Marty Krofft, the Brains Behind a Kids TV Empire, Dies at 86
Marty Krofft, the savvy businessman who partnered with his older brother Sid to amass an entertainment empire fueled by such mind-blowing kids TV shows as The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, H.R. Pufnstufand Land of the Lost, died Saturday. He was 86.
Eight years younger than Sid, Marty Krofft died Saturday in Los Angeles of kidney failure, his family announced.
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“There’s nobody better on this planet,” Sid said of his brother in a 2000 interview for the Archive of American Television website. “I get a dream, and Marty gets it done.”
The pair already were well-known theatrical puppeteers when they were recruited in 1968 to design the costumes for the live-action portion of NBC’s The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.
Their four furry animal characters (Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky), members of a rock band, were an instant hit on the Saturday morning show, which ran from Sept. 7, 1968, to Sept. 5, 1970 (and in near-perpetuity in reruns since then).
The next year, NBC asked them to create their own Saturday morning kids show, and the brothers came up with H.R. Pufnstuf, about a shipwrecked boy (Jimmy, played by Jack Wild) who lands on a magical island. The title character, Pufnstuf, was a revamp of Luther, a friendly dragon that two had created for a show at the 1968 HemisFair in San Antonio.
NBC wanted a second season to follow the 17-episode first but offered only a small increase on the rights fee, already far below what it was costing the brothers to make the show, so they declined. Pufnstuf came to an end in 1970 but lived on in reruns as well.
Pufnstuf‘s psychedelic sets and costumes were a big hit with college kids, and The Beatles asked for a full set of episode tapes to be sent to them in England. The look of the show prompted many whispers that the brothers took drugs (pot for sure, maybe LSD as well?), something Marty denied.
“You can’t do a show stoned,” he toldThe Hollywood Reporter in January 2016.
The Kroffts followed Pufnstuf with The Bugaloos (1970-72), the Claymation series Lidsville (1971-73), Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-75) and Land of the Lost (1974-76), which spawned an ill-fated Will Ferrell movie adaptation released in 2009. Those shows were wildly popular in syndication as well.
“We screwed with every kid’s mind,” Marty told THR. “There’s a Krofft look — the colors. There’s an edge. Disney doesn’t have an edge.”
Indeed, the Kroffts’ style was so popular that McDonald’s copied it to create Mayor McCheese and McDonaldland for an early ’70s advertising campaign. The Kroffts sued, winning a reported seven-figure settlement in 1977.
A year earlier, the brothers opened The World of Sid & Marty Krofft theme park in downtown Atlanta’s new Omni Complex (now CNN’s 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 costs and interest payments, and the park closed after 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.)
Long after other smaller kids producers like Hanna-Barbera had sold out to conglomerates, the Kroffts were still developing shows as the last of the great 1960s independents. As late as 2015, they had a hit on Nickelodeon with Mutt & Stuff (one episode even featured a guest appearance from Pufnstuf).
The Kroffts also developed numerous live-action variety shows including The Brady Bunch Hour, The Donny & Marie Show, The Bay City Rollers Show and Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.
They produced another kids show hosted by Richard Pryor, based on his childhood, and their puppets toured with such acts as Judy Garland, Liberace, The Mills Brothers, Tony Martin & Cyd Charisse and Frank Sinatra.
Krofft was born in Montreal on April 9, 1937, and he and his family later lived in Maine, Rhode Island and the Bronx. For PR, the brothers liked to say that they came from a long line of puppeteers going back many generations. In truth, the story was fabricated. Their father was a clock salesman who emigrated from Greece in the early 1900s.
“The Kroffts have been playing with dolls their whole lives,” Marty joked about their family’s interest in puppeteering. By the time he was 15, Sid was already working clubs in New York, and he would soon join the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
(They had two other brothers; Hy died during fighting in World War II, and Harry briefly worked for their company before going into real estate.)
Marty joined his brother full-time in 1958 after Sid’s assistant left, and they opened Les Poupees de Paris, an adults-only burlesque puppet show that played to sold-out crowds at a dinner theater in the San Fernando Valley.
“Les Poupees took us from an act, Sid’s act, to a business,” Marty said. Shirley MacLaine was there on opening night, and Richard Nixon came during his run for president.
Les Poupees went on the road and played world’s fairs in Seattle in 1962, New York in 1964 and San Antonio in 1968. It featured 240 puppets, mostly topless women, and Time magazine called it a “dirty puppet show.”
After that, it was so popular, “we couldn’t even get our own best friends in the theater,” Sid said. It drew an estimated 9.5 million viewers in its first decade of performances.
All this led to shows at Six Flags amusements parks around the U.S. — they employed more than 100 puppeteers at one point — and appearances on TV, including a regular gig on The Dean Martin Show (a chorus line of attractive girl puppets they created for the variety program were replaced by real-life Golddiggers).
Marty is survived by brothers Harry and Sid; daughters Deanna (and her husband, Randy), Kristina and Kendra (Lou); grandchildren Taylor, Karson, Griffin, Georgia and Drake; and great-grandchild Maddox. He married Christa Rogalski in 1965, and she proceeded him in death in 2013.
Sid wrote to his followers on Instagram Saturday: I’m heartbroken over the loss of my baby brother. I really know that all of you meant the world to him. It’s YOU that made this all happen. Thank you for being there with us all these years. Love, Sid.”