Watching giant talking dragons, living hat people and otherworldly reptilian humanoids in the morning might be a hard sell over a bowl of Cheerios to the TikTok kids of today, but the youth of yesteryear ate the shows up. It’s not hyperbole to say the through line of Krofft’s psychedelic influence runs from PeeWee’s Playhouse to South Park, Guillermo del Toro to Kaws.
The iconic puppeteer, who will make an appearance at Retro Expo this weekend, has had a career so mind-blowing it’s shocking that he hasn’t been the subject of a biopic or even documentary. Born in 1929 in Quebec, he moved with his family to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was first bitten by the entertainment bug at age 9.
“My dad lost his job, and we were not in good shape, but there was a couple that lived upstairs from us that didn’t have any kids, and they chose to adopt me,” Krofft recalls. “They took me to this beautiful gold box theater in Providence for the premiere of The Wizard of Oz. Once I saw that, I knew that was the world I wanted to be in. But I was too tall to be a munchkin, and I knew I couldn’t be an actor because I was a very shy kid.”
Fortuitously, the same couple gave him a ticket to a vaudeville matinee featuring a puppet show, and Krofft was so overwhelmed he left crying. Soon he found an ad in the back of his friend’s Superman comic book for a marionette priced at $3.65. Determined to own it, he sold Christmas cards door-to-door in the summer until he had enough cash to buy the puppet. Krofft named it “Dolly,” and he still has it.
“That was the beginning of my puppeteering; I’m self-taught,” he says. “I’d wind up a little Victrola, and I’m on the street with my music, and there’s 100 people watching this little skinny kid with his puppets. My dad caught on because I was making 50 cents and sometimes 75 cents a day on Saturday, and now I’m supporting my family!”
By age 15, he had signed with a New York agent, who suggested he change his last name from Yolas to Krofft, which the whole family promptly adopted. Under the tagline he still uses — “The Unusual Artistry of Sid Krofft” — he played a series of nightclubs until Ringling Brothers Circus signed him up for $50 a week. That led to opening gigs for Judy Garland and Liberace, which gave Krofft his first taste of Texas — he played the State Fair theater with the former and the Adolphus Hotel with the latter.
Krofft’s sophisticated adults-only puppet show, Les Poupées de Paris, drew some of the era’s biggest stars. Stints at the Seattle and New York world’s fairs, with revolving stages and puppets in pools, assured the show would be a sellout wherever it landed. By the time Walt Disney advised Krofft to always “Put your name above everything,” his brother, Marty, had joined him as an assistant.
Then Krofft crossed paths with Texas businessman Angus Wynne Jr., developer of Six Flags, who hired him to create a new show for his theme parks, setting the wacky aesthetic for his future television career.
“I knew it had to be like an acid trip because teenagers are not going to see a stupid puppet show for little kids,” Krofft says. “So, I knew I had to do a show that was going to blow their minds, and that’s how that first show I did in Atlanta became their number-one attraction.”
Wynne helped set the Kroffts up with a Burbank factory to craft their figures and scenery. Because the theme park industry was seasonal and the brothers wanted to keep their employees busy, they created props and staging for the Ice Capades; Earth, Wind and Fire; and the Jackson Five. Hanna-Barbera hired them to make character suits and props for the fictional rock band, The Banana Splits, and NBC’s head of programming pushed the brothers to develop their own shows.
Then came Pufnstuff and a solid decade of television domination, including the Kroffts’ involvement in variety shows for Donnie and Marie Osmond, The Brady Bunch cast and Raquel Welch. Although some of the concepts they have created have been rebooted in recent years, Sid Krofft was relatively inactive in the industry when his creative assistant, Kelly Killian, urged him to join the world of social media in 2020.
For Killian, starting an Instagram Live show was an opportunity to get her boss’ jaw-dropping showbiz stories out into the world.
“I begged him to go on,” she says. “At the time, the company wasn’t utilizing social media as a platform to their best ability, so I said, ‘Let’s be realistic, Sid and Marty Krofft are outside the age group of social media,’ so to expose him to this platform kind of one-on-one and ask questions and get instantaneous gratification has been a huge thing.”
Produced and directed by Killian, Sundays With Sid showcases guests from every corner of show business, including David Copperfield, Donnie Osmond, Dita Von Teese, Kara Walker and cast members from Krofft’s classic shows. The puppeteer has also been enjoying a renaissance IRL, as a superfan put on the first-ever Krofft Kon at the Orinda Theatre in California in 2022. He’s also working on a super-secret project with Copperfield.
Since Krofft is reluctant to leave his bucolic Los Angeles home (the setting of Sundays With Sid), this weekend’s Retro Expo appearance is a rare opportunity to meet an industry legend. Krofft couldn’t turn down the offer to appear.
“Dallas and Texas play the biggest part of my career, and I’m just so thrilled that I’m coming to Dallas,” he says. “I’m 93 years old, so I don’t like traveling, but when they called me, I said, ‘I have to.’ I’ve been in this business my whole life, and I know nothing else. I want to touch the people, that’s why I’m coming. I don’t want them to buy anything.”
Killian knows what the chance to see Krofft means to his fans.
“To bring that instantaneous gratification to the people from the man that brought so much joy and whimsy to everyone as children has been a huge thing for Sid,” she says. “He’s very curious about people and he watches people and wants to see what people are doing. That’s how he comes up with his shows, the quirkiness of humankind, and we really love sharing that with everybody.”
Sid Krofft will appear at Retro Expo at the Marriott Dallas Allen Hotel and Convention Center (777 Watters Creek Blvd., Allen), March 4–5.