H.R. Pufnstuf 1.9 – The Stand-In

This episode introduces two new characters, Puf’s little sister Shirlee, who is a great film star, and her producer-director-boss, The Great Toadenoff. Their voices are based on Shirley Temple and Erich von Stroheim, and, in the way of children’s entertainment, the motion picture they are making is completely improvised and has a crew of however many of the Hippie Ants can be used in a scene. I love how charmingly naive kids’ TV and comics are about this, not wishing to complicate children’s understanding of how movies are made by introducing concepts like a script or a plan. Toadenoff just shoots whatever’s happening and apparently a movie will result and somebody, somewhere, will watch it.

This episode actually breaks from the formula, as Witchiepoo has no design on the flute this week. She just wants to answer the call for extras and stand-ins so that she can be a big star, too. She disguises herself as “Lola Lollapallooza” this week, and for once, everybody actually knows it’s her and execute their plan: to delay her on the film set long enough for Jimmy to get into the castle and steal her Vroom Broom.

They delay her by way of the classic vaudeville “makeup” routine, with Pufnstuf walloping her with a gigantic makeup sponge several times. Once the day’s shooting is finished, she and Puf have a rather charming conversation about how he shouldn’t think of her as a witch, but as a woman. Puf concedes that he never thought of her that way, and suggests that they make up. So yes, you saw this coming, but Witchiepoo knocking the blazes out of Pufnstuf with that sponge is still completely hilarious. I haven’t laughed like that since… well, since the last time we watched this show last week, probably.

The episode ends with Witchiepoo mourning the loss of her Vroom Broom, which she set ablaze trying to zap Jimmy. Daniel spent the next twenty minutes asking why she was crying and why she likes that broom so much. Then he wanted to know why Pufnstuf lives in a tree. Answers on a postcard, readers…

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.8 – The Horse With the Golden Throat

This episode is absolutely hilarious! Daniel and I laughed up a storm during it.

So this time out, Jimmy absent-mindedly sets Freddie down on a stack of carrots that the Polka-Dotted Horse is eating. The horse swallows Freddie, wacky hijinks ensue. Except these really are funny. Highlights include the Peter Lorre Evil Tree finally telling the Bela Lugosi Evil Tree to knock off the poetry, already, and the ridiculous and wonderful resolution to the problem.

See, Dr. Blinky’s fireplace – that’s him in the back of the picture above, he talks like Edward G. Robinson – insists that he knows how to get Freddie out of the horse, but Blinky shushes him. Then Witchiepoo shows up, claiming that Seymour is deathly ill, leading Dr. Blinky outside, so the fireplace can explain his plan to Pufnstuf and Jimmy. It’s a simple plan: flood the house with smoke and make him cough it up.

Even expecting smoke, and for things to go somewhat askew, the volume of smoke that instantly fills the set is really freaking hilarious.

Some gags get repeated this week – Orson knocked out by a zapped lamp, Witchiepoo’s clothes being sneezed off by the house – but I’m pretty sure that any four year-old watching this didn’t mind one bit. What a little gem of a story.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.7 – The Birthday Party

This episode is gloriously, ridiculously silly. This time out, Witchiepoo knocks out most of the good guys with laughing gas, and leaves with Freddie, but also leaves Orson behind. He manages to gas himself and falls unconscious, face-first, into a plate of candy. Everybody else revives and finds Orson covered in candy spots and their latest rescue tactic is to convince the witch that there’s a dangerous outbreak of “redspotitis.”

So by now, we’ve pretty much got the H.R. Pufnstuf formula completely set: the witch contrives a ridiculous way to capture the flute, and the good guys contrive an even more ridiculous way to retrieve the flute. All that varies are the side jokes and occasional neat camerawork, like this one employing an uncharacteristic, high angle looking down on the party while all the good guys are dancing. Watching these in sequence, you don’t have too many surprises, but every once in a while, Hollingsworth Morse did something very unusual with his camera tricks.

And this one also has the great gag of two gargoyles in Witchiepoo’s castle so worried about “redspotitis” that they attempt to shake themselves free to run away. Their shaking brings the ceiling down on Witchiepoo and Orson.

Also of note: this is the first episode that didn’t spark any kind of frights in Daniel, even artificial ones. He grabbed his “bad guy cannon” once, to try and turn the baddies into ice, but otherwise, he stayed on the sofa and laughed and laughed.

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.6 – The Golden Key

“The Golden Key” is the first appearance of a regular Krofft trope: the hero, trying to escape, is given every opportunity to do so, but gets delayed by a plot complication and the villain, solves the problem, and then gives up on that opportunity. This is really weird. The first episode of Lidsville has exactly the same construction, and so do a couple of other Krofft shows, and all the lousy 1970s cartoons from Hanna-Barbera and the like that riffed on Krofft plots did the same thing.

This time, Ludicrous Lion sells them a map off the island for ten buttons. The map leads them to three parts of a key, which act as a compass to a golden door. But they stop using the key when they find a sign that Witchiepoo has altered to point to her dungeon delivery door instead. After escaping and leaving Witchiepoo and the “gruesome twosome” locked in her own dungeon, they all go back to town, the episode finished, and this way off the island forgotten.

This is the first episode that attempts to give some scale to Living Island’s enormous size, and try as they might, they just can’t pull it off. All of the costumes and the sets for interior places simply ate up all the budget, so all of the Living Island exteriors are simply the same “bright outside floor” dressed with different two-dimensional cut-out trees and plants, and different little dumps of moss or something.

Earlier episodes established that the witch’s patch of the island is lit more darkly, but the Evil Trees and the talking mushrooms always seem to be in the same place. For suspension of disbelief, I’m willing to pretend that the same slightly redressed “sunny day” floor is intended to be lots of different areas, but come on, there’s only so many times you can interact with a cigar-chomping mushroom who cannot actually move around and who speaks with a Jimmy Cagney voice before you say “I’m in the same place, the witch’s castle is a hundred feet from here.”

Speaking of the witch, Daniel is firmly no longer frightened or unnerved by Witchiepoo, and looks forward to seeing how she gets her comeuppance each time. Whew! I never thought she was going to scare him in the first place!

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.5 – Box Kite Caper

Not much to say about this story, except to note how remarkable it is that they even attempted the big aerial duel between Jimmy and Freddy, floating on a box kite, and Witchiepoo and her gang, on her Vroom Broom. Every episode of the series was written by Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, and they must have been supremely confident of director Hollingsworth Morse’s ability to actually convey what’s happening when both Jack Wild, on one stationary prop, and Billie Hayes, Joy Campbell, and Angelo Rossitto, on another stationary prop, have to act as though they’re moving around each other. They’re filmed separately, with only camera angles suggesting movement.

Sure, it’s primitive and phony, but what a lot of moxie to know how very limited the resources at Paramount Gulf + Western Studios were in 1969 and to say “We can do this.”

Daniel has mostly gotten over his fear of Witchiepoo. He’s realized that she loses, hilariously, every time, but he was still pretty restless tonight. We may try watching the next thing before dinner if possible, before it gets too late for him.

H.R. Pufntsuf 1.4 – The Mechanical Boy

It took two tries to watch this episode. We tried last night, but Daniel was too tired to pay attention. This morning, we gave it another shot and he enjoyed it. The episode introduces the bizarre Clock People, in their doubly-bizarre house. We met Alarm Clock in an earlier story; this one adds Grandfather and Grandmother Clock, and their granddaughter, Miss Wristwatch, who speaks in a Zsa Zsa Gabor voice.

In the 1980s, an outfit called Embassy Home Video released the first four episodes of this show on VHS tape, insensibly priced at $39.95 for two episodes, because we were all suckers in the 1980s, I guess. They released a few Krofft titles, and their tapes either had episodes 1 and 4 on tape one and episodes 2 and 3 on tape two, or, in some cases like Bigfoot & Wildboy, the second tape had three random episodes sausage-linked together as a single TV movie, with one set of credits.

Anyway, around 1990, some of my friends formed a filmmaking group called Corn Pone Flicks, and I joined their repertory company as occasional overactor. I was in charge of the team’s blooper reel, and I think that at various points people started deliberately blowing their lines to get on the thing a little more often. I soon got a little bored and, foolishly and egotistically, decided to pep things up a bit by throwing in random other film and video detritus onto the reel, including the first verse of this song. The reel, called The Abyss Gazes Also, was released around 1994 and I swear that, for most of the few hundred people who saw it, this clip of Pufnstuf was the first time they’d seen or heard of the character in years.

They also probably concluded that an entire verse was excessive, when one line would have done just fine. Philistines.

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.

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.”

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.