RIP Claudette Nevins, 1937-2020

Claudette Nevins appeared in dozens of roles on stage and screen and is probably remembered for a lot more than two segments of a tacky Saturday morning show, but for two wonderful weeks in 1976, she portrayed the Empress of Evil, a breathtakingly kinky horror hostess type who matched wits with that daring duo Electra Woman and Dyna Girl on The Krofft Supershow. Even in a show where good actors like Michael Constantine and Malachi Throne were allowed and encouraged to have fun going way, way over the top, Nevins looked like she was having a better time than everybody on the planet. I honestly may not recognize Nevins in many of her other roles, but the Empress of Evil was unforgettable. Our condolences to her family and friends.

Electra Woman 1.15 and 16 – Return of the Pharaoh

The Pharaoh and Cleopatra returned for another go-round in the final installment of this series. It’s much better than the first one, since it’s just a little less like the usual formula. This one does have an exceptionally bugnuts premise, though. The villain, played by Peter Mark Richman, wishes that he could get to Egypt to search the pyramid of King Tut for a hypnotic ring called the Coptic Eye, but fortunately some eccentric billionaire has actually moved the entire thing to Los Angeles, brick by brick. Apparently he didn’t uncover the ring in all that moving, nor any of the secret and hidden traps. Almost the entire action is set inside the pyramid’s labyrinth, and the heroes and villains have to briefly work together to escape it.

This and the other Pharaoh episode were written by Judy Strangis’s nephew Greg Strangis, who also wrote that Land of the Lost we watched last night. Kind of weird how we watched all of his work for the Kroffts across about seven days. He later developed that War of the Worlds show in the late ’80s that was shown in first-run syndication.

Also, for those of you keeping track, this time we’ve got snakes in the narrative, and, just like the spiders in the last story, they don’t appear onscreen at the same time as the actors, either. Daniel really liked this one, and said it was “totally exciting.” He could barely keep still tonight.

This was it for Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. ABC did renew their host program, The Krofft Supershow, for a second season that began in the fall of 1977, but by then, Deidre Hall was starring in Days of Our Lives and may not have been available. The action component of the Supershow was taken in that season by Bigfoot and Wildboy, which sadly has never been officially released on home video outside of five episodes on those Embassy VHS tapes about thirty years ago.

The Kroffts attempted to revive Electra Woman and Dyna Girl as a comedy for the WB Network in 2001, starring Markie Post as a retired Electra Woman. The pilot didn’t sell. Earlier this month, after an eternity of advance hype, a direct-to-download film starring Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart was released. Haven’t quite got around to downloading it myself, though I’m assured that Helbig and Hart make very funny sketches on their YouTube channel. (Don’t they make DVDs anymore?)

Electra Woman 1.13 and 14 – The Spider Lady

This is the only episode of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl written by non-Krofft regulars: Gerry Day and Bethel Leslie. Day would later write one of the lousy ABC episodes of Columbo. I mean lousy even by the low standards of the ABC episodes of Columbo. The writers succeeded in frightening Daniel for the first time watching this series. As befits her criminal name, the Spider Lady has a box full of tarantulas, which crawl across the floor and up the imprisoned Electra Woman’s boots. It seems extraordinarily likely that Deidre Hall was not actually wearing her boots in those shots. Our son absolutely hated the sight of those tarantulas!

Do you remember the Spider-Man segments of The Electric Company with the really, really ridiculous villains? Most of the actors on Electra Woman and Dyna Girl played the bad guys like they were actually on the sixties’ Batman, but Tiffany Bolling played this part like she was on Electric Company. And just to keep this trend of arachnids going, the year after she made this silly story, Bolling starred opposite William Shatner in the film Kingdom of the Spiders, which I remember scaring the life out of my kid brother when it showed up on one of our local UHF channels in the early eighties.

Overall, this was a silly little diversion and not one of the better episodes of the show, but the real standout was the reuse of a memorable visual and sound effect from the Land of the Lost episode “The Pylon Express”. Anything to save a buck, I suppose, especially since this episode actually had three additional speaking parts beyond Bolling, making it almost lavish by comparison with the others.

Electra Woman 1.11 and 12 – The Pharaoh

There was a group in the ’80s called Animotion that had a big hit called “Obsession,” and the singers, among other costumes, wore some Egyptian garb. That song gets stuck in my head every time I’ve looked at this dry episode. It’s not bad, as Electra Woman and Dyna Girl goes, but it lacks that over-the-top ridiculousness that the other stories have.

As Mark Richman, this episode’s guest villain had appeared in dozens of dramas in the 1960s. He added Peter to his name in 1971, and, as Peter Mark Richman, continued a very long career in small roles in just about everything, briefly landing a starring part as Andrew Laird in Dynasty in the mid-80s. His moll, Cleopatra, is played by Jane Elliot, who’s been in more than 700 episodes of General Hospital as Tracy Quartermaine. She’s more entertaining in this story than he is; Richman plays it straight and narrow. King Tut he ain’t.

Daniel thought it was really exciting, but he did get briefly alarmed by an energy being that the Pharaoh summons from his little cosmic cube. It is a very odd-looking effect. They basically wrapped an actor in a sheet, dumped him on a blue screen set, shined a lot of colored lights on him and chromakeyed him into the action while he waggled around. It looks not unlike Omega’s blob/time bridge from the Doctor Who serial “The Three Doctors,” but just a shade more solid. Even in the comparatively restrained episodes of this show, you have to appreciate the directors’ willingness to attempt absolutely every conceivable special effect via blue screen and run with it. Things get very silly when Richman and Elliot remain still while the energy being, keyed in from one camera, moves around the room while Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis, keyed in from another camera, float slowly above them. It is the least frantic chase ever committed to tape.

Electra Woman 1.9 and 10 – Return of the Sorcerer

Well, here’s a weird coincidence. Just a few days ago, I was writing about the apparent habit of British kids’ shows to feature villains who plan to heist the Crown Jewels. That’s exactly what the Sorcerer does in tonight’s episode of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. Except there are only three Crown Jewels and they’re part of a King Arthur exhibit, and they’re not in the Tower of London, they’re in the local municipal records building as part of a traveling tour.

Another weird coincidence: you know the two stories that Douglas Adams wrote for the seventeenth season of Doctor Who? The villain in this story has an invisible headquarters in a vacant lot which people enter through a blue-screen door, as well as a trip back to 1502 to speak with Leonardo da Vinci as he’s painting the Mona Lisa. And you thought Adams was penniless and hitchhiking across Europe in ’76.

Anyway, if you’re just joining us since we last wrote about this series, the plan had been to watch all of Batman and then add this to the rotation, but after 56 of that program’s adventures, we took a short break and watched the first four of the eight Electra Woman stories. The show got a legitimate release in Australia a few years ago, the only one in the world, and it’s available in a region-free box set with all of H.R. Pufnstuf, Land of the Lost, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. That’s 105 Krofft episodes in one purchase, and absolutely worth it. Click the image above for more info.

Daniel really enjoyed this episode. It’s as nutty as a trip to Cromer’s in Columbia SC, with da Vinci, Merlin’s mirror, gigantic disembodied clapping hands, the same “hideout” set as every other story, and the return of Michael Constantine as the villain trying to defeat “the kilowatt cuties.” He thought it was incredibly exciting and watched the half-hour with his eyes wide and his security blanket in hand, loving it and ready for more.

Electra Woman 1.7 and 8 – Ali Baba

One of the great fun sidebars in watching this zero-budget show is watching how, with no extra money to spend, the Kroffts and their directors avoided spending even the little that they have. This time out, our heroines have a new gadget called Electra-Freeze – I’m pretty sure that’s the brand name of a soft-serve ice cream dispenser – and the villains, Ali Baba and the Genie, have a gong that creates illusions. In order to “freeze” the prop and make it shatter, the director zoomed in on Sid Haig, playing the Genie, as he reacted to what we couldn’t see, dubbed on a sound effect of a crash, and then Malachi Throne got to pick up some clear plastic, representing the frozen metal. There’s cheap and then there’s this.

And it doesn’t matter at all, because the villains are played by Malachi Throne and Sid Haig. Haig is more of a legend to fans of grindhouse horror films, but Throne also had a pretty terrific career, and was the only actor to appear as both an Electra-villain and a Bat-villain. He was False Face in 1966.

The absolute joy in this episode is watching really good actors having a ball overacting amazingly. The plot this time revolves around a Professor Nabokov, who invents a formula that makes you your opposite. Ali Baba sprays Dyna Girl with it, making her evil. Do you remember that episode of The Young Ones where Vyvyan invents a formula that turns you into an ax-wielding homicidal maniac? (“It’s basically a cure… for not being an ax-wielding homicidal maniac.”) It’s about like that. So Judy Strangis gets to join in and have a ball rolling her eyes and going nya-ha-ha-ha. Sure, it’s stupid, but how can you object when they’re having so much fun?

Daniel spent the episode running from in front of the sofa to behind it, largely unhappy about Dyna Girl turning evil, but he started singing the theme song in the bath, so I figure the world really didn’t end. But we’ll take a break from this show for a few months and finish up Batman all the same. Until then, keep your Electra-comps charged!

Electra Woman 1.5 and 6 – Empress of Evil

I could go on for hours about this story, because it’s so unbelievably entertaining. Everything completely works in this story, and not just because Claudette Nevins, cast as the mysterious and very powerful Empress of Evil, decided to play the part with the kink dialed up to eleven and the subtlety dialed down to one. Her back is arched in every single scene, she’s licking her lips, and she even gives herself a slow caress at least twice, suggesting that the network censors were not paying a drop of attention. And she is constantly, constantly laughing. She and her associate Lucrecia cackle like old Hollywood witches in every scene.

I remember Nevins worrying the heck out of me as a kid. All these little elements added up to some genuine troubles for five year-old me. I thought the Empress was really weird and really scary, without being able to explain why. Later on, I’d come to really appreciate the over-the-top camp masterpiece that it is. If I haven’t made it completely clear, the Empress and Lucrecia would not have been at all out of place running their hands over Tim Curry’s corset in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, meaning it’s not the sort of thing that a viewer’s going to catch until they’re in their teenage years.

But more about the production stands out as compelling and freaky than just the sex. The no-budget special effects forced the team to realize the script demands in weird, weird ways. At one point, a fire pit is created by dropping a jagged blue screen on the floor and chromakeying in a huge fire around Deidre Hall and Judy Strangis’s feet. At another point, a banshee – yes, a banshee – just wanders in to wail at our heroines and lead them into the Empress’s “Arena of Skulls” chamber. The banshee frightened the daylights out of Daniel, who looked at the screen from behind the sofa horrified, his eyes as big as dinner plates.

Absolutely everything about this story works. It’s incredibly fun, thunderously bizarre, and looks and sounds like nothing else on TV. It also has perhaps the pinnacle of stupid television narration, when Electra Woman says “We accept your challenge!” and the narrator solemnly intones “And so, Electra Woman accepts the Empress of Evil’s challenge.” How could you not just hug television as silly as this?

Electra Woman 1.3 and 4 – Glitter Rock

The Krofft Supershow was hosted by a kid-friendly rock band called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, who performed music and comedy to open the show and in between its three segments. I think that most people remember them as a four-piece who wore similar denim costumes, because that’s how they appeared in season two, and on the bulk of the program’s merchandising. But in season one, as you might have seen had you clicked that link in the previous installment, they were a five-piece with somewhat more ridiculous costumes, all flashy, colorful satin and rhinestones. If you remember how Elton John, David Bowie, Roxy Music, and T. Rex all dressed in 1972, that’s about how Kaptain Kool and the Kongs dressed in 1976.

Glitter Rock, played by John Mark Robinson, looks like the sixth member of the Kongs. I suspected, correctly, that Daniel would love this episode, because the baddie uses an electric guitar to hypnotize his victims. Nobody else does; it’s remarkably dopey even by Electra Woman standards. Robinson’s only major role came the following season as one of the ensemble cast in the quickly-canceled ABC comedy The San Pedro Beach Bums.

For what it’s worth, a chunk of the episode was taped at the defunct Magnolia Theatre in Burbank. Across the street, eagle-eyed restaurant geeks will be pleased to spot a Baskin-Robbins and a Pizza Hall of Fame, and that’s all there is to say about that.

Electra Woman 1.1 and 2 – The Sorcerer’s Golden Trick

So I may be thought of as something of a stinker, taking a break from Batman with Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, which is a pretty deliberate clone of Batman! The show was originally one of the three installments of the umbrella series The Krofft Supershow, which ran on ABC in 1976. It was created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, who would later form their own production and animation company and unleash many terrible cartoons upon the kids of the late seventies, and mostly written by Dick Robbins and Duane Poole, who turned in dozens of scripts for the Kroffts, Hanna-Barbera, and the like in the day.

(Speaking of “in the day,” it’s worth looking at the Supershow first season’s opening sequence on YouTube to see what Atlanta looked like in the summer of 1976, when crowds were steadfastly avoiding the Kroffts’ doomed indoor amusement park. That breathtakingly ugly brown building you see was the Omni, then the city’s premier concert and sports venue, located next door to the building that housed the park. David Bowie played at the Omni about three months before they taped this.)

Anyway, Deidre Hall, who was still a fresh new face in the cast of Days of Our Lives at the time, played Electra Woman, and Judy Strangis, who was eternally-young Helen in Room 222 for four years, was Dyna Girl, and Norman Alden, best known for his voiceover work on cartoons, played their assistant Frank, who programmed their computer gadgets. Most of the actors who played baddies had their biggest roles ahead of them; Michael Constantine, who hams it up as the Sorcerer in the first story, had previously starred with Strangis in Room 222, but is best known today as Gus in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

But is it any good? Objectively, no, but it sure is fun. It’s just a goofy, silly, zero-budget romp with traps and villainous threats, mustache-twirling and eye-rolling overacting, and a whole lot of chromakey for every conceivable special effect, even the things that probably could have been accomplished without it. A little of this show goes a long way, which is why it’s a good thing they only made sixteen episodes (each about twelve minutes), comprising eight stories.

It is charming to see how the goofball superhero logic of faster-than-light travel across the country and villainous plans that simply do not make any sense at all – bear in mind that Robbins and Poole were veterans of Hanna-Barbera’s equally insensible Super Friends – impressed Daniel. The cliffhanger, in which our heroines are about to be attacked by a tiger, had him hiding behind the sofa for safety, but he loved the climax, in which Electra Woman and Dyna Girl use the latest addition to their Electra-Comm wrist gadgets to repel the Sorcerer’s hypnotic mirrorball and zap him instead.

So yeah, this is a fun little diversion. Seven of these eight stories are cute and fun. Unfortunately, the turkey is the very next one. We’ll take a deep breath before we watch “Glitter Rock.”