Somewhere in the recesses of childhood memory, lodged precariously between fantasy, reality, and a Saturday morning sugar cereal high, lies the surreal landscape of Sid and Marty Krofft. Until watching this newly packaged collection from the fine folks at Rhino, I had repressed the experiences of “Lidsville,” “Sigmund & the Sea Monsters,” and “Land of the Lost” like embarrassing bed-wetting episodes. But, oh no, they really did happen. And now, you, too, can delve back into the inexplicably weird, sublimely stupid world of Sid and Marty Krofft.
This triple video Krofft box set, housed in a gorgeous puffy vinyl picture sleeve adorned with full color photos of Krofft characters, features one episode each of thirteen Krofft shows. While the Krofft aesthetic consisted of colorful costumes and surreal storylines, the sets alone were enough to keep any kid glued to the tube in the early ’70s. One of these entranced kiddies must have been Paul Reubens, whose “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” borrowed generously from the campy aesthetic of Krofft-land, including brazenly effeminate male characters and talking inanimate objects.
The early Krofft shows tended to run some variation on the same premise: an innocent main character-usually a hammy adolescent child star at their most croaky and hideous pre-teen stage-falls into some kind of malevolent fantasy world. There they are befriended by strange yet kindly creatures, all the while being plagued by an evil witch or magician (played by a garish character actor).
The Kroffts were equal opportunity employers being especially partial to dwarves who populate almost every show. Apart from Billy Barty (who had a long-term working relationship with the Kroffts), “washed up” stars like Jim Nabors, Ruth Buzzi, Bob Denver, Martha Raye, Rip Taylor, and Charles Nelson Reilly found work in the Krofft camp.
Undoubtedly, “H.R. Pufnstuf” reigns as the most memorable Krofft show. The narrative finds Jimmy (Jack Wild) as an irritating British kid who sails his boat into the kingdom of Witchiepoo. There he meets H.R. Pufnstuf, a giant yellow puffy-headed sheriff with a hillbilly accent. Jimmy has a little talking flute named Freddy. The general storyline from week to week had Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes) trying to steal Freddy. During the course of the episodes, Jimmy gets to sing and perform stupid Artful Dodger-style dancing, while bumbling through a colorful and menacing landscape filled with anthropomorphic puppet trees and googly-eyed creatures. In this, as in all subsequent Krofft shows, the writers were never above cheap slapstick, pathetically bad jokes, cheesy cartoon sound effects (boi-oi-oing!), an overbearing use of laugh track, and musical numbers to pump up the fun.
Next up is “The Bugaloos,” a hip little show featuring a mod British rock band that just happen to be flying bugs! Their little helper bug is Billy Barty, in the first of his many recurring Krofft roles. The Bugaloos’ nemesis, Benita Bizarre, is an outrageous and evil woman played lusciously by Martha Raye. She lives in a castle whose doorway is a living peacock, has a sidekick rat who speaks with a German accent, and is always trying to undermine the Bugaloos’ musical career and steal the spotlight for her own rampant ego gratification. “The Bugaloos” is an especially colorful and fanciful show with its own cast of talking inanimate objects (most of them music and sound related-microphones, records, and little speaker creatures called Woofer and Tweeter). This episode features a lovely psychedelic musical number where the Bugaloos implore you to “Come along with us...” They, like Jimmy, have questionable English accents.
“Lidsville” has probably the most terrifying opening credit sequence/song of the Krofft oeuvre. Our hero, Mark, is played by Butch Patrick of Eddie Munster fame, now sporting a head of bad combed-down frizzy hair. Visiting a magic show at an amusement park, Mark loiters after the performance. As the theme song reports, “quietly he did return, the secret of the hat to learn.” Into the gaping maw of the magician’s top hat Mark falls and enters into Lidsville-a land populated by giant hat creatures. Who knew?
These hats are-for the most part-friendly, helpful, and silly. However, they’re also plagued by another campy evil nemesis, Hoo Doo the Magician, played to the queeny hilt by Charles Nelson Reilly. Although its plot lines and jokes were about as banal and transparent as you could get, “Lidsville” was really the last of the truly breathtakingly imaginative Krofft shows.
With “Sigmund and The Sea Monsters,” the Kroffts began to couch their storylines within a more “real world” setting. This time, rather than a normal kid falling into a strange alternate universe, the weird universe comes to the kids. Sigmund, a floppy green sea monster played by-you guessed it-Billy Barty, runs away from his evil sea monster family to live in the secret clubhouse of Johnny and Scott, two regular California beach bum kids. Upholding the Krofft tradition of giving child actors another shot at stardom, Johnny is played by Johnny Whittaker (Jody of “Family Affair”).
The high point of “Sigmund and The Sea Monsters” comes when we get to see the sea monster family he left behind, the Ooozes, watching Lawrence Kelp on TV, talking on the shell phone, running around tripping over each other, and verbally abusing one another to no end. Jim Nabors’s voice can be heard as one of the brothers, Blurp or Slurp, and mom bears a striking resemblance to Phyllis Diller (which certainly would make sense in the scheme of previous casting choices). “Sigmund and The Sea Monsters” marked a turn for the lazy and formulaic that would mar the remaining Krofft shows, with one important exception...
Smack in the middle of a downward spiral with no hope of every achieving their earlier psychedelic success, comes the longest-lasting Krofft show“Land of the Lost.” Their first “serious” show, “Land of the Lost” finds a dad and his two kids on a ... wait... let’s just roll out the theme song, ’cause it rocks, banjo and all:
Marshall, Will & Holly
On a routine expedition
Met the greatest earthquake ever known
high on the rapids
it struck their tiny raft (“AAAAHHHH”)
and plunged them down a thousand feet below
to the Land of the Lost
As a kid this show really rocked my world, being that it had a strong science fiction element to it. “Land of the Lost” sends the humorless and macho Marshall, his teen idol son Will, and wide-eyed pigtailed little daughter Holly into a prehistoric jungle filled with roaring dinosaurs, little ape people (remember Chaka?), evil Sleestaks, and some strange pylons containing powerful jewels and other “secrets of the unknown.” The special effects are charmingly crude, and the superimposed dinosaur scenes, flashing sky colors, and weird cheap-o video trickery could never be recaptured in today’s world of instantly believable computer manipulation. Somehow, the clumsy special effects in this cheesy show left room for one’s imagination to fill in the blanks, making it all the more engaging.
From here on out the Krofft tapes contain one formula crap haul after another with some occasional fun guest stars and goofy premises. Don’t get me wrong, even at their worst, these Krofft shows are all worth watching! “Far-Out Space Nuts” features Bob Denver (yes, Gilligan) and Chuck McCann as janitors who get sent into outer space (“I said ‘Lunch’ not ‘Launch’!”) and bumble around from planet to planet, “Lost in Space”-style. This show is not to be confused with “The Lost Saucer” starring Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as androids trying to get a baby-sitter and her charge back home to the ’70s.
A cheap knock-off of Wonder Woman and Isis, “Electra Woman & Dynagirl” stars a young Diedre Hall of “Days of our Lives” in the title role. In between costume changes (lots of spandex), Electra Woman and her perky sidekick fight the evil Pharaoh. They talk into their wrists a lot (like all good superheroes), and have alter egos as magazine reporters! How glam!
The last tape in the set shows the Kroffts really scraping bottom. Beginning with “Dr. Shrinker,” Jay Robinson plays the evil scientist who shrinks three unsuspecting kids. His victims look remarkably like Thurston Moore, James McNew, and Meredith Baxter Birney (but they aren’t). Dr. Shrinker’s hand-wringing little assistant is none other than Billy Barty! “Wonderbug” also sports a trio of kooky kids in kind of a low-budget teenage “Mod Squad.” They drive around in the Schlepcar, a junkyard jalopy that has the amazing capacity to change into a sparkly dune buggy that can fly through the air and foil criminals. Meanwhile, “Magic Mongo” is a pudgy, middle-aged genie in madras shorts who is called upon to help some air-headed kids at Huli’s Hotdog Hut.
The final two shows are interesting, if only for these somewhat perplexing episodes. “Bigfoot and Wildboy” is a stoic adventure show with a big, grunting hairy beast that runs in slow motion, accompanied by the same weirdly pulsing sound effect as Jamie Sommers and Steve Austin. His sidekick is the impossibly blonde Wildboy, raised in the wilderness speaking perfect English and sporting foxy Leif Garrett hair. In this particular installment, they join forces with Wildboy’s archeologist girlfriend to fight the Countess, a sexy vampire girl that lives in an abandoned cave and wants to suck their necks and make them her slaves.
“Pryor’s Place” stars a strangely sedate and detached Richard Pryor in what was surely some kind of community service situation for a heinous drug offense. A good-natured show teaching kids about the value of staying in school, “Pryor’s Place” marks the Kroffts’ entry into the 1980s-apparently their one and only-complete with break dancing kids, sparkly leg warmers, video games and a groovin’ theme song by Ray Parker Junior. “Pryor’s Place” re-introduces the “Krofft Puppets” that made the shows famous. However, they have been transformed into the kind of do-gooder, public television style of talking objects, rather than the cornball and irreverent doorknobs and mushrooms of the old “Lidsville” days.
What strikes me most about these Krofft shows, beyond their intrinsic value as kitschy ’70s artifacts, is that they gave kids some imaginative live-action entertainment, rather than just cheap cartoons, Barney blather or commercially-licensed Disney crapola. These shows were not really about learning anything. There wasn’t much moralizing or hugging or conflict resolution. There were just fantastic characters, costumes, campy cross-dressing villains, midgets, talking trees, stupid jokes, corny special effects, lots of colors and pop music. Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but a little imagination goes a long way.
If you have kids, tie them down and make them watch this stuff, so they can grow up to be just as damaged and warped as you!