By Jeff Moses
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Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, children's watchdog groups sprang up and pointed a collective finger at -- what else -- cartoon violence! Kiddie animation seemed an unlikely scapegoat. After all, James Earl Ray didn't drop a 16-ton Acme anvil to kill the dream. Nevertheless, cartoon censors were able to make a clean sweep of gun-wielding thugs, superheroes administering knuckle sandwiches or any other kind of malevolent slapstick that a kid could hurt himself imitating.
Almost overnight, kids were getting pelted with (yawn) educational and moralistic programming. Yogi Bear went from robbing picnic baskets to outwitting ecological villains like Mr. Dirt and Mr. Pollution. And it only got worse from there. "Those are political decisions made by executives. Kids go to school five days a week; they don't need to learn any more lessons on the weekend." So says Marty Krofft, the business mind behind the puppet-creating pair of Sid and Marty Krofft, responsible for such memorable live-action Saturday morning eye candy as H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos, Land of the Lost, Lidsville, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and Sigmund and the Sea Monster.
The Kroffts didn't have Ph.D.'s in child psychology. They were showmen, world-class puppeteers who entertained grown-ups for more than a decade before television came a-calling. Thank Hoo Doo that someone was out there keeping up kids' morale. And like recently re-formed rockers KISS have discovered, those kids grew up to be adults with disposable incomes.
For them, Kid Rhino Home Video recently released a three-volume set, The World of Sid & Marty Krofft, and has followed that up with a continuous stream of Krofft home video releases. What this World of S&M lacked in rock 'em, sock 'em violence, it made up for in silliness, slapstick and phantasmagoric splendor.
Perhaps the Kroffts' greatest achievement was re-creating the popular psychedelic sights and sounds of the day for pre-drug teens with the appropriate amount of "don't do this, kids" malevolence. Still, a lot of people thought Pufnstuf trippy enough to name head shops after him, while others contend that the H.R. stands for "hand rolled." And let's not even get into the impetus for the name "Lidsville."
The focus of at least seven Krofft shows was kids or juvenile-brained adults getting taken away on "bad trips" and finding themselves unable to get back home. "Of course, isn't that always the case? Everybody's always trying to get home," reasons Marty, whose deep and smoky Alex Rocco voice betrays a world-weariness that comes from decades of making deals with people who get in the way of making Krofft fantasies become realities.
"Actually, we got everybody getting stuck somewhere. We never got anybody off any island. As far as the psychedelics," he continues, "I think colors and music were always a part of what we did. When we named Pufnstuf, the NBC guy said that's too sissy, too soft, that title. Lidsville, no, that's too soft. Nobody got it then. We were just doing double entendres. I guess they were trips, the shows."
It was this healthy contempt for the network meddling that led to the brothers pushing the envelope wherever possible. "Don't touch the evil mushrooms!" warns Pufnstuf in the episode included in the boxed set. How could these watchdog groups have missed the visual pun of Jimmy actually tripping on them evil 'shrooms? "They went over everybody's heads then," says Krofft laughing.
Certainly there was nothing violent they could find in a show whose star was Puf, a manic dragon who never breathed fire! "Well, you know, Puf was a bit of a sissy," chuckles Krofft. "I think Barney did a good job of copying us. You notice we never sued them. You only do that once in your life."
Krofft is alluding to the time he and his brother sued McDonald's for hamburglaring all their ideas. The similarities between Hizzoner Pufnstuf and Mayor McCheese were inescapable when the fast-food franchise ran its "McDonaldland" spots during the show it was ripping its ideas off of. "The leading case in copyright law is Sid and Marty Krofft v. McDonald's," says Krofft. "We were at them for 13 years trying to resolve this thing. We went to the Appellate Court of the United States. They copied us. They had access to our ideas and were going to do a deal with us to do these things, but then somebody in their ad agency wrote a letter to us saying they were not going forth with the McDonaldland campaign à la Pufnstuf. So that hung them right there. But it's hard to beat up on the elephant. They wound up paying some money, but it was not enough or I wouldn't be working today," he adds.
The Kroffts followed Pufnstuf with a musical series, The Bugaloos. A bee group in every sense of the word, they never really rocked out, but any place called Tranquility Forest must have severe noise ordinances. The Bugaloos never quite reached Pufnstuf's stature, either, possibly because they were just eight antennae away from being a buncha bleedin' fairies. In Episode 14, "Benita's Double Trouble," blonde Bugaloo IQ dresses in drag to impersonate big mouth Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye). This swishy spectacle could be seen as a precursor to glitter rock, if only the Bugaloos' lullaby music didn't make even Olivia Newton-John sound like Cannibal Corpse.
After that came Lidsville ("not to be confused with the Nitty Gritty Ville," as the show's Moog-saddled theme thankfully tells us) in 1971. This odd program featured a trespassing Mark, played by Butch Patrick (a.k.a. TV's Eddie Munster), in a magician's dressing room trying to divine magic's greatest secrets, only to fall into said magician's hyperactive hat. Like Jimmy, Mark's curiosity dooms him to a less-than-ideal place to spend puberty, a land where there isn't a babe in sight and everyone's an annoying hat. Luckily, we're spared the sordid picture of Mark hitting on Miss Party Hat as the show awards far more screen time to the villain Hoo Doo (played by future Match Game chuckler Charles Nelson Reilly). In an odd move, the Kroffts actually let the bad guy win every once in a while.
In an even odder move, Lidsville has characters with titillating names like Weenie the Genie and Raunchy Rabbit -- names that Hoo Doo took strange pleasure in saying over and over again. When Hoo Doo poses as a female bunny to trick Raunchy, a line in bestiality that never needed crossing is bunny-hopped over.
Land of the Lost featured the Marshall family crossing a time vortex that stranded them in a prehistoric world for the Kroffts' first dramatic series. Even with some of the cheesiest special effects this side of Gumby, Land of the Lost still managed to scare plenty of kids, thanks to Will and Holly's incessant screams. No child actor ever worked harder for the money than these two, running from the same film loop of a claymation Tyrannosaurus rex over and over (eight times in the episode included on the boxed set).
Unfortunately, the bad acting of Dad, played by Spencer Mulligan, ruins the whole show. Mulligan has one of those beagle faces that always makes him look like he's smiling even when he's supposed to be terrorized because the kids didn't semaphore signal back. "Holly! Will! Where are you?" he yells as the rains bounce off his Cheshire grin. Darn you, Dad!
According to Krofft, one of the numerous new projects he and his brother have in development is a Land of the Lost movie. Certainly there's room for expansion transferring Land of the Lost to the big screen. But how will it improve on big-budget dinosaur flicks like the Jurassic Park films? "I think the main thing is our film's going to have a story. The second Jurassic Park had zero story! Our characters, the family, are the important thing," says Krofft.
With four successful shows under their belts, the brothers went into overdrive. "We did four shows at one time, and that was bad. We were doing Land of the Lost in the second season, The Lost Saucer, we were doing Sigmund, and another one, probably Far-Out Space Nuts, and that was too much," recalls Krofft. "Anybody says they can do four things at once, they're kidding themselves."
One can sense the slackening level of quality control on Far-Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer as both shows shuttled TV sitcom has-beens through outer space.
The former starred Chuck McCann and a gray-haired Bob Denver. After two unsuccessful prime-time attempts by other producers to revive Denver's Gilligan role (The Good Guys, Dusty's Trail), the crafty Kroffts figured out the formula: Get Denver stranded somewhere, but make sure he's bunking with a fat guy.
The Lost Saucer was fueled by the star power of Jim Nabors/Ruth Buzzi. You've got to feel for these two, as you watch them fitted into costumes that make them look like human slot machines, and then having to go space truckin' with a chatty teenage girl and a precocious little black child making tasteless fried chicken jokes. Take away the Dorse (the half dog, half horse, of course, of course), and you have the formula for every family sitcom in the '80s. The oddest moment occurs when Ruth Buzzi bends forward and Jim recharges her battery with a hose. Maybe he thought about Rock Hudson while doing the deed.
The Kroffts, or rather their puppets, returned to the live stage in 1974, mounting a musical revue called Raquel Welch and the World of Sid and Marty Krofft. "The billing on the marquee took up the whole block," remembers Krofft. "We had all sorts of life-sized puppets of amoebas for Fantastic Voyage, we did spoofs on her movies like One Million Years B.C. I always tell people we were the only act to play Vegas, get 100 percent billing and we never had to be there. I think she was always bugged that we got all the good reviews and she'd walk by our dressing room and never saw us there."
Similarly, the Kroffts got top billing for The Krofft Supershow, which they executive produced but did even less work on. "We created 15-minute serials woven around Kaptain Kool and the Kongs," says Krofft of the fictitious rock group who dressed like Huggy Bear wanna-bes and hosted the show.
The Krofft Supershow was geared to younger kids with shorter attention spans and was almost entirely puppet-free. Most of these shows are also laugh-free if you're past the age of 7.
Two of the serials within the Krofft Supershows -- Electra Woman and Dyna Girl and Bigfoot and Wildboy -- still garner serious hoots because they're among the campiest fare ever, and unlike the other Supershows, they're not cursed with annoying laugh tracks. Days of Our Lives actress Deidre Hall often tries to skirt over her role as a Krofft superheroine, as if starring in a soap opera is somehow more respectable than playing the lead role in Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. Hah! She and co-star Judy Strangis mug more than the Little Rascals and drive around in a car that looks like a Lady Remington shaver. Arguably the laziest superheroes of all time, the duo hardly make a move without consulting "Frank at the Crime Lab," and do so on carpal-tunnel-inducing wrist radios the size of telephone receivers.
It's not hard to imagine Frank a misogynist who just sends them out on assignments ill-equipped just to watch them squirm. "We need more power, Frank," is an often-repeated cry. Sisters aren't doing it for themselves, not in Krofftland, anyway.
Even funnier is Bigfoot and Wildboy. Wildboy was raised in the Great North wilderness and speaks perfect English even though his tutor, Bigfoot, seems incapable of putting two syllables together except for "wild" and "boy." In Episode 17, "Return of the Vampire," the duo face a beautiful female vampire who frequently turns into a furry bat held up by very visible strings. She even lifts her cape over her mouth so that she can insert her phony plastic fangs. Ed Wood be praised!
After the Supershow came another series, The Krofft Superstar Variety Hour, this time hosted by a real-life rock band, the Bay City Rollers. Unlike Kaptain Kool and the Kongs -- who didn't sell records -- the Rollers could make superstar demands like wanting a bigger dressing room than Witchiepoo. "That was the only show I had canceled," laments Krofft. "That was the most troublesome show I ever did working with those guys. Some of them were cooperative, but the lead singer was a pain in the ass." Canceled after only two months, the tartan terrors never did much for S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y morn.
The Kroffts' variety show concepts made the big leap into prime time with the highly successful Donny & Marie Show, which spun off the considerably less successful Brady Bunch Variety Hour. "That was a tough show to do," says Krofft. "Well, I actually gave up Donny & Marie to do that show at the behest of Michael Eisner. At the time he was at ABC. That was the last thing he bought at ABC."
Undaunted, the Kroffts were approached by Fred Silverman at NBC to do another variety show, Pink Lady and Jeff. Krofft ruefully admits America wasn't ready for two Japanese girls and Jeff Altman. "Once they started singing, they sold all these records," remembers Krofft. "But once you start translating all the Japanese to English, it drains the blood out of it, and talking with the big, thick Japanese accents. They were cute, but we were opposite The Dukes of Hazzard. We didn't have a prayer."
Pink Lady and Jeff is frequently cited as one of the worst shows of all time, but Krofft can still muster some pride in the ill-fated program's longevity as a punch line. "That show's in a time capsule. Recently they were doing Pink Lady and Jeff jokes on Saturday Night Live. You couldn't kill that with a baseball bat."
If The Donny & Marie Show proved the variety format's last gasp, the double whammy of the Bradys and Pink Lady sealed the coffin shut. "The only thing that stays alive on television is half-hour comedies," concedes Krofft. "You can do 7,000 bad pilots and they'll still stay alive. But you do two bad variety pilots and you don't see variety for 10 years."
The Kroffts laid low on the children's television front for several years. The '80s saw one show, Pryor's Place(starring comedian Richard Pryor in a strange turn), and the '90s offered a new version of Land of the Lost. Was children's TV trying to get away from fantasy? "They wanted to get away from paying money, first of all," he notes. "They pay nothing now and they want to own it all. So it ain't a great business today. And I love kids shows."
In recent years, Krofft's main goal has been working to bring the old shows to the big screen. There was a full-length feature Pufnstuf film in 1970 with Mama Cass playing Witchiepoo's obese sister (Fattypoo?). Plans for a new Pufnstuf film include casting big-name stars in the villain roles of Mr. Mushroom and Hippie Tree, and gearing the humor to adults rather than preschoolers. "The guys working on the Pufnstuf movie with me wrote the Larry Flynt movie, and they just wrote the Andy Kaufman picture," says Krofft, referring to the white-hot screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. "We're in preproduction. I've got good people, and we're going to do it for the year 2000."
In the meantime, fans and curious nostalgists can check out The World of Sid and Marty Krofft video set. Although getting through many of the shows can be tough sledding, there's something endearing about intensely painful programs like Magic Mongo -- a show that seeks to cross Three's Company and I Dream of Jeannie and do it on the cheap. Nowadays, kids have video games with far more sophistication than even the best special effects in Far-Out Space Nuts. But the children these shows were made for were allowed to be young for a far longer period of time. Which probably serves to explain why shows like Lidsville don't get made anymore. Today, 10-year-olds watch Melrose Place and Buffy the Vampire Slayer without batting an eyelash at the sex, violence and postmodernist irony. But Krofft encourages his '70s audience -- today's parents -- to sit down with their kids and watch the shows. They may chuckle or even cringe at the crude props, premises and effects, but more likely they'll watch and smile. And maybe you'll have extended their childhood by an hour and a half.