The Kroffts create a world in Atlanta

A unique downtown high-rise theme park will enliven Omni International

Atlanta July 1974 The World of Sid & Marty Krofft
Our July 1974 cover with Sid (left) and Marty Krofft and Pufnstuf

This article was originally published in our July 1974 issue.

In the North Hollywood “entertainment factory” of Sid and Marty Krofft one day last month, a pink, red and yellow sign warned assorted humans, sea monsters, friendly dragons, witches and talking trees: “381 days to go.”

Th Almighty may have created the world in six, but 381 working days seemed dammed few to complete designs, build, and cross the continent to install the high-rise “World of Sid & Marty Krofft” in Atlanta’s Omni International.

In one area of the cavernous California workroom a spherical mockup vehicle powered by ganged car batteries lurched and spun around an asymmetrical track—prototype of a wild, eye-dazzling “pinball machine” ride.

Nearby, engineering director Bob Symons turned on the power, and a bare-frame mechanical model of Witchiepoo swayed, stirring a caldron.

In another part of the building, project designer Steve Ehlers fitted plastic triangles on the top level of a large scale model of Omni International (OI), trying to settle on a visual theme for the park entrance atop OI’s eight-story-high escalator.

All around the building, “factory” workers were racing the deadline: designers, costumers, mask-makers, machinists, carpenters. And in their Hollywood offices a few miles away, Sid and Marty Krofft were retracing for a reporter the steps that had led to what Marty called “the culmination of a lot of dreams”—a central-city, enclosed, vertical theme-amusement park: something unique on the entertainment stage.

Officials of Krofft and of International City Corp. (ICC), developers of Omni International, didn’t even start talking about the World until about a year ago. Until six months ago, they were thinking horizontally—a site atop the railroad gulch parking decks. In original plans for the OI megastructure, the side facing Omni coliseum was scheduled as a world trade pavilion. But when a nearby World Congress Center with its own display space looked certain, OI’s plans became duplicative as a locked-on Xerox. Hmmm. What else could they put there?

“At first I didn’t like it,” Marty Krofft recalled. “But it took me about seven minutes to realize: ‘Hey, we’re urban. If we can make it work up and down, we can go anywhere with it.'”

If their record is any measure, they will take the idea to other cities, and they will be into even more innovative projects. The lives of the Brothers Krofft may have been as hectic and unprogrammed as anyone else’s, but as they capsuled it over several hours’ interview in their office, the progression from puppets to theme park seemed part of some logically composed master plan.

The Kroffts are a fifth generation show biz family. The first Krofft puppet theater was operating in Athens in the late 1700’s. It was always accepted in the family that Sid would inherit the mantle. About his kid brother Marty, they weren’t so sure. In fact Sid was performing on stage before Marty was born. “When I was seven years old, I was on stage in the big time, billed as the world’s youngest puppeteer,” Sid said.

It was not the best time to be in puppets, though. Vaudeville was moribund. Movies were in their heyday. Public tastes in entertainment had changed. Besides, Sid was never content to repeat old routines.

When he was in his teens, skating great Sonja Henie remarked after one of this shows: “You ought to put that act on ice.” He took it in the complimentary sense, and auditioned for an ice show before he could even skate, clinging to a puppet rack to steady himself on the rink. He was signed for the show, and his act was a smash. Critic Brooks Atkinson penned a rave. Sid was on ice a lot after that—still having trouble skating backward.

He did a lot of “second act” work—i.e., opening cabaret shows and warming audiences for the stars. Sid was a “success”: He was increasingly in demand as a back-up, and drawing good money for the day and the job. But he was restless, frequently wondering how he could break out of his second banana role. The way out was to be along odyssey.

At the Lido
He spent nine years after the war in Europe, including a stint at the Lido in Paris, which later inspired a breakthrough in the Krofft fortunes—the ribald, adults-only Poupées de Paris shows.

Jack Benny “discovered” Sid in Europe and brought him back to the State for a TV show. Although Sid had a commitment to go back to London, an improbable set of negotiations led him to open Judy Garland’s Las Vegas premiere, and then tour with her. He needed assistance, and signed Brother Marty, who was then a successful 18-year-old car salesman.

“I joined Sid and took over,” Marty declares. In a business sense, he did. Marty is a detail man, an enthusiast. During several hours of interviewing, he stayed “up” the whole time, obviously relishing recollections of the Kroffts’ career. (“Hey, we haven’t done this in years.”) But after a half hour or so of polite attention, Sid slipped into a faraway stare. Maybe he was seeing some new visual effect of the OI basement ride, or details of the puppet show there, or some new fantasy-companion for Pufnstuf.

Shutting off the here-and-now and peering into the caverns of imagination may be Sid’s greatest gift. That’s how Les Poupées was born: Sid and Marty were living in a rented house once owned by Rudolph Valentino. “Sid woke me up one morning about four and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we open the Krofft Theater again, only like the Lido?'” Marty recalled.

The Kroffts’ poupées elaborately costumed. They wore real furs and jewels. They used famous voices. And many critics found the show wittier than the Parisian model. Les Poupées debuted in 1960 in Sepulveda in the San Fernando Valley, which is like nowhere, but in 1962 it settled into PJ’s in Hollywood for a long run. In the same year, the Kroffts took a second unit of Poupées to Seattle for the World’s Fair. In 1964-65 they were the only moneymakers at the New York World’s Fair. In 1968 the show played San Antonio’s HemisFair. In New York, Fair czar Robert Moses made them drape the dolls’ are breasts because no adults-only shows were allowed. (It wasn’t all that risqué. “My kids could have seen it,” Marty declares.)

Mounting Poupées, says Marty, is “when we went from an act to a business.” They had to organize a production crew and build a workshop. It was to prove valuable experience.

More important, the naughty marionettes had given them a name. In 1958, when they tried a TV pilot, they had gone nowhere, said Paramount; your names just don’t sell to sponsors. “Les Poupées brought us into the public eye pretty quickly,” says Marty. So did 15 weeks of presenting “the girls” on the Dean Martin show in 1965. (Martin fired them; the Kroffts wonder aloud whether the puppets weren’t getting too much fan mail.)

Six Flags
In 1967, Sid and Marty took another of the giant steps toward The World of Sid & Marty Krofft in Atlanta. They opened a puppet theater at Six Flags Over Georgia, and established their “entertainment factory”—the phrase is theirs—in California. Six Flags management invested int he factory on the assumption that much of its work would be for its amusement parks—rides, scenery, etc. But after the initial contract work was completed, Six Flags became less and less a factor in Krofft Enterprises. Eventually, the Kroffts bought out Six Flags’ interest in the factory.

Meantime, Sid and Marty had assembled a production crew of about 200. Many had to be dropped after the Six Flags job, but the Kroffts had the production nucleus for their next major project.

By then they also had the name to satisfy TV sponsors. And they had the character, though he didn’t have a name yet: For the Coke Pavilion at HemisFair they had created a show intermingling puppets and live actors. Its hero was a lovable big-domed dragon now famous to millions of the Saturday TV matinee set as H. R. Pufnstuf. In 1969 he became the star of a children’s series so durable that the original 17 segments still rerun on network TV.

“Pufnstuf is still our symbol,” Marty declares. “What Mickey Mouse is to Disney, Pufnstuf is to us.”

Why the name? “He just looked like Pufnstuf,” Sid explains.

Comparison with Disney is inevitable, especially now that the Kroffts are launching theme park operations. Similarities are obvious, but one distinction is subtle: Disney evolved out of two-dimensional cartooning, the Kroffts out of puppeteering. They think three-dimensionally. They have considered the cartooning medium but rejected it. “If we went into animation, we would be in competition with ourselves,” Marty believes.

Since Pufnstuf, the Kroffts have used human-sized puppets, manipulated from inside, for three more series: The Bugaloos, Lidsville, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The Sigmund set was destroyed last Spring when fire razed part of the Goldwyn Studios. Within a month, a new set was opening on another lot. The Kroffts also are producing Land of the Lost, a series employing human characters and dinosaurs painstakingly animated with models and stop-motion photography under the supervision of two-time Oscar winner Gene Warren.

Sigmund is another creation of Sid’s unfettered imagination. “Sid went to La Jolla one weekend,” Marty reported. “An incredible piece of seaweed floated up onto the beach from a cave. He said it was almost alive. He went to get his car to pick it up, but before he got it, a wave took it back into the caves.” That blob of seaweed became a lovable, many-tentacled sea monster who runs away from the cave of his churlish family to live with two young boys (unbeknownst to adults).

“When Sid tells a story, he believes it,” said Albert Tenzer, executive vice president of Krofft Productions and a former RAND Corporation think-tanker. It’s not like ‘Hey, I just made up this story.’ You believe. He has an unlimited ability to deal in visions.”

Sigmund bears several Kroft hallmarks: the secrets children guard from the adult world, the diminution of scary creatures, the lack of violence (even villains like Pufnstuf’s Witchiepoo are more fun than fright). In the Kroffts’ world, there are no inanimate objects. In Pufnstuf, mushrooms menace and houses sneeze. Most of the creature-characters are child-scaled; to operate them, the Kroffts probably employ more [little people] than anyone else in show business.

A child reacts to in-person Krofft critters like a bobbysoxer to early Frank Sinatra. Touching them is an irresistible urge. And at the Omni International theme park, the Kroffts will encourage that. The characters will wander through the various levels throughout the day, then periodically congregate for production numbers. The park will have party rooms so that Pufnstuf and his buddies can come wish the honoree happy birthday. “A world you’re going to be able to touch,” Sid calls it.

The Kroffts are as excited about the urban setting of their Atlanta World as they are about the theme park business itself.

City Life
“The city is where it really is,” says Marty Krofft. “If the city lives, the world lives. We were looking for people (partners) in the city, but finding the right kind of people is almost impossible. We were under a lucky star when we met Maurice Alpert and Tom Cousins.

(Cousins Properties Inc. and Alpert Investment Corp. are the joint venture partners in International City Corp. [ICC], which is developing and will operate Omni International. Krofft Development Corp. and ICC in turn have established a second-generation joint venture, Krofft International, to operate The World of Sid & Marty Krofft after Krofft Development designs, builds and installs it.)

“They’re long-term people, not short-term,” says budget exec Al Tenzer of their Atlanta partners. “They’re not looking to maximize money in 18 months.” Finding appropriate development and entertainment partners, says Tenzer, “is like meeting the right woman.”

For ICC President Maurice Alpert, the theme park is a significant addition to his formula for a healthy downtown. “To make central cities work, you have to create a critical mass of attractions,” he declares. “Look at what happened to cities with shopping centers and suburbia. Lifestyles were drastically changed. People come downtown, if at all, for government or entertainment or other special purposes. We’ve got to change the habits of people. We’re aiming at middle-class, middle-of-the-road people.”

A World for All
Everyone involved in the World project insists that it’s not just for children, and not just for tourists. Krofft International President Al Alsup, an attorney who bonded the joint venture, expects about 65 percent of the patronage from the Metro Atlanta trading area. He projects 1.2 million admissions in the first year, 2 million a year by 1980. The park will operate year-round.

“This is not a kiddie park,” Marty Krofft declares. “This is not a full-day experience because in the ’70s, you don’t have a day.” Adds Al Alsup: “It’s a half-day experience people can program without giving up a whole day or two or three.”

An enclosed park is unusual, a vertical park unique. It has unique problems, too, because of space lost to stairs, elevator shafts, walls and supports. The Kroffts are taking advantage of these spatial transitions. An elevator to the basement ride thus becomes a mine shaft. Others become “infinity elevators” with mirrors facing mirrors to enhance the sensation of motion.

At the North Hollywood Krofft facotry last month, design art director Steve Ehlers was running through a story-board tour of the park. Others interrupted to pick up the narration. It’s like that at the factory: Everyone has assigned duties but “old-timers” wander across the lines. When your business is creativity, you can’t afford to be structured.

Atlanta magazine needs a July cover photo of the Kroffts and their critters—and it needs it pronto. Whammo! An ad hoc task force consisting of the president, assorted vice presidents, art directors, engineers, and publicity man work after hours debating alternatives, then lining up a studio, photographer, electricians, costumes, actors.

A lot of park design concepts are evolving from such improvisation and consensus. Take the entrance to the World at the top of OI’s spectacular 200-foot-long, eight-story-high escalator. Earlier designs conceived a fairly literal castle. Now Ehlers is working with triangular plastic panels suggesting stylized turrets. He warns that that may not be the final design. The decision will be critical because whatever is there will loom large over the vast roofed courtyard of OI.

The top level contains no major attractions. A mini-roller coaster moves patrons past glass-walled views of Atlanta into the main park. The first level down, dubbed “tranquility,” is a garden of rides: a caterpillar ride, a frog ride, a butterfly ride, a beautiful “crystal carousel” of mythological beasts. If the kids are flagging already, there’s a fast-food patio.

Next down is “uptown”—Las Vegas brassy in light and color, with games in arcades, mini-shows, and a pinball ride that bounces riders in ball-shaped cars into giant bumpers, then plunges them into a “dark ride”—i.e., a controlled-lighting tunnel. This level—referred to as “1095” because of its elevation above sea level—also contains Krofft International offices and catered-party rooms. Officials expect birthday parties at the World to be for children what Sunday brunch at the Plaza is for adults in New York.

At “1075” is “Lidsville,” where goods will retail from hat-shaped shops. Here also is the main puppet theater, and entry to a basement (“1025”) dark ride.

If the Atlanta World of Sid & Marty Krofft is as successful as its backers are betting, Al Alsup says there may eventually be five regional Worlds. But don’t tell Sid and Marty anybody is thinking so small. They’re looking overseas already. Tomorrow the world.

Editor’s Note: The World of Sid & Marty Krofft opened in May 1976 with a grand opening ceremony attended by Mayor Maynard Jackson. It closed just six months later, in November 1976, largely due to poor attendance. Learn more in this 2023 article from the Atlanta History Center.

This article was originally published in our July 1974 issue.