Of Lennie Weinrib and “H.R. Pufnstuf”

It’s kind of crazy that I have written about most of the other major Sid and Marty Krofft shows so far, and have even written about Jack Wild and Billie Hayes, but still have not done a proper post on H.R. Pufnstuf, which stands out easily as the most mind-blowing and transformational children’s program of my youth (and I know I’m not unique). We redress the omission today on the birthday of the show’s prime mover, comedian, actor, writer and voice-over artist Lennie Weinrib (1935-2006). But Weinrib was vastly more than just the Pufnstuf guy, so we need to give you the big picture, as well.

Bronx-born Weinrib moved to L.A. when still a child. He was studying at UCLA to be a doctor when he chanced to see friend Carol Burnett in a campus show, and resolved to change course. In 1959, he performed in the legendary Billy Barnes Revue in both the L.A. and off-Broadway incarnations. Two years later, he tricked his way into a regular spot on Spike Jones’ tv show, by phoning its producer Bill Dana using the voice of Mort Sahl. But the subterfuge probably wasn’t necessary. His career exploded around this time. Among countless other credits, he was in three memorable episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and provided his unmistakable voice in the part of the police dispatcher in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). He also directed three low budget surfer movies Beach Ball (1965), Wild Wild Winter (1966), and Out of Sight (1966). According to the Los Angeles Times “By the mid-1960s, [Weinrib] was considered one of the top 10 voice-over talents working in commercials — supplying voices for everything from Ford and Avis to Pepsodent toothpaste and Hunt’s tomato sauce.”

Then came H.R. Pufnstuf (1969). The show came about when the Krofft Brothers had big success with their costume and set designs for The Banana Splits. Asked to develop an original program of their own, they based it on characters and a scenario they had done in a live show the previous year.

The show is a psychedelic feast in which young Jimmy (Jack Wild, from the recent hit Oliver!) gets blown off course in his little skiff in a storm and winds up on a magical island presided over by the titular character, the Mayor, voiced by Weinrib. The villain of the piece is one Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), clearly inspired by The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West, but funnier, who wants to steal Jimmy’s talking magical flute, Freddy. Meanwhile, everything on this Living Island (e.g., the trees) talks. Most of them talk in the form of impersonations of class Hollywood stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, John Wayne and Mae West, and these parts were voiced mostly by Weinrib, Walker Edmiston and Joan Gerber. The combination of the psychedelic elements (including trippy songs) and the classic show biz send-ups were hugely influential on me a a child. Weinrib was the lead writer on the show.

A taste of the phenom — a 1970 children’s book, and a Pufnstuf puppet

Hearing that there was only one season (17 episodes) of H.R. Pufnstuf and that it premiered in 1969 initially confused me. I was only four years old then — how did I form so many memories? Well, the show was so popular that ABC continued to run that season on Saturday mornings through 1973, then it was syndicated through 1978, and later the Kroffts recycled some segments on the Krofft Superstars, 1978-1985.

While Pufnstuf is a clear cultural bellwether, it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for Weinrib. In fact, after that show was in the can, he worked more than ever. His voice was so often used in cartoons in my youth I can conjure it in the mind’s ear with zero trouble. He’s got hundreds of credits. Other work for the Kroffts included the H.R. Pufnstuf movie in 1970, numerous character voices for Lidsville(1971), and the highly politically incorrect character Magic Mongo on The Krofft Supershow (1976-78). He voiced the Lion King and Secretary Bird in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). He played Chet, the hippie son on Wait ’til Your Father Gets Home (1972-74). He did voices on the Saturday morning shows Inch High Private Eye (1973-74), Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch (1974), Uncle Croc’s Block(1975-76), and The Skatebirds (1977).

He voiced some of the ABC “Time for Timer” segments starting in 1974. Starting in 1977 he was the voice of Cookie Jarvis in Cookie Crisp commercials. In 1979, he became the original voice of Scrappy Doo on Scooby Doo. Throughout the 80s he did the voice of Bigmouth on The Smurfs. He also continued to do live action roles, on such shows as Adam-12, Happy Days, Emergency!, etc.

Lenny Weinrib retired from show biz in 1992, and moved to Santiago, Chile (his wife’s home country) where he spent the remainder of his life. Several of his children and grandchildren have followed him into the voice-over field.