer? If you’re think about grabbing the Pufnstuf DVDs so you can have something to watch on hazy weekend mornings.
While the show was popular, the Kroffts only made one season of original episodes. Why didn’t it keep going like SpongeBob SquarePants? Turns out it cost more to producer an episode of H.R. Pufnstuf than the licensing fee.
“The network gave us $54,000 an episode. We lost close to a million dollars on the whole 17 shows. They did want to pick it up, but they only wanted to give us another $10,000. We said no way. We almost went into bankruptcy because of Pufnstuf.” Turns out what t kept them out of the poor house was their work for Six Flags. It’s “what supported all of our television shows since we never got a big fee in those days. Land of the Lost went up to $70,000 an episode. People think we made more than 17 shows.”
Of course it helps that the prime audience for Pufnstuf are small kids who have no problem watching the same episodes over and over. Even today, Krofft doesn’t mind the reruns when he tunes them on KCET on the weekends at 9:30 a.m. “I watch them myself after all these years and I still have a smile on my face,” he declared.
While often there’s tales of thousands auditioning for roles, the Kroffts were lucky to discover the actors for Jimmy and Witchiepoo easily. Jack Wild jumped out of the screen while Billie Hayes jumped on the furniture. Krofft first explains how Wild caught his eye.
“What happened was that Lionel Bart was a very good friend of mine. Lionel Bart wrote the music and the screenplay to the movie Oliver! that Jack Wild was in. It was Jack Wild’s first movie and he was nominated for an Academy Award for the Artful Dodger. Lionel Bart called me from London and said, ‘I’m coming in LA tomorrow. Please go with me. I’m going to see the first rough cut of Oliver!‘ That was the day we were picked up on Pufnstuf. We didn’t have any idea of how to produce a TV show. We certainly didn’t audition anyone at that point. I saw Jack Wild and I said to Lionel Bart, ‘That is the kid for Pufnstuf.’ Jack Wild was great. He was the little Mickey Rooney of his time.
“Billie Hayes was the second one who came in for Witchiepoo. Penny Marshall was the first one. I looked at my brother and said, ‘I don’t know if we want a Brooklyn witch.’ She had that heavy Brooklyn accent. That didn’t work out. Billie Hayes was Mammy Yokum in Li’l Abner, the movie and the Broadway show. She had just moved out here. She came in to audition and jumped on our desk. There was no doubt.”
Hayes is so attached to the character of Witchiepoo that no other woman can do the role justice. Which is just fine for Krofft as they construct the upcoming Pufnstuf movie.
The Pufnstuf movie is being developed over at Sony. We’re getting very close. Who is going to play Witchiepoo?” he asks. “Our wish is Johnny Depp. He’s waiting for the script right now, which is almost finished. Isn’t that going to be wild? He’s a huge fan of Pufnstuf. Hopefully we’ll get him to do it. He’ll chew up the screen with that character.”
This would be the second cinematic adaptation of the series for the big screen. The original Pufnstuf movie came out with the TV show’s cast. Was it always their intention to make a movie with the series?
“The original movie came right on the heels as soon as we finished the TV series. It was Marty’s idea to do a movie. He approached Universal. They said, ‘What’s it going to cost?’ My brother said, ‘I don’t know, probably a million dollars.’ They said, ‘A million dollars for a kid movie? No way.’ My brother went to Kellogg’s. They were the sponsor of the TV show and they put up half of it or a little more than half. Universal put up the other half. That’s all it cost. Now they make movies for a $100 million or $200 million. We made it for $900,000 actually. Now it’s time for a new movie,” he declared.
One of the odd things about the character of Pufnstuf is that he wear white cowboy boots. My pal Zan wanted to know why the big lizard wore boots. Thus I asked.
“We had a show called Les Poupees de Paris. It played to 9 1/2 million people at the New York. San Antonio and Seattle World’s Fairs,” he said. “For Coco-Cola’s Pavilion we did a show called Kaleidoscope. There was a character in it called Luther. That was Pufnstuf. It was a superhero that was changed into a dragon. The only way he could be changed back was to be kissed by someone. But who wants to kiss a dragon? He became the symbol of the San Antonio World’s Fair. He was huge. When we got Pufnstuf, we took that character. “Puff the Magic Dragon” was the big song that year. That’s where the title of Pufnstuf came from. It didn’t come from drugs like we were accused of. He wore cowboy boots because it was Texas. We loved that character and gave him that accent. That’s how that character was born.”
Many kids as they grow up look at so many of the Krofft’s TV shows and ponder if everyone on the set was high on something. Krofft swears his sets did not resemble Chevy Chase’s dressing room.
“We’re always accused of that. I’m 81 years old. If I was on drugs, I wouldn’t be talking to you. I’d be gone by now. It was the psychedelic era. I was moving with the times. When you look at it today, you go oh my god, that looks like an acid trip. I’m a big health fiend. I grown all my own food in my garden. I’m an original hippie cause I always wanted to feel good everyday.”
Krofft believes all their shows will be coming out on DVD with the new deal. This will come as a relief to Chuck McCann who wants to see his Far Out Space Nuts with Bob Denver (Gilliagan’s Island). Although he’ll have to wait. “The next one coming out is Sigmund and the Sea Monsters,” Krofft said. Unlike the Rhino boxset, this new copy should contain both the first and second season of the show. “I think it’s the full. It’s being designed right now,” he said.
When the Kroffts went continued making Saturday morning shows, they had to figure out ways to trim the budget to decrease the initial production lost. The major change was shooting video instead of 35mm film that was used on Pufnstuf. This is why this show looks much better than Lidsville and Land of the Lost. By going on video they didn’t have to pay for expensive and time consuming optical effects. Krofft feels bad that they had to make the switch. “That was financial. I loved doing it on film,” he said..
Pufnstuf was shot at the Paramount studios with their neighbor soundstage being used by Lucille Ball. Mike Nichols was on the other side making Catch-22. “Mike Nichols would order our call sheets everyday and frame them in his office. They said, Stupid Bat 8 o’clock. He just freaked out. Lucy used to come over on every one of her breaks. No one ever saw anything like that with all these little people running around. At all the public toilets in the lot, we had to put elevators in the stalls. Once they got into the costumes, they couldn’t get out. It was insane. It was really crazy.”
The character of Pufnstuf was voiced by Lennie Weinrib, but the man inside the suit was Roberto Gamonet. Did Lennie ever dress up as Pufnstuf to do the character along with the voice? “No,” said Krofft. “I discover Lennie in the Billy Barnes shows. There were a lot of stars that came out of that. It was like Saturday Night Live. I loved Lennie. He could do all the voices.” The mix of two humans and the numerous puppets made recording the sound for the show rather interesting. The Kroffts had the dialogue recorded at once. Jack and Billie were recorded on the set. Off camera, Lennie, Joan Gerber and Walker Edminston sat at a table and recorded the characters’ lines.
As the ’70s wore on, live action shows on Saturday mornings grew in number. Filmation went from animation to create Shazam, Isis and The Ghost Busters. Krofft didn’t have an opinion of Filmation’s effort.
“I didn’t pay that much attention to other shows because I didn’t want to be influenced with what they were doing,” he said. “I didn’t watch the Hanna-Barbera shows. I had to come up with a new every single year. That was enough to worry about. Not only were we doing television too for a while. We had the theme park, Donny and Marie Osmond and the Brady Bunch. We had so many things going at our Showbiz Factory. We built a big portion of the Electric Parade for Disney.”
Turns out Sid and Marty had an encounter with the father of Mickey Mouse that excited Michael Jackson.
“When I told him I met Walt Disney; that was the biggest freak out he ever had. He had never met him. Everything in his home was Walt Disney characters. He loved Walt Disney.” And now the rest of the story:
“When we did Les Poupees de Paris at the Seattle’s World Fair it had just opened; we flew back here for some reason and had lunch with Cyd Charisse and Tony Martin at the Polo Lounge. Sitting at the next table was Walt Disney. We never met him before. He came over to say hello to Cyd and Tony. They introduced Marty and myself to Walt Disney. I was just shaking. Walt Disney said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about you guys. Can I give you some advice? Always put your name above everything that you create because someday it’ll be worth something.’ The show in Seattle was just the title of a show. Immediately we put Sid and Marty Krofft’s Les Poupees de Paris. That’s why you see our name on everything. You can blame Walt Disney.”
Unlike other creative groups that have sold their companies such as Filmation and Hanna-Barbera, the Kroffts are still in control of their creative empire.
“We held onto everything,” he said. “We own everything - all of our characters and all of our shows. That was one great thing my brother did. We didn’t sell out. Michael Jackson at one point wanted to buy our company. He gave us a down payment and it didn’t work out. He was having his own problems.”
Ownership of the characters has allowed them to make them show up in unique places. Pufnstuf was busted on CHiPs. My Name Is Earl had Pufnstuf pop up on the motel TV. Randy eventually had a fantasy sequence with Pufnstuf. “Evidently they got their highest rating on that episode,” Krofft said. “We’ve had Pufnstuf on quite a few shows. He was on George Lopez. It lives on forever.”
Along with the new Pufnstuf movie, Dreamworks is creating an animated version of Lidsville. The brothers are being more creatively involved in their films after their sour experience on Land of the Lost. At first they enjoyed the big budget production with lavish sets. They enjoyed their early visits to the studio, but the feeling waned.
“We walked away because we said, “Maybe we don’t know anything?” I had a meeting set up with the director (Brad Silberling) three months before we were ready to shoot. My brother canceled it. My brother said, “He’s the captain of the ship and you’re going to upset the ship. I know you. I know that you’re complaining about all the things about it. Where’s the heart? Where’s my family? Who is this movie for with all the foul language?’ Then you go, shit, I don’t know anything. Universal, why would they be spending hundreds of millions? We got Will Ferrell and his movies make a $100 million. Everything is going to be fine. We walked away from it. It looked great. Unbelievable when you walked on the sets. Maybe I don’t know anything. It’s going to be fine. That’s not going to happen anymore. When I look at my notes, it makes me sick to my stomach.”
The movie became a box office summer dud and a won the Razzie for Worst Prequel, Remake, Rip-off or Sequel. But it’s had a second life. “On HBO when they showed it over and over again, it got huge ratings. Everybody who didn’t see it saw it, Krofft said.
There was one positive experience from the production for Sid Krofft. He got to meet my NCSA classmate Danny McBride.
“I love Danny,” he said. “He’s incredible. What a nice guy. He’s terrific. Never a problem. The nicest guy. Everybody loves him. I think he tried to help. He rewrote and ad-libbed.”
He didn’t have the same fond memories for when they created a show around The Bay City Rollers. “Not easy,” he declared. “They really weren’t. I don’t remember their problems that they had, but we had problems with them.”
He knows something about musicians since he’d worked with one of the biggest rock stars on an unexpected show.
We auditioned the Bugaloos in London. Four thousand kids came. Lionel Bart helped pick those kids. And Lionel on the last day brought in Mick Jagger. And Mick Jagger helped picked those kids. Phil Collins auditioned and was turned down.
That’s right, Mick Jagger at the height of the Rolling Stones’ most powerful era (when Mick Taylor brought the voodoo to their sound) was choosing which kids looked best wearing bug wings. He was the original Simon. And he decided that Phil Collins was not a Bugaloo. This was a blessing in disguise. Mick would have destroyed Phil Collins’ career by picking him. You think he could have gotten the Genesis gig after being a Saturday morning superstar? The world would have been spared “Sussudio.” Damn you, Mick Jagger for not stopping Phil Collins stealing South Park’s Oscar!
The conversation comes back to H.R. Pufnstuf when I ask if they had a test to see if a character was too bizarre for the kids.
“We never tested them,” he said. “The network were scared to death. Nothing like this had ever been done. When we turned in the first rough cut, it didn’t have sound effects. They gave us…I don’t know how many pages of notes. They hated it. They hated the title. That’s what they did research on. It came out like a powderpuff. It was a girls title. They asked for all these things to be redone. We didn’t have any money to reshoot or do anything like that. What we did was we completed the show, put the sound effects in and put the music in and sent it back. And they said, oh thank you. It’s wonderful. And that was the end of it.”
As our conversation wrapped up, I thanked him for making my generation so weird.
“So it’s my fault? You’re putting all the pressure on me now,” he said. “When I’m out of town and I hand somebody my credit card, they freak me out. They can’t believe they’re talking to the guy that got them in trouble when they were a kid. I get blamed on a daily basis. It’s OK.”
Hear Joe & Sid Krofft
We had to take back Charlie Sheen’s Spirit of Bob Crane Award since it’s obvious he isn’t living up to the Hogan’s Heroes star’s standards. During Charlie’s disastrous live tour he told an audience member, “I already got your money, dude!” Bob would have never done that while performing Beginner’s Luck at dinner theaters across America.
I don’t get is why people who paid $100 feel ripped off by Charlie’s live show. What did they expect? He’s not a singer. He’s not dancer. He’s not a stand up comic. He’s not a drummer. He can’t juggle chainsaws. He’s not much of an entertainer as long as he has to keep his pants zipped. You showed up to see a trainwreck and got dog chasing his tail. What’s more pathetic than Sheen’s incoherent ramblings is your expectation that this was going to be so cool. He’s got your money and all you have is the memory of being ripped off. At least you helped make a rich guy richer.
Bob Crane would have never approved.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers: Season One is the greatest cartoon ever created by a billionaire. Ted Turner decided that animation should do more than inspire kids to defy gravity and think man and dinosaurs lived together. He wanted an environmental consciousness raised with paint in motion. Thus he put together a series that pre-dated Al Gore. The spirit of the Earth (Whoopi Goldberg) gives powerful rings to five kids from around the world. Each has a secret force involving fire, water, air, earth and heart. When they use the rings together they summon Captain Planet. He’s the big heavy. The kids travel around the globe using solar power vehicles. They fight various polluting villains with colorful names like Hoggish Greedly, Looten Plunder, Sly Sludge, Duke Nukem, Venimous Skumm and Zarm. They have schemes to make the average people not consider the consequences to wasteful actions. This isn’t a Power Point presentation. There’s plenty of action on the screen since going green doesn’t mean going boring. Turner nabbed real star power to voice the bad guys including Ed Asner, Dean Stockwell, Jeff Goldblum, Meg Ryan, James Coburn, John Ratzenberger and Sting. Who knew Sting could be so evil? There’s 26 episodes in the boxset. The big bonus feature is “Your Powers Combined: The Story of Captain Planet” with Ted Turner explaining how this cartoon series came together. Instead of a plastic case, Captain Planet and the Planeteers is packaged with recycled cardboard. You should watch this on a solar power DVD player.
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