As a kid, I was a big fan of the television show H.R. Pufnstuf. The show first aired in 1969, long before I was born, but in the early 1990s I owned a VHS cassette with two whole episodes on it. I remember watching those two episodes over and over again, marvelling at the technicolour world of Living Island: the talking trees, and the walking clocks, and the boy with his magic golden flute.
But none of that compared to Witchiepoo.
Of all the witches I’ve ever encountered, Witchiepoo was almost certainly the most formative. She’s a pantomime villain of the highest order, cackling her way through every scene, her tattered black cape flapping perfectly behind her. Most alarmingly, she can also teleport herself at will, and so can appear suddenly in any scene, her wicked wand pointed directly at “the good guys.” There were Witchiepoo moments that terrified me as a kid: particularly the moments when she would freeze Jimmy and his friends, laughing maniacally as her spell took hold.
But… Witchiepoo is also kind of funny. Her witchy servants, Orson Vulture and Seymour Spider, are always getting in her way, and so the scenes in the witch’s castle are always rife with slapstick hijinks. During the day the witch wears a pointy black hat and a ragged red dress, but during the night she wears a frilly pink nightgown and sets her hair in curlers. Plus, her evil plans are foiled so often that on occasion you even feel sorry for Witchiepoo.
Did I have my fear of witches before I met Witchiepoo? I’m not entirely sure. But because Witchiepoo made me laugh, she was the first witch I was able to keep on watching – no matter how nervous she sometimes made me feel.
Each episode of Pufnstuf unfolds in much the same way. Jimmy (an eleven-year-old boy) and Freddie (a magic talking flute) are trapped on Living Island; Pufnstuf (a plump yellow dragon) and his friends are looking for ways to help Jimmy and Freddie escape. But Witchiepoo covets Freddie, and so will always attempt to foil any escape attempts, so that she might steal Freddie for herself. Because everything on Living Island is alive, almost every character on the show is a puppet, or an actor in an extravagant costume; only Jimmy (played by Jack Wild) and Witchiepoo (played by Billie Hayes) are discernibly human.
But Witchiepoo is also a master of disguise. My favourite joke in the whole series starts in the episode “Show Biz Witch,” which sees Jimmy and Pufnstuf organising a concert for the residents of Living Island. Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour decide to join the show, and so disguise themselves as “The 3 Oranges,” a groovy musical trio who only speak in cool 1960s lingo. They’re eventually found out, of course, which is all wryly amusing – but four episodes later, in “The Birthday Party,” Witchiepoo, Orson and Seymour again decide to disguise themselves as a band, so that they can infiltrate Jimmy’s birthday celebration. What do they call themselves? The 3 Lemons!
The relative success of the television series led to a 1970 film, simply titled Pufnstuf, which I watched for the first time just last week. The film turns the famous opening credits of the Pufnstuf television show into the entire first act, which was really quite interesting to watch, but it’s not much of a movie after that – more like a couple of episodes of the show stitched awkwardly together. There are also many more witches in the film, including a Boss Witch with a double-pointed hat, but the presence of a coven doesn’t really add much; Witchiepoo is far scarier when she’s the boss witch, rather than a simpering underling. The witches do get to sing a catchy song, but I’d only recommend the film to the show’s biggest fans.
Still, nothing can tarnish my memories of watching H.R. Pufnstuf on VHS: a show from the 1960s that reminds me of being a kid in the 1990s. Witchiepoo’s ridiculous schemes still make me giggle, just as her sudden appearances still make me flinch. She’s everything a witch should be, and – although I don’t want to call it early – she may just be my favourite witch of all time.
Now, how about that theme song!
— When I was little, my parents told me to eat my broccoli because it was Witchiepoo’s favourite vegetable. To this day, broccoli is still the vegetable that I like best.
— Billie Hayes played Witchiepoo a couple of times after Pufnstuf, including a guest spot on the show Lidsville, which was also made by Pufnstuf creators Sid and Marty Krofft. Lidsville is a show about a human boy trying to escape from a land of living hats; these escape attempts are often foiled by the evil magician who lives nearby. So… yeah.
— Billie Hayes also cameoed as a witch in the television show Bewitched. The witch there isn’t explicitly identified as Witchiepoo, but she does cackle in a rather familiar way.
— Witchiepoo has a couple of other henchmen that are well worth mentioning. Stupid Bat has his moments, but I love the evil trees (particularly the one who speaks like Bela Lugosi). Also brilliant are the two skeleton guards, who drop their shields and helmets and flee at the slightest sign of danger.
— The two episodes on my VHS cassette were “The Box Kite Caper” and “The Birthday Party.”
— I’m not sure who designed Witchiepoo’s costume, but I think they did some wonderful things with colour. The obligatory black hat and black cape are still present, but the outfit also introduces red and white (and even green) through the witch’s hair, dress, vest, face, and socks. It’s a striking design that works perfectly as a whole, and it’s probably done a lot for Witchiepoo’s memorability.
— A weird piece of Pufnstuf film trivia: Witchiepoo’s friend Witch Hazel is played by Cass Elliot, or Mama Cass, who is best known as a member of the band The Mamas & The Papas. This is doubly weird for me, because at the same age I was watching H.R. Pufnstuf, “California Dreamin’” was one of my favourite songs.
— Oh, I didn’t even mention the Vroom Broom! Quick, I’ll mention it now. Has there ever been a more souped-up broomstick? I think not.
— A boy named Jesse said he’d be looking out for this post. Hi, Jesse!
— Need a disguise? No worries; I’ll leave you with one of Witchiepoo’s very best spells:
“Squash and cabbage, turnips and peas, make three lemons out of us please!”