Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)

To be a kid in this country in the 1970s was to know this: several times every year, CBS would preempt something like Rhoda or Good Times or The Waltons, those magical words “A CBS Special Presentation” would spin onto the screen accompanied by all that percussion, and you’d be watching a cartoon. Most of the time, it’d be a Charlie Brown special. Those got such good ratings that CBS started ordering one for every holiday, which is why everybody my age knows that Arbor Day is when all the ships come sailing into the arbor.

But once a year, it would not be a Charlie Brown. Once a year, it was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Chuck Jones’ little thirty-minute masterpiece. An adaptation of one of the stories from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, it was narrated by Orson Welles and features a song by Lennie Weinrib. Once a year, every single child of elementary school age watched television as one. If you missed it in 1975, you caught it in 1976, and if you missed the 1977 repeat because your parents had plans, you stewed and lived vicariously through your classmates until it came around again in 1978. And you remembered every line and every beat. “If the boy moves, I strike. If he does not move, I strike.” Those sentences are in our blood.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is the story of two remarkably strange parents who raise their kid on an estate crawling with cobras and dust snakes and bring an injured mongoose into their home. This recipe for disaster turns out to be a very disarming trick for any kid, like ours, who had no idea what this was and was completely delighted by the super-speed hijinks of the curious mongoose exploring his new territory. Because it’s not long before this turns into a series of fights against some really awesome villains. Nag and Nagaina, with their strangled, hissing voices, are just about as entertainingly evil as you got on kids’ TV in this country. And Rikki-Tikki is an amazing hero as well. I completely love the part where he taunts Nagaina, who thinks that the father killed Nag with his rifle. Oh, no, he clarifies, I had already killed him.

I think this short film is one of the absolute best things Chuck Jones ever did. The White Seal, another Kipling adaptation for CBS, is pretty fantastic as well – you remember “It’s the ghost of all the seals we ever killed!” pretty deeply in your blood as well – and I may have to pick that up one of these days, too. The kid enjoyed this a lot, although possibly not as much as everybody my age did when we were his age. Cartoons this interesting were a lot less common in 1975 than they are today.

Magic Mongo 1.8 – Huli’s Vacation

When The Krofft Supershow came back for its second season in 1977, there were a few changes. Two-thirds of the shows were different, and the hosts, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, had a major makeover.

I always got the impression that the Kongs were many people’s least favorite part of the program – even as kids, few of my friends were at all interested – but I thought they were so much fun. I’d rank them second – a distant second, mind – behind Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in that odd category of best fictional groups for children. They put out an album on Epic Records and everything. The original lineup was a five-piece: the Kaptain (Michael Lembeck), Superchick (Debra Clinger), Nashville (Louise DuArt), Turkey (Mickey McMeel), and Flatbush (Bert Sommer). They dressed in flashy, glam satin. For season two, Flatbush was dropped and they dressed in more subdued denim outfits – still seventies garish, but disco seventies, not Roy Wood glitter rock seventies. Neither the LP nor the single, “And I Never Dreamed,” charted, but the group appeared on all the Kroffts’ evening variety shows, like Donny & Marie.

As for the shows they hosted, Magic Mongo replaced Dr. Shrinker with another batch of sixteen 15-minute episodes. Bigfoot & Wildboy replaced Electra Woman, with sixteen cliffhanging episodes that comprised eight stories. And Wonderbug was back, with six new installments and ten repeats from the first year. This season’s lineup was commemorated by Gold Key/Western in a comic book that ran for six issues over nine months, along with a second Kaptain Kool LP on Peter Pan, one of those audio adventure records that I adored as a kid in the days before home video.

Magic Mongo is absolutely lovable and ridiculous. It’s about an incompetent genie played by Lennie Weinrib. Mongo’s good guy master is Donald, who is played by Paul Hinckley, and his only other credit listed at IMDB is the last episode of Isis‘s first season.

Donald hangs out at the beach all the time with his two always-platonic girl buddies, sharp-tongued Lorraine, who is played by Helaine Lembeck, and Kristy, by Robin Dearden. Lembeck would later play Judy in Welcome Back, Kotter. Dearden, who wears a bikini in every single scene of this series, has had small roles in many shows like Magnum PI and TJ Hooker, along with one of the second season Bigfoot & Wildboy episodes. Constantly antagonizing the foursome: two leather-clad ne’er-do-wells, Ace and Duncey. Ace is played by Bart Braverman, who has been in a million things.

Daniel absolutely loved this episode, giggling through all the special effects and dumb jokes. We have to emphasize “dumb,” because, like most of the TV cartoons and comic books of the period, we have to believe that somehow the villains have access to disguises and a printing press to carry out their bizarrely complicated schemes. (I’m reminded of a very dumb comic book called Dial H for Hero, in which baddies would use atomic submarines and dozens of henchmen to rob the Littleville minor league ballpark of its gate receipts.)

Marie started having trouble suspending disbelief as soon as Ace and Duncey turned up in leather jackets on the beach, so the rest of this was twelve minutes of wincing. For any adult who didn’t love this as a kid, it’s probably a trial. But I always adored the stupid jokes, and Mongo not quite understanding what Donald wants him to do. This time out, he turns Lorraine into a Saint Bernard to track down the bad guys, and doesn’t understand that Donald means “money” when he asks for “bread.” I’m sure a binge of all sixteen episodes would be about fourteen too many, but one’s just fine.

So, here’s some trivia you did not know: Magic Mongo and Wonderbug are set in the same universe. Soon after they taped these sixteen episodes, Sid and Marty Krofft pitched ABC a prime-time sitcom – for families, not just children – in which Braverman’s character, Ace, runs a restaurant. Ace’s Diner wasn’t picked up, but they did tape a pilot, in which David Levy and John-Anthony Bailey’s Wonderbug characters, Barry and CC, also appear. The Kroffts also taped a pilot for another sitcom called Looking Good, starring Sheryl Lee Ralph. ABC passed on both, but ran the two pilots together with some more Kaptain Kool and the Kongs interstitials and special guests Sha Na Na as a summer prime-time special called The Krofft Comedy Hour in July 1978.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

This was the first time that we sat down to watch a film together that didn’t have the safe introduction of a familiar TV series! Daniel did mostly well, but we had to take a short intermission break because this movie was a lot longer than I expected. It’s not fair to say that I was familiar with a shorter version of Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but the one time that I saw it, back around 1979-1980, it sure was shorter than this.

B & B was originally released in 1971 and was made by many of the crew and team who’d worked on Mary Poppins. This was, it turned out, a backup plan had Disney not been able to acquire the rights to Poppins. As dramatized with some considerable liberty in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks, that was a real possibility.

B & B is a pretty fun movie about Miss Price, an “apprentice witch” who has been burdened with three orphans who’ve been evacuated from London during the Blitz. Simultaneously, her witchcraft correspondence course has been closed down. Searching for answers turns up her professor, who has actually been running a mail-order scam, having no idea that his spells actually work. Now that they realize that, in the right hands, the magic will work, they set off to find the missing half of the old book from which he’d been pilfering the incantations.

In its present form, the movie is badly bloated. I didn’t spot the problem until we realized that some of the film footage within the agonizing ten-minute (!!) “Portobello Road” musical number is of markedly inferior quality to the rest of the movie. Apparently the original cut of the film for the 1971 release is 117 minutes, the one that was reissued in 1979 was 96 minutes, and this is 139 minutes, which is way too long. They tried to restore everything, including cut scenes that no longer had an existing soundtrack and had to be redubbed entirely. (Another scene, which had a soundtrack but no film footage, is included as a reconstruction as a bonus feature.) To the Disney team’s, and the voice actors’, considerable credit, the only two times that I noticed that a scene was redubbed was when the fellow with David Tomlinson’s part read his lines. The imitation was good, but not quite right.

So the first half of the film is far too bloated and slow for a four year-old to embrace it, and so we took a break midway through the scene where Sam Jaffe and Bruce Forsyth, playing a shady book dealer and his criminal associate, briefly antagonize our heroes, but also give them a clue that the magic words that they need can be found on a fantasy island. The first half has some cute magical moments, but they were not paced well enough to hold his attention, and the long “Portobello Road” number destroyed what was left.

The animated section of the film livened things considerably after our break. It’s centered around a bad-tempered lion king engaging David Tomlinson as the referee for a soccer match. Nobody wants to referee his matches; they all get trampled underneath elephants and hippos and rhinos passing the ball around. Anybody who ever wondered why this movie, and Mary Poppins, have animated portions never watched them with four year-olds. He loved it, roared with laughter, and his interest was reignited at precisely the right time.

Anyway, Angela Lansbury is incredibly fun as Miss Price. I’m so used to her playing supremely confident and assured characters that it’s a complete delight to see her strung along by a con man and slowly – very, very slowly – falling in love. She and Tomlinson are really fun together and have a lot of genuine, believable chemistry. Other than the children, everybody else is really here in bit parts. Roddy McDowall has a small and insignificant role as the new village vicar. Jaffe and Forsyth had maybe a day on the set and that was that. Lennie Weinrib at least sounds like he got to have some fun with a couple of voiceovers for the cartoon animals.

Daniel enjoyed the movie, even if he did need an intermission, and while I think that the original, shorter theatrical cut must have been better, I enjoyed revisiting it. Now I want to read more about the restoration; it all seems really fascinating!

The Ghost Busters 1.4 – Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Missed it completely: that’s Lennie Weinrib as the werewolf in tonight’s episode of The Ghost Busters. In my defense, while Weinrib was an incredibly prolific voice actor – and writer: he wasn’t just Pufnstuf’s voice, he co-wrote every one of the TV episodes – he didn’t have too many on-camera roles. Apart from Magic Mongo. So it’s a pretty weak defense. I mean, if you see this guy on television, “say, that’s Magic Mongo!” should be about the first thing on your mind.

Weinrib is joined in this episode by Nora Denney, who was probably best known for playing Mike Teevee’s mom and accompanying her rotten kid to the tour in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and you’d better believe we’re going to watch that movie when Daniel’s a little older. (Note: We did.) Denney gets to play a depressingly Hollywood gypsy – crystal ball, somebody’s idea of a regional accent – but it does result in a terrific line, when Kong tells Tracy to show some manners, “and get the old bat a chair.”

As we’ve seen before in kidvid, there’s a disconnect between what the program shows us and what the script tells us. This was apparently our heroes’ toughest case yet, but that’s not true at all. Apart from Spencer having another battle with the filing cabinet that refuses to open the correct drawer, they barely break a sweat this time. Still, Daniel adored it, chuckling all the way through the cabinet fight and Weinrib’s dog impression. I’m glad that he likes this show so much.

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 1.15 – 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?

H.R. Pufnstuf 1.13 – A Tooth for a Tooth

It’s a rare day when Billie Hayes gets upstaged in this show, but one of the very few examples comes in this episode. This time out, when Jimmy escapes into her forest, she calls out the always-incompetent evil trees again, leading to one of this goofy show’s goofiest moments.

You sometimes wonder whether this program’s writers, Lennie Weinrib and Paul Harrison, actually remember their previous scripts, because the trees are so patently bumbling that you’d think Puf would, by this point, just sit back and wait for Jimmy to kick the bejesus out of them as he’s done at least five times before. But Pufnstuf fears the worst and calls for the good trees to step in.

Now, up to this point, Hayes has, as always, been the star of the show. She gets to rant and rave because she has a toothache, pose as a little girl to get her tooth pulled by Dr. Blinky (reusing the costume from “The Stand-In“), and, once she’s given the whammy of a love potion, act like a bundle of sunshine who loves everybody on Living Island. But then the trees have a fight, which turns into a dance once the evil trees get a dose of the love potion, and it’s the funniest thing in the universe.

I’m impressed by so much about the bizarre costuming and puppetry in the Krofft series, and just the way the actors navigate around each other while wearing these silly things is always amusing. But this is a really funny spectacle of chaos, especially when Jimmy takes off his jacket so he can start swatting one of the evil trees from behind. We loved it!

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.