Return of the Krofft Superstars

& & by Mike Corrigan & & & &

Once upon a summertime, just a dream from yesterday..."

This cheerful verse greeted kids for the first time on Sept. 6, 1969, as they tuned their television sets to their local NBC affiliate to check out the network's crop of new Saturday morning programming. Charmed by the singsong quality of the tune and the sight of a boy loping down a hill in slow motion, playing a jewel-encrusted golden flute, the kids sat enraptured. The opening sequence continued, as a mysterious, talking boat beckoned to the boy:

"Come and play with me, Jimmy, come and play with me.

And I will take you on a trip, far across the sea..."

Once he was aboard, the music changed, as it was revealed that the boy had been tricked, lured into the boat by a witch intent on securing the golden flute for her very own. The beautiful talking boat was transformed by the witch into a black and evil thing which held the boy captive.

As the boy struggled, a new character was introduced: an anthropomorphic dragon with a bulbous head, wearing only a blue sash and white cowboy boots standing on the shore and witnessing with chagrin the boat attack. As the boy hurled himself overboard into the angry sea, the dragon-man leaped into action. He quickly assembled a rescue team and together they rushed to where the boy had washed ashore. The witch was foiled, the boy was saved and the music transitioned into the dragon-man's theme:

"H.R. Pufnstuf, who's your friend when things get rough?

H.R. Pufnstuf, can't do a little cuz he can't do enough."

So began the domination of Saturday morning television -- and the imaginations of hordes of kids -- by the fantastic characters and imaginary lands created by brothers Sid and Marty Krofft. H.R. Pufnstuf was merely the first of a seemingly endless string of innovative, stimulating and visually unique children's programs that included such classics as The Bugaloos, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Land of the Lost. Those hordes are now adults, of course, submerged in real-world concerns. But deep in the recesses of the adult brain, the fire of the kid brain still flickers. And to all those thirtysomethings who once made Krofft shows part of their Saturday morning ritual, the mere mention of such memorable characters as Hoodoo, Freddy the Flute, Sigmund Ooze, ElectraWoman and of course, Pufnstuf, has a way of eliciting full-on regression into nostalgia. And it's just that feeling that the Kroffts are hoping to revive, as several revival projects loom. Hey, if they can remake Charlie's Angels, why not H.R. Pufnstuf?

id and Marty Krofft were born into a family that had practiced the art of puppeteering for four generations. Sid (the creative force of the duo) at age 7 was tapped by his father as "the one" to carry on the family trade and was trained with marionettes. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had traveled all over the world with his puppet act. Marty, on the other hand, became the business wiz that would transform his brother's concepts into something marketable and would keep a thumb on everything carrying the Krofft name.

The short version of the Krofft brothers' rise to prominence in the world of television goes something like this: After tremendous worldwide success with marionette shows (including the risqu & eacute; "Les Poupees de Paris" and a recurring spot on the Dean Martin Show), the brothers were approached by Hanna-Barbera Studios to create the costumes for the Banana Splits Adventure Hour (1968-70), an NBC Saturday morning program that mixed live action skits with cartoon clips. Encouraged by that show's popularity, the Kroffts considered a move of their own into the medium of television.

"We were doing the Banana Splits at the time," recalls Marty Krofft from Krofft Headquarters just outside Los Angeles. "So they [NBC programming heads] were coming into our office, talking about that show and they said, 'Hey, why don't you do one on your own?' We had already been thinking along those lines, and it was a perfect opportunity to move forward."

And move forward they did, pouring all of their talent and resources into the creation of what would become H.R. Pufnstuf (1969-71). Though the show would eventually almost bankrupt their production company (the Kroffts were both artistically uncompromising and technically inexperienced producing television programs), Pufnstuf would be the brothers' ticket to fame.

Sid Krofft wanted to create a live action children's program that had the look of a living cartoon. H.R. Pufnstuf (inspired in part by The Wizard of Oz) took place on a magical "Living Island" where everything -- including normally inanimate objects -- was alive and had a personality. The stars of the show were the title character (the mayor of the island), a wicked witch and a human boy.

In addition to being the first TV show built entirely around live actors performing in what amounted to giant puppet suits, Pufnstuf became the prototype for many of the Krofft-produced shows that were soon to follow. It established not only a unique visual style but the recurring theme of the main character (or characters) either stumbling into or being forcibly taken into an alternate -- often surreal and absurd -- "other" world. In Pufnstuf, a boy is tricked and abducted by a witch. In Lidsville (1971-73), a teenager falls into a world inside a magician's top hat. In Land of the Lost (1974-76), an entire family is sucked into a pre-historic world via a river whirlpool. In each case, the plots are driven by the characters' constant search for a way back to the "real world." They are alternately aided and thwarted in this quest by the various good and evil inhabitants of the fantasy world.

Bizarre creatures, supernatural forces and wild, saturated color schemes are also common elements in the world of Krofft. H.R. Pufnstuf, The Bugaloos and Lidsville, in particular, form a sort of psychedelic trilogy. It's no wonder then that these shows have been subjected to every form of scrutiny -- from stoner speculations about drug references (Pufnstuf and Lidsville?) to Freudian analysis (why is Witchiepoo always after that kid's flute, anyway?).

Krofft has heard it all before, ad nauseum. But he graciously responds, "Everybody's always trying to nail us for that. You know, 'What were you guys on when you dreamed up those shows?' Baby Ruth was it. Because, I mean, trying to do shows and produce something credible while you're high -- it really doesn't work. These things may have had connotations in the titles, but none of the shows had anything to do with that."

"Although," he admits, "if we did do something for the adults, it went way over the kids' heads."

What may seem trippy or even sinister to adults comes across as merely fascinating to kids oblivious to any possible sociopolitical, religious or sexual subtext. Kids took to Krofft shows because they were colorful and action-packed, full of larger-than-life characters, breezy musical numbers and slapstick comedy. Intentions aside, the fact remains Pufnstuf and Lidsville enjoyed a huge cult following within the late '60s and early '70s counter-culture.

Adds Krofft, "We were big in London with the Beatles. They used to ask for the shows every week."

American kids, addled dope fiends and the Fab Four weren't the only ones enchanted by Sid Krofft's creative genius. Soon after the success of Pufnstuf, McDonald's approached the brothers to help create McDonaldland as a way for the fast food giant to market its hamburgers to kids.

The Kroffts were cut off during their presentation with the company's executives, and five months later, McDonald's commercials featuring a very Living Island-esque McDonaldland (presided over by the very Pufnstuf-like Mayor McCheese) began appearing on television. It didn't take a braniac to figure out just what had happened.

"They ultimately kind of copied us," understates Krofft, "though they never wanted to admit it. They came in and talked to our people but never made a deal with us."

The brothers took McDonald's to court in 1971, and after 13 years won a major settlement (the details of which were kept quiet by McDonald's and sealed in post-court documents). In fact, Sid & amp; Marty Krofft vs. McDonald's is the leading case in copyright law today.

"It was bothersome at the time, and I'll tell you, after you do a legal thing, you're not interested in doing another one too quickly."

After establishing themselves in the arena of children's television, the Kroffts made the leap into prime time with a slew of '70s variety shows including Donny & amp; Marie (featuring the Osmond siblings) and the ill-fated Brady Bunch Hour. In the late '80s, they scored a minor hit with the short-lived D.C. Follies, a live action show featuring puppetized versions of then-current newsmakers.

But it would be the brother's pioneering kid shows that would ignite an explosion of renewed interest in all things Krofft in the late '90s. Despite being a reflection of the age in which they were created, most Krofft productions have aged very well. While most programs from the age of Aquarius now seem horribly dated (have you checked out Laugh-In lately?), the wonderfully wacky worlds the Kroffts created back in the '70s retain their power to delight not only old fans, but new generations of kids as well.

"I think the Krofft look was pretty interesting. We still have a look about our stuff, and the look is still alive."

oday, the Kroffts are busy capitalizing on the renewed interest in their early work on the tube.

"We've got movies and TV on the horizon with a number of projects in different stages of development," says Krofft. "We've got an ElectraWoman and DynaGirl series in development, and a Pufnstuf movie over at Paramount and Nickelodeon. We've got Land of the Lost over at Sony, and The Bugaloos over with Universal. There's a bunch of stuff just ready to pop."

But what would the modern incarnation of Living Island (or Pufnstuf, Witchiepoo and Jimmy, for that matter) actually look like? Do the Kroffts feel an obligation to stay true to the visual style and themes of the original shows even as they are reaching out to a new generation of kids?

"Where we were and where we are going is tied together," explains Krofft. "But living just in the past, that's no fun. You know, I'm grateful that I did all these things, but it's where we're going, that's what it's all about. Kids today have so much else to look at, you can't just give them another episode of what we did before. So you've got to do things a little differently. Of course, we're not going to forget our fans, we're not going to blow them off ever. But they've got kids, nephews, whoever, and we're going to go after the kids again. But our fans have been loyal to us all these years. We're definitely not going to disappoint them."