“H.R. Pufnstuf” may just be one of the most iconic of all Saturday morning kid shows. It certainly had a longevity not seen in the vast majority of Saturday morning programming. There’s a reason so many of us of different ages can remember this show so well. Despite only making seventeen episodes that were originally broadcast from September 6, 1969, to December 27, 1969 , NBC reran the program until 1972.
There was a feature film made in 1970 that brought back most of the cast of the show along with some new characters such as Boss Witch, played by Martha Raye, who would go on to play Benita Bizarre, the main villain for the Bugaloos, and Witch Hazel, played by Cass Elliot (Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas). The film had a more detailed version of how Jimmy got to Living Island complete with a scene where Freddy comes to life. Then ABC reran the show from 1972 to 1973 as well as on Sunday mornings in selected markets. After that it ran in syndication from 1974 to 1978 and then could be seen with other Krofft shows from 1978 to 1985, one of the more memorable being The Bay City Rollers Show which had a segment called Horror Hotel featuring some of the inhabitants of Living Island as well as mixing in many other Krofft stars. Pufnstuf even appeared in a 1977 episode of “CHiPs”, titled “The Green Thumb Burglar”. Many years later Nick at Nite played it along with other Krofft shows in 1995 calling their marathon Pufapalooza. TV Land even played it in 1999. During its original run and ensuing rerun years there were plenty of tie-ins with Kelloggs cereals (the show’s main sponsor) as well as lunchboxes, toys, puppets, games, and other memorabilia. What then, is the attraction of this show?
I imagine we could all come up with many reasons this show is so well loved. Let’s start off with the title character. Pufnstuf (voiced by Lennie Weinrib) himself was a colorful, slow talking, friendly, cowboy hat and boot wearing dragon who was the mayor of Living Island. He is definitely the character we remember most, not just because his name was the title of the show, but he was pretty much the largest character on the show. He took up a lot of space on our sets and he was just so gosh darn likable. Then there was Jimmy, played by Jack Wild with his endearing working class Manchester accent. Even though Jack was seventeen he was playing younger which he managed to pull off by being short for his age and having such a boyish face. It’s through him, as the only human character, that the kid audience could relate to being in such a strange place where pretty much everything is alive.
The villain was quite memorable as well. Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo, played by Billie Hayes, was a scary, yet silly witch with even sillier henchmen; Seymour Spider, Stupid Bat, and Orson Vulture, all of whom she was quite mean to. She was actually mean to everyone but when faced with defeat, she would fall into bouts of self pity. She also got to fly around on her very cool Vroom Broom which was basically a souped up version of a witch’s flying broom complete with steering wheel and side car (which ironically was used mainly for Orson Vulture). Of course there were so many other colorful characters like Dr. Blinky the Owl, Judy the Frog, Pop Lolly, Cling and Clang, The Good Trees, The Evil Trees, the Polka-Dotted Horse, and so many crazy everyday objects come to life. It was Living Island after all.
The theme song told us all we needed to know about the premise. Jimmy and his magic talking flute named Freddy are going along having a regular fun day, as fun as a kid and his magic flute could possibly imagine, when they come upon this mysterious, colorful boat that is just begging to be taken for a ride. They get in only to find the boat changed into an evil looking craft during a storm, that was designed to take them to the horrible Witchiepoo who wants the magic flute for her own. Jimmy escapes the clutches of the boat and swims to the shore of The Living Island, but fortunately Pufnstuf was watching and with Cling and Clang, ran to the rescue and saved Jimmy and Freddy from the clutches of the witch. The rest of the series would have the witch coming up with all kinds of crazy ways to get that flute. Frankly I would have let her have Freddy as I easily found him to be the most annoying character on Living Island. Apologies to all those who loved Freddy but I can’t believe I’m alone in not liking that high pitched whiny little flute. But Jimmy loved him so what are you going to do?
To describe this show to younger people who had never seen it I used to ask them to imagine the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy cast sitting around after taking some LSD and deciding to come up with a children’s TV show. That reference may not have aged well but it sort of gives you the idea of what Sid and Marty Krofft were all about in making this and many other of their shows. I’ll set aside the drug reference debates about the show for another time. Sid was the creative guy and was really into puppetry. Younger brother Marty had the business acumen. Together they created a Saturday morning empire that rivaled Hanna-Barbera and Filmation as it seemed they always had shows on at one time or another. Sid had been a puppeteer for much of his life, having worked in vaudeville and with the circus. In the 50s with his brother joining the act they put on a puppet show with mature themes. They were approached by Hanna-Barbera to design costumes for their new Banana Splits show. Later it was suggested to them that they create their own show and so they did. They had already created the character they wanted to use for the show for the 1968 World’s Fair, or HemisFair, a dragon called Luther, who became a mascot for the fair. They changed his name to H. R. Pufnstuf and history was made.
Lennie Weinrib, the voice of Pufnstuf has an extensive Saturday morning resume. If you thought his voice was familiar, you’d be right on. It’s such an extensive list it will merit its own blog entry. For now though I’ll just hit some of the highlights of his pre-Pufnstuf days in front of the camera in which you could catch him on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”, “77 Sunset Strip”, “My Favorite Martian”, “The Munsters”, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”.
Jack Wild was discovered by a talent agent who happened to have produced quite a bit of talent of her own, as she happened to be Phil Collins’ mother. Jack went on to do television in Britain and was the lead in “Oliver” on stage in London. When the film of the same musical came about he was cast as the Artful Dodger and garnered not only an Oscar nomination but the attention of those casting H R Pufnstuf.
Billie Hayes, who played Witchiepoo, like Lennie, has an extensive Saturday morning resume which deserves its own entry. Besides being known for Witchiepoo she was also Weenie the Geenie on “Lidsville”, and long before that was Pansy (aka Mammy) Yokum in the 1959 movie version of Li’l Abner, a role she reprised in the 1971 made for television movie.
The unsung hero of this show however has got to be Roberto Gamonet. Who is Roberto Gamonet, you ask? Good question. Roberto was the man in the suit. That’s right, even though Lennie Weinrib was the voice, it was Roberto who made our favorite dragon come to life. Without Roberto’s signature movements giving such unique mannerisms to Pufnstuf he may have become just another character lost in the mists of our memories. There’s not much else known about his professional career. His IMDB listing only lists the Pufnstuf TV show and movie as credits. Still, if you’re only going to be known for one role, it may as well be an iconic one. All that said, you can if you look hard enough, find an image of Roberto in the Pufnstuf costume without the head sitting next to Jack Wild in between takes. I don’t recommend searching for it. It could possibly ruin your childhood memories and we wouldn’t want that.