Inside Sid & Marty Krofft's Trippy World: "We Screwed With Every Kid's Mind"
H.R. Pufnstuf is having his Hollywood moment (again!) as the Disney-on-acid creators bring their character back to their new hit Nickelodeon show and reveal the memorabilia and memories from their pop culture touchstones beloved by Beatles, bong users and kids alike.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
"We screwed with every kid’s mind," says Marty Krofft of the loopy shows — such as H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville and Land of the Lost — that he created with brother Sid in the early 1970s. "There’s an edge. Disney doesn’t have an edge."
Now approaching their 60th year in business together, Marty, 78, and Sid, 86, are back with a new hit, Nickelodeon’s Mutt & Stuff, which premiered in July to more than 1.3 million viewers, and has been renewed for an additional 20 episodes. Even though Mutt & Stuff is aimed more at kids, the Kroffts are bringing their first and most famous creation — H.R. Pufnstuf — to the new show by making him Mutt’s uncle. In advance of Pufnstuf’s return in February, the brothers — whose Sid & Marty Krofft Pictures, located on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, employs about 100 people while in production — gave THR a look at their private archives in North Hollywood.
"The Kroffts have been playing with dolls their whole lives," jokes Marty. The children of Greek immigrants (their original last name was Yolas), the brothers taught themselves the art of puppeteering. By the time Sid was 20, he had joined Ringling Bros. as a puppeteer. Marty teamed up with his brother in 1957, and their TV break came 10 years later when Joe Barbera commissioned them to design the costumes for The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, a live-action/ cartoon variety show. When that was a hit, NBC asked them to come up with their own show, so they revamped a character they had created for San Antonio’s 1968 World’s Fair, adding a dash of Puff the Magic Dragon.
Saturday morning TV had never seen anything like H.R. Pufnstuf when it premiered on Sept. 6, 1969. The story follows a teenager (Jack Wild) lost on the fantastical Living Island, where he befriends talking dragon H.R. Pufnstuf. The liveaction show lasted only 17 episodes. NBC wanted a second season but offered only a small increase in the show’s $52,000-an-episode budget (about $335,000 today). The brothers already were spending twice that and couldn’t afford to continue. Still, the show became a huge cultural hit in syndication. Marty recalls The Beatles asking for tapes. College kids loved the psychedelic themes. (Marty denies that the creators were drug-inspired: "You cannot do a show stoned.") McDonald’s and its advertising firm "borrowed" from Pufnstuf to create Mayor McCheese and other McDonaldland characters. (The Kroffts sued and won a reported seven-figure settlement in 1977.)
A torrent of similarly trippy shows followed: The Bugaloos (1970-72), Lidsville (1971-73), Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-75) and Land of the Lost (1974-76). In 1976 they opened The World of Sid & Marty Krofft theme park in downtown Atlanta’s newly built Omni Complex (now the CNN headquarters). Spread over six levels, it was billed as the world’s first vertical amusement park. About 600,000 visitors came during the recession-plagued ’70s, but it wasn’t enough to cover the park’s costs and interest payments and it closed in six months. (Much of the financing for the $20 million park came through loans from various banks, and investments from Lamar Hunt, the Ford Foundation and others.)
But Pufnstuf and the other ’70s shows remain the Kroffts’ best-known creations. "I called JetBlue the other day," recalls Marty, a grandfather of five who lives in Sherman Oaks. (Sid never married.) "The operator said, 'You’re not the Marty Krofft from Sid and Marty Krofft, are you?' And then she went on to sing the theme from Lidsville!"