Hollywood is often described as a dream factory, but really it's just as often a salvage yard. Anxious studio executives would rather bet their $100-million budgets on nostalgia than on new ideas, which is why, against all odds, Sid and Marty Krofft are back in business.
The Krofft brothers, both now in their 70s, have a showbiz story that dates back to the final days of vaudeville. But for children of the Nixon years, their name is the brand behind some of the era's strangest TV programming: shows such as "H.R. Pufnstuf," "Lidsville," "Land of the Lost" and "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters."
Those low-budget shows had rubber-costumed actors, fluorescent puppets and psychedelic sets that were by the 1980s hopelessly dated; and by the end of that decade, the same could be said of the Kroffts.
Today, though, thanks to the Hollywood appetite for all things kitschy and high-concept, the Kroffts are poised for the biggest payday of their career -- unless, of course, they strangle each other first.
"Things did get lean, but we never gave up," said Sid, 78, the smiling, soft-spoken dreamer of the two.
His brother, sitting next to him at their Studio City office, rolled his eyes. "We? I wouldn't let you give up," snapped Marty, still the deal maker at 71. "I wouldn't let us sell the rights to our old shows. That is why we are where we are today."
And where they are isn't a bad place to be. Universal Pictures has just finished principal photography on a $100-million adaptation of "Land of the Lost," the mid-1970s Krofft show about a family stranded in a jungle teeming with dinosaurs and hissing reptile-men called Sleestak. The remake is a comedy starring Will Ferrell, and Universal has circled it as its big popcorn movie for summer 2009. The Kroffts -- who will speak about the franchise today at the Comic-Con gathering in San Diego in front of 6,000-plus fans -- will get a percentage of the profits and make a mint from licensing deals.
The Kroffts, however, are bickering all the way to the bank, which is no surprise.
"To hear Marty talk, I've never worked a single day," said Sid, who at age 15 joined the Ringling Brothers circus as a puppeteer and proved so adept that he would go on to become an opening act for the Andrews Sisters, Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse. Marty had joined the act by the late 1950s, and from then on the two puppeteers were locked in a contest to prove who was really pulling the strings. Sid was the creative force, but Marty was the one who made sure the act actually made it to the stage.
"Oh, I've earned my pay, believe me," Marty said. "It's not easy for two brothers to work together."
An example came up almost immediately. Sid was sharing one especially windy tale when his brother groaned, "Sid, I thought you were telling a story about 'Land of the Lost.' What happened to that?"
"I'm getting there, Marty," Sid said. "You know I can tell long stories too, just the way you do."
Marty answered through a clenched smile: "That wasn't very nice."
A few minutes later, Sid decided to clear his conscience by revealing a 50-year-old family secret -- "We've been living with this lie for decades," he said -- and his younger brother was apoplectic. "Now?! This moment, right now, you decide you need to tell all of this?"
Sid, the man who dreamed up deliriously strange Saturday-morning characters such as Weenie the Genie, Horatio J. HooDoo and Cha-Ka the ape-boy, looked bewildered by his brother's fury. "Well, Marty, I don't see the harm. It's history now."
There are still plenty of young dreamers, oddballs and colorful hucksters in the entertainment industry, but, really, the modern corporate era has wiped away most of its greasepaint charm. In the flashbulb era, big stars were bigger and tall tales were taller.
For example, take the celebrated Krofft family history: Sid and Marty are supposedly fifth-generation puppeteers, dating to the opening of the Krofft Theater in the early 1700s in Athens. It is a truly amazing tale and cited in almost every article every written about them, and it's the first line of their bio.
It is also not true. It was cooked up by a New York publicist in the 1940s. The brothers have carried it with them ever since, until Sid suddenly decided to clear his conscience in an interview for this story.
"It became a trap," Sid explained, shaking his head. "I was telling Marty the other day how bad it is that some of his children even have heard it and believe it."
There are other vivid moments in the Krofft biography that test credulity. Marty, for instance, says that Beatles manager Brian Epstein called him seeking tapes of "H.R. Pufnstuf" so the band could keep up to date on the psychedelic Saturday-morning show. Of course, Epstein died in 1967, two years before "Pufnstuf" went on the air.