DVD: The Kid-Friendly Surreal Psychedelia of H.R. Pufnstuf
Oh, the 1970s: It was the only decade where major studios could make films like Chinatown and Blazing Saddles, and it was also the only moment in pop culture history where the wonderfully bizarro entertainments of Sid and Marty Krofft would have been become the toast of children's television. But for those of us who grew up at a time when Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by the Watergate hearings, we still treasure the Kroffts' crazypants style of kid's show -- and there's no better example of it than H.R. Pufnstuf: The Complete Series (out on DVD this week from Vivendi Entertainment).
In this trippy combo of children's theater and vaudeville, Oliver! star Jack Wild plays Jimmy, a kid with a magic flute. (All resemblance to Mozart ends here.) Jimmy and Freddy the Flute immediately become targets of the wacky Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), but the two are given sanctuary by H.R. Pufnstuf (voiced by Lennie Weinrib), the mayor of a place called Living Island, where everything -- animals, books, houses, furniture -- lives, speaks, and often sings.
Over the course of 17 episodes, Witchiepoo tries stealing Freddy, but Jimmy and Pufnstuf foil her plans. But H.R. Pufnstuf isn't about the plot -- it's the colorful characters, the musical numbers, the pratfalls, and the painfully corny jokes that kept kids tuning in. (Even though only 17 episodes were produced, the show ran for three seasons on NBC. There's also a Pufnstuf movie, which finally got its own DVD release just a few years ago -- it's worth picking up for the guest appearances by "Mama" Cass Elliot and Martha Raye.)
As a kid in Atlanta, I literally grew up watching these characters -- in addition to the H.R. Pufnstuf TV show, the Living Island residents were the mascots of Six Flags Over Georgia before the Kroffts took their own ill-fated stab at a theme park with The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, an indoor attraction that stayed open for just six months. (Not long after, the space became the headquarters for CNN, which it remains today.) So while I have my own affection for the characters, it's a tough call to say if kids today would find this show fun or too freaky.
Of course, the fact that the Nickelodeon hit Yo Gabba Gabba! acknowledges the work of the Kroffts as one of its direct ancestors means that the kid-appeal of the weird and wonderful H.R. Pufnstuf probably remains as strong as ever. And whether or not new millennial children dig it, anyone who grew up on this nutty show will find that its bonkers-osity remains strong even after four decades.