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 1.2 – 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.