Monthly Archives: September 2015

What About Sigmund?

Sid & Marty Krofft’s fourth family TV series premiered in the fall of 1973. It was called Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and, when I was a kid, I didn’t like it at all. It was the first Krofft show to get a second season, and the first Krofft show to invert their formula and bring a character from a fantasy universe into the real world, but I just cringed watching it as a kid.

When the cable network The Family Channel started running many of the Krofft series in 1996 (along with some very odd new interstitial shorts called Okie Dokie), I finally got this show. It’s really, really clever, full of puns and mumbled jokes and ridiculous insults. It’s downright fascinating from a production standpoint. The demands of the show called for entirely different puppet designs. Any mayhem that befell the costumed characters in all the Kroffts’ previous shows had to be carefully choreographed to avoid damaging the costumes. The Sea Monsters, however, are constantly in a tumbled tangle of tentacles. Whoever was unfortunate enough to be in the Burp and Slurp and Big Daddy suits were perpetually doing somersaults and pratfalls on top of each other. That’s probably the reason some of the characters changed color slightly in season two: the suits had to be rebuilt from scratch because they couldn’t take any more crashes into the sand-covered studio floor!

(Actually, there was a fire at Paramount during the second or third week of production on season two. It’s possible they had to remake some or all of the costumes after that, I suppose…)

So yes, I greatly enjoy Sigmund and would love to watch it again – the first season, at least, is in print and I might pick it up – but the target audience is my son, and I believe that he would really be troubled by this series. The problem is that Sigmund’s big brothers Burp and Slurp are just remarkably mean and cruel bullies, without any of the redeeming silliness of Witchiepoo, or without the identifiable “other” that marks bad guys as totally separate from good guys. Well, they’re endearingly stupid, but that’s not what I mean.

They’re family, and I know that Daniel would have a really hard time with that. Sweet Mama and Big Daddy also pose huge problems in my book; just the whole concept of a family being something so terrible that they throw you out and then keep screwing with you… he would hate that and the show simply would not be any fun for us to watch together at all.

Regrettably, therefore, we’re tabling Sigmund for the time being. We may or may not come back to it when he’s a little older (note: about two years later, we did), but first, we’ll check out something that the Kroffts’ competitors at Filmation were doing on CBS. I actually plan to watch a lot more Filmation than Krofft for this blog, since almost all of the live-action Filmation catalog was released on DVD at sensible prices. Almost all. Uncle Croc’s Block wasn’t, but I never watched that show anyway.

I hope that somebody will release or reissue Far Out Space Nuts and The Bugaloos and Horror Hotel and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl before my son gets too old… fingers crossed!

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Batman 2.10 – Ma Parker

Wow, there’s the gem of something practically modern in this one. Ma Parker’s plan is awfully far-fetched*, but it’s cute. She’s assembled the Gotham State Pen Gang, and intends to launch robberies and heists from its walls. The running time and the format conspire against it, but we’ve actually seen not-dissimilar stories on modern superhero programs like Arrow and especially The Flash which give recurring baddies a little more screen time.

Unfortunately, the realities of the production, and the fact that the producers didn’t think and plan far enough ahead, mean that the only old villains that we actually see are Julie Newmar in a single scene cameo as Catwoman, and Milton Berle in an unbilled cameo as a former foe – it sounds like his name is “Left” or “Laugh” – who has 48 years until his parole. It’s said that the Joker and the Penguin are in solitary, but what a huge shame that they didn’t think ahead, and quickly film reaction shots of Art Carney and Van Johnson in prison blues while they had those actors on the set!

And speaking of former villains, in the Bookworm story in season one, it’s established that the Batmobile has a bomb detection device. It’s not working anymore.

*Her plan, however, is not even remotely as far-fetched as Batman’s idea to jump into a prison and make it to the offices without being jumped by a prison full of villains. Maybe the modern super-ninja Batman of the modern day could do such a thing, but not the 1960s iteration. This really kind of called for some backup!

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Batman 2.9 – The Greatest Mother of Them All

Poor Daniel. He’s just absolutely baffled by this one.

If the list of villains in the Minstrel episode truly reflects the production order of season two, then this might have been made seventh but shown fifth. Interestingly, the first eight stories of the season have only two returning villains, and those two, King Tut and Catwoman, had only appeared once in season one. It really appears as though, initially, the producers were not relying on the big name baddies like crutches. They were making a concerted effort to come up with new characters.

Except that all these characters were played by really huge stars at the time, who each wanted to be part of the hot new TV show that everybody was watching, but only for the ten days or so it took to make the story and not necessarily a lasting part of Batman mythology. Shelley Winters already had two Academy Awards before she took the role of Ma Parker. She was in huge demand, and probably took a big pay cut for the week she was on Batman.

Ma Parker’s scheme requires a massive change to the show’s formula. She has three sons and a daughter helping her in her crime spree, and one at a time, each of the boys (Mad Dog, Machine Gun, and Pretty Boy) gets caught, before Ma and her daughter Legs are finally apprehended at Gotham City’s Old Folks Home. The city once had three umbrella factories open in a single week, but only a single retirement home!

And yes, the daughter’s name is Legs. She’s played by Tisha Campbell, who was in quite a few TV shows in the sixties and seventies, and when the narrative jumps forward after Ma’s arrest to Gotham State Pen “some time later,” we see that Legs is wearing a prison uniform with the number 35-23-34. I spotted that about one second before Marie did and started to guffaw just as she bellowed “That is the most offensive–!”

But poor Daniel. See, Ma wanted to get everybody arrested and sent to prison because, for many months, she’s been replacing all the prison guards with criminals on her payroll. She’s wanted to take over the prison to use as a base and also to get good supervillain advice from the baddies who are in jail. That’s far too cerebral a plan for Daniel to understand. All little kids have periods of asking “Why?” repeatedly, but this time, we had to understand that he really didn’t grasp the concept of prison takeovers.

Oh, and the cliffhanger has a prison “Trusty” planting a dynamite bomb in the Batmobile’s engine which will explode when it hits sixty mph. The director staged this so amazingly awfully, with the guy just dropping it under the hood – so how’s it to know the car’s speed? – and Batman actually seeing the guy close his car’s hood and not suspect that something’s amiss. Earlier, the director staged a hilarious and surprisingly effective bit with Ma Parker attempting to escape in a rocket-powered wheelchair – “Holy Werner von Braun!” – so I’m not sure why that scene was such a botch job.

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Lidsville 1.8 – Have I Got a Girl for Hoo Doo

…as I was saying, the only episode of Lidsville worth watching is the eighth one. It’s the one where the show’s peculiar sense of gender identity, begun when the Kroffts cast Billie Hayes to play a male genie, comes full circle as Butch Patrick gets dragged up as a Mae West-type called “Lovey Dovey.”

Nah, it’s the one where Billie Hayes gets a chance to play two parts. Hoo Doo writes to the local Lonely Hearts Club and, in one of the all-time great television crossover episodes, Witchiepoo flies over from H.R. Pufnstuf‘s Living Island for a whirlwind courtship. It is hysterical. It’s hate at first sight, and the diabolical duo spend about four minutes insulting each other. One point of contention is that these two deeply ugly people sent fraudulent photos to each other. Witchiepoo advertises herself as a 1940s-style Betty Grable-type, and, in the most wonderful and stupid gag in the whole series, Hoo Doo pretends that he looks like Sid Krofft himself!

Eventually the two lovebirds bond over their mutual love of throwing explosions at goody-goodies, and conclude that, in the words of a then-popular movie with Ray Milland, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry that you zapped somebody.” Witchiepoo won’t be taken to a secluded parking place in the Hatamaran because she’s not that kind of girl, so they spend their first date blasting downtown Lidsville into what the script assures us is dust but the director never shows anything like that.

Sadly, it’s all too good to last, and, his heart won over by Butch Patrick praying to heaven none of his friends were up at 8.00 in the morning to see him dressed like that, Hoo Doo dumps Witchiepoo on the eve of the latest Witch’s Ball, and teleports in Pufnstuf as a consolation prize for her. Puf is at least voiced by Lennie Weinrib, but that costume looks like a cheap, cheap copy made for personal appearances at supermarket openings in Santa Monica, and it’s worn by somebody at least a foot shorter than Roberto Gamonet.

Daniel grinned hugely when Witchiepoo showed up, as well he should. He was still more interested in the song over the end credits than the show itself, though!

Surprisingly, this was far from the last appearance of Witchiepoo, who kept showing up around the edges of popular culture in the 1970s. Billie Hayes did lots of personal appearances in the role, although she was subbed by Louise DuArt when Witchiepoo had a big segment at the big 1973 Krofft live show at the Hollywood Bowl. By 1976, Hayes had befriended the actress Margaret Hamilton, best known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and the two ladies had decided that their witch characters were sisters. When celebrity Paul Lynde wanted Hamilton to reprise the Wicked Witch in his infamous Paul Lynde Halloween Special, Hamilton agreed on the condition that Hayes got to play Witchiepoo with her.

Finally, in 1978, the rarest Krofft series, The Krofft Superstar Hour, aired. This was a variety show hosted by the Bay City Rollers, and there was a recurring segment called Horror Hotel which reimagined Witchiepoo as the proprietor of a hotel and her gang (including, bizarrely, both Dr. Blinky and Hoo Doo, as played by Paul Gale) as her staff! So no, Witchiepoo never hit the big time, but she certainly showed up in lots of places, and Horror Hotel badly, badly needs to be issued on DVD. I’m sure that music clearance issues will keep the whole program on the shelves forever, but We Want Witchiepoo!

(Incidentally, mention of The Krofft Superstar Hour reminds me that when I was about seventeen, I found the book Children’s Television, the First Thirty-five Years, 1946-1981: Live, film, and tape series by George W. Woolery, which dropped the bombshell that one of the Krofft Superstar Hour segments was called Cha-Ka and Wolf Boy. I spent years trying to find just one more reference to that anywhere. Eventually, I found Usenet, and dropped Mark Evanier a line to see whether he knew, since he seemed to know everything. Mark replied the double surprise that not only did he himself write or co-write all of The Krofft Superstar Hour with Bonny Dore and Rowby Goren, but there never was such a show, and Woolery was completely wrong. There are some books that you just can’t trust!)

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Batman 2.8 – Tut’s Case is Shut

There’s a hilarious moment in this episode where Victor Buono lets out an improvised growl – slash – hiss of impatience and frustration and, by chance, managed to make almost exactly the same sound that Daniel makes when he growls at the villains for doing something rotten. “He growls just like you, Daniel,” Marie told him, and he responded with an epic series of grumbles, eyebrows narrowed.

Shortly afterward, Commissioner Gordon, who has been “scarabdated” with the will-sapping potion (and that’s a terrific word, “scarabdated,” and a great shame we don’t have many opportunities to use it) buys Batman a refreshing lemonade and drops a scarab-potion pill into it. Batman, anticipating the possibility of poison, had already consumed six glasses of buttermilk to coat his stomach.

Grown-ups watching that scene probably predicted that he had some kind of plan, but kids wouldn’t. Batman pretends to be under Tut’s spell, and acts zombified and goes to do King Tut’s bidding. Daniel grumbled and growled some more and hid his eyes. Then us grown-ups watched the fight scene with winces, just waiting for somebody to punch Batman in the gut. After six buttermilks and a lemonade, I don’t care how much martial arts training you have.

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Batman 2.7 – The Spell of Tut

I love King Tut. He’s such a fun villain, a loudmouthed and immature tantrum-throwing bonehead. Victor Buono plays him starting at 10 and ratcheting up to 11 by the end of every scene. It’s a huge, huge shame that the producers never teamed Tut up with any other Batvillains. It would have been so fun to watch him reach for grandiosity around somebody downright crooked and competent like the Penguin only to get barked down. I can just see Tut leaving a room, extemporizing loudly, only to have the Bookworm or somebody shake his head over what a complete wacko this guy is.

Anyway, in his second outing, he’s brought some trapped-in-amber scarabs back to life to use in an ancient formula that saps people’s will. Funny how the writers could come up with a concept that I believe was then on the edge of speculation, proving that they read the same journals that Michael Crichton would, and then bungle such basic science like agitating the preserved scarabs with 200,000 volts. I think that if you want charcoal scarabs, that might work.

King Tut has a Royal Apothecary to help create his elixir from the scarabs, and he’s played by the great Sid Haig, and I’m pretty sure we’ll see Haig many more times in this blog. He’s completely unrecognizable without facial hair! He also has a dame, of course, who is revealed to have the terrific name of Cleo Patrick. She’s played by Marianne Hill and her betrayal, about four minutes before the end of the episode, is pretty darn obvious from her first scene in Commissioner Gordon’s office, even before we know her full name. One of the laws of conservation of TV characters informs us that pretty girls in throwaway parts in the beginning of the episode often show up in a meatier role by the end.

This law isn’t for celebrity cameos, of course. Already this season we’ve seen Dick Clark and Phyllis Diller in little walk-ons. This time, the Green Hornet and Kato interrupt our heroes’ batclimb to let everybody watching who may not have heard know that their own program aired Friday nights on the same network. Well, they’re a little less subtle than that, but nobody was really watching their show – about which, more another time – so they had to get their faces in wherever it was possible.

I thought that the cliffhanger might have frightened Daniel, but he handled it okay. Robin gets stuck on a plank above a pit of hungry crocodiles. Since he never likes it when Robin is in trouble, and since the giant alligators in Thunderbirds alarmed him a few weeks ago, I was a little concerned for him, but he did just fine. He really enjoyed this week’s batfight, especially when one of the henchmen throws a barrel across the room, Robin ducks, and it smacks King Tut in the chest!

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Thunderbirds are Go (1966)

At the same time that one unit of AP Films was making the second season of Thunderbirds, another crew was making the first of two feature films. It’s pretty uneven, unsurprisingly, but it mostly hit the mark with the target audience in this house. Daniel really loved the first launch sequence, which runs for something absurd like twelve freaking minutes of launch porn. He exclaimed at one point “I can’t wait to see it take off!”

“It” is a rocketship called Zero-X, and the film really functions as a backdoor pilot for a Star Trek-like (or should that be Fireball XL5-like?) series in which the three astronauts and two scientists explore our solar system and run into strange alien life forms like the rock snakes of the planet Mars, which they reach after six weeks in space. Daniel loved – slash – hated the “space snakes,” and alternately said those were the best part of the movie and the scariest part, and he never wants to see them again! A TV series about Zero-X was never made, but a comic series did run in the TV Century 21 comic for quite a while, and the reprints that I’ve read are pretty entertaining.

Thunderbirds are Go is slightly notorious for a bizarre dream sequence right in the middle of the movie in which Alan imagines himself at an interplanetary nightclub with Lady Penelope, enjoying the smooth sounds of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who contributed two songs to the production. I had to explain to Marie who the heck Cliff Richard is. For the benefit of my readers in the UK who may be amazed that Marie never heard of the guy, Cliff Richard is best known in this country, if he’s known at all, as being the silly obsession of Rik in The Young Ones. I think that the overwhelming majority of his sixty million LPs were never released here.

Still, the musical intermission had the desired effect of shaking up the narrative a little bit, and Daniel continued singing “Shooting Star” for a few minutes, until the rock snakes and Zero-X started shooting at each other.

So all this talk of Zero-X, launchings, and rock snakes might leave readers wondering whether this is a Thunderbirds movie at all, and the answer is barely. Our heroes are really reduced to supporting players in their own movie. This wouldn’t be the first time this happened. In season one of the show, the need to expand completed twenty-five minute stories into fifty minute ones meant that they often filmed new material around the guest casts, but there’s no excuse for that here. All of the emphasis on Zero-X means that great opportunities to spend time with the Tracys are missed.

The real loser in this is the series’ villain, the Hood. He’s killed off, apparently, meeting an ignoble and barely-acknowledged end when Parker shoots his helicopter out of the sky. He doesn’t get a womp-womp-womp comedy bit showing he survived, but there’s no follow-up at all. The whole thing just feels like a huge missed opportunity. Perhaps the modern impetus would be to focus the movie on International Rescue learning their occasional tormentor’s secrets and hunting him down across the world, and give some closure to the show’s main (only?) running subplot, but it didn’t happen, which is a huge shame.

The film was a failure in England, although United Artists concluded that it stumbled because the TV show was still on the air and audiences didn’t quite understand why they should go out and pay money at the cinema for something that was on TV every Sunday evening. The studio still believed in the potential of the property, and so they bankrolled a second film which went into production six months later.

But was it worth it? For the newly-filmed launch sequences for Thunderbirds 1, 2, and 3, and for the awesome end theme, performed by H.M.’s Marine Corps Band, yes, and the dream bit is just so strange that it’s kind of compelling, but honestly, if I wanted a Zero-X adventure, I’d read the comics!

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Lidsville 1.1 – World in a Hat

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…

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