H.R. Pufnstuf was the first television series to be created by Sid and Marty Krofft. The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, for which the Kroffts designed the costumed characters for, proved to the networks that productions outside of animation were still viable on Saturday morning. NBC invited the Kroffts to develop their own show for the network. However, the Kroffts didn’t want to just make wraparounds for more animated fare; this time, they wanted to go full live-action.
Their show involved 11-year-old Jimmy (Jack Wild) being targeted by the evil (yet ineffectual) witch, Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), for his golden magic talking flute, Freddy (Joan Gerber). She lured Jimmy to Living Island where he fell under the protection of the mayor, dragon H.R. Pufnstuf (performed by Roberto Gamonet, voiced by Lennie Weinrib using a southern accent), and his Rescue Racer Crew, mute anthropomorphic bells Cling (Joy Campbell) and Clang (Angelo Rossitto).
On Living Island, everything was alive (as the name implied). That included the houses, the trees, vegetation, household items and even the four winds called on by Pufnstuf to blow Witchiepoo out of the sky. Among the residents of Living Island were Dr. Blinky (performed by John Silver, voiced by Walker Edmiston impersonating Ed Wynn), an owl that served as a physician and scientist that lived in a house prone to sneezing fits; Judy Frog (performed by Sharon Baird, voiced by Gerber), a singing, dancing frog that served as an entertainer; Pop Lolly (Weinrib), a lollipop that sold sweets with Cheese Guards serving as protection against hippie ants looking for freebies; Ludicrous Lion (Silver & Edmiston impersonating W.C. Fields), a shady and greedy peddler that operated out of a carriage pulled by Polka-Dotted Horse (performed by Felix Silla, voiced by Weinrib); Tick Tock (performed by Andy Ratoucheff, voiced by Weinrib), a traveling alarm clock that warned of Witchiepoo attacks; Shirley Pufnstuf (Silver & Gerber impersonating a younger Shirley Temple), H.R.’s sister and a famous actress; Akim Toadenoff the Great (based on Erich von Stroheim, named after Akim Tamiroff, voiced by Weinrib), a monocled toad that worked as a film director; clock couple Grandmother Clock (Gerber) and Grandfather Clock (Edmiston) who were just two of the clock people; resident avian band The Boyds (based on The Byrds) and their lead singer, Lady Boyd (Baird & Gerber); Hippie Tree (Weinrib), a tree that often spoke in hippie slang; Madame Willow (Gerber), an old and elitist tree that used a lorgnette; and Chief Redwood (Edmiston), a Native American tree.
|Witchiepoo and Orson on the Vroom-Broom.|
However, not every resident of Living Island was friendly. Under Wtichiepoo’s employ was Orson Vulture (Campbell & Weinrib), a stuffy and inept vulture that was her favorite flunky and performed a variety of tasks for her; Seymour Spider (Rossitto & Edmiston), a dim-witted spider that served as her hairdresser; Stupid Bat (Baird & Weinrib), who served as a messenger that tended to bring her messages a second too late; a group of evil trees, one that sounded like Bela Lugosi (Weinrib), one that sounded like Peter Lorre (Edmiston), and one that always rhymed (Weinrib); Musrhooms with the ability to turn anyone they touch into mushrooms and whose leader chomped on a cigar while sounding like James Cagney (Weinrib); and skeleton guards that were easily frightened and prone to running off. When not scheming at her snarky castle, Witchiepoo often took to the skies on her rocket-powered Vroom-Broom.
H.R. Pufnstuf was an amalgamation of various projects the Kroffts had worked on before. The main plot was recycled from Kaleidoscope, a live puppet show they performed in the Coca-Cola Pavilion of the HemisFair ’68 World’s Fair. That show included a dragon character originally named Luther who became the mascot of the fair, and a silly witch. Living Island’s currency was buttons, which came from Sid’s childhood of charging his friends buttons to view puppet shows he held in his back yard, as did inspiration from The Wizard of Oz which was the first theatrical film he ever saw. Ludicrous Lion was a reworking of Irving from a 1957 pilot they made called Here’s Irving. The Kroffts also paid homage to their time touring as the opening act for Judy Garland by basing Judy Frog on her (unfortunately, she died six months before getting to see that tribute).
In casting Jimmy, a character with the hopes of connecting with their potential audience, Sid first saw Wild when his friend Lionel Bart showed him a rough cut of the film Oliver! The Kroffts immediately hired him, and Marty took guardianship of the 16-year-old British actor while he was filming the show at Paramount Studios in California. Although Wild remembered his time in the Krofft household fondly, Marty found him a handful considering he was already dealing with two young daughters on top of building up a show from scratch. Casting Hayes was a simple choice for the Kroffts when she came in to audition as the character she presented was basically an extension of herself. To cast the little people needed to wear and control the various character suits, the Kroffts had their friend Billy Barty (who was unavailable to star in the show but did portray a de-aged Witchiepoo in an episode) get the word out through the newsletter of his organization, the Little People of America. Credited as “puppeteers” since they not only wore the suits but often had to operate various parts of them, the cast was comprised of many people who worked with the Kroffts before and would continue to do so through many of their television and stage productions. The various costumes were designed by Evenda Leeper. Originally, the concept for the series was to have a Western element to it before being changed to a fantasy one. Pufnstuf’s accent and cowboy boots were the only remnant of that original direction to remain in the final product.
H.R. Pufnstuf debuted on NBC on September 6, 1969. As would become customary in Krofft productions, the series’ theme by Les Szarvas laid out all the exposition to set up the premise as well as catch up new viewers who may have missed previous episodes; allowing the writers to focus entirely on the story at hand. Unfortunately, the Szarvas’ tune seemed a little too close to “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” for Paul Simon’s liking, resulting in his suing the production. As part of their settlement, Simon was credited as the song’s co-writer. Along with all the voices he provided, Weinrib was also one of the series’ writers with Paul Harrison and Robert Ridolphi. The series’ music was composed by Gene Page, Jr., with Szarvas providing the various song numbers used during the episodes. The show made use of a laugh track that producer Si Rose, having come from sitcoms, insisted on. The Kroffts were initially hesitant until Rose convinced them that with the type of show they were making the laugh track would be necessary to let the children watching know when to laugh.
A persisting notion about the show was that it made reference to drug culture, what with the colorful sets, crazy characters, talking mushrooms and even the name “Pufnstuf”. Some maintain that “H.R.” was some kind of drug slang, despite the production stating that they stood for “His Royal” or “Royal Highness” backwards. By some accounts, either one or both of the Kroffts indulged in recreational drugs, which they have repeatedly denied in interviews. They’ve also denied any intentional allusion to drugs both directly and with a bit of a wink. Marty would eventually admit in a later interview that “Pufnstuf”, as well as the title of another show, Lidsville, were actually intentional marijuana references done as pranks to see if they could slip them past clueless network executives. Regardless of how much truth or projected subtext goes into analyzing H.R. Pufnstuf, the show did find a loyal fanbase among a crowd looking for a psychedelic trip.
Despite being one of NBC’s highest-rated programs, it was also extremely expensive as the Kroffts had chosen to shoot it on film (their only program to do so as they switched to the much-cheaper videotape for the remainder of their library). Rather than proceed with a second season, NBC just renewed it for several cycles of reruns until 1972. Following the conclusion of the NBC run, ABC began airing it on both Saturday and Sunday mornings until 1978. That year, it was packaged into Krofft Superstars with other Krofft productions, which ran until 1985. Reruns would return to television in 1999 when TV Land would air it as part of their Super Retrovision Saturdaze Saturday morning-themed overnight programming block, and then again in 2004 as part of their weekend late-night block TV Land Kitschen.
Looking to get in on the show’s popularity, Universal Studios approached the Kroffts about doing a film version financed by the studio and primary sponsor Kellogg’s. Titled simply Pufnstuf, the film essentially combined the plots of “The Magic Path” and “The Visiting Witch” with gags recycled from “The Stand-In” and “The Box Kite Caper”. A little more backstory was added to Jimmy’s life before he ended up on Living Island, as well as several new characters: a previously mentioned Boss Witch (Martha Raye, the second choice after Bette Davis felt insulted at being the first choice), her chauffer Heimlich Rat (Allan Melvin), Witchiepoo’s rival Witch Hazel (Cass Elliot, who was Sid’s neighbor and took the role as a favor), Googy Gopher and Orville Pelican (both performed by Barty, voiced by Don Messick and Melvin, respectively). The rest of the cast and crew was largely held over from the television production, with some modifications made to the sets and costumes. Weinrib wasn’t available to work on the film, resulting in his being replaced by Melvin and Messick for many of his various voices, and the film was written by Rose with John Fenton Murray. Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox also came in as the composers, offering a groovier soundtrack than Szarvas’ (and would go on to be successful music-writing partners). The film, directed by series director Hollingsworth Morse, premiered in San Antonio, Texas on June 3rd, 1970, before a wider limited release on June 15. The film was modestly successful, although it was hampered by detractors who felt it was just an extended episode of the show and the growing public disinterest in G-rated films.
Although further adventures of Pufnstuf and his friends had come to an end, the characters still continued to make appearances in other Krofft productions and beyond. Pufnstuf and Witchiepoo guest-starred in an episode of Lidsville (on which Hayes was a regular as another character), then Pufnstuf on his own in The Lost Island, Witchiepoo with Orson, Seymour and Stupid in Horror Hotel, and on her own in The Bay City Rollers Meet the Saturday Superstars preview special and The Bay City Rollers Show. The Kroffts also loaned out Witchiepoo to The Paul Lynde Halloween Special where she appeared as the sister of the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), and Pufnstuf to an episode of CHiPs for a cameo appearance (with Weinrib reprising the voice). The characters appeared in a number of stage show tours, most notably H.R. Pufnstuf & The Brady Kids Live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1973 and the Ice Capades. In 1971, an elaborate puppet show was run at Six Flags Over Mid-America (now Six Flags St. Louis) at The Sid and Marty Krofft Puppet Theater while costumed performers as Pufnstuf, Cling and Clang walked the park.
At the height of its popularity, Pufnstuf was a merchandising goldmine. As mentioned, Kellogg’s was the primary sponsor of the show and they included various offers and premiums with their products including colorful rings, stickers, a Freddy the Flute replica, records, pennants, and hand puppets. Remco produced their own set of puppets, and Mars Incorporated offered free playsuits with the purchase of their Maltesers, Revels and Treets candies. From 1970-72 Gold Key Comics published an 8-issue series based around the show, while Whitman released several puzzles, coloring books, sticker books and a press-out book. Aladdin also released a tin lunchbox, and Milton Bradley a board game. In 2000, new merchandise began to be made starting with an action figure as part of Living Toyz’s The Kroft Superstars toyline. In 2005, Modern Publishing released a new set of coloring books. Beginning in 2019 Funko released several products including a set of POP! toys featuring Pufnstuf, Witchiepoo, Cling and Clang, Pez dispensers, Nodniks, and a soda.
One merchandising partner, however, attempted to cut the Kroffts out of the picture entirely. The ad agency of Needham, Harper and Steers (now DDB Worldwide) approached the Kroffts in 1970 about creating characters they could use in their upcoming McDonald’s advertising campaign. After meeting with the Kroffts and getting a bit of information about how they created their suits and puppets, they were told that the McDonald’s deal fell through. In reality, Needham already had the account and took what they learned to create the McDonaldland ad campaign utilizing some former Krofft employees. The sets and costumes, particularly that of Mayor McCheese (performed by Billy Curtis, voiced by Howard Morris impersonating Ed Wynn), bore a strong resemblance to Pufnstuf. Weinrib was also retained to voice one of the characters: the large purple monster named Grimace. Because of McDonaldland, merchandising deals with Pufnstuf fell to the wayside and their characters were replaced in the Ice Capades by the McDonaldland ones. The Kroffts sued McDonald’s in 1973 for infringement and lost profits, ending up winning a judgement of $50,000. On appeal in 1977 and with the changes brought about by the Copyright Act of 1976, the court found in their favor again and they were awarded more than $1 million. McDonald’s was also ordered to stop airing commercials featuring some of the characters. McDonaldland itself, however, continued on until 2003 when they abandoned the campaign and all of the characters (except their mascot, Ronald McDonald) outside of special uses.
The Kroffts have often talked about revisiting the world of Pufnstuf and doing something new with the character. While not exactly what they meant, they did get a chance in 2016, as Pufnstuf (Mary Karcz suit, Donna Kimball face, Randy Credico voice), Cling (Arturo Gil), Clang (Joseph S. Griffo) and Freddy (Kimball) returned to television for the first time in an episode of the Krofft-created Mutt & Stuff on Nick Jr.; where Pufnstuf was revealed to be the uncle of giant stuffed dog, Stuff (Meegan Godfrey suit, Drew Massey face and voice).
Beginning in 1999, Rhino released several VHS tapes with two episodes apiece and the , as well as an ultimate box set and the Hollywood Bowl performance. In 2002, Pufnstuf made the leap to DVD in the compilation collections The World of Sid & Marty Krofft and Saturday Morning with Sid & Marty Krofft, which featured an episode from each of the Krofft shows. In 2004, they released the complete series to DVD for the first time, while Universal Studios released the film in 2009. 2009 also saw the release of the VHS collection The World of Sid & Marty Krofft by Columbia House, which featured an episode from each Krofft show per volume. A compilation of four episodes, billed as 4 of Sid and Marty’s Favorites, was released in 2005, while Fabulous Films release their own 7-episode compilation, H.R. Pufnstuf: The World of Sid & Marty Krofft, overseas. SMK and Vivendi Entertainment (now Cinedigm) obtained the rights to the show. Vivendi re-released the complete series in 2011 on two versions: a traditional set, and a collector’s set featuring a Pufnstuf bobblehead, while SMK released the compilation Sid & Marty Krofft’s Saturday Morning Hits. In 2015, Beyond Home Entertainment released the complete series internationally alongside Land of the Lost, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl in the compilation The World of Sid & Marty Krofft Collector’s Set, and then re-released it in 2018.
Along with home video, there were several musical releases as well. In 1969, Capitol Records released Sing-along with H.R. Pufnstuf, which featured the songs used in the show, as well as the motion picture soundtrack the following year. The Pickwick Children’s Chorus covered the song on their compilation album Sesame Street & Other Children’s Pop Hits! In 1990, the opening and closing theme were featured on the Australian compilation album 30 Years of Funtastic TV Toons 1960-1990 from Concept Records. In 1995, The Murmurs re-recorded the show’s theme as part of MCA Records’ compilation album Saturday Morning (Cartoons’ Greatest Hits). The following year, the original theme was included on TVT Records’ compilation Television’s Greatest Hits Volume 5: In Living Color. In 1998, Interscope Records and Gazillion Records released H.R. Pufnstuf and Other Sid & Marty Kroft Favorites, featuring several songs from the show and the various themes and a couple of songs from other Krofft shows.
“The Wheely Bird” (9/13/69) – Jimmy and Pufnstuf use a bird-shaped “Trojan Horse” to get inside Witchiepoo’s castle and rescue Freddy.
“Show Biz Witch” (9/20/69) – Jimmy and Pufnstuff hold a talent show to raise money for Jimmy to buy a pogo stick that could bounce him home.
“The Mechanical Boy” (9/27/69) – Witchiepoo catches Jimmy stealing her boat and turns him into a mechanical boy that will do her bidding.
“The Box Kite Caper” (10/4/69) – A kite-flying contest inspires Jimmy and Freddy to try and get off the island using a giant box kite.
“The Golden Key” (10/11/69) – Jimmy is given a map to a key that will open a door back home, but he has to choose between his escape and rescuing Pufnstuf from Witchiepoo.
“The Birthday Party” (10/18/69) – Witchiepoon crashes Jimmy’s birthday party, dousing the attendees with laughing gas so that she can make off with Freddy.
“The Horse with the Golden Throat” (10/25/69) – Dr. Blinkey has to rescue Freddy after he’s accidentally swallowed by Polka-Dotted Horse.
“The Stand In” (11/1/69) – A plan forms to get Witchiepoo into Shirley’s movie so that Jimmy can steal her Vroom-Broom and escape the island.
“You Can’t Have Your Cake” (11/8/69) – Judy Frog has to use her new dance step to rescue Jimmy and Freddy when they fall into Witchiepoo’s cake trap.
“Dinner for Two, Please, Orson” (11/15/69) – Jimmy hopes to use a time machine to prevent his arrival, but it ends up aging him into the man of Witchiepoo’s dreams.
“Flute, Book and Candle” (11/22/69) – Jimmy, Pufnstuf and Dr. Blinky go through one of Witchiepoo’s books to find a way to change Freddy back from a mushroom.
“Tooth for a Tooth” (11/29/69) – Witchiepoo disguises herself as a little girl to get Dr. Blinky to look at a bad tooth and he sprays her with an anti-witch potion.
“The Visiting Witch” (12/6/69) – Witchiepoo captures Pufnstuf as a gift for Boss Witch, but when she ends up delayed Jimmy takes her place to free him.
“The Almost Election of Mayor Witchiepoo” (12/13/69) – Witchiepoo enters the mayoral race against Pufnstuf, and naturally she cheats to win.
“Whaddaya Mean the Horse Gets the Girl?” (12/20/69) – Shirley makes a movie to raise money for the anti-witch fund which prompts Witchiepoo to demand that her life story be made.
“Jimmy Who?” (12/27/69) – Dr. Blinky and Witchiepoo try to remind Jimmy of who he is when he gets amnesia from a blow to the head.
“Pufnstuf” (6/15/70) – Witchiepoo lures Jimmy to Living Island to steal his magical flute and win Witch of the Year when the Witches’ Council visits for their convention.