Oct 18, 2014

The Sea Monster in the Club House


The Krofft animatronic Saturday morning shows like Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost usually involved boys trapped far from home, but the 1973-1975 entry, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, used the "I've got a secret" theme instead. Sigmund (Billy Barty), a three-foot tall blob of green tentacles, is expelled from his abusive family for being “a rotten sea monster.” He wanders up onto the beach and befriends two human boys, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott (Scott Kolden). Most episodes involve Sigmund being befuddled by human society while hiding from his bullying brothers (who need him back for some mercenary reason), and the boys being likewise befuddled by sea monster society while trying to hide Sigmund from human authority figures.


Johnny Whitaker had previously starred as the saccharine Jody on Family Affair (1966-71), and as a shepherd boy who jumps off a cliff and becomes The Littlest Angel (1969).  He was only fourteen at the start of Sigmund, but still, he was on display far more than other Krofft boys.  His opening shots at the beach, in a swimming suit and then a muscle shirt, showed a toned body with surprisingly firm biceps, and later he sauntered around the set in impossibly tight jeans that almost allowed gay kids to overlook his hair, fluffy, carrot-red, with the texture of cotton candy.

He would show off his muscles that same year in Tom Sawyer (1973), with Boomer East as Huckleberry Finn.

Sigmund critiques the myth of the heterosexual nuclear family both overtly through the bickering sea monsters, and more subtly through the human family: parents absent and never mentioned, the adult guardian a no-nonsense, grumpily affectionate, arguably lesbian housekeeper (played with gusto by character actress Mary Wickes).

 It is difficult to categorize the relationship between Johnny and Scott (especially since the actors use their real names): they are often shown sleeping in bunk beds, and they both acknowledge Zelda’s authority, so they most likely live together, but they are never identified as brothers, and they played best buddies in The Mystery of Dracula’s Castle. If they are brothers, then they exhibit an extraordinary physical intimacy, always touching arms and shoulders or chummily reclining against each other’s bodies. 

In “The Nasty Nephew” (October 1973), as they are prevaricating about the noises coming from their club house (where Sigmund is sequestered), Johnny reaches behind Scott’s back and takes his hand. They hold hands for a long moment, and then Scott shrugs him off. This is an odd gesture, with no rationale in the plot: they are not exchanging any sort of signal, and teenage boys have few other legitimate reasons for holding hands. But perhaps the behind-the-back intimacy mirrors the sea monster in the club house, both truths about their “friendship” that must be kept secret from the outside world.

Johnny announces in the theme song that the program is about “friends, friends, friends,” presumably Sigmund, but many of the lines seem to discuss a more intimate relationship: “a special someone” who will “change your life.” The unaired final verse makes it explicit:

I can't change the way I feel, and wouldn't if I could.
I never had someone before, who made me feel so good.

The inevitability, the loss of control, and the “feel so good” in the sex-happy 1970’s all point to romance instead of friendship. 

 Similarly, Johnny’s 1973 solo album, though entitled Friends, overbrims with tracks like “It’s Up to You,” “Lovin’ Ain’t Easy,” and “Keep It a Secret,” about romance that must be hidden, submerged behind the fa├žade of friendship. But surely Johnny does not mean that he is secretly in love with a 3-foot tall sack of green tentacles. Instead, the mandate to care for Sigmund and keep him safe from the prying eyes of adults gives Johnny and Scott a reason to spend every moment together, to concoct wild schemes and harrowing rescue attempts, to share the joys and terrors of a secret life.

Perhaps the Krofft Brothers became aware, on some level, of the same-sex desire implicit in the relationship between Johnny and Scott. Though none of the other Krofft boys ever exhibited heterosexual interest, several episodes of Sigmund introduce a girl during the last two or three minutes: anonymous, with no lines, alien to the plot, present just so Johnny can gaze at her and sing love songs. This strategy backfires, as the girl, straw-haired, tanned, and freckled, looks exactly like Scott Kolden.

In the second year, therefore, the Krofft Brothers introduced a new theme song. To avoid conjecture about what sins a sea monster might commit, they made the reason for Sigmund’s expulsion from sea monster society explicit: like Casper the Friendly Ghost, he refuses to scare humans. He encounters Johnny and Scott on the beach, and now all three are “the finest of friends that ever can be.” The suggestion that Johnny has found a “special someone” has vanished in favor of a triad of buddies.

We need not assume that Johnny Whitaker, a devout Mormon who would serve as a missionary in Portugal and graduate from Brigham Young University, was consciously adding a romance to his character’s on-screen friendship with Scott. The intent of a performer does not diminish the possibility that a teenager might find hope in his image flickering on a television screen, months or years later and thousands of miles away. But it is inspiring to discover that, though Johnny Whitaker and Scott Kolden both married women and raised heterosexual nuclear families, they have remained close friends. Their relationship is intimate, loving, and permanent. Who cares if they ever kiss?

1 comment:

  1. This and 'Land of the Lost' are the only two Krofft shows I remember seeing as a kid (Nick @ Nite later aired all the Krofft shows in the 1990s, but by then, they were being aired as a campy "nostaglia trip" for 30-somethings who had watched the shows as kids). I guess because 'Sigmund' and 'Lost' were the only two series that made it past one season, they lent themselves to long-term syndication better than the others since each must have kept airing at least into the late 70s and/or early 80s for me to have seen (and remembered) them. I remember Scotty was the one I was attracted to. Johnny wasn't bad looking, but that awful red afro was a deal-breaker for me (bad hair was a recurring problem on several Kroff shows, which leads me to believe the low-budget production values meant capable stylists were the first thing to get cut).

    I actually re-wrote Scotty's Wikipedia page around the time you wrote this article, and through my research while writing it, it appears Johnny and Scotty were supposed to be brothers and Mary Wickes was their "Housekeeper" (sources provided on Scott's Wikipedia page). Of course, this could have been an assumption on the part of newspaper staff writer(s) at the time the show was premiering (it was just a Saturday Morning "kiddie show" after all), so they may not have bothered to have done "in depth" research beyond watching the pilot episode (if that). I have the DVDs here somewhere, but the show didn't hold my adult attention as well as 'PufnStuf' or 'Bugaloos' and I think I only made it through one disc before my "nostalgia" for the show wore off, so I don't remember if they actually specify on the show that the two are brothers or if it's left unanswered.

    One interesting note: Rip Taylor became a prominent "sea creature" character during the second season (not in one of the big full-body costumes).. And...well...Rip Taylor was Rip Taylor. He basically just played his usual wonderful, flamboyant (code: "gay") self in sea creature drag. Given, Sid & Marty's penchant for casting gay villains (Billie Hayes, Charles Nelson Reilly, Rip Taylor), I'd guess that they were "gay friendly", or at the very LEAST, fully aware that gay people (and, by inference, gay children) existed, so it wouldn't surprise me if they were quite possibly aware of gay subtext and the appeal the child/teen stars they chose held for gay boys as well as girls.

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