Li’l Abner (1959)

All my talk at the beginning of this blog about not buying bootlegs and only using legitimate media starts to seem more and more hollow as time goes on. If it’s out of print, it’s probably on YouTube. Even if it’s in print, it’s probably on YouTube. I generally don’t like stage musicals very much, but 1959’s Li’l Abner is one of a handful that I appreciate, and I’d been looking for a reasonably-priced copy for quite a long time. I finally landed one from a seller in Australia, and it turned out to be a boot. I thought about arguing the point, but ended up appreciating the extremely good work they did on the printing, and accepted it. Money spent, movie watched.

So this was miles and miles outside our son’s comfort zone. It was his first look at a Broadway musical, although Marie reminded me that he has certainly seen other examples of musicals, mainly from Disney or the Muppets. Like all the kids who got dragged to the Dogpatch USA amusement park in its waning, dying days, he had no experience of the Li’l Abner comic strip, and the bulk of the story is about romancing and marrying. But I believed that, even though this was pretty far outside his experience, Li’l Abner had enough good-natured silliness, funny characters, gags, and entertaining songs to win over anybody who’d give it a chance, and I was right. His attention wandered a little bit – and to be fair, a couple of the dance numbers are really long – but he agreed that this was a good movie with a few great moments, chief among them the hysterical Sadie Hawkins Day Race, which had him guffawing.

It was a bit of a bad coincidence that this was scheduled for the Sunday after we learned that Billie Hayes had passed. Hayes plays Mamie Yokum, the strong-armed ma of our hero, Li’l Abner, who’d much rather spend his days with the fellas fishing than marrying the beautiful Daisy Mae Scragg. Our star-struck couple is played by Peter Palmer and Leslie Parrish, with ample support provided by some heavyweights like Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones, and Stella Stevens as Appasionnata von Climax. Even Jerry Lewis gets a walk-on part, possibly because it was 1959 and he was contractually bound to appear in every movie that year.

This was a movie that I spent a long time mocking, because I didn’t appreciate its hayseed humor, and I deeply resented it for getting the song “Jubilation T. Cornpone” stuck in my head for the last three decades. The whole movie’s full of earworms, which the credits help explain: Broadway and Hollywood producers didn’t hire the likes of Johnny Mercer and Nelson Riddle to write forgettable music. Eventually I caved to its goofy and incredibly colorful charms, and appreciated all the physicality and the great wordplay. There’s a character called Evil Eye Fleagle who moves in a constantly twitching shuffle, and, like Stupefyin’ Jones with a shake of her hips, can stop anybody else in their tracks. Actually, Jones, who is apparently a robot, seems to have no power over women, which strikes me as a design flaw.

So sure, this is a movie filled with unflattering cultural stereotypes, as the citizens of Dogpatch are shown to be remarkably lazy, dirty, gullible and, in the eyes of the rest of the world, quite unnecessary, and the battle of the sexes is very, very much of its time. A standard Dogpatch wedding brings a fair maiden “three weeks of bliss and fifty years of quiet desperation,” which is why all the menfolk are so desperate to avoid it.

But the sharpest barbs are pointed at the government, and capitalism’s nasty greed, and the only real zingers aimed at the country folk and yokels are at their blind patriotism, accepting anything their senator tells them. Since Li’l Abner’s creator, Al Capp, turned into a whiny-ass “kids these days” crankpot in his later years, it’s nice to be reminded that at the strip’s peak in the 1950s, it was genuinely and consistently funny. I’ve read a fair amount of the Abner strip, and this production reflects what a witty and intelligent comic it was in the 1950s. It comes together really well here. It’s dated in a lot of respects, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, sunny, colorful, and very fun. I’m glad the kid enjoyed it. And a little relieved.

Twelve years later, Billie Hayes returned to the role of Mamie Yokum for a really, really colorful Li’l Abner TV pilot for ABC. Getty Images gets a little angry if you copy and post things with their copyright, so I strongly encourage everybody to visit Getty’s site, do a search for Li’l Abner, scroll down past all the pictures of Newmar, and check out some pics from the 1971 show. It was directed by Gordon Wiles and starred Ray Young and Nancee Parkinson as Abner and Daisy Mae. It was an astonishingly ill-timed pilot, since the networks’ rural purge was bringing the hatchet down on everything set between Mayberry and Hooterville. Returning to Dogpatch wasn’t going to happen in 1971. But speaking as I was of bootlegs, it seems possible that the pilot is lost, because not even YouTube has a trace of it. (Black and white copies of a 1966 trial have survived, however.) Even IMDB has only partial cast and crew credits. I’ve no idea what company made it, but since Hayes was in it, I’d like to see it one of these days.

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.

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976)

Are you ready to spend fifty minutes checking your wristwatch? Then have I got a Halloween special for you! In 1976, the endlessly prissy Paul Lynde was a recurring guest on ABC’s Donny & Marie, when he wasn’t the center square on – is this right? – 828 episodes of Hollywood Squares. Apparently to give the Osmonds a week off, the production team taped a Halloween special with Lynde instead, with guest stars Florence Henderson, Tim Conway, and Roz Kelly, who had found an “I Didn’t Do It Kid” level of fleeting fame in the role of Pinky Tuscadero for three weeks on Happy Days and tried keeping it going here.

With musical guests Kiss, who made their national TV debut that October night, they made the least funny and most 1970s thing ever. Jokes, such as they are, are built around Baretta and The Legend of Billy Jack, at least when Lynde isn’t sneering about Kiss’s makeup and elevator shoes, because hey, moms in Peoria and Des Moines, these rock and roll stars are weird people. Within weeks, the horrifying rumor that Gene and the boys never took off their makeup had cemented. I have no idea why that was meant to be so frightening, but my folks were really bothered by it. Yours as well, I imagine.

We didn’t watch every minute of this monster. I asked to zoom through Peter Criss’s performance of “Beth,” because while I can smile through or ignore most of the Kiss catalog without incident, the only thing that song was good for was inspiring a funny Evan Dorkin comic strip about “the Kiss Navy.”

So why in creation did we watch this thing? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

Billie Hayes plays Witchiepoo and Margaret Hamilton plays the Wicked Witch of the West. The writers gave them some of the worst dialogue you’ve ever heard. Good grief, who was responsible for this mess? Bruce Vilanch, you say? Oh, yeah, he’s credited at least in part for The Star Wars Holiday Special and all nine – all nineBrady Bunch Hours. Good Lord. And the man writes for the Academy Awards these days. There’s a career arc.

I enjoyed prepping our son for this more than revisiting it. I asked him last week whether Witchiepoo or the Wicked Witch was worse. He had settled on Elphaba (for that’s her name, damn your eyes) before I reminded him that Witchiepoo actually made him cry once. Earlier this evening, serendipity was on our side. We went by a Halloween Express to buy him a Hulk costume and there was a welcome mat that read “I’ll Get You, My Pretties.” I had fun with that.

He giggled a bit through this, because this is television for six year-olds, and there’s great comedy for that age bracket when you’ve got Billy Barty biting Paul Lynde in the leg and a Peterbilt crashing through the wall of a diner. He really enjoyed the other two of Kiss’s songs, specifying that he likes “hard rocking music.” But the look on his face when Witchiepoo turned up was priceless.

And honestly, I’d sit through just about anything to hear the lovely Witchiepoo cackle. Just about anything. I don’t believe she’s in any Pink Lady & Jeffs, but if this family’s ever not nice to me, I’ll make them watch those.

Horror Hotel 1.12 (unknown title)

As the 1970s wore on, and NBC remained deep in third place on Saturday mornings, the network threw a bizarre Hail Mary and sort of poached The Krofft Supershow from ABC. I’ve always wondered about this, and why the Kroffts switched networks, changed up the format, and crashed and burned so badly. For two seasons, their umbrella program had been hosted by Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. Now it was a more traditional variety program, hosted by the Bay City Rollers, and was a huge failure. The Krofft Superstar Hour only aired for eight weeks. Coughing up blood in the ratings, the network pulled the show and edited the remaining five installments down to a half-hour program called The Bay City Rollers Show. Even those bombed and the show was off their schedule by Christmas.

Even stranger, there was absolutely no merchandising for the two new programs within it: Horror Hotel and Lost Island. Not a View-Master, not a coloring book, not a lunch box. The two shows didn’t even have opening credits with the fun theme tunes that all their previous series had. When most of the Kroffts’ programs were repackaged for syndication, these were not included. When four or five episodes from most of their programs were released on VHS in the mid-eighties, these weren’t among them. Columbia House ignored them, and so did the celebrated repeats in the mid-90s on the Family Channel. Exactly one installment of Horror Hotel has been released on DVD. It’s included as a bonus feature on this 2011 collection of H.R. Pufnstuf.

Even today, with IMDB, Wikipedia, and that Live Action ’70s Kid Vid page that still has frames (it’s cool, we all get busy), the Superstar Hour is still determinedly obscure, in part because there are almost no decent, high-resolution images available. Thanks to the Bay City Rollers’ active fanbase, nth-generation washed-out bootlegs of some of the episodes have survived on VHS, allowing us to catch glimpses on YouTube. The show was directed by Jack Regas, and written by Mark Evanier, Lorne Frohman, and Rowby Goren. Only eight of the Lost Island segments ever aired before the show was retooled. The remaining five were never broadcast.

Horror Hotel reimagines Witchiepoo as the owner of a crummy hotel, with Orville, Seymour, Stupid Bat, and Dr. Blinky as her staff. Hoo Doo, the villain from Lidsville who is played by Paul Gale here, is a cantankerous permanent resident. Guest characters are usually played by Jay Robinson, Louise DuArt, and Mickey McMeel.

Lost Island is even more bizarre, but I’ll cover that separately in a footnote / comment.

And there’s one more weird oddity from this production. You remember that in the seventies and early eighties, the networks would have Friday night preview shows for their new Saturday morning lineups? NBC’s 1978 showcase is effectively a bonus episode of this series, entitled The Bay City Rollers Meet the Saturday Superstars. It brought along Erik Estrada from CHiPs and Joe Namath from The Waverly Wonders as guests. Namath also appeared in an additional episode of Horror Hotel, which, although it was probably taped last, was shown as the very first episode. The bootleg of this special that’s been floating around YouTube for a few years is missing the first half of the Horror Hotel spot, among other things; evidently the original taper of this copy was not interested in the parts that didn’t have the Rollers in it. The complete version is, I can attest, pretty darn funny. It’s on one of about twenty-five VHS tapes I still own. Sadly, I have not had a VCR in years.

Counting the Namath episode as the first of fourteen, then, assuming that the date on the YouTube bootleg of this full episode of The Bay City Rollers Show is correct (Nov. 18 1978), this episode of Hotel should be the twelfth broadcast. Like many of the others, Robinson and DuArt appear as one-off characters.

Horror Hotel was never going to win any awards, but the whole show is, thanks to Billie Hayes’ amazing energy, just bizarrely dynamic for a sitcom with only one principal set, and I really regret missing it as a child, because its dopey, kid-friendly shenanigans are packed with the kind of lovably dumb jokes that elementary school-aged kids absolutely adore. Cut loose from the power struggle and danger of H.R. Pufnstuf, Witchiepoo actually made a very funny good guy in this, trying to run a hotel and simultaneously be a star, with four incompetent monsters on the staff and her one grouchy, demanding permanent guest. Watch this nonsense with a kid of knock-knock joke age, and that kid will clutch his sides from laughing so hard.

Our son adored this. He giggled and laughed all through the thing, interjecting “Horror Hotel? They should have called this Silly Hotel!” as the characters went through one of those corridor scenes so beloved of seventies Saturday mornings. (He’s seen it a time or two on The Ghost Busters, of course.) Sure, it’s dopey, but for a show pitched at five year-olds, it’s a downright triumph, and I really hope that a few more episodes emerge from the Kroffts’ vault before we all get too old.

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!)

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…

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?