Inside a soundstage the size of an airplane hangar in the San Fernando Valley, Marty Krofft gazes around the set of Land of the Lost, marveling at what an army of studio craftsmen can do with $5 million. Outside, it's 95 degrees in the smog. Inside, the air conditioning whirs like a jet high above, jungle vines twist around massive pillars standing sentry over a wide Incan staircase. Two dozen reptile-suited extras meander around Will Ferrell, dressed in khaki and waiting for the camera to roll. Crew members doze on fake rocks. A man comes over with slices of cantaloupe and watermelon.
The Krofft brothers, Sid, the dreamy creator, and Marty, the ornery businessman, bicker constantly. "There's a big attack," says Sid, pointing to the plaza in the middle of the stage. He has white hair and a faraway gaze, and his voice soars and dips like he's telling a story to children. "The Sleestaks are attacking the main characters."
"By the way, we're not giving the plot away today," Marty snaps at him.
"I wasn't talking about the movie," Sid protests, rolling his eyes.
Ferrell and his costars, Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies) and Danny McBride (The Foot Fist Way), speak their lines quietly into the camera and Marty, getting impatient, asks the publicist, "Can we tell him about the movie?" Then to no one in particular: "The girl has an eating disorder."
The Krofft brothers once had their own workshop where they made intricately detailed puppets, sets and costumes. Then came Land of the Lost and a slew of other psychedelic shows that kids worshiped. They were big-time television producers: Between the late '60s and the early '90s, they produced 20 series for NBC, CBS and ABC, opened their own theme park and packed stadiums with live shows for kids. But that was a long time ago--they haven't had a network show since 1994.
Now Universal is writing big checks to make a film version of Lost, a Saturday morning show that ran for only three years and featured an 10-year-old actor as a grunting ape-boy. "It's advertised at $100 million, but it'll probably be in at over 200," whispers Marty with a raised eyebrow.
If the Krofft cult, now middle aged, brings their children to see what they watched as kids, Lost will be a hit next summer, and Sid and Marty have a real shot at getting the rest of their classic shows turned into big-budget pictures. That would be heaven for both of them. They're old-timers in a "What have you done for me lately?" business. For Sid, 78, and Marty, 71, this is their last chance to stretch their legacy to a new generation.
The brothers' road to Hollywood ran through vaudeville. Growing up during the Depression, Sid left home at 15 to perform as a puppeteer with Ringling Brothers. When Marty turned 19 in 1957 he joined Sid, and together they toured the U.S. with their puppets as a risqué opening act for Judy Garland. Later they opened for Liberace, Tony Martin and World War II stars The Andrews Sisters. By 1968, the Kroffts employed 200 people at their workshop next to the Burbank airport.
There they manufactured puppets, costumes and animatronics for the live shows at Six Flags amusement parks and a Hanna-Barbera show on NBC. When Larry White, the network's head of children's programming, came by to see their work he suggested they pitch him ideas. They chose a character from one of their puppet shows and renamed him H.R. Pufnstuf. White, who was afraid of flying, was taking a train to New York so Marty hurried to Union Station thinking if he could get his pitch book into White's hands, he'd have no choice but to read it on the three-day journey. When White arrived in New York, he called the brothers and told them, "You got it."
Pufnstuf mixed actors and hyper-colorful puppets to tell the story of a lost boy, his talking flute, the eponymous mayor of Living Island and the evil Witchiepoo. It ran for 17 episodes between 1969 and 1970 and gave older siblings ample reason to think the Kroffts were hip to the drug culture (the Kroffts swear no chemicals were used in the making of their shows). Then came the Bugaloos (rock-and-roll insects), Lidsville (talking hats), Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Land of the Lost.
Lost was the Kroffts' most ambitious program, an epic that required marrying film and video and cost $170,000 for each half-hour episode. Lost was the story of Rick, a park ranger, Will, his son, and Holly, his daughter, who find themselves in a jungle land of dinos, furry men and hissing reptilian baddies. For the boys, there was Kathy Coleman in pigtails; for the girls there was Wesley Eure, his shirt inexplicably open to his navel in every scene. Despite a writing staff heavy with Star Trek alumni, the show feels improvised, as if the actors just discovered a new prop and have only seconds to figure out what it should be. Weird, kitschy and tender, Lost ran from 1974 to 1977.
Like most TV producers, Sid and Marty lost money until their shows went into reruns (Land of the Lost episodes ran 20 times on average). They also saw income from the live shows at Six Flags and their own acts that toured Madison Square Garden and similarly large venues. In 1976 the Kroffts opened their own theme park in downtown Atlanta, scuttling their relationship with Six Flags.
But Atlanta didn't clean up downtown for another two decades, so the theme park closed after seven months. At one point Marty took a friend's advice and visited a bankruptcy lawyer, who told him he didn't have enough cash to make bankruptcy worth it. The brothers also produced variety shows, including Donny and Marie and a comedy show with the Bay City Rollers.
Their two flops: The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (Marty: "Word of mouth killed it.") and Pink Lady, featuring two Japanese girl rockers who sold more albums than the Beatles ... in Japan. "Fred Silverman from NBC told us they spoke English."
Their last big hit, D.C. Follies, was a political satire that featured life-size puppets of Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Norman Shwartzkopf and Ted Koppel. It aired late Friday or Saturday night, depending on the market, from 1987 to 1989 and wove itself into pop culture. One day Marty answered the phone in his office. It sounded like Randy Credico, one of the voice guys, pretending to be Reagan. Marty told him to cut it out. "I'm not Randy," said the president. "This is Ronald." Reagan, whose son worked with the Kroffts on another show, had called to tell Marty that everyone in the West Wing watched the show and spent Monday mornings gossiping about its caricatures.
For the last 15 years the brothers have hustled to get their shows made into movies. Disney commissioned a Lost script that was too serious. Another attempt fizzled when Sony disbanded its family division the day the writer delivered the screenplay. Then three years ago the Kroffts' manager hooked them up with some fellow clients, a pair of TV writers who authored the current version, which got another client, Ferrell, on board.
The movie will preserve some of the campy aesthetic--the Sleestaks look much as they did 30 years ago--but little Holly has been replaced by a Cambridge-educated linguist in tight denim shorts. Ferrell is now a disgraced scientist instead of a park ranger, and the PG-13 rating means there'll be one or two curse words.
Sid and Marty are getting a $1 million producer's fee and 4% of the movie's profits. Marty says someone's already interested in making feature versions of Pufnstuf and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. If he had listened to Sid, he says, they would have sold the rights to their shows long ago. Now he estimates those rights are worth $25 million. Among the people who offered to buy them out was pop singer Michael Jackson. "Thank God that didn't happen," says Marty. "The minute you cash the check, then what? That'll kill you in a month."