Not a lot to say about tonight’s episode. Marie suffered through it, our son roared with laughter, and I enjoyed it more than I did the last time I saw it. It’s written by Krofft regular John Fenton Murray and concerns Sigmund’s rich Uncle Siggy falling in love with the humans’ housekeeper Zelda. In an earlier episode, the boys used Zelda’s mudpack-n-rollers weekly beauty treatment to scare away Blurp and Slurp. Amusingly, it doesn’t work at all with the lovesick old-timer.
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We’re in a similar routine to the early episodes of Pufnstuf, where we assure Daniel that the villain won’t get away with her rotten scheme, but he still finds her unnerving and hides his eyes. Then the rescue starts him giggling and laughing. This time out, they ensnare Funky Rat with a whacking great mousetrap that snaps on his snout. He loved that.
I love how the show makes Martha Raye into such an object of mockery. Unlike Witchiepoo, who didn’t like anybody and vice versa, Benita Bizarre is convinced that she’s wonderful and amazing and the only thing wrong with her latest record, “Snowflakes Keep Falling on My Skull,” is Funky Rat’s poor engineering skills. But when she gets the idea to swipe Joy’s voice with some techno-gadget, she’s only self-aware enough to think that DJ Peter Platter will perhaps like her music just a little more now.
Everybody had a crush on Caroline Ellis, who played Joy. She has kind of a thankless job this episode, silently lip-syncing to Martha Raye’s lines while letting body language, and the other Bugaloos’ overreactions to her banshee voice, convey the awfulness of the situation for a couple of scenes. It is kind of odd that they ran an episode like this so early in the series, instead of developing the Bugaloos’ characters a little more first, but we immediately know that she’s the most sensible and sweet-natured of the group. After all, those boys just want to get out of chores and housework to go surfing.
photo credit: Voices of East Anglia
I do have a few regrets in life. One of them is that I didn’t buy the complete Bugaloos DVD when it was released eleven years ago. We sort of figured they’d be around forever, and not commanding $120 on Amazon. Somebody’s pricing these sets a little high, I think.
So we’re gathering around the laptop instead of kicking back on the couch, and watching the first three episodes of this adorable and silly series from somebody’s bootleg copies online. Daniel said that he liked it, and also even said that he wanted to watch the next episode tomorrow, but he also didn’t like the bad guys at all. Again. It was amusingly appropriate that some of the plot involved encouraging Sparky, a pitiful firefly who is afraid of the dark and cannot fly, to be brave. When Benita turned on our heroes, he slid right off of Marie’s lap and crouched down between our chairs, looking up at the laptop with a scowl.
If you’ve never seen The Bugaloos, it’s completely wonderful. Sid and Marty Krofft passed on making a new season of H.R. Pufnstuf, instead pitching NBC on this gentle-but-edgy and surreal series. They took what they learned from the production of Pufnstuf to make this for a good deal less money. They still went over their $1 million budget from NBC, but they didn’t spend twice as much this time.
The story is about four humanoid “bugs” in Tranquility Forest, “the last of the British colonies,” who are happy to spend their days singing and helping anybody who needs them, and who are pestered by a remarkably weird and selfish woman who lives in a jukebox. Her name is Benita Bizarre, and she thinks that she’s a singer, and she knows that she needs a backing band.
It was a little mean of Martha Raye to steal the show from her co-stars every single week, but she really couldn’t help it. Cast as the Bugaloos were two young musicians who really could not act – John McIndoe and John Philpott – and two young actors who were fresh out of stage school – Wayne Laryea and Caroline Ellis – and, as attractive and engaging as they all are, they’re nevertheless pine straw in front of Martha Raye’s hurricane.
Each episode of the series featured at least one new song. Most of these were written by Hal Yoergler, although Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel did the theme tune, and Fox wrote at least one more tune for the show. This time out, the song was Yoergler’s absolutely charming “Senses of Our World.” Benita’s song, which recurs in multiple episodes because she refuses to admit that it is a turkey, is apparently called “Supersonic Sneakers.” I’m not sure who gets blamed for writing that thing. Every performance is hilarious: a fabulous actress deliberately making hash of an execrably stupid tune.
It’s interesting to compare how this program was made against Pufnstuf, which was a single-camera film production. This was videotaped, allowing the director, Tony Charmoli, to use chromakey for the first time on a Krofft show, filling the windows of Benita’s penthouse with a pulsating psychedelic pattern. They also shot an entire season’s worth of material on each set before moving on to the next one. This leads to oddball little continuity mistakes throughout the series, like in this episode IQ sneers at Benita’s singing before he has actually heard her sing. The result is something that was made for much less money than Pufntsuf was. It still cost more than NBC was paying the Kroffts, though!
photo credit: Voices of East Anglia
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?