RIP Billie Hayes, 1925-2021

It was with some small amount of shock that I read that the great Billie Hayes was 96 when she passed away last week, because she’d been convincingly playing women about the age of 96 since the mid-1950s. When she wasn’t playing an old hillbilly, she was, of course, the immortal Witchiepoo, whose first name was usually “Wilhelmina” when it wasn’t “Miss.” I don’t know that any performer has ever let the audience know that they were having such a blast being rotten more than Hayes; Witchiepoo was an incompetent tornado of anger and fury. Watching her bellow and clobber her nincompoop assistants is a joy unparalleled in television, and if I had a great big vulture in the house, I’d smack him with a magic wand right now in tribute to our fallen queen of evil. Our condolences to her family and friends.

Mutt & Stuff 1.24 – H.R. Pufnstuf Visits Mutt & Stuff

I am so unreasonably, selfishly angry with Nickelodeon’s preschool channel, Nick Jr, about this. I have spent the last two months carefully, in my silly adult way, getting four year-old Daniel ready for this episode. Over the past few Saturdays, we rewatched all of H.R. Pufnstuf, and I’ve been punctuating his regular viewings of Mutt & Stuff with questions like “Doesn’t Stuff remind you a little of Pufnstuf? He sort of looks like him, doesn’t he?” Daniel will inevitably remind me “No, Dad, Stuff is a dog, and Pufnstuf is a dragon!”

(Seventeen year-old big sister Ivy, upon hearing this last night, went apoplectic. “He’s a dragon?! All these years I thought he was a dinosaur!!”)

Anyway, I was all set to sit down with him this morning for the big surprise. Even his pre-K and day care cooperated by closing for President’s Day, so we’d be home to watch it together. Then we let him watch PAW Patrol on Nick Jr on Saturday morning and they ran a commercial for it. Blast!

Mutt & Stuff, for those of you without under-sixes in the house, is Sid and Marty Krofft’s latest production, a gentle and silly show about a doggie day care with some puppets, Rube Goldberg contraptions, and a big yellow dog. You kind of have to be about the age where you think a dog slowly rolling past the camera on a skateboard is roaringly funny to appreciate it, but I can get behind any program that teaches respect for pets, regardless of who produced it or how tame the comedy is.

The episode is therefore unsurprisingly tame and gentle. The conflict, inasmuch as there is any, comes from Stuff feeling very self-conscious that he’s not as important as his uncle and needing to be reassured that he’s important, too. Pufnstuf, voiced by an actor named Randy Credico, brings along two seeds that grow into Living Island trees. These don’t walk around like the ones on Living Island, but they are named Sid and Marty (har), and Stuff saves them from a runaway great big frisbee, proving that he’s important to the school. There are no explosions or zaps and nobody gets hit in the head with anything, because children’s television’s just not quite like that anymore.

There is, it must be noted, a short bit where the two cats who hang out in a tree, Zoe and Davenport, wonder what the H.R. in Puf’s name stands for. This sailed over my teen daughter’s head and so during the ad break, I let her in on the little meta-secret that college kids in the seventies, looking for drug references, supposed that it might be short for “hand rolled.” She laughed like a hyena, her brother wondered what was so funny, and the wheel of things turned slowly on, man.

Pufnstuf (1970)

Very soon after the production of the TV series finished – very soon indeed, as the opening sequence really looks like it must have been filmed in the fall – the Kroffts took a million dollars of Universal’s money and made a terrific feature film version of the show. The budget for the feature was the same as for the seventeen episodes. Some of the costumes are reused, in whole or part, but many, including Pop Lolly, Dr. Blinky, and Pufnstuf himself, who has a new head with a much softer mouth, are different. Some of the voices are also new. Lennie Weinrib, who had originally voiced Pufnstuf and Orson, among others, was busy doing other projects. Allan Melvin and Don Messick split the work of all of Weinrib’s characters.

The larger budget meant that Hollingsworth Morse could also shoot on much larger sets at Universal than he had at Paramount. Three of the main places on Living Island – the Clock House, the Candy Factory, and Dr. Blinky’s house – are all now seen to be in one village instead of on separate sets where it was suggested that they were in different places. And Witchiepoo’s castle gets a fabulous makeover, with more stairs to climb and places for people to interact. It looks lovely. Oh, and Morse and his cinematographer, Kenneth Peach, pulled off a completely astonishing done-in-one-shot version of Witchiepoo being so ugly that she breaks the mirror in her hand, requiring Billie Hayes to hit a precise mark with the mirror held perfectly for her reflection to be captured.

$1,000,000 in 1969-70 money is equivalent to $6,228,435 today, and you don’t hear of movies only costing that little anymore. This wasn’t a film meant to dominate the box office; it was meant to make its money back and then play summer film fests for kids for years to come, which it did. It was the sort of movie that spent every July in the 1970s being screened along with a few Disney live-action pictures and the Pippi Longstocking films in libraries in front of kids on the carpet while moms took a break.

Unlike many movie versions of TV series, this isn’t a “bonus episode” of the narrative. It’s an alternate take on things, reusing plot elements from several of the original stories. It means we get to see Jimmy meet Freddie after the flute comes alive, and get abducted by the witch’s boat, and meet all the people on Living Island again for the first time. In the short time between making the show and the movies, Jack Wild’s acting improved tenfold. He really sells the wide-eyed disbelief of what he’s seeing.

So how’d it go over at home? Well, at 95 minutes, it’s right at the limits of how long our son can be expected to sit kind of still, but the bleakness of the story, and one visual, really got to him, I fear. There’s an urgency to the plot that the series really doesn’t have. Witchiepoo makes the mistake of boasting to her rival, Witch Hazel, about the golden flute with the diamond skin condition, and Hazel gossips to everybody about it. Word gets to Boss Witch that Witchiepoo’s got something especially amazing, and so when she loses it to those goody-two-shoes in their rescue, she has to get it back at all costs. Boss Witch has phoned and told Witchiepoo that the annual witches’ convention is being held on Living Island.

Witch Hazel is played by Mama Cass Elliot in what would be her only film role and she’s very good. In her first scene, she’s bathing in a tub of fruit while gossiping on the phone. Billie Hayes plays her end of the conversation like a hyperactive teenage girl, bouncing and flouncing on her bed while kicking her heels. She’s hilarious. (Actually, speaking of phones, Don Messick gets the line that made me laugh the loudest, when Orson answers the phone and calmly says “Miss Witchiepoo’s Residence.” I don’t know why that slayed me, but it did.)

At the convention, Mama Cass completely steals the movie with a musical performance. It’s written, as all the music in the movie, by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, who’d later write “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” It’s called “Different,” and even with a cucumber on her nose and a plastic rat in her hair, Mama Cass is amazing. I love this song so much.

Daniel was a little restless during all the music, sad to say, but Witchiepoo really horrified him with her rottenness this time out. Capturing all the good guys – except Jimmy and Freddie, who’ve run away, ironically, hoping to stop endangering their friends – by shrinking them and sweeping them into her hat was awful enough, but then she plans to feed her guests by cooking Pufnstuf! The sight of poor Puf strapped to a rotisserie with a huge apple in his mouth caused some tears, and we had to hug and reassure him that even though this was a movie and a little different from the show, Witchiepoo was still going to lose.

I thought that if anything was going to get under Daniel’s skin, it would be Boss Witch and Heinrich. Now, she’s played by the great Martha Raye and we’d see her, and the Heinrich costume, again in the Kroffts’ next show. This series, The Bugaloos, would feature music by Charles Fox and several stories written by this movie’s screenwriters, John Fenton Murray and Si Rose, so this film really is the link between the two TV programs. Heinrich actually unnerves me ever so slightly. Unlike Witchiepoo’s bumbling gang, Heinrich is played straight, and he’s a no-joke Nazi rat, who snaps to attention and barks commands in German.

And then there’s Boss Witch, and she’s trouble. I interviewed Sid Krofft about twenty-five years ago and one of the proudest moments of his career, he said, was reviving Martha Raye’s. She had been a huge star in the 1930s and 1940s, but roles had been tapering off, as they often did, and sadly still do, for women over the age of forty. In Raye’s case, however, she had been very slowly brushed to the side by people who didn’t agree with her politics. Raye was a firm supporter of the USO and made many tours to Vietnam to entertain the troops. Krofft told me that she’d been “blacklisted,” and this was the first real role that she’d had in years.

She’s not funny-evil like a usual Krofft villain, and like she’d be in The Bugaloos, and so, teamed with the harsh Heinrich, she strikes an unusually discordant note in the movie, but it still works wildly well. When she does get a funny line – Witch Hazel protests that the Witch of the Year award is a fix and Boss Witch says that of course it is, because witches don’t play fair – it brings down the house.

One final reminder that we’re not on Saturday mornings anymore, by the way, comes from the devilish jokes in the script. NBC would have never passed lines about Lucifer or Satan, or Witch Hazel’s final insult of “Go to Heaven!” They certainly wouldn’t have approved Witch Way, who is drunk throughout the convention. And in a G-rated movie, too!

Apart from weeping over Pufnstuf being roasted on a spit, Daniel enjoyed the movie and laughed and cheered. There’s plenty for grownups to love and, for kids, there’s lots of slapstick action and Stupid Bat crashing into walls repeatedly and fire extinguishers in the face and one last comeuppance for the meanest and most rotten witch of them all.

Wait, did I say last? You know I didn’t mean that, right?

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.17 – Jimmy Who?

In the 1980s, the producer of Doctor Who was a guy named John Nathan-Turner, and he would routinely attempt to deflect criticism that the show had gone downhill by using the phrase “the memory cheats.” Older episodes were not commercially available in the UK at the time, but the silly man, oblivious to the fact that the complaining parties usually had a full shelf of pirate VHS tapes of Jon Pertwee episodes obtained from traders in the US and Australia and were perfectly capable of seeing old stories for themselves, would honestly try and tell people that his stories were every bit as good or superior to what had come before. It was only nostalgia that made you think otherwise. You philistines.

I mention this today for one reason because, as we wrap up the H.R. Pufnstuf series, it’s not a bad time to look at how the show as a whole stands up to the modern eyes of adulthood. And for another reason: my memory didn’t cheat, it flat-out lied to me.

I came to terms with this part several years ago, but it still completely baffles me. I remember an episode of this show in which the good guys of Living Island have a potato sack race. This does not happen in any of the seventeen episodes of this series, and yet I remember it quite distinctly. There is no “bonus episode,” I’m just completely wrong.

Perhaps it happens in a Whitman Pufnstuf coloring book, or in an issue of the Gold Key comic book series, or maybe – and this really is stretching it – in an episode of Lost Island, about which, more some other day, but it probably never happened anywhere. I will always wonder, however, where in the world that memory came from, and every time I think about this show in any critical way, I’m always a little stumped by this phony memory, and remember John Nathan-Turner’s silly words.

So as for the series finale, it’s a clip show, which was a very common thing to do in the 1960s, especially when you’ve sunk as much money as Sid and Marty Krofft did into this. NBC gave them a budget of one million dollars for seventeen episodes, or about $52,000 apiece. They spent almost twice that, and it shows. There is obviously a lot that they could not do, but the series features several sets and props that were used once and never again, and the Clock People’s oddball house certainly couldn’t have been cheap. I’m amazed that, as stretched as they were, they could even justify dropping a character (Pop Lolly) but his was the weakest and silliest costume, and they probably didn’t want it used in crowd scenes after week seven.

Just look at the title sequence: a day’s filming in northern California someplace, two separate Living Island boats on location, one of which is later used on a stage set with a water tank, and which incorporates at least one puppeteer underneath Jack Wild manipulating those freaky, hairy arms that are seen on screen for about two seconds. Even in 1969 dollars, that title sequence was not cheap.

But didn’t Jimmy ever get home? Wasn’t there a “final episode” of H.R. Pufnstuf? Nope, because that was simply not the way of TV in the sixties. At the time, and for decades to come, the real money was in off-network syndication. The problem was that audiences of the day just stopped watching a show that had a final episode. While that sounds utterly bizarre from our perspective, the apparent first American TV show to have a proper series finale was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which aired in the late 1950s and had enormous ratings, and a way ahead-of-its-time final arc of episodes: a five-part story set in Tombstone that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral in the last one aired. It then absolutely bombed in syndication, so badly that, six years later, the studio that made The Fugitive fought against the producers’ desire to wrap up that story. The resulting story made for some darn exciting television, but only a handful of UHF stations bought it, costing Quinn Martin Productions a boatload in syndication money they never saw.

And it’s the money that meant there would ever only be seventeen episodes, particularly as the Kroffts overspent so much. In the late 1990s, Marty Krofft claimed (in David Martindale’s Pufnstuf & Other Stuff) that NBC asked for a second season, with a 5% budget increase. But that wasn’t nearly enough to cover their costs. The initial million got NBC three airings of each episode. It was more fiscally sound to take a couple of hundred thousand for the rights to three more broadcasts of each in the 1970-71 season. NBC saved a lot of money, and the Kroffts’ books got closer to being balanced, and the sets at Paramount could be scrapped instead of paying storage fees for months before new episodes went into production.

Besides which, new sets needed to be built at Universal… but more on that in a few days.

Finally, there’s the non-issue of drugs. Seventeen episodes without mentioning it, mainly because I’ve been looking for any honest evidence that the directors and actors were high as kites during the making of this show. Everybody seems to think that’s the case – it fueled a pretty funny parody on Mr. Show called “Druggachusettes: A Sam and Criminy Craffft Production” – but, in the cold light of day, it really isn’t here. Yeah, there’s a hippie tree, and yeah, there are talking mushrooms, but there’s really not one thing here that’s radically or obviously drug-inspired. Even the wilder visuals, like Dr. Blinky’s sneezing house, are the sort of things that would have shown up in a Betty Boop cartoon, or a Bob Clampett Looney Tune a quarter-century or more earlier.

When you’re young, it’s fun to pretend that Sid and Marty were doped up on shrooms, peyote, a quarter-ton of uncut Turkish hashish, and three cases of Jim Beam – only natural things, you understand – when they made this silly show, but the honest fact is that the show was as psychedelic as it is because quite a lot of television made in 1969 was, and it’s as entertaining as it is because the Kroffts, Lennie Weinrib, Hollingsworth Morse, the production designers, the costumers, and all the actors were just tremendously talented people who gave 100% making this program. Even on an occasional subpar episode, H.R. Pufnstuf is utterly watchable, Billie Hayes looks like she’s having more fun being rotten than should be allowed by law, and it’s just tremendous fun to get lost in this good-natured silliness for half an hour.

That would not always be the case with the Kroffts. More on that in a few weeks.

For a pair of really good books about the production of the Krofft series, readers should check out Sid and Marty Krofft: A Critical Study of Saturday Morning Childrens Television, 1969-1993 by Hal Erickson and Pufnstuf & Other Stuff by David Martindale. Martindale’s is the more breezy and light of the two, but I prefer Erickson’s. Admittedly, he quoted me in it years ago, and so I’m biased, mind.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.16 – Whaddya Mean the Horse Gets the Girl?

“This episode made no sense,” said Marie. And she’s right, but boy, is it funny.

Toadenoff and Shirley are back in this story. This time, everybody’s making a movie to – somehow – raise money for the Get Rid of the Witch fund, which raises again the question of who the heck the audience for films made on Living Island is. If only these movies could show up in muggle theaters, you know?

Anyway, for a while, this episode looks like a power struggle between Ludicrous Lion and Horse. Ludicrous is cast as a deputy in the picture first, but he bungles things so much – calling the director “Mac” didn’t help – that Toadenoff recasts the part. He gives Horse a new name, Pierpont Pony, and it goes straight to his head. Demanding, as stars do, that he be brought a drink of water – that Ludicrous bring the water – has everybody rolling their eyes.

Eventually, the writers remembered that they needed something to do with Witchiepoo, so she zaps Toadenoff into her castle to have him direct her movie, Gone With the Witch. This is possibly the silliest scene in the entire series, which is saying something. It’s an amazing scene because it requires Billie Hayes, who is a fantastic actor, to play Witchiepoo in the role of her younger self, and Witchiepoo cannot act. At all. She can overact so unbearably that Toadenoff can only shake his head.

But what makes this episode particularly weird is that it has the opposite problem of last week, where the writers got backed into a corner and had no idea how to get out of it except the cheat of turning time back. This week, Horse – I mean, Pierpont Pony – swallows the witch’s wand, zaps her, Seymour, and Orson into immobility, then loses his mind because he’s an egotistical star and starts zapping everything and the episode just ends because they ran out of time!

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.15 – The Almost Election of Witchiepoo

“I wonder how the witch will lose this time,” Daniel asked, showing some understanding about how this show works.

Unfortunately, this episode only works so far before it ends up in a corner, and the writers had no idea how to extract it. Witchiepoo tries running for mayor, but doesn’t persuade any of the electorate, so she uses love bombs to make everybody adore her. This does result in the funny scene of Pufnstuf bawling in Dr. Blinky’s house – dragon tears instead of crocodile tears! – but the only solution they can come up with is a reversal bomb to wind time back thirty minutes.

In other words, it’s a pretty lame way to make sure the witch loses this time.

There is an intriguing little bit that might have gone somewhere amusing though. The good trees point out that Pufnstuf always wins the mayoral race because nobody runs against him. But when pressed on the stump what he’s actually done for the people of Living Island, he really has no idea. That’s the funniest thing in this episode. I think they should have run with that, and got a little subversive.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.14 – The Visiting Witch

This episode is amazing, but it sure went over Daniel’s head for a minute.

Okay, so Witchiepoo gets notice – via a tickertape announcement in her image machine – that Boss Witch is coming for an inspection. Nobody has met the Boss Witch or knows what she looks like, which turns into an obvious, but hilarious plot point. Billie Hayes is in fine form this week, because she’s in a complete panic, absolutely convinced that Boss Witch will hate her.

What Witchiepoo doesn’t know is that Boss Witch cancels her inspection, and she doesn’t know that because Stupid Bat, carrying a “bat-o-gram,” crashes in the forest and loses the note to the good guys. Witchiepoo decides that Pufnstuf will make a nice gift for the queen of magic and empress of evil, and so, to rescue him, the good guys dress Jimmy as what they imagine Boss Witch might look like, so he can go into the castle, be groveled at, whack Witchiepoo in the head a time or three, and generally command the place. Then Jimmy adds insult to injury by threatening to banish the ineffective witch from Living Island.

It’s absolutely one of the high points of the show: Jimmy-as-Boss Witch interrogates Pufnstuf about how rotten Witchiepoo is, and Puf throws her under the bus, bragging how she’s such a sweetheart and even once brought some nice cookies to his cave.

But we had to pause and go back, because Jack Wild’s makeup job was so hilariously good that it completely convinced Daniel. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t reveling in seeing the witch get such a long and deserved comeuppance until I realized that he didn’t know that was Wild. He saw this strange newcomer as somebody who was much more frightening than Witchiepoo and reacted with a bit lip, accordingly. He enjoyed it a lot more the second time around!

Which makes me wonder… we actually will be meeting the genuine Boss Witch in a few weeks. I wonder what he’ll think of the real deal?

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.13 – A Tooth for a Tooth

It’s a rare day when Billie Hayes gets upstaged in this show, but one of the very few examples comes in this episode. This time out, when Jimmy escapes into her forest, she calls out the always-incompetent evil trees again, leading to one of this goofy show’s goofiest moments.

You sometimes wonder whether this program’s writers, Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, actually remember their previous scripts, because the trees are so patently bumbling that you’d think Puf would, by this point, just sit back and wait for Jimmy to kick the bejesus out of them as he’s done at least five times before. But Pufnstuf fears the worst and calls for the good trees to step in.

Now, up to this point, Hayes has, as always, been the star of the show. She gets to rant and rave because she has a toothache, pose as a little girl to get her tooth pulled by Dr. Blinky (reusing the costume from “The Stand-In“), and, once she’s given the whammy of a love potion, act like a bundle of sunshine who loves everybody on Living Island. But then the trees have a fight, which turns into a dance once the evil trees get a dose of the love potion, and it’s the funniest thing in the universe.

I’m impressed by so much about the bizarre costuming and puppetry in the Krofft series, and just the way the actors navigate around each other while wearing these silly things is always amusing. But this is a really funny spectacle of chaos, especially when Jimmy takes off his jacket so he can start swatting one of the evil trees from behind. We loved it!

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.12 – Flute, Book and Candle

The first thing that crossed my mind about what I might say about this episode is that the film print is a complete disaster. Every other episode in this set has been cleaned up and remastered and looks completely wonderful – every episode so far, that is – but this is a horrible, scratchy print with multiple skips and dropouts. What a shame, because it’s a good and funny episode.

But the most remarkable thing about it came when Jimmy disguised himself as a beggar asking for alms and Marie said, “Huh, he looks like the Artful Dodger!” I almost had to pause the episode for a few minutes to stare at her in bewilderment before I said “That IS the Artful Dodger!”

Casting Jack Wild in H.R. Pufnstuf had been a huge coup for Sid and Marty Krofft. He had been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film Oliver!, which was his first major role. Working in California for the Kroffts got him several other movie parts and a recording contract for Capitol Records. He also started drinking around the time he was making this show, at age 17, and he had squandered pretty much everything away, including any goodwill he might have had, within four years, at which point he was a full-blown alcoholic.

His records were never hits outside the bubblegum crowd (his cover of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” must be heard to be believed), and the Kroffts threw him a rope to guest star as himself in one episode of Sigmund & the Sea Monsters after nobody else in Hollywood wanted anything to do with him. The episode, as I recall it, was kind of pathetic, suggesting that in the alternate reality of Sigmund, Jack Wild really was a huge teen celebrity and his records sold by the ton. (A British equivalent might be all those mid-period episodes of The Tomorrow People that insisted that Flintlock, a group with exactly one dent in the top 40, was some kind of huge mega-act.)

Wild’s story really is a sad one, especially since – well, let’s be honest, a lot of what he does in Pufnstuf is not all that unique or amazing. But every so often, like in this episode, they write a song and dance bit for him. “The Moment That I Saw Your Face” is intentionally reminiscent of “Consider Yourself,” and Wild danced just magically, and had star power written all over him. He shouldn’t have been in California; he should have been on Broadway and the West End. He died from cancer of the mouth in 2006, way too young at 53, and with far too few moments of greatness captured on film.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.11 – Dinner for Two, Please, Orson

After the last episode being a kind of humdrum runaround, this one’s properly silly and entertaining again. Witchiepoo is lonely, and sings that her phone hasn’t rung since 1910 and instead of catching men, she just catches colds. Bored and depressed, she zaps the Clock People’s time machine for no other reason than to “keep a hand in.”

At that moment, Grandfather Clock is trying to send Jimmy and Freddy back to the day before they came to Living Island, but the explosion instead ages them sixty years. An amnesiac Jimmy with a long white beard sets the flute down and wanders off in search of hot milk and cookies. Witchiepoo finds him in the forest, feeds him, names him Prince Charming, and plans to marry him.

I’m not quite sure how clued in Sid and Marty Krofft actually were to the counterculture (a reasonable question that I’ll revisit), and nor am I sure how the best-dressed drag queens of 1969 were doing their makeup, but the sight of Billie Hayes with hideously garish “wedding” makeup atop her witch makeup really is amazing. I kept waiting for RuPaul to show up and tell her to sashay away.

As in “The Golden Key,” by the way, this is an escape route that ends for no good reason. The time machine is repaired, and the lovestruck witch is turned into a baby, so what’s stopping Grandfather Clock from going back to Plan A and sending Jimmy back in time?

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.10 – You Can’t Have Your Cake

I was mistaken in thinking that Judy Frog only had a real role in the first episode. She’s one of the major players in this one, which sees her teaching everybody a dance called the moon walk. Only thirteen years before the release of Thriller, too!

This one kind of feels like everybody’s running out of ideas, honestly. It’s silly like it should be, but it’s just a very standard runaround involving a Trojan Horse birthday cake. The flute gets captured and they go get it back. Cling and Clang get a lot to do in this one, and Stupid Bat has some more screen time, but it’s pretty skippable.