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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 2.6 – Pufnstuf Drops In

As we wrap up our “best of” batch of Sigmund, here’s a pretty obvious pick from the show’s second season. The show had some very weird production shenanigans. They decided to add a character: a sea genie called Sheldon played by the irrepressible and ridiculous Rip Taylor. Much confetti was thrown. Sheldon is, like Barbara Eden’s Jeannie, mostly competent, but prone to a comedic mistake or three before saving the day.

They were apparently in production of the first episode when there was a massive fire at the studio, destroying sets and costumes and throwing their calendar into disarray. I suspect that they had to build new suits for the monsters, and the delay meant that Mary Wickes was not available for the full run of twelve episodes. Zelda is in about half the episodes; in the seventh, Fran Ryan steps in as a temporary replacement housekeeper, Gertrude. Even stranger, that episode also introduces Sheldon’s nephew, Shelby. Shelby is played by Sparky Marcus, who was omnipresent in the mid-to-late seventies. He was the kid brother in Freaky Friday and was one of the Bad News Bears. I don’t know why they thought that after six episodes with a genie, they needed to add a cute Cousin Oliver, but they did it anyway.

Halfway through this run, Sheldon tries to conjure up a dragon to scare Blurp and Slurp away permanently and brings in H.R. Pufnstuf. Everything about this is bizarre. For starters, H.R. Pufnstuf is actually credited as an actor in the opening credits. Seriously, there’s the screen with Billy Barty and the four suit puppeteers, then a screen for Pufnstuf, then a screen for Special Guest Star: Rip Taylor.

Even weirder, Scott recognizes Puf, and Dr. Blinky, who arrives at the end. Now hang on a minute. If he knows them from watching a TV show, then did that program star Jack Wild? But the boys don’t say “We thought you were just a TV show,” which is what you, dear reader, would probably say if a fictional character showed up in your clubhouse. A couple of episodes previously, Sheldon accidentally whammied Paul Revere into the present (and if that’s not actually the sort of thing Jeannie always did, it’s absolutely the sort of thing that happened often on Bewitched!) and this episode treats Pufnstuf exactly like that. “Hey, he’s not supposed to be here, so send him home!” No explanation about how they know who Puf is, they just do.

Anyway, since our son doesn’t pay attention to the onscreen credits, he was so hyped up about Sheldon and Sigmund talking about a fire-breathing dragon that I was worried that Pufnstuf would disappoint him. It did give him a delightful moment of confusion and then he laughed all the way through it. Honesty, however, compels me to admit that his favorite bit was a godawful joke about trees and bark. Our son sat on the floor tonight – ours are hardwood – and he just pounded the daylights out of it with laughter.

Overall, it’s a cute episode. It is definitely nowhere close to being as gleefully malevolent and hilariously mean-spirited as the great Pufnstuf / Lidsville crossover, although the sight of Sweet Mama plopping an enormous apple in Puf’s mouth in anticipation of cooking him is pretty funny.

Mentioning Sweet Mama brings up a question I can’t wait to have answered. This will be the last episode of the original Sigmund we will watch together and blog about – my wife is breathing a sigh of relief – but we’ll certainly be writing about the new series when it is available. The Kroffts’ social media team has been aggravatingly quiet about it, but according to actor Kyle Breitkopf’s Facebook, they wrapped production on the first season last week. (And Scott Kolden will be showing up in some form, as Johnny Whitaker did in the pilot.)

If you watched the new pilot (as we did last year), then you know that it didn’t have the Ooze parents in it, just Sigmund, Blurp, and Slurp. I wonder what Big Daddy and Sweet Mama will be like. In the original, Big Daddy is clearly Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, and Sweet Mama is Bea Arthur as not-really-all-that-much-like Maude, but these characters are ancient history for today’s kids. Have they given them the same characterization, or will they be updated for today’s audiences? I really can’t wait to see.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.4 – Is There a Doctor in the House?

It’s kind of rare to see direct continuity between episodes like we see in this Si Rose script. It takes place soon after the previous episode, in which Johnny dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster. This time, Johnny gets captured and the wolfman shows up to use the Oozes’ shellephone. Naturally, the sea monsters assume, incorrectly, that this is Scott in disguise and attack him, leading to a slapstick chase that had our son howling, because, of course, it’s a real wolfman.

Before he started giggling over that lunacy, our son was in absolute heaven over the prescribed diet for a sick sea monster: mashed eels, melted jellyfish, and warm squid milk. He repeated this over and over with a chuckle. This show’s even more perfect for kindergartners than I imagined.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.3 – Frankenstein Drops In

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.

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Sigmund and the Sea Monsters 1.1 – The Monster Who Came to Dinner

When we first started this blog and our son had just turned four, I had planned to show him at least some of the entire Saturday morning Sid and Marty Krofft lineup, in the order the shows were made. That got derailed. He was so frightened by Witchiepoo, Benita Bizarre, and Hoo Doo that I knew that my ever-so-gentle son would absolutely hate the Ooze family in Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.

The Kroffts’ first three antagonists, after all, are ridiculous fantasy villains. They may have a few traits in common with real-world nutcases and narcissists, but our son’s not going to have to worry about blowhards like them until he’s much older and starts paying attention to politics (HEY-OH!). But the Oozes are a dark mirror of a real family. They’re dysfunctional and horrible and, if they were to move to Blackpool, they’d prove stiff competition for Monty Python’s Most Awful Family in Britain competition, but they’re close to what a real family could become in the worst circumstances. And though hilarious stupidity rules the roost in the Ooze cave, Big Daddy’s demented cruelty and Blurp and Slurp’s unreasoning bullying would be too much for our kid at the time.

He’s old enough now to see it and appreciate it as something completely unreal, even though these “family members” do their darnedest to shatter his image of how all families should be loving and safe. Last year’s pilot for the revamped Amazon series – I haven’t heard yet when it will begin broadcast, but I’m waiting! – sensibly focused much more on the human cast and never went into the caves or introduced Sigmund’s awful parents, just his two dumb brothers. So, in anticipation of the new series beginning sometime soon, I’ve picked an eleven-episode “greatest hits album” of some of this goofy show’s high points which we will watch over the next couple of months.

If you’ve never seen this series, it has Johnny Whitaker and Scott Kolden as two brothers who befriend the hapless and kind Sigmund (Billy Barty) after his family throws him out for incompetence. His family then has to get him back to meet the demands of a rich uncle. Johnny and Scott have to hide Sigmund from the prying eyes of their family housekeeper – Mom and Dad are eternally away – along with various neighbors and incompetent policemen.

When I was a kid, I honestly didn’t like this show at all. Seeing it again, when I was a teenager, on the Krofft Super Stars syndicated package didn’t improve matters. It wasn’t until adulthood that it finally clicked. There certainly are a number of indefensible, lousy episodes – particularly in the second season, when everybody involved with the show used up their last ideas – and nobody’s going to call this art, but at its best, it’s triumphantly funny slapstick, with Blurp and Slurp’s violence and under-their-breath grumbling devolving into clenched tentacles and the sort of physical mayhem totally absent from later seventies live-action children’s television.

Last night, I was still a little leery and cautious about this show, so we had a “prologue” talk about bullying and how absolutely nobody we’ve ever met is anything like the Ooze family. Perhaps I was being too cautious, but dads can be that way sometime. Tonight, we watched the first episode, which was written by the Kroffts’ veteran comedy scribe Si Rose, and he really enjoyed it. He did get antsy with worry when Blurp and Slurp chased Sigmund and the boys all around the house, but he liked all the fish-related puns and bad jokes (although he misheard one as “two shakes of a needle’s tail,” so that one doesn’t count), and of course he loved the climax, in which the two idiot monsters mistake the local sheriff’s police car for a cute, albeit standoffish girl monster.

Marie was alternately fascinated by just how much physical damage the suit actors seemed to be inflicting upon their costumes – these things had to last for seventeen episodes but they seemed to do everything to Blurp and Slurp short of setting them on fire – and by the remarkable hair shown off by Johnny Whitaker. Even accepting that it was 1973 and fourteen year-old boys had long hair then, the “random bush” on top of his head is a pretty amazingly seventies ‘do.

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The Bugaloos 1.1 – Firefly, Light My Fire

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

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Pufnstuf (1970)

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?

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