H.R. Pufnstuf 1.3 – Show Biz Witch

This is one of the very best episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf. It’s the one where “The Three Oranges” sing “Oranges Schmoranges,” which is wonderful, and the one where Witchiepoo threatens to turn Orson and Seymour into “centipedes with bad teeth,” which makes me laugh every time I hear it. It introduces Ludicrous Lion, his Polka-Dotted Pantomime Horse, and Living Island’s resident rock band, The Boyds.

It also marked the first time that Daniel watched an episode without yelling too much about the mean old witch… for a while. This is a really funny episode for kids who like physical comedy, and between the sequence with the beauty salon chair going haywire and the lunatic Three Oranges act, he was roaring with laughter, and finally the witch was no longer an object of fear.

Until she dipped the kidnapped Freddy Flute into the vat of boiling oil and threatened to deep-fry him. It’s funny how the most innocuous thing can spark such a wild reaction, isn’t it? Freddy got dipped and he just exploded in tears. And from the cold light of adulthood, it’s so minor, just Billie Hayes dipping the inanimate Freddy prop into some water with some dry ice pellets or something in it, but credit Joan Gerber’s voice work for Freddy panicking and begging for help, I guess, because this kid just lost it completely, crying sadly for the poor flute.

Witchiepoo loses again – we tell him and tell him that she always does – and ends up in the oil, her magic wand droopy and out of charge. He laughed again at her comeuppance, and said that this was his favorite episode of the show. Since this was the first time it’s actually made him cry, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that.

Ludicrous is a weird and interesting character. You think that everybody on Living Island is a good guy except the witch “and her gang,” but he’s completely amoral and doesn’t mind sending Jimmy on a wild goose chase to earn the money – buttons – to buy something he does not actually own. This plot is never actually resolved, but I think I remember that Ludicrous has some more snake oil to sell in later episodes.

Thunderbirds 1.2 – Pit of Peril

“It’s okay, guys! Thunderbird 1 is coming!”

It’s safe to say that Thunderbirds is Daniel’s runaway favorite among these three shows, although it was really funny tonight, since the other shows are causing mild frights, seeing him demand to have something to send him behind the sofa. Three-quarters into the episode, which has had a fiery pit present in the narrative since about the six-minute mark, he shouted “I’m afraid of the fire!” and he hid behind the sofa for about seven seconds. Then he realized he’d be missing something exciting and popped his head up again.

Several Thunderbirds episodes were in the can, filmed as half-hour shows, before ITC’s director, Lew Grade, sat down to watch a couple and decided that he could sell it to an American network if it was a one-hour show. So some of the early episodes went back to be retooled and new footage shot to pad them out. “Pit of Peril” really feels like it must be one of these. About half of the episode deals with the nine soldiers in the African jungle, three of their number in a “Sidewinder” walking vehicle that’s fallen three hundred feet down an old mine pit where a fire has been burning for eighty years. Kind of like Centralia,_Pennsylvania. There’s also quite a lot of stock footage of wild animals.

Anyway, International Rescue only hovers on the fringes of the story for its first half, and then there’s the repetition, as we’ll see constantly, of the overly-complicated – but completely glorious and awesomely cool – Thunderbird 2 launch sequence. Nobody minds watching this footage again and again. It may be padding, but it’s the coolest padding ever filmed.

But whether “Pit of Peril” went back to the studio for additional filming or not, the script by Alan Fennell, who would write almost all of the Thunderbirds comic in TV Century 21 never feels bloated even though Scott, Virgil, and Brains have just about fifteen minutes of action in the story. Daniel was at the edge of his seat as every rescue attempt was tried, and he was jumping up and down during the physics-defying climax, as two little tanks drag a 500-ton machine 300 feet up the side of the mine inside three minutes.

This is the first episode to feature the drilling machine “The Mole.” If International Rescue would let me borrow that thing for an afternoon, I would love to do something about suburban Atlanta’s traffic problem. I daydream about it from time to time when I am not moving.

Batman 1.4 – The Penguin’s a Jinx

Daniel had a moment of panic as last night’s cliffhanger was continued, and it looked for a couple of moments as though Bruce Wayne would be pitched into a furnace with temperatures reaching 10,000 degrees. We know that, because the sign above the furnace door warns us of this grim fate. That’s a very, very hot furnace. The surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but Batman is, of course, prone to exaggeration.

This story is a loose adaptation of Batman #169, which was published in February 1965, with one notable change. Well, several changes, actually, but in the comic, Batman unwittingly suggests the plot to steal a jeweled meteorite, which the Penguin carries off. In the show, Batman concludes that the museum is too heavily guarded and burglary-proof (in Gotham City? Really?), and suggests instead that the Penguin is out to kidnap a movie star named Dawn Robbins, who’s played by Leslie Parrish. She had played Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner, and come to think of it, we’re watching another Abner alumnae, Billie Hayes, in H.R. Pufnstuf. Hayes had played Mamie Yokum. And of course, the actress who played Stupefyin’ Jones will be popping up on our screens in a few weeks!

Apart from the minor whimpering at the beginning of the episode, Daniel was kind of indifferent on average. He lost focus a little bit and rolled on the floor, and a brief moment of kind of obviously phony fear ended up with him sitting in Mommy’s lap for a moment before he started wallering on her and was, briefly, behind her. But he paid attention to the final fight, and told us that he liked it best “when they whirled and twirled and then they cracked their heads!”

Batman 1.3 – Fine Feathered Finks

Oh, thank heavens. There was no bawling tonight!

Well, if Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is my favorite Bat-villain in any media, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, “the aristocrat of crime,” is my second favorite, and he didn’t leave Daniel broken down in tears. He did hide under his blanket during the first scene at the K.G. Bird & Company umbrella factory, grumbling “I don’t LIKE him!” until we pointed out that the Penguin hadn’t actually done anything yet.

“He’s just a super bad guy!” he protested.

In fact, the cliffhanger left him completely confused. Bruce Wayne tries to leave a bug in Penguin’s storefront, but the Penguin has a bug-alarm, which drops a net on Wayne and then Penguin gets him with a gas umbrella. He has no idea who the guy is, and figures he must me a rival bent on industrial espionage, and just tells his henchmen to throw him in the furnace. “Industrial espionage” being a bit over Daniel’s head, he just asked “Why is he doing that?” Preferable to the panic we had last week, I suppose!

Marie’s favorite bit came when the heroes resolve to find all the umbrella factories that have opened in the last three days. There have been three. We know that Gotham City is a teeming metropolis, but any town that can support the opening of three umbrella factories in three days really is packed full of people… even if one of them’s a front for crime, that’s a heck of a lot of bumbershoots. At least they’re all made in the USA.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.2 – The Wheely Bird

The eagle-eyed among you might have noticed that when we began this project, we intended to rotate among four series, and in the last entry, I said that it was three. That’s because Daniel is still having lots of trouble with Witchiepoo putting the frighteners on him, and there’s just no way in the universe he’s ready for the Sleestak from Land of the Lost yet. So that one’s been filed away for now.

Truly, he still had some genuine shrieks about Witchiepoo, despite Billie Hayes, beautifully, playing the role to the farthest benches of the audience, and all her slapstick silliness. Perhaps it’s just the conflict itself, something he’s never seen on Nick Jr or PBS Kids, or perhaps, despite our assurances, the fear that the witch might win.

After hiding behind the sofa for a few minutes, he emerged to start blowing raspberries at Witchiepoo. “I’m spitting at the witch, and making her all wet!” In between his new defense mechanism and some great kid-friendly slapstick in the second half, including a boxing glove in the Wheely Bird’s mouth, and Cling and Clang accidentally bumping their butts and jumping in surprise, he came around.

Our teen daughter Ivy joined us, remembering almost all of the theme song, and loving the dopey comedy. When Orson Vulture started incompetently flirting with the inanimate “Trojan Horse” Wheely Bird, she howled “He flirts like me!”

New characters introduced in this episode are the manic Alarm Clock, and a candy shop proprietor called Pop Lolly who is tormented by Hippie Ants who carry protest signs like “Make Candy Not War” and “Down With Dentists.”

Thunderbirds 1.1 – Trapped in the Sky

Back to September 1965 and the charming naivete of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds for the last of our initial three programs of the Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon experience. I saved this for last because Thunderbirds really does feel long and glacially paced, and I didn’t think that our son would be able to stay attentive for a full hour.

Boy, did he ever prove us wrong. This is, by leagues, his favorite of the first three shows. He didn’t budge from the sofa, asking only a few questions, and shouting “Oh, no!” when a mid-air rescue attempt fails. He loved it completely, and his favorite part was when Elevator Car # 3 lost control and crashed. Edge of your seat? You bet.

One of the unintentionally fun bits of Thunderbirds is noting the incredible laundry list of things the producers got wrong about the far-flung future of 2065. My favorite is dating the moon landing to sometime in the 2030s. My least favorite is the unbelievable secrecy around International Rescue, all that silly business about not allowing photographs of their machines, and the notion that the sixty-eleven gajillion contractors who must have been employed to build Tracy Island’s hangars and all of its vehicles never breathed a word about what they were building in the south Pacific. Maybe Jeff Tracy had them all buried at sea… for the greater good, you know.

I did think it was weird that the supervillain, The Hood, is never named onscreen. I thought it was especially weird that Lady Penelope and Parker seem to casually murder the guy in an explosion – he escapes, but they don’t even stop to check. Lady Penelope, Parker, and her six-wheeled pink Rolls Royce were already known to the readers of the weekly comic TV Century 21 when this debuted. The comic, which began in January 1965 and was built around Anderson’s “Supermarionation” shows Stingray, Supercar, and Fireball XL-5, had been featuring a Lady Penelope comic since the first issue.

Many of the stories in TV Century 21 have been repackaged and republished over the years, but there’s never been a comprehensive reprint, so I’ve always wondered how the eight or nine months of the comic, which fleshed out her secret agent credentials, built up to her supporting role in the show.

Batman 1.2 – Smack in the Middle

Whew! We made it! But this one was touch and go!

Despite rebounding from his unhappiness with the climax of episode one, Daniel was more than a little reluctant to start part two. He whimpered a bit and insisted on sitting on Mommy’s lap. It’s kind of a shame: Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is my favorite of all Bat-villains, in any media, and Daniel hates him. It’s kind of funny: since Warner markets Batman and the Joker to tots, he knows the Joker as this safe, cuddly clown. His only other experience with a Bat-baddie is Gorshin’s unhinged, manic, loose-limbed performance, and it really alarmed him.

We paused the episode to reassure him about the unreality of what we were watching, pointing out that Molly is played by an actress named Jill St. John, and the Riddler is played by an actor named Frank Gorshin. One of us, and it was probably me, said something foolish like “nobody gets hurt and everybody’s okay.” Of course, a few scenes later, Molly, disguised as Robin, meets a grisly end – one of the very few in this program, I believe. We sent Daniel out of the room to check on his big sister to miss that, and didn’t say a word about what fate befell her.

Everybody comments on how Batman knows that Molly isn’t the real Robin because – ahem – he instantly noticed the flaws in the Robin mask. Downright gentlemanly of the Dark Knight Detective to not point out the rather more obvious fact that Molly’s a whole lot curvier than the fellow who’s usually in the Robin suit.

It ended with Daniel excited and pleased and ready to watch another one. I told him that the Riddler would be back – these usually end with the villains going off to jail, but he actually escapes, which surprised me – but not for a few episodes yet. He asked who the next bad guy will be, and I didn’t tell him. Don’t want to spoil too much!

Interesting trivia: In the Batman comics, the Riddler appeared twice in the late 1940s, in issues 140 and 142 of Detective Comics in 1948. The character was retired and forgotten about for seventeen years. In May of 1965, he was dusted off by creators Gardner Fox and Sheldon Modoff for a rematch in Batman # 171 – it’s reprinted in Showcase Presents: Batman, Vol. 1 and I suspect it was only ever published because somebody in the legal department reminded the editorial department that they had a trademark that needed to be used or lost.

That issue was on newsstands when producer William Dozier was assigned by 20th Century Fox to develop a Batman TV show for ABC, and Dozier, picking up some funnybooks to see what the heck he’d gotten himself into, mistook the character for a regular villain. The script for “Hi Diddle Riddle” and “Smack in the Middle,” by Lorenzo Semple Jr., is not a real adaptation of Batman # 171, but some of the comic’s elements, like the Riddler’s gang, the Mole Hill Mob, and the sequence at the Peale Art Gallery with the cigarette lighter revolver, did make it into the TV show.

DC Comics (or National as I suppose it was technically called at the time) quickly brought the Riddler back for regular, frequent rematches from then on. The TV series is very much a faithful adaptation of how over-the-top and silly the comics of 1965-66 were – and if you scoff about how Adam West “ruined” Batman, as some of the more humorless members of comic fandom have done, you just buy yourself that Showcase book linked to above and get back to me on that – and the comics would frequently respond to the TV show. Elevating the Riddler from the D-list to one of Batman’s arch-enemies is the first of many, many examples of this…

Batman 1.1 – Hi Diddle Riddle

So, back to 1966 and the absolutely wonderful Batman with Adam West, Burt Ward, and a battalion of Hollywood and Las Vegas’s finest as the baddies. This time out, it’s the remarkable Frank Gorshin in his debut as the Riddler. I’ve been very pleased to see this great, silly program get a newfound respect, of sorts, over the last couple of years, with new merchandise and comics set in its continuity, and, finally, last year, the show itself released to home video for the very first time. I finally remembered to order the new remastered set last week; my old copies will suffice until it arrives in a day or two.

I’ve always said that Batman is beloved by children, but absolutely loathed by people between the ages of 12 and about 17. I’ll talk more about this later, but usually about when boys hit that hyper-sensitive age where many of their peers stop paying attention to comics and mocking them, this deeply unserious show just can’t be defended. Not when you’re trying to believe that the Caped Crusader is SERIOUS BUSINESS and comics books are A MATURE ART FORM, QUIT LAUGHING AT ME. I don’t know how many people I’ve met over the years who never forgave this show for betraying them; me, I rediscovered it around age 17 and suddenly got it: the ridiculous dialogue, the very stilted acting, and all the celebrities having such a ball. I’ve loved it ever since. It’s one of the most fun things about the 1960s.

I mean, nobody ever blamed The Addams Family for making light of old houses with torture racks.

Of course, it’s likely these days that, thanks to the Marvel movies, twelve year-old kids don’t go “off” comics anymore. I wonder.

What’s surprising, from the cold light of the present, is how very unlike a pilot this is. The director doesn’t do any kind of establishing shot of the Batcave, for instance, and doesn’t give us a “gee wow!” moment of any of the main characters in their costumes. Batman, Robin, and the Riddler are all first spotted in inconsequential long shots. The director does, on the other hand, linger on the gorgeous Jill St. John as Molly for as long as he can justify it.

There’s a cute bit here that’s dumped in subsequent episodes. As soon as Commissioner Gordon realizes that the Riddler is back in town, he asks his top policemen and inspectors whether any of them can capture the dastardly arch-criminal. One by one, they all sadly look away and shake their heads, because none of them are manly enough, leaving Gordon no choice but to pick up the Batphone. Almost instantly, this convention is dropped. Costumed, laughing bad guy in town? Call Batman. At once!

Anyway, I remember being really alarmed by Batman twice when I was a kid. The first of these times: Robin being kidnapped by the Riddler at the end of this episode. As if on cue, Daniel was really amazingly upset about this. He started growling when the Riddler emerged from a manhole and shot Robin with a tranq dart, but then he got really emotional and surprised us all by weeping when he carted him off. He seemed to be liking it just fine until then!

He wept for a couple of minutes and hid in his room, but rebounded quickly for a bath, and, within half an hour, was doing handstands in bed, showing off his Batman shirt and Spider-Man underwear. Still, the “I don’t LIKE this!” was pretty powerful, and I can’t swear that we’ll be back tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, for part two. Stay tuned!

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.1 – The Magic Path

We began the Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time experience with the first of four series that I thought the least likely to cause undue panic, but Wilhelmina P. Witchiepoo caused exactly that.

We did warn Daniel that this show has a witch in it, but that she’s “a kooky old witch,” and really not very good at being bad. Unfortunately, he went straight from “there’s a witch on screen” to “hiding behind the couch.” It turned out all right in the end. He said that he really liked the show and wants to see more, and for that, we can probably thank Witchiepoo’s underlings for being so wonderfully incompetent. He liked the scene where Orson and Seymour crash into each other and knock themselves out, and he liked Cling and Clang, their slide, and the Rescue Racer.

This episode introduces Stupid Bat, who’s my favorite character, and the Evil Trees, one of whom has a wonderful line, “I think that I shall never see / A tree as terrifying as me!” Daniel didn’t like these as much as I did.

The first unflattering cultural stereotype in a Krofft show comes at five minutes into the episode, when we meet a Native American – “Indian” – tree called “Redwood,” and who calls Jimmy “Paleface.” At the end, we meet the four winds, and sadly the East Wind talks in a vaudeville Charlie Chan voice.

I’ll talk a little more about the absolutely bonkers set design and puppetry in future installments, but it’s worth noting that “The Magic Path” introduces Judy Frog, a character mostly abandoned to crowd scenes after this appearance. Judy Frog is an homage to Judy Garland, which makes sense as H.R. Pufnstuf owes so much to the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The Kroffts’ puppet show had been an opening act for Judy Garland’s live shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Garland passed away in June 1969, aged 47. I’m not certain when in 1969 these episodes were actually filmed, but I suspect that they made this episode before her death. It was first shown on NBC on Sept. 6 1969.

Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon

Assumption A: The quality of any piece of television, especially children’s television, is improved by the presence of a fire-breathing dimetrodon.

Example: Season three of Land of the Lost is, frankly, more than a bit awful until Torchy, the fire-breathing dimetrodon, shows up.

Unfortunately, no other examples are known to exist. The assumption may never be truly proven.

But can you just imagine?