A former puppeteer turns to more adult fare with a nightclub / Sid Krofft, who with his brother created childhood TV favorites such as HR Pufnstuf, is still the showman


2006-12-03 04:00:00 PDT Los Angeles — Over its 84-year history, the squat building at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Larrabee Street has been associated with its share of distinctive personalities, from real estate magnate Moses Hazeltine Sherman, who was its namesake when the structure was founded as the First National Bank of Sherman, to rapper Andre 3000, who mixed part of the 2003 OutKast album “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” here when it was Larrabee Sound Studios. But for pure, quirky idiosyncrasy, none of the building’s previous occupants can match its current tenant, Sid Krofft.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Krofft, the puppeteer-turned-TV producer, was surveying the 6,000-square-foot cavern he’s helping turn into a restaurant and nightclub called Eleven.

While the room was largely devoid of furniture, its walls bare, its wooden bars unfinished and its air still laden with dust, Krofft, a lean and lively 77-year-old, described the space as if it was already complete: both levels of eating and drinking; the performance stage above the entrance; mixed bathrooms; the tables which, at 11 o’clock each evening, hydraulically lower to the height of the bench. Suddenly, he interrupted the tour, wondering if he was overselling his vision of the club.

“Did I push the envelope too far?” asked Krofft in his soft voice. “When you’re crazy, you gotta go crazy all the way.”

The same could be said for Krofft’s most recognizable body of work, a decade of bright, slightly psychedelic children’s TV shows he created with his younger brother Marty, a prolific electric parade that began with “HR Pufnstuf” in 1969 and ended, approximately, with “Bigfoot and Wildboy” in 1977. It’s also a credo that could apply to Krofft’s entire half-century career, from his beginnings as an entertainer to his latest incarnation as a nightlife impresario, a life defined as much by eccentric creativity as a blissful unawareness of the limits of what is possible.

For viewers brought up on Krofft’s Saturday morning shows – with their kaleidoscopic visions of young protagonists in fantastical, distant places, surrounded by exotic creatures and unencumbered by adult authority figures – it will come as no surprise that he resides in a wonderland of its own making. Since the mid-1970s, he has lived on a 4 1/2 acre estate in the Hollywood Hills, in a two-story wood and brick house he designed, complete with vines, ferns and cacti planted in every corner. A steady stream of New Age music emanates from the speakers in every room, and a large treehouse surrounds a large eucalyptus tree that grows near its pool.

He lives alone, except for the company of two kittens, Sir Red and Mr. Bear, and an African gray parrot named Harley. “I’m married to my art,” Krofft said of his personal life. “That’s really it.”

Krofft’s house isn’t quite a sanctuary for his eerily enduring shows, though an observant visitor might notice the magic matrix crystals from “Land of the Lost” embedded in his staircase or the beaming face of the talking dragon. Pufnstuf in a stained glass window in his second floor bedroom. But then, Krofft never considered his TV exploits more important than any other entry on his resume.

“My dream has always been to be in show business,” he said as he sipped a fruit smoothie from a Disneyland glass mug. “My whole strategy was to be different. It was the only way to get special attention.”

Beginning at the age of 10 in Providence, RI, who loved to dance his toy puppet to Beatrice Kay records, Krofft quickly made a name for himself as one of the most accomplished puppeteers of late ages. vaudeville era. By the age of 20 he was a star performer in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses, and by the 1940s he was touring the world with his solo puppet show, “The Unusual Artistry of Sid Krofft”, appearing at the Pigalle Club in London, the Lido in Paris and venues as far afield as Cairo and Beirut.

He played with intricate dolls he designed with Marty: a skeleton whose bones broke apart and reassembled, hepcats in zoot suits who lit and smoked their own cigarettes, even a puppet version of Sid Krofft himself , manipulating a smaller puppet of a juggler.

At this point, Krofft’s shows were open to audiences of all ages, but when Marty joined in 1957, the two developed a new act specifically aimed at adults. Titled “Les Poupees de Paris” (“The Dolls of Paris”), the traveling show featured puppet incarnations of female dancers, striptease dancers, a bat-ravaged burlesque performer, and a couple puppets making love in a swimming pool. “The Dolls” was quickly denounced by the Reverend Billy Graham and just as quickly became a national success.

When Texas mogul Angus G. Wynne Jr. approached the brothers in 1964 to create puppet acts for his Six Flags amusement parks, Krofft wondered if he still knew how to entertain children.

“I said, ‘Damn, I don’t know if I can come up with a show that kids would want to see,'” Krofft recalled. “What did he want me to do, ‘Pinocchio?’ “

The Kroffts accepted the offer anyway, and their work at Six Flags caught the eye of animation studio Hanna-Barbera, who hired them to create costumes for a live-action children’s television show, “The Banana Splits.” “. That show, in turn, landed the Kroffts their own 1969 NBC series, “HR Pufnstuf,” about a boy, a dragon, and a talking magic flute, and a candy-colored dynasty was born.

Sid Krofft might be a stickler for production values, demanding that the smallest details be preserved, even if they were significantly over budget on his shows.

“With ‘Pufnstuf,’ the network gave us $54,000 per half hour,” Marty Krofft, 69, said in a phone interview. “They cost us $100,000. But because we spent $100, ‘Pufnstuf’ lives on forever.”

Adult viewers have since discovered that the Kroffts’ shows continue to resonate in unexpected ways.

“I always believed that Freddie the Flute in ‘HR Pufnstuf’ was the first gay character to hit the airwaves,” said Max Mutchnick, creator of the sitcom “Will & Grace” and close friend of Sid Krofft. “It was Freddie who made way for Tony Randall in ‘Love, Sidney’, who made way for Billy Crystal in ‘Soap’, who made way for Ellen DeGeneres.”

The burden of his next West Hollywood nightclub is not just for Krofft to bear. Eleven is truly the brainchild of gym owner Richard Grossi, who has known Krofft for over three decades.

“Everything I know about the design comes from Sid,” said Grossi, who is Eleven’s general partner and also designed its floor plan. “In most projects, while you’re overwhelmed with work, a lot of great ideas slip away and your original vision never quite succeeds. Well, that’s one thing Sid doesn’t allow to happen. “

While Grossi was largely responsible for raising and spending the $3.5million he estimates it cost to renovate the club (which plans a trial this month), Krofft is on the hook. is in charge of the small touches: he recruited choreographer Doriana Sanchez to be the director of entertainment for Eleven, and he arranged for WET Design, the creators of the synchronized fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, to provide a water and flames function for the club.

Sometimes the two men disagree over financial matters. For example, Krofft has already arranged for every clubgoer to receive a free bottle of branded water at the end of the night; he would also like to offer customers a free bottle of water at the start of each meal and a free chocolate covered strawberry at the end.

“If it was up to him, everything would be free,” Grossi said. “I’m a businessman. Sid is a showman. For him, this is another one of his great productions that everyone is there to appreciate.”

It’s also unclear how many images from the Kroffts’ TV shows will appear on Eleven. There may be a massive wall of plasma TV screens that will display images of familiar characters or clips from past shows, and the live stage may feature adult puppet acts or performers dressed in costumes. Pufnstuf. Or maybe not.

“Sid’s stuff is part of his business,” Grossi said. “We don’t want to devalue it.” (There will, however, be a drink called the Sleestak, named after the reptilian creatures from “Land of the Lost.”)

Although the club’s neighbors include well-known gay-friendly establishments like Micky’s and the Abbey, Krofft said he doesn’t view Eleven as a gay-themed club and hopes it will provide the same welcoming experience as his shows. television offered three decades ago. “I open my arms as wide as I can for every project,” he said. “I want everyone to be treated like a VIP.”

And there are plenty of other projects Krofft would like to see made, including a feature film adaptation of “Land of the Lost,” a preschool version of his music TV show “The Bugaloos,” and an illustrated children’s book about an orphan mermaid.

“It’s like I always tell people,” Marty Krofft said. “If Sid only does 75% of what he says to everyone, it will be 300% more than anyone else.”

But for Sid Krofft, the joy of a risky venture like Eleven comes less from the possibility of financial reward and more from the opportunity to play entertainer once more. He likened the experience to an elaborate puppet show he designed for Six Flags, which concluded with a rousing sensory crescendo of musical flourishes, popping fireworks, streamers, confetti and cannonades. . “Then, at the very end, I dropped a kitchen sink onto the stage,” he said. “No one got it, but I did it anyway.”


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