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The Case Against Nostalgia

I hope you didn't find yourself sitting in front of the TV late last Saturday night going into early Sunday morning the way I did this past weekend. Because like me, you may have channel-surfed across Nickelodeon's Nick At Nite programming, with the cable channel eschewing its normal offerings of Munsters reruns to air an all-night marathon of Sid and Marty Kroft shows. And then, like me, you would still be trying to purge yourself of the horror.

Those of you in your mid-to-late 20s, you should remember Sid and Marty Kroft) -- provided years of concentrated blasts of repression haven't safely tucked away the pain and agony into the deep recesses of your subconscious. In a world of Saturday Morning TV dominated by your Scooby Doos, your Superfriends, your Laff-A-Lympics, Sid and Marty Kroft occupied what can charitably be described as Saturday Morning's low-rent district.

Their offerings -- Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Lidsville, Land of the Lost, The Bugaloos and, horror of horrors, H.R. Pufnstuf -- featured actors, usually bizarre-looking adolescents, interacting with psychedelic puppets. And every now and again, the actors and the puppets would dance about to life-affirming pop songs. While this concept can be a delightful idea for a program when done well -- The Banana Splits, say -- in the hands of Sid and Marty Kroft it descended into television so awful I'm almost sure it violates some part of the Geneva Accords.

(To give the young people an idea of what Sid and Marty Kroft have wrought, imagine Saved By the Bell where the character of Screech is instead replaced by a puppet with a giant head. Perhaps you can now understand why people my age are so grumpy all the time.)

H.R. Pufnstuf Take H.R. Pufnstuf, the cornerstone of the Sid and Marty Kroft franchise. The show focuses on a young boy played by Jack Wild of "Oliver!" fame. He gads about with his talking magic flute each week, while his archnemesis, Witchie-poo, conspires to rob him of said flute, presumably to capitalize on the flute's magic powers. But fortunately for Jack, he's best friends with H.R. Pufnstuf, a dragon puppet with a giant head. Pufnstuf's the mayor of Living Island and his cave is the one place Witchie-poo's magic can't work. After thwarting Witchie-poo each week, Pufnstuf, Jack, and every now and again, the talking flute break into song and dance.

I swear this made sense to me as a youngster. But then again, so did eating Play-doh.

Things like H.R. Pufnstuf should be abandoned to be consumed by the ravages of time, unearthed only as a warning to impressionable TV producers thinking of creating their own show featuring puppets with oversized heads. But Nickelodeon -- damn their hides! -- they have to give new life to this dross, proving once again that crap rarely ages well.

There's so much to ridicule about Sid and Marty Kroft's cannon -- the demented psychedelia, the unnerving theme songs, the labored drug allusions (H.R. Pufnstuf? Why not just call the character U. Will Smokesumgras?). But the aspect of the Kroft's contribution to our eventual damnation that struck a nerve with me last night was the plight of poor Billie Hays).

Billie Hayes was cast in the pivotal role of Witchie-poo in H.R. Pufnstuf. Later -- just as Diane Keaton always returns to work with Woody Allen -- Hayes would team up with Sid and Marty Kroft to play a character in their vastly underrated program Lidsville named Weaney the Genie.

(Add your own Freudian subtext to that name. I've exceeded my government-allowed limit of dick jokes for the year.)

It's not that Billie Hayes is a bad human being or even a bad actress. Acting is about creating a sense of belief in your audience, and when Billie Hayes is holding forth as Witchie-poo, then damnit, I believe she really wants to get her mitts on that talking flute. And her work in Sid and Marty Kroft projects allowed her to act alongside the giants of early '70s Saturday Morning TV -- Jack Wild, Charles Nelson Reilly, Butch Patrick.

But I can't help but wonder if at the end of the day when the director had yelled cut and Sid and Marty had gone home to think up more cleverly veiled allusions to narcotics, did Billie Hayes look at herself in mirror and say "All the acting training and the money and the acclaim doesn't change the fact that I'm starring opposite a giant dragon puppet with an oversized head."

And I can't imagine how even the undeniable lure of fame can take the sting away from that.

It's an interesting philosophical question, and one I plan to tackle just as soon as I finish watching Marshall, Will and Holly match wits with the Sleestaks in this Land of the Lost) rerun.


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