Pufnstuf and Witchiepoo, too

Tripping down memory lane to the wacky World of Sid & Marty Krofft

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Photo credit: Guy Welch-StudioBurns
Clown head set piece from The World of Sid & Marty Krofft

The guests at the gala opening of The World of Sid & Marty Krofft reads like the cast list of an episode for the “The Love Boat”: Tony Orlando, Ernest Borgnine, Bob “Gilligan” Denver, Donny and Marie Osmond. The year was 1976, and it was an invitation-only launch party for the world’s first indoor theme park, located in Atlanta’s Omni International (now CNN Center). Ice skating champion Peggy Fleming glided across the ice rink on the atrium floor, now home to a food court and the set for CNN’s “Talk Back Live.” Crooner Kate Smith, accompanied by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, belted out “God Bless America.” Men decked out in wide-collar tuxedos and women in cumbersome evening gowns gathered to hear Mayor Maynard Jackson’s welcoming words. “It’s the biggest premiere in Atlanta since Gone With The Wind,” he proclaimed. Flashbulbs popped as press from around the world covered the event.

The park’s multi-hued explosion of fantasy and entertainment was big news in Atlanta. A spectacular TV commercial beckoned visitors. Two full-page spreads detailing the park’s layout ran in the Atlanta Journal. Excitement peaked on the heels of a national TV special about the park, which opened to the general public May 26, 1976. The next day, a photo in the Journal showed a giddy 7-year-old boy entering the park on opening day, jumping with excitement, balloons all around him.

“The thing about it, it was all new,” says Golden Jet Travel Service owner Sal DePace, who was executive vice president of Omni International. “It had never been done before. Being in commercial real estate and development, [to work] on a multiuse complex that included an amusement park was something different.”

The World of Sid & Marty Krofft turned out to be a short-lived dream. A myriad of problems left it shuttered less than six months after it opened. But downtown Atlanta is very different today than it was in 1976. Centennial Park and loft developments have brought new life to the area surrounding what was then Omni International. Plans are under way to build an aquarium and relocate The World of Coke museum there, and as CNN’s presence continues to shrink in the CNN Center, one can’t help wondering: Could Atlanta be ripe for a revival of The World of Sid & Marty Krofft?

Omni International was an oasis in an otherwise bleak, crime-ridden part of downtown in 1976. It was the brainchild of Maurice Alpert of Alpert Investment Corp. and Tom Cousins of Cousins Properties. They envisioned a multiuse development that would help revitalize the downtown area and lure consumers back to the city. The complex featured office towers, a plush hotel, upscale restaurants, high-end boutique shops, a six-screen movie theater and an ice-skating rink. Visitors dined at Bugatti and did the hustle at Mimi’s disco restaurant. Then Alpert and Cousins decided to add an indoor amusement park to the mix, which would become the shining star of the complex.

Enter Sid and Marty Krofft.

The brothers Krofft were fifth-generation puppeteers. In 1959 they joined forces to create Les Poupees de Paris, a burlesque puppet show featuring topless marionettes. It had successful runs in Hollywood, Las Vegas, Seattle and New York. During its performance at the New York World’s Fair in 1963, the brothers’ act caught the eye of Angus Wynne, owner of the Six Flags amusement park chain. Four years later, Wynne brought the Kroffts to Atlanta to create a family puppet show for the park. Dubbed “Circus!” it was a $150,000 psychedelic puppet show popular with teenagers. “It was amazing,” remembers Sid Krofft. “A huge flying saucer came out of the ceiling. Puppets came out of the wall.”

Two years later, the Kroffts made their first foray into children’s television programming. Their debut show, “H.R. Pufnstuf,” meshed their puppetry roots with a palette of groovy colors. It followed the adventures of Jimmy (Oliver child star Jack Wild), a mop-topped lad with a talking flute coveted by the comically diabolical Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes). Stranded on the tripped-out wonderland of Living Island, Jimmy attempted to evade the witch with help from Mayor Pufnstuf, a friendly, rotund dragon. “Pufnstuf” was laced with humor, music and over-the-top live-action, offering an alternative to the typical Saturday morning cartoon fare.

Meanwhile, the Kroffts’ association with Six Flags expanded. Pufnstuf and other Krofft creations were licensed to the park. The Krofft Factory in Los Angeles churned out installations and ride designs for the amusement park chain, including the Okeefenokee ride at the Atlanta park.

The Kroffts’ brand of entertainment seemed like a perfect fit for Alpert and Cousins’ vision of a family-friendly entertainment draw at Omni International. A deal was struck. Morgan Guaranty Trust and other big-time lenders financed the $14 million creation — back when $14 million went a long way. The Kroffts’ company designed and manufactured the rides, which were then shipped to Atlanta and placed into the park.

The Kroffts’ Six Flags presence and their Christmas stage shows at Rich’s downtown did nothing but heighten local children’s anticipation for the park’s opening. “Everybody was excited about it,” recalls actor/comedian David Cross, a former Atlantan who parodied the Kroffts on his “Mr. Show with Bob & David” show on HBO a couple of years ago. “Not only were you excited about the [park] itself, but people were kind of psyched that our stupid, little, backwoods, podunk city was going to get an amusement park in a hotel.”

Visitors entered the park on a 205-foot escalator, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest at that time. It lifted guests from the concourse level of the Omni International and transported them to the top of the building. During the ride, music and voices emanated from small speakers lining the escalator, welcoming everyone as they were transported up into a surreal fantasyland.

Sliding off the escalator, guests approached the Grand Entrance. Two 18-foot harlequins loomed over them and a group of performers, including elaborately costumed mimes, ushered them in. The performers sculpted balloon animals and interacted with the guests, determined to make everyone know they weren’t in Kansas anymore. “They were kind of in your face,” remembers local photographer Jerry Burns, who visited the park as an adult. “I think it probably wigged a lot of people out who weren’t into that kind of stuff.”

Krofft World was stacked vertically. Patrons started at the top and worked their way down five levels. Although each floor had its own theme, collectively it resembled some sort of Renaissance Fair on hallucinogens, a tangible LSD trip for the whole family. The creative vision, Sid Krofft says, was to give the public something they’d never seen before. “It was a land that we had never been to,” he explains. “The whole idea was the park was a show within itself.”

Just past the entrance was Fantasy Fair, a Krofft interpretation of the age-old carnival and circus sideshow. Fantasy Fair used special effects to create its host of freaks. With the help of trick mirrors, the Spider Woman Tina Tarantula sported a human head and the body of an arachnid. Tricked-out circus wagons filled the area, and magicians, jugglers and a sword-swallower dished out their craft.

Down a level was Tranquility Terrace. Live performances were staged in an amphitheater where costumed characters like Sigmund the Sea Monster shook his tentacles. But the main attraction was the three-tiered Crystal Carousel, the only one of its kind. It featured a fleet of transparent mythological creatures surrounded by a crystal forest. According to Sid Krofft, the Crystal Carousel excited some guests to the point where they took off their clothes as they rode it.

From Tranquility Terrace, an escalator transported guests down to Uptown, featuring an arcade. Decked out in bright colors and neon, it was like Timothy Leary’s take on the Vegas strip. On the Pinball Machine Ride, guests climbed into a 6-foot-high, ball-shaped car. A 10-foot animatronic robot would pull back the ball launcher signaling the beginning of the ride. The car went through twists and turns, spinning in circles. At one point, it passed a huge coin, with Pufnstuf’s face on it, spinning on a mechanical axis. There was also a gag where a decoy car appeared to be chopped in half by a faulty pinball mechanism, making riders fear they might be next.

Below Uptown was Lidsville, home of the Lidsville Theater, where the bicentennial-themed show “Celebration” was staged. The show combined marionettes, animatronics, inflatables and live performers. Tap-dancing American eagles and caricatures of rock stars like Mick Jagger, complete with oversized wooden lips, were featured.

The freight elevator on the Lidsville floor was reimagined as a rickety mine shaft that dropped visitors into the basement level, home of The Living Island Adventure ride. With the help of animatronics and quadraphonic sound, “Pufnstuf” came to life. Trees sang, mushrooms talked, and Witchiepoo cackled at you. “Anybody that went through that would be enamored when they came out,” says DePace.

But as soon as the park opened, DePace began receiving complaints. When the rides and installations were activated, the noise it created in other parts of the Omni International caused an uproar among office tenants and hotel guests. A rush job was done to try and resolve the problem. Engineers came in and more than 350 sound-absorbing acoustic boxes were hung from the ceiling of the complex to soak up the noise from the park. The cost to investors: close to a half-million dollars.

Then there were technical problems.

“The mechanical rides just caused us fits,” DePace says. “The testing of the pinball machine and the merry-go-round seemed like it went on forever. Every time you turned around they were breaking down. When you had a large crowd and the rides would break down, it was disastrous for us.”

DePace recalls the biggest disappointment came when the Living Island Adventure Ride broke down two weekends in a row in the middle of summer. Krofft management handed out rain checks to many disgruntled customers.

From his home in California, Sid Krofft blames the money men for the technical problems. “The banks made us open before we were ready,” he says. “After about three months, the park was awesome. Near the end, it was incredible. But it was too late.”

The biggest problem with The World of Sid & Marty Krofft, though, was attendance, or, rather, the lack of it. Projections estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people per day would attend the park, but DePace says the best weekend numbers were around 2,200. A good weekday drew only 1,500.

The area around the Omni, which was in its infantile stages of development in 1976, was not the welcoming site it is today. Except for the occasional conventioneer, downtown streets were sparsely populated at night and on weekends when office workers returned to their bedroom communities in the suburbs. The same fear of crime that kept visitors away from Underground Atlanta toward the end of its first incarnation was blamed in part for the low attendance at The World of Sid & Marty Krofft.

“The park was in a very rough part of town,” says Sid Krofft. “The mayor had promised to clean up the area, but it didn’t happen. People were scared.” (Calls to then-Mayor Maynard Jackson and Mayor Shirley Franklin, who was director of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs at that time, were not returned.)

And the crowds that did come may have been expecting something different. “I think people were expecting a classic amusement park where everything moves really fast and there’s lots of loud fun,” says Burns. “The Krofft thing, to me, was very trippy. Things moved very slowly. People weren’t ready for it. It was too cerebral.”

DePace says the public relations and marketing guys didn’t get it either. He says the park was promoted like Six Flags, although it bore little resemblance to a park of that type or size. The unique nature of Krofft World was lost in the promotional shuffle.

As the obstacles snowballed, so did the costs. By fall of ‘76, the park’s budget had surpassed $24 million. Additional funding was no longer available and the doors were shut Nov. 7, 1976. About 300,000 people attended the park during the five-and-a-half months it was open.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to prove the thing out,” Marty Krofft told The Atlanta Journal just after the park closed. “We will never know whether it would’ve succeeded.”

Days after the park closed, talks began about what would replace it. Rumors circulated that Omni Fair, a type of World’s Fair using some of the Krofft’s same rides, might open. There was also talk of a “Journey To The Center Of The Earth” attraction, but an agreement was never reached. For years, the park remained frozen in time, the wondrous Krofft look still intact.

Omni International foreclosed in 1979 and, with a few ulcers in his belly, DePace stepped down that same year. “In my opinion, the whole Omni complex itself was eight years before its time,” he says. “Instead of opening in 1976, we should’ve opened in 1984 or ‘85. Interest rates were lower. I think it would’ve been the most successful complex in the country.”

Photographer Jerry Burns was on a photo shoot in 1980 when he was granted access to the deserted theme park. “The Sid & Marty Krofft area was sort of a ghost town,” he says. “It literally had big sheets draped over things. I was talking to ... our guide there, and I said, ‘What are they going to do with this stuff?’ He said they were going to throw it away in the Dumpster.” Burns managed to salvage a 300-pound clown head from the Fantasy Fair level of the park. It hangs in his studio today.

In 1987, the space that contained The World of Sid & Marty Krofft became headquarters for CNN. Talking trees were replaced with talking heads, fantasy by facts. But just like Atlanta, Sid and Marty Krofft are still thinking big. They’re hoping to develop big-screen adaptations of classic Krofft shows. Merchandise from their shows, including toys, DVDs and apparel, still sells. The brothers are currently working with a Russian dwarf circus for a TV special and U.S. tour. And Sid Krofft has recently finished a children’s book.

As downtown Atlanta finally begins to blossom into a true tourist destination, one wonders: Have the times caught up with the vision? Has the time come to bring back The World of Sid & Marty Krofft? If there was interest there, Sid Krofft says he’d be willing to consider it.

“We would definitely build something that would blow everybody away,” he says.??