H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series
For Sid and Marty Krofft, H.R. Pufnstuf was the next logical step in the arc of a puppeteering career that began in vaudeville, continued to the stage, and ultimately moved to television. After designing sets and costumes for 1968's The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, they sold NBC on their first independently designed and produced TV show, and thus was born one of the weirdest, most psychedelic children's programs in history. In one of several mostly fluffy interviews on Rhino's three-disc compilation of the entire H.R. Pufnstuf series, the Krofft brothers vehemently deny any deliberate drug references in their shows. "Marty and myself moved with the times," Sid says, sounding pained as he explains that psychedelia was just popular in 1969, when H.R. Pufnstuf launched; Marty sounds downright grumpy when he adds, "No one believes a word we say when we talk about this." But it's no wonder. Leaving aside seeming clues like the magic-mushroom episode and the title character, whose name is pronounced "Puffin' Stuff," H.R. Pufnstuf is an insistent phantasmagoria packed with hallucinatory outlandishness. (Rhino's packaging blurb, which begins "Take a 'trip' back in time...," doesn't help the Kroffts' case.) Child star Jack Wild, coming off his Oscar nomination for his role as the Artful Dodger in Oliver!, stars as a Cockney-accented tyke whose best friend is a magical talking flute. When a "kooky old witch" (Billie Hayes, whose competition for the role was Penny Marshall) learns about the flute, she lures Wild into a trap. He escapes to Living Island, a weird world of brightly painted cardboard sets, where foam-costumed celebrity caricatures wander among talking everyday objects, and everybody, Wild included, periodically bursts into song. Through 17 sitcom-esque episodes, Wild attempts to escape the island, Hayes tries to steal his flute, and the island's many googly eyed, vaguely anthropomorphic denizens assist or interfere. The Kroffts borrowed heavily from The Wizard Of Oz in designing Living Island, which features an evil witch on a smoke-spitting broomstick, a humanoid lion (with vocal characteristics borrowed from W.C. Fields), menacing talking trees (and benign ones, including a hippie caricature and an Indian caricature), a character inspired by and named for Judy Garland, and a magical golden path, not to mention the obligatory musical interludes. But H.R. Pufnstuf is weirder and more frenetic than Wizard by far: The three actors producing most of the islanders' voices emphatically punch every line, while the actors in foam suits gesticulate wildly, Hayes shrieks and mugs, and a pervasive laugh track giggles at practically every flailing motion. The clumsy slapstick runs a bit heavy, and everything else simply seems amped-up and shrill, but H.R. Pufnstuf was a phenomenal hit in its time. Its intensely visual live action and innovative puppet design were unlike anything else on Saturday-morning TV, and it made the Kroffts into superstars, leading to follow-up series like Lidsville, Sigmund And The Sea Monsters, and Land Of The Lost, as well as to a successful lawsuit when McDonald's stole the show's design for its own commercial world of costumed characters. Kids who grew up on McDonaldland may not see anything new about H.R. Pufnstuf, but to their parents' generation, the Kroffts' first show was, and likely still is, a uniquely magical place, regardless of its chemically inspired origins or lack thereof.