Nearly 40 years after the psychedelic splash of 'H.R. Pufnstuf,' the
bickering puppeteers believe their time has finally come.
By Geoff Boucher, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 26, 2008
Hollywood is often described as a dream factory, but really it's just
as often a salvage yard. Anxious studio executives would rather bet
their $100-million budgets on nostalgia than on new ideas, which is
why, against all odds, Sid and Marty Krofft are back in business.
The Krofft brothers, both now in their 70s, have a showbiz story that
dates back to the final days of vaudeville. But for children of the
Nixon years, their name is the brand behind some of the era's
strangest TV programming: shows such as "H.R. Pufnstuf," "Lidsville,"
"Land of the Lost" and "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters."
Those low-budget shows had rubber-costumed actors, fluorescent
puppets and psychedelic sets that were by the 1980s hopelessly dated;
and by the end of that decade, the same could be said of the Kroffts.
Today, though, thanks to the Hollywood appetite for all things
kitschy and high-concept, the Kroffts are poised for the biggest
payday of their career -- unless, of course, they strangle each other first.
"Things did get lean, but we never gave up," said Sid, 78, the
smiling, soft-spoken dreamer of the two.
His brother, sitting next to him at their Studio City office, rolled
his eyes. "We? I wouldn't let you give up," snapped Marty, still the
deal maker at 71. "I wouldn't let us sell the rights to our old
shows. That is why we are where we are today."
And where they are isn't a bad place to be. Universal Pictures has
just finished principal photography on a $100-million adaptation of
"Land of the Lost," the mid-1970s Krofft show about a family stranded
in a jungle teeming with dinosaurs and hissing reptile-men called
Sleestak. The remake is a comedy starring Will Ferrell, and Universal
has circled it as its big popcorn movie for summer 2009. The Kroffts
-- who will speak about the franchise today at the Comic-Con
gathering in San Diego in front of 6,000-plus fans -- will get a
percentage of the profits and make a mint from licensing deals.
The Kroffts, however, are bickering all the way to the bank, which is
"To hear Marty talk, I've never worked a single day," said Sid, who
at age 15 joined the Ringling Brothers circus as a puppeteer and
proved so adept that he would go on to become an opening act for the
Andrews Sisters, Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse. Marty had joined the
act by the late 1950s, and from then on the two puppeteers were
locked in a contest to prove who was really pulling the strings. Sid
was the creative force, but Marty was the one who made sure the act
actually made it to the stage.
"Oh, I've earned my pay, believe me," Marty said. "It's not easy for
two brothers to work together."
An example came up almost immediately. Sid was sharing one especially
windy tale when his brother groaned, "Sid, I thought you were telling
a story about 'Land of the Lost.' What happened to that?"
"I'm getting there, Marty," Sid said. "You know I can tell long
stories too, just the way you do."
Marty answered through a clenched smile: "That wasn't very nice."
A few minutes later, Sid decided to clear his conscience by revealing
a 50-year-old family secret -- "We've been living with this lie for
decades," he said -- and his younger brother was apoplectic. "Now?!
This moment, right now, you decide you need to tell all of this?"
Sid, the man who dreamed up deliriously strange Saturday-morning
characters such as Weenie the Genie, Horatio J. HooDoo and Cha-Ka the
ape-boy, looked bewildered by his brother's fury. "Well, Marty, I
don't see the harm. It's history now."
There are still plenty of young dreamers, oddballs and colorful
hucksters in the entertainment industry, but, really, the modern
corporate era has wiped away most of its greasepaint charm. In the
flashbulb era, big stars were bigger and tall tales were taller.
For example, take the celebrated Krofft family history: Sid and Marty
are supposedly fifth-generation puppeteers, dating to the opening of
the Krofft Theater in the early 1700s in Athens. It is a truly
amazing tale and cited in almost every article every written about
them, and it's the first line of their bio.
It is also not true. It was cooked up by a New York publicist in the
1940s. The brothers have carried it with them ever since, until Sid
suddenly decided to clear his conscience in an interview for this story.
"It became a trap," Sid explained, shaking his head. "I was telling
Marty the other day how bad it is that some of his children even have
heard it and believe it."
There are other vivid moments in the Krofft biography that test
credulity. Marty, for instance, says that Beatles manager Brian
Epstein called him seeking tapes of "H.R. Pufnstuf" so the band could
keep up to date on the psychedelic Saturday-morning show. Of course,
Epstein died in 1967, two years before "Pufnstuf" went on the air.
But, at some point, subjecting the old Hollywood to too much Digital
Age scrutiny becomes a crass exercise. Really, should the men who
brought the world "Lidsville," a live-action show about giant talking
hats, be expected to keep real-world details straight?
Their father was actually a clock salesman. He took his family south
from Canada to Providence, R.I., to find more opportunities. The
family ended up in New York. Young Sid's flair for puppet design and
puppetry ended up opening a door for the whole family. His father
joined him on tour -- which inspired the "fifth-generation" fib -- as
"pretty much an apprentice," Sid said. Father and son were performing
in Paris when, back in New York, Marty rummaged through his older
brother's trunks and borrowed his puppets to begin making money on
In 1958, the act was the Krofft brothers and the venue was the
Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, where they were opening for Garland. The
critics raved about the act but, when they took it on tour, Marty was
haranguing his brother every night about the bottom line.
"My brother was getting $1,500 a week from Judy Garland, and it cost
$2,000 a week to travel the act," Marty said. "But always, Sid would
spend what we made -- and more -- on the show."
Sid smiled. "If we didn't put everything in the shows, they wouldn't
have been as good as they were. . . . That's all that people see,
what's up on the screen. That's where the magic is."
In 1961, they premiered an adults-only puppet show, "Les Poupees de
Paris," at a dinner club in Los Angeles called the Gilded Rafters.
Mae West, Richard Nixon and Liberace were in the audience on opening
night. Johnny Carson caught a performance and deadpanned that it was
the only performance he had ever seen by "naughty pine."
The Kroffts began renting out their puppet and production savvy. They
designed stage productions for fairs and amusement parks, took
corporate work from Ford and Coca-Cola, and did some work for Walt
Disney as well. Marty had crossed paths with the entertainment icon
in 1959; Marty was at the Polo Lounge having drinks with Charisse
when Disney stopped by to chat and gave him a bit of advice.
As Marty remembers it: "He told me, 'The one thing to remember is,
don't ever sell anything you create and always put your name above
the title, whatever you do. They'll fight you off from doing it, but
stick to it.' The only thing he didn't tell me was how to save money."
Afew weeks before the Studio City interview, Marty was roaming the
set of "Land of the Lost" out near the Trona Pinnacles, the eerie
tufa rock formations that jut up from the desert floor past Palmdale.
The spires, formed beneath the water of an ancient alkaline lake,
have been used as a Hollywood location dating back to the '60s TV
series "Lost in Space."
"Look at this place. I never thought I would live to see one of our
shows become something like this," Marty said as he shaded his eyes
from the sun. He nodded toward the trailers, tents, cameras, sets,
props and a small army of crew members. "They spend more in one day
than we spent in a year of making our shows."
That's a common pattern these days. Any character ever featured on a
child's lunchbox is fair game for a big-budget Hollywood treatment.
Superhero films, of course, are a full-on bonanza, with "The Dark
Knight" setting box-office records by the day.
The movie adaptation of "Land of the Lost" looks like the last great
hurrah for the Kroffts, but if you listen to Marty's relentless
pitch, the windfall is just the beginning. He said the Krofft library
may now be worth as much as $25 million and could become "the next
Marvel Comics," a reference to the comic-book company that has
watched its 1960s creations (Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, etc.)
take flight as 21st century blockbuster films.
"The Krofft era," Marty declared, "is starting right now."
Perhaps, but not all the Saturday-morning shows in the Krofft library
are easy fits as feature films. The brothers say they have a former
writer for "The Simpsons" working on a script for "Sigmund and the
Sea Monsters," the show that had Billy Barty portraying a skittish
little marine monster with tentacles (he resembled a pea-colored
SpongeBob SquarePants with seaweed for hair) who is taken home by two
boys. A movie could be a sort of meld of "E.T.: The
Extra-Terrestrial" and "Splash," the Kroffts hope.
Most of all, the brothers would love to make a feature film of "H.R.
Pufnstuf," the show Sid describes as "our first baby." The plot was
about a teen, portrayed by Oscar-nominated "Oliver!" star Jack Wild,
who finds himself on Living Island (where everything -- houses,
books, plants, candles -- can talk). He meets the title character, a
rotund dragon, and matches wits with the shrill Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo.
The brothers, by the way, deny the popular perception that they were
gobbling major amounts of LSD while making the shows. "I'm a runner,
and I thought of them during my runs on the beach at Santa Monica,"
Sid said. "That's where they came from."
After watching Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,"
Marty knows who he wants to see wearing the witch's crooked nose.
"How great would Johnny Depp be as Witchiepoo? Maybe he'll read this,
right? Look, all we need is a star. And a story. Hey, you know what
Michael Eisner has said about the Kroffts for years? He said, 'The
Kroffts always have one more show in them.' "
The Kroffts certainly were willing to try anything, and they went
well beyond Saturday-morning shows. They launched the teeny-bopper
variety show "Donny and Marie" for ABC in 1976 and a year later
brought the cast of "The Brady Bunch" back on the air as stars of a
variety show. That show was met with howls, but even worse was the
infamous "Pink Lady and Jeff," an NBC variety show built around the
Japanese pop duo Pink Lady.
"The network made the deal and gave them the show," Marty said, "but
that's when we found out that they really couldn't speak English.
That was a problem. But what can you do?"
The show must go on, and "Pink Lady" did -- for a few deliriously
awkward episodes. The Kroffts bounced back -- their "Barbara Mandrell
and the Mandrell Sisters" was a hit, teaming the country stars with
Krofft puppets in the early 1980s.
But the tide was turning against them. The variety-show format was
dying. They could no longer find a foothold with their live-action
morning children's programming; Saturday mornings by that point
belonged to cartoons.
More than that, the business of TV had changed. The Kroffts were true
independent producers; they had made their shows on their own
(usually small) budgets and then brought the finished product to the
networks. By the '90s, that model was outdated.
Plenty of people approached the Kroffts about buying their library,
usually at fire-sale prices. They said no to every offer, even the
one from pop superstar Michael Jackson.
"The biggest thing as an independent is to survive. No one else
really survived out there," Marty said. "Either they're dead or they
sold the company. We're lucky."
Sid still gets misty every time he meets some 40-year-old who
recognizes his name and reminisces about talking flutes or gentle,
goggle-eyed sea monsters. "There aren't many things," he said, "that
we take in our lives and carry for so long."
Marty nodded in agreement. The shows were lucky in love, he said, but
not in lucre.
Maybe that will change now that the Kroffts, after five decades in a
small spotlight, are getting a late-in-life chance at the big time.
"How much money are we going to make?" Marty asked. "I'm not counting
anything. I just want to be alive when the picture opens. It opens
July 17, 2009. Don't forget to put the date in the story."