I decided early on that we’d take a couple of days’ break from Freewheelers every few episodes, and this turned out to be a good idea. More on that later. So my son and I watched Sigmund tonight and enjoyed another episode written by Si Rose. I was really amused that he remembered what his mother had said about Johnny Whitaker’s hair last week. As though it was a brand new gag, he said “I’ve heard of long hair, but a rose bush?!”
He also completely adored the various fish and monster puns, including “peanut butter and jellyfish,” “abalone on rye,” and “ghoul in the family,” and missed an important plot development we had to wind back to hear because he was so busy laughing over Big Daddy calling his two older sons “yo-yos.”
Speaking of monster puns, here’s something cute. I love specially-made one-of-a-kind prop newspapers, press kits, and magazines. Big Daddy is reading an issue of Playbeast, and the front cover is some dopey piece of artwork, but look what’s on the back! It’s Orson Vulture from H.R. Pufnstuf standing in front of a chalkboard covered with math stuff. Evidently, Witchiepoo sent him to learn about cosines. We get no clearer picture than this grab. I wonder who else is in the picture or where it was used.
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.
This is one of the very best episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf. It’s the one where “The Three Oranges” sing “Oranges Schmoranges,” which is wonderful, and the one where Witchiepoo threatens to turn Orson and Seymour into “centipedes with bad teeth,” which makes me laugh every time I hear it. It introduces Ludicrous Lion, his Polka-Dotted Pantomime Horse, and Living Island’s resident rock band, The Boyds.
It also marked the first time that Daniel watched an episode without yelling too much about the mean old witch… for a while. This is a really funny episode for kids who like physical comedy, and between the sequence with the beauty salon chair going haywire and the lunatic Three Oranges act, he was roaring with laughter, and finally the witch was no longer an object of fear.
Until she dipped the kidnapped Freddy Flute into the vat of boiling oil and threatened to deep-fry him. It’s funny how the most innocuous thing can spark such a wild reaction, isn’t it? Freddy got dipped and he just exploded in tears. And from the cold light of adulthood, it’s so minor, just Billie Hayes dipping the inanimate Freddy prop into some water with some dry ice pellets or something in it, but credit Joan Gerber’s voice work for Freddy panicking and begging for help, I guess, because this kid just lost it completely, crying sadly for the poor flute.
Witchiepoo loses again – we tell him and tell him that she always does – and ends up in the oil, her magic wand droopy and out of charge. He laughed again at her comeuppance, and said that this was his favorite episode of the show. Since this was the first time it’s actually made him cry, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that.
Ludicrous is a weird and interesting character. You think that everybody on Living Island is a good guy except the witch “and her gang,” but he’s completely amoral and doesn’t mind sending Jimmy on a wild goose chase to earn the money – buttons – to buy something he does not actually own. This plot is never actually resolved, but I think I remember that Ludicrous has some more snake oil to sell in later episodes.
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.”
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.