Saturday morning cartoons don’t mean much in the streaming-media age, but for several generations of kids, they were a weekly window into other (more fun) worlds. And no worlds were more bizarre and potentially life-changing than those portrayed in the shows of Sid & Marty Krofft: H.R. Pufnstuf, the Bugaloos, Lidsville, Land of the Lost… They existed in a realm of their own, somehow interconnected by a mad-genius vision of how people look and talk and interact. Can such a psychedelic esthetic synonymous with growing up in the ’70s still capture children’s imaginations in the jaded digital age? You can find out for yourself on Amazon Video with its reboot of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, produced by Sid and Marty Krofft Pictures.
Originally Published: June 3, 1999
* * *
The sky is solid blue, dotted by perfectly puffy white clouds that look painted on the horizon. The ground is oddly flat and soil-free, though there are hills in the distance sprouting two-dimensional trees. Near your feet are clumps of an unidentifiable organic material (loam? moss?) and huge soft flowers of blue and orange. It’s all so strangely serene…
“Golly–Freddie sure is enjoying our picnic!” declares the giant dragon sitting beside you. His body appears to be mostly head–a gargantuan orange head with glassy eyes that bobble atop dark green bags. He’s naked except for his white cowboy boots and some sort of sash with a medal. And his voice kind of sounds like a mellow Jim Nabors. What’s going on here? you wonder.
Suddenly, a high-pitched cackle can be heard overhead, and a green-skinned witch comes buzzing down from the sky atop her jet-equipped broom. “She’s gonna zap us!” cries the rotund dragon as he scrambles to his feet. Terror erupts as everybody–including the two mute English bobbies who don’t appear to have noses–runs for cover.
“Hide me, Jimmy!” begs a squeaky little voice. “Hide me!” You look down into the picnic basket and–my God!–there’s a golden flute in there with a mouth and eyes! And it’s crying for your help! It’s Freddie, Freddie the magical flute…you’re beginning to remember now…Jimmy’s some kid lost on this weird island…
“DON’T ANYONE TOUCH THE EVIL MUSHROOMS!” commands Pufnstuf–H.R. Pufnstuf–before scuttling away, leaving you alone with that malevolently tittering witch. Witchiepoo is her name. And those two deformed officers were Kling and Klang. But where’s Dr. Blinky and Waxy? Ohhh, the head begins to spin, and…
And you realize that this wasn’t all simply a long-forgotten dream, but rather a Saturday morning TV show you grew up watching way back in the ’70s. Filed deep within the recesses of memory, the show’s characters have remained as barely-remembered figments of the imagination for most of your adult life. But now, suddenly, there they are on your TV set once again: the curious inhabitants of the psychedelic wonderland called Living Island, a.k.a. H.R. Pufnstuf. Through airings on cable’s TV Land and on DVD from Rhino Home Video, these strange creations have returned, greeted by a cultish fanbase of wistful adults and curious kids.
Originally launched in 1969, H.R. Pufnstuf lasted for only a single season–but it left its imprint on the minds of millions of youngsters in an era when “Saturday morning TV shows” were a genre unto themselves. Sure, there were plenty of cartoons to choose from back then: Scooby-Doo, Hong Kong Phooey, The Harlem Globetrotters, Star Trek, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. But no matter their charms, they all looked alike–that same stiff, can’t-afford-facial-expressions animation in the generic Hanna-Barbera mold. No, if you wanted something really wild, something far-out, you’d groove to the mind-blowing worlds of H.R. Pufnstuf (which was always being repeated) or one its later relatives: The Bugaloos, in which a group of English pop singers with wings flew around foiling the nefarious plans of Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye); Lidsville, about a boy who got stuck in a community of giant talking hats under the control of the really mean magician Hoo Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly); Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, wherein a cast-off sea monster was adopted by a couple of boys; and, most memorable of all, Land of the Lost, in which semi-nuclear family Marshall, Will, and Holly found themselves in a prehistoric parallel dimension populated by dinosaurs and nasty Sleestaks.
All of these shows were live-action, not cartoons, and they all shared a bizarre sensibility of wild visuals and high imagination. If you were any kind of Saturday morning TV show fan, you knew all these shows also had something else in common: the flashing logo of Sid & Marty Krofft Television Productions. Krofft was a name that meant something to a kid–it promised a world unlike any to be found on the other TV shows. In retrospect, people today are struck by the Krofft shows’ psychedelic scenery, the head-trip dialogue, and the stoner connotations of names like “Pufnstuf” and “Lidsville.” Surely, most people assume with a grin, Sid and Marty had to have been doing drugs.
“Well…I don’t want to kill the illusion,” says a hesitant Marty Krofft from his Krofft Productions office in Sherman Oaks, Calif. “But I don’t remember being drugged while we were doing this. I should have been drugged, though–I probably would have spent less money.”
Marty’s often recognized as the “business brother” to Sid’s role as the “creative brother,” so it’s no wonder that the bottom line comes to his mind more readily than evil mushrooms. The Kroffts often spent much of their income on producing their shows, especially with H.R. Pufnstuf–a show that made their name, but also left them nearly broke after one season when they spent twice as much on each episode as they were allotted.
“Money was never the goal,” says Krofft. “The goal was to do right by what we were doing, and we put everything into it. We always went into production looking at the old Busby Berkeley stuff, all the big musicals, stuff that had a lot of production involved with it. So I think it’s a miracle we didn’t go bankrupt doing these shows. They [the networks] never gave us enough money to do them.”
Fortunately, the brothers had a steady income from a network of puppet shows they created for amusement parks, which helped subsidize the television productions. Before becoming TV producers, the Kroffts were actually world-famous puppeteers–fifth generation masters of the artform. While Sid had been trained since childhood to carry on the family tradition, performing at such venues as Follies Bergere and The Ed Sullivan Show, Marty joined him years later after teaching himself the ropes. In 1968, big-time cartoon company Hanna-Barbera (home of The Flintstones and The Jetsons) asked the Kroffts to design some costumes for a new live action show it was developing, The Banana Splits. Soon after that success, NBC gave the brothers their big break to come up with a show of their own. The only stumbling block: They’d never produced a TV show before.
“We got the show, and I sent my secretary over to one of the big book stores to buy a book on how to produce a TV show,” says Krofft. “We were learning on the job. But I brought the first episode to NBC in New York on 35mm and it was an immediate flip-out. They all loved it. It had two levels: you always talk to the adults, and never talk down to the kids. That first show, we were off and running. Seventeen episodes, which is all I got, ran five years on two networks, every Saturday. And they were like 8 and 10 ratings. Today that would be like the top 20 in prime time.”
For the next 10 or 12 years, the Krofft brothers owned the minds of young viewers with a succession of live action shows, including science fiction fare like Far Out Space Nuts (Bob “Gilligan” Denver and Chuck McCann get lost in outer space after accidentally confusing the “launch” and “lunch” buttons of a NASA rocket) and The Lost Saucer (robots Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi accidentally time warp out with some human stowaways and must try to return them to Earth). Their Saturday morning TV empire reached an apex of sorts with The Krofft Supershow, which ran 90 minutes with the serialized adventures of ElectraWoman and Dynagirl, Dr. Shrinker, Wonderbug, Bigfoot and Wildboy, and Magic Mongo. It was almost more entertainment than a kid could absorb, all of it highlighted with “high tech” special effects and catchy rock theme songs.
Some of these shows barely lasted a season, yet they remain in the memories of many twenty- and thirtysomethings as icons of childhood. For Jeff Reid, a 35-year-old home health care technician, a chance rediscovery of The Bugaloos when it was being rebroadcast on the Family Channel a few years ago inspired him to create his own tribute website to all things Bugaloo. One of his strongest memories from the show is the episode “where I.Q. was tied face down on an operating table, and the villains were going to cut off his wings. It was almost more chilling than my 7-year-old mind could handle!” So why did he teach himself HTML in order to memorialize such childhood horror? Beyond his adolescent crush on pixie-cute Joy (played by Caroline Ellis), there is the unique and still unduplicated flavor of Krofft shows.
“Not only are they different from the shows today, they were different from the shows back then!” says Reid. “The Kroffts were coming from a place that was entirely unique–their background in puppetry. Puppets on television were usually in the Howdy Doody or Kukla, Fran and Ollie mold, where the puppets and the host would sort of stand there and trade quips. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another show that mixed live actors and puppets in quite that way.”
Likewise, for 32-year-old web producer/writer George Balen, Land of the Lost (the longest-lived Krofft show, with 43 episodes) became more than just a memory–his landofthelost.com is one of the better Krofft tribute pages, becoming a touchstone for fellow fans. [Note: It appears to remain the same since this story was written!]
“I think Krofft shows remain a cult favorite for the same reason old toys remain in huge demand by thirtysomethings: they are an E-ticket back to your childhood,” says Balen. “All those adult freedoms and responsibilities we wished for as kids all seem to vanish when you throw in a Krofft videotape and watch all your old pals on the screen romp around for 22 minutes. You forget about the overdue bills, the car payment, and the meeting you have tomorrow at work. For those 22 minutes, you are six years old again, inhaling Honeycomb cereal and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your Saturday. No bills, no responsibilities, no worries in the world–that is what watching Krofft shows does for me.”
The Krofft time warp is a common theme for now-grown fans who devote uncommon attention to keeping the shows alive. Lawrence Latouf, a 28-year-old software engineer, was so haunted by Hoo Doo’s evil chortle (“In the mid-’80s–when Krofft shows were all but extinct–it was Hoo Doo’s laugh that kept driving me to remember those old shows.”) he wrote the Krofft FAQ, which is available online at his website, krofft.net. Even more importantly, he’s introduced his own kids to Krofft shows.
“My children love Sigmund and Pufnstuf, and it’s great to sit and watch it with them,” says Latouf. “As an adult, I think that a lot of them are pretty silly, but better than most of the live action stuff for kids today. Live action shows for kids today are less magical. They’ve turned into half-hour toy commercials, and it appears that little if no effort is put into the actual show.”
The Kroffts didn’t limit themselves to just producing children’s shows. In fact, they attempted to further their modern-age Disney status in 1976 and created their own theme park, “The World of Sid and Marty Krofft,” at the Omni in Atlanta. Utilizing their previous experience with parks like Six Flags, the brothers concocted a Krofftian universe that was entirely indoors.
“It was kind of like the eighth wonder of the world,” recalls Krofft. “You rode up in a free-standing 10-story escalator, and worked your way down to this fantasy land of shows and rides. We had a pinball ride where you got inside a pinball and got knocked around the workings of a pinball machine. We were ahead of our time there. That park only stayed open for eight months, but we did about 600,000 people. We had a lot of problems and we couldn’t correct them. The safety situation in Atlanta wasn’t great.”
Even more dangerously, the Kroffts stretched their empire into prime time with that most ’70s of TV genres, the variety show. Michael Eisner, then an ABC exec, gave them a break with The Donny and Marie Show (1976-79), which became a big success. And then Eisner threw them a not-such-a-great-break with The Brady Bunch Hour (1977), which was based on his belief that audiences were dying to see the cast of the original Brady Bunch sing and dance. That belief proved horribly wrong. And then there was the short-lived success of The Bay City Rollers. (“That was probably one of my worst experiences, to deal with that group. Nothing but trouble. But I survived it. You know, they all can’t be easy. The easiest ones never work.”)
By the early ’80s, the networks were less interested in live action shows for their Saturday morning programming, and Krofft shows waned while stuff like The Smurfs were in. Nevertheless, the Kroffts were still enjoying some prime time success with Barbara Mandrell & The Mandrell Sisters (1980-82). However, the death knell for variety shows was officially tolled by a Krofft show that is remembered to this day as one of the worst programs ever: Pink Lady and Jeff (1980). In hindsight, having two Japanese hosts who couldn’t speak English wasn’t such a great idea. Likewise, the brothers’ stab at Broadway, Broadway Babies, didn’t work out either. The Krofft empire took a much lower profile, with projects like D.C. Follies in the mid ’80s and a toned-down Land of the Lost in the early ’90s.
These days the Kroffts are still busy at work, coming up with ways to mine some of the Krofft nostalgia that’s evident in TV Land’s Super Retrovision Saturdays, the new Rhino rereleases, and numerous website tributes. They’ve got a Pufnstuf movie on the drawing board, for instance, to be co-produced by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (the writing team behind Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt). And the marketing department has got a slew of new Krofft beanie dolls lining store shelves. Despite all this renewed attention, however, getting past the studio gates–and being heard by someone who has the power to greenlight a project–is harder than ever.
“It’s tough. If we weren’t Sid and Marty Krofft, but were in the same age range, I don’t think we could get into the door,” says Krofft. “But now [the execs] ask for the autograph, so at least we can get into the door. Most of the time, though, nobody can make a decision. You used to deal with the bosses, the guys who were the heads–the Michael Eisners and Fred Silvermans. Now you’ve got to work your way up the ladder, ’cause if you go up there now you get buried. The egos bury ya.”
Nevertheless, the brothers are pitching some new concepts, including the mysterious Andy Lumpkin’s Puppetarium (“And that’s all you get right now, all right?”). In this age of plotless Teletubbies (“I’ve seen that. Pretty stupid.”), marketing-driven Pokemons (“You never know what things kids will buy.”), violent Power Rangers (“I’m not a fan.”), and “message”-oriented Barneys (“Kind of a rip-off of Pufnstuf. I thought it was a good thing, so I left them alone.”), now is indeed the time for a new Krofft revival–so another generation of kids can learn what a Saturday morning trip through the imagination is really like.
“You’ve just got to keep trying,” says Krofft. “You just can never give up; it’s okay to surrender, but never give up. ’Cause giving up is the end, right?”