There was a time when Lidsville completely vanished from the face of the earth. Wherever it went, it probably should have stayed there. Seriously, in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s, this show was as gone as shows can get. This remains baffling, because there was a comic book, and lots of other merchandising, and the Hat People regularly appeared as characters in residence at least two Six Flags parks, in the company of future president Jimmy Carter on at least one occasion. (That’s Mr. Big, boss of the Bad Hats, with Carter in the picture below.) However, the show was strangely not syndicated, and it just vanished.
About 1979, somebody assembled a Monday-Friday afternoon package of programs produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, called Krofft Super Stars, and Lidsville was one of maybe three that didn’t make it in to that lineup. So yeah, I watched the heck out of that package on channel 46 every afternoon and thought that I knew everything about the Kroffts’ shows, and collected what episodes of their shows that I could find from VHS tape traders.
At the end of the eighties, though, I met a fellow about my age who told me he remembered Lidsville, and showed me a reference to it in some book about Saturday morning kids’ TV, which blew my mind. I mentioned it to my best mate Dave, who’s a couple of years older than me, and while he never liked the Kroffts’ shows, or the Filmation live-action shows, he knew a heck of a lot about old kids’ TV that nobody else remembered, especially obscure things like Prince Planet and Marine Boy, but he’d never heard of it either. “It’s apparently a sort of rewrite of Pufnstuf,” I explained. “It’s got the kid who played Eddie Munster and he’s trapped in a world of talking hats, and Charles Nelson Reilly is an evil magician.”
“You are making that up,” he said.
So I eventually scored the first episode of this show from a trader, and my friends and I all stared uncomprehendingly at the downright amazing awfulness of this program. I say this loving H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos absolutely: Lidsville, despite its trippy design and colors, is the worst thing the Kroffts ever did, by leagues.
It seems to have been born in very weird circumstances: after two shows at NBC, that network was hemming and hawwing about a third. ABC popped in with an offer for something, at perhaps a similar price to what NBC had been paying them, with the added bonus that they’d purchase a repeat package of H.R. Pufnstuf as well. So I think that the Kroffts might have still been operating at a loss, but Lidsville looks substantially cheaper than The Bugaloos, with fewer, smaller, less intricate sets, and no customized automobiles, and they had repeat revenue from both of the previous shows coming to them in 1971.
But here’s the problem: you know how the previous shows are completely full of lovable and silly characters? Lidsville has exactly zero of them. Butch Patrick, who plays the trapped teenager Mark, is reading dialogue written for somebody half his age through gritted teeth, Weenie the Genie has been so frightened by the evil magician that he’s become weak, ineffective, and clumsy, and none of the hats – good or bad – have a personality beyond the stereotype of their design and voice. For example, Dr. Blinky in Pufnstuf has a character that extends past his Ed Wynn voice, but Tex the Cowboy Hat is a cowboy who talks like John Wayne, and nothing more, and Bela the Vampire Hat is a vampire who talks like Bela Lugosi, and nothing more, and so on through the expected and unfortunate Chinese and Native American hats, totaling almost two dozen forgettable one-note characters. Other than some occasionally interesting camerawork or trick chromakey effects in later episodes – all that we see in the first episode is laughably primitive – there is nothing worth watching here.
On the other hand, I’m saying that through the jaded and jaundiced eye of adulthood. The specific problem, honestly, is that the Kroffts’ earlier shows had been made with all ages in mind, and Lidsville is aimed firmly and exclusively at under-fives. Daniel grinned ear to ear as the Good Hats were introduced, instantly charmed by them, and he howled with laughter as they bombarded Hoo Doo with vegetables and footballs. This is the most I have ever seen anybody entertained by this series.
But it was touch and go for a while, because the opening really was troublesome for him. H.R. Pufnstuf and The Bugaloos introduced us to the heroes first, and while the antics of the villains in those shows are incredibly fun and the best thing about them, we need to know who the heroes are, first and foremost. Sorry for getting all Storytelling 101, but this seems really basic. Lidsville opens with Mark being grabbed by the Bad Hats, and… had this kid been eight years old, we could understand him being pushed around by them. Butch Patrick was eighteen when this was taped and he looks like he could reduce those hats into shredded felt before the end of the scene. And yet it goes on for eleven absolutely agonizing minutes of this fellow old enough to get sent to Vietnam blubbering “please, sir, let me go!” while a menagerie of weirdo bad guys yell at him to talk, because they’re convinced that he’s a spy. None of these rocket scientists have considered that a spy might try to be a little less conspicuous than Butch Patrick.
Overseeing this tedium is Charles Nelson Reilly as Hoo Doo. See, we sympathized with Witchiepoo because she wanted to be rotten, but was no good at it. We sympathized with Benita Bizarre because she wanted to be a superstar, but was no good at it. Hoo Doo is way too powerful and far too mean, but by the end of this episode, after eleven minutes of yelling with the bad guys and a dismissive and cursory introduction to about fourteen Good Hats before rushing into a Golden Path plot – “this way home would probably work, but we won’t bother using it again for no reason” – you honestly wouldn’t care if episode two never happened. Every subsequent episode has to either depower or defang Hoo Doo, because the scary magician here is too competent and powerful for this plot.
Butch Patrick clearly does not want to be here – there’s one bit where his mouth says “I’d take my hat off to you…if I had one,” but his eyes say “I’m going to burn my agent’s house to the ground” – and Billie Hayes is playing Weenie as a weak and frightened incompetent and Charles Nelson Reilly enjoyed the experience so much that he referred to it as “Sid and Marty’s Polish Prison.” It’s all an exasperating, exhausting, long mess.
So why did we watch it? I’m incredibly surprised and somewhat relieved that Daniel really liked this, but I made poor Marie watch this awful thing because we needed to see episode one in order to make sense of episode eight. Sixteen of Lidsville‘s seventeen episodes are just horrible, but the eighth episode…