I’m not going to say that this episode is as bad as its misleading title suggests, but I will say that something has gone horribly wrong with your hour of television when the plot actually requires that it is filled with attractive young actresses in sexy costumes and yet the best thing about it is guest star Jay Robinson.
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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.
It’s true that I wear Krofft blinders and adore most of the company’s output beyond reason, but there are three of their shows that I just don’t enjoy: Lidsville, The Lost Saucer, and this ridiculous show, Dr. Shrinker.
In the 1975-76 season, ABC was really pleased with the numbers they were getting from Krofft productions, both on Saturday morning with Saucer and in prime time with their first variety show, Donny & Marie. So for the 1976-77 season, ABC ordered a blend of the two: a variety show for kids with different comedy and adventure programs within it. The Kroffts had actually started their Saturday morning careers building the suits for another example of the format in 1968: The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
The first season of The Krofft Supershow was comprised of edited repeats of Saucer along with three new series: Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, which we watched earlier this year, Wonderbug, and this comedy adventure, which starred Jay Robinson as the maddest of all mad scientists. The Supershow was hosted by a kid-friendly band of five glam rockers called Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, and their interstitial segments, musical numbers, and comedy bits were taped at the Omni complex in Atlanta, where the Kroffts were losing money in an ill-fated indoor amusement park, while all the actual shows were, of course, taped in Los Angeles.
So, cast-wise, we’ve got Jay Robinson, finding one note and playing it precisely and without any others in his repertoire, as Dr. Shrinker, the “madman with an evil mind,” and Billy Barty as his assistant Hugo. The unfortunate “shrinkies” are all-American Brad, played by Ted Eccles, his girlfriend B.J., played by Susan Lawrence, and her brother Gordie, played by Jeff MacKay, who later went on to star in several prime-time shows in the next decade. Everybody argues with each other, nobody is happy, and I have always found this show to be tedious. Even as a kid, I questioned why Dr. Shrinker needed to recapture “the shrinkies.” He doesn’t actually need them anymore, not to “prove” that his shrinking ray works, does he? All he has to do is take the weapon to the next mad scientist convention and shrink something else.
But we’re watching this with my kid, and he enjoyed the daylights out of it. The example installment on this Rhino sampler set is an amnesia episode, but I guess our son hasn’t seen enough of these yet to find them tiresome. He was captivated, concerned for “the shrinkies,” jumped up and giggled during the climactic chase, and went upstairs singing the theme song. Whaddaya know?
Incidentally, a couple of years after this show, writer Mark Evanier worked with Jay Robinson on another Krofft show, about which more in a couple of weeks. When Robinson died in 2013, Evanier penned one of his fascinating obituaries about the actor, which includes a remarkable incident where Robinson had a lengthy “come to Jesus” talk with one of the Bay City Rollers. Hollywood’s a strange place.