The recent passing of H.R. Pufnstuf puppeteer Van Snowden brings a tinge of sadness. I was fortunate to interview him in 2008, as part of an article on the history of Sid & Marty Krofft’s television shows, of which Pufnstuf was one.
From 2007 to 2009, I sold articles to Toy Collector Magazine, a high-quality Internet monthly publication. Working for Toy Collector Magazine was fun – I actually won two national writing awards for articles associated with the publication, and my association with Toy Collector is something I treasure.
Especially since Toy Collector Magazine helped me fulfill a long-time wish.
Spin the clock back to at least 1969. Among the bevy of Saturday morning cartoons available on the three local television stations – 6, 10 and 13 – there were several live-action children’s programs that also held a ton of interest for me.
Those programs were “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “The Bugaloos.” Okay, we can add “Land of the Lost,” but really the first two were the big winners for me.
In 2008, with the big-screen remake of “Land of the Lost” about to debut, I pitched an idea to Toy Collector Magazine about doing a piece on collecting memorabilia from the shows of Sid and Marty Krofft, producers of “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “The Bugaloos” and “Land of the Lost” and a dozen other programs.
Toy Collector Magazine quickly agreed to the idea.
Now it was time to move mountains. Through every contact I could find, I was able to secure an interview with Marty Krofft, the co-producer of these shows. He was very gracious and answered as many questions as possible.
But there were three people I really really REALLY wanted to include in this article.
One of them was Billie Hayes, who stole every scene in H.R. Pufnstuf as the evil over-the-top Witchiepoo; one was Van Snowden, who was one of the puppeteers for not only H.R. Pufnstuf, but for several other characters in the Krofft universe; and Caroline Ellis, who was one of my first TV crushes when she played Joy the Bugaloo in the series The Bugaloos. I thought if I was able to land an interview with any of them, I would be on Cloud 9.
It took several connections and contacts – but I was eventually able to secure a phone interview with Billie Hayes. We talked about what the program has meant for her career as an actress (before H.R. Pufnstuf, she was best known for playing Mammy Yokum in the stage and film versions of Li’l Abner), as well as her continued work in Sid and Marty Krofft productions (in addition to playing Witchiepoo, she was also Weenie the Genie in Lidsville). From my original article:
“I loved doing every minute of the show,” said Hayes. “It gave me a chance to do things as an actress that you wouldn’t ordinarily do in your real life. I could get away with just about anything in that character. Sid and Marty Krofft were wonderful – as far as my interpretation of the character, they told me, ‘Take Witchiepoo wherever you want to take her.’”
She also wanted to make sure to let people know about her charitable work, including her involvement in local animal rescue charities. I included this information in the article.
I then spoke with Van Snowden, who has worn the H.R. Pufnstuf costume and appeared as H.R. Pufnstuf for years. What a great guy. He told me some great stories about his relationship with the Kroffts and his co-stars, and how he continued to use the H.R. Pufnstuf costume in television shows from “CHiPs” to “My Name Is Earl” to “The Drew Carey Show.” From my article:
In 1972, Snowden took over as the main puppeteer for the H.R. Pufnstuf character after the death of Roberto Gamonet, the original Pufnstuf. “He died right soon after we finished the Pufnstuf movie,” said Snowden. “The Kroffts initially wanted me to play Pufnstuf, but I couldn’t do it at the time, I was working in a Krofft show at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park. The Kroffts eventually brought me to California and I learned how to play Pufnstuf. I was in that costume from 1972 to 2007, appearing on shows like The Drew Carey Show and My Name is Earl – with several new heads, and several new bodies over time.” Snowden still has several props and scenery from his years as a Krofft puppeteer. “I have some of the Pufnstuf pieces, I had the sign that was outside Pufnstuf’s cave, and one of the clocks from the show.”
Interviewing anyone from the Bugaloos, however, was a more difficult proposition. Martha Raye, who played the antagonistic Benita Bizarre, had passed away, and the four Bugaloos actors/singers – John McIndoe, Wayne Larea, John Philpott and Caroline Ellis – all returned to England after the original 17 episodes of The Bugaloos were taped. They never came back for any other Hollywood productions, and finding any of them for an interview would be daunting at best.
Thankfully, one of my contacts, a person running the Bugaloos tribute page Tranquility Forest, said he had Caroline Ellis’ e-mail and would send my questions to her.
A few days later, I received an e-mail from Ellis herself. All the way from Spain.
I might have sprouted wings and flew around the room the minute I saw that e-mail.
We corresponded via e-mail, and she recalled several great memories from the show and her interactions with the fans, who still remember her today and who still send her fan mail via the Tranquility Forest website.
“It was for me, a dream come true, to be working in Hollywood doing what I loved best and being paid for it,” said Ellis. “As a cast and team, we all got on very well. We were there to do a job and a lot of money had been invested in us. We all wanted it to be successful. Martha Raye, who played our nemesis Benita Bizzare, was outrageous, as you would expect, and often had us in fits of laughter even on the set. We would then be told off by the director for wasting time. ‘Time is money!’ was his favorite expression.
Billy Barty [who played the firefly Sparky] was sweet and a real professional. It was a great atmosphere both with the cast and the ‘behind the scenes’ team, i.e. hairdresser, makeup, lighting, everybody. We saw Sid and Marty Krofft a lot on the set of The Bugaloos. Sid was much quieter and was the creative one, whereas Marty was more the business organizer and much more outgoing. They were completely different characters.”
If you’d like to read the original Toy Collector Magazine article, click on this link.
Sadly, the news yesterday that Van Snowden has passed away means that yet another icon of my childhood will no longer provide smiles for a new generation of children. Rest in peace, Van Snowden – and thanks for all the great memories.