Monday, 3 May 2021

Witchiepoo

65 years ago, she was a “New Face.” But in her most famous role, you never got to see her face.

Billie Hayes was packed under all kinds of make-up as the scenery-munching Witchiepoo on H.R. Pufnstuf, a live-action show nestled amongst the cartoons on Saturday mornings in the 1969-70 television season.

Only seventeen episodes were made but they still resonate with anyone who watched the show way-back-when. You can partially credit Hayes for that. Witchiepoo was supposed to be the villainess, but she seemed to be having a great time camping it up, so kids loved her.

Hayes has passed away at the age of 96.

She got a break when she was cast in “New Faces of 1956,” a revue staged by Leonard Sillman and partly written by Paul Lynde. She moved on to the role of Mammy Yokum in Li’l Abner not long afterwards. But she had been around before that. For example, she appeared in what Variety called a “vestpocket musical” that kicked around for about a year and a half before it arrived at Gogi’s Larue in New York City in 1953. Of the six original cast members, she was the only one kept for the whole time. The trade paper called her “a mugging cutup as evidenced in a very bouncy ‘Back in the Old Routine’,” which earned her an encore.

Here’s a story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution of September 9, 1953. I don’t understand the ‘50s preoccupation with asking women show-folk about getting a man. There’s some of that in this story.

Visiting Comedienne Wants Contract With Fun, Not Man
By JEAN ROONEY

A visiting bachelor girl admits she wants a long-term contract, but it can be with a movie or TV company instead of a man.
But Billie Hayes may have been joking when she made this announcement as she came to Atlanta Tuesday morning from Manhattan.
A tiny, curvesome, platinum blond, a comedienne by trade, Billie is one of the stars of an entertainment troupe in the city for about 10 days to appear with an international fashion show to be presented by Rich’s and the Young Matron’s Circle for Tallulah Falls School, Sept. 14-19.
Husky-voiced Billy [sic], who weighs in at a neat 110 pounds and measures five feet two inches high, quickly explained she has nothing against romance.
“I just haven’t time to dress up and go out courting a man,” she elaborated, without a smile.
Besides Billie’s “awfully undomestic,” she reported. “I always have to pick a roommate who can cook.”
The little blonde bounced into the entertainment whirl when she was in high school in Du Quoin, Illinois.
Since then, “a hundred years ago,” she has made Manhattan her headquarters, fanning out for night club appearances over the country as well as starring on national TV shows.
With a style her friends say is like Mickey Rooney’s, Billie’s acts range from take-offs on a fluttery dean of a girls’ finishing school to a rubber-necking American tourist in Paris.
But the little blonde isn’t sure how she makes people laugh. “I guess I’m so doggoned happy other people know it,” she said.
As to Southerners’ sense of humor, Billie thinks they are “a little reserved and dignified in their appreciation of comic situations.”
“They don’t double up guffawing like audiences do in other parts of the country,” she explained.
She and Atlantans “understood each other” when Billie appeared in an Atlanta hotel supper club about a year ago.
“I hope I’m still good for a laugh,” she chuckled.


Let’s turn our attentions to the role you know about. Yes, a Saturday morning show which looked like Mayor McCheese would show up any minute drew the attention of a few reporters (and not because of drug culture fan theories). I haven’t found a byline for this feature story, which appeared in papers around November 18, 1969.

Much Ado About Witchiepoo
HOLLYWOOD — Witchiepoo, portrayed by Billy [sic] Hayes, might well qualify as the Sad Sack of Saturday morning television.
Somehow, Witchiepoo, hard as she may try, just doesn't qualify as an authentic genuine 14-karat creature of evil. She has too many hangups. For one thing, she seems to lack authority even in her own castle, as when she asks:
"Castle, Castle, I hate to boast.
But who's the Witch who sends you the most?"
When the castle answers, "Not you, you old fossil!" Witchiepoo's only recourse is to kick the castle and exclaim in frustration, "Ahhh, you got termites in your tower!"
This is the character who tries unsuccessfully every Saturday to make life difficult for "H. R. Pufnstuf," the friendly dragon-mayor of Living Island, and his island friends, especially Jimmy ("Oliver!" star Jack Wild) and Freddy Flute, on the NBC Television Network.
"I wanted to do this role very much," said Billie "Witchiepoo" Hayes, the gamine-like actress who considers herself basically a singing and dancing comedienne. "I felt they would really let me be nutty, zany and wild."
Witchiepoo, according to Billie, shares some of the elements of two other characters she has portrayed, including Mammy Yokum in "Lil’ Abner (Broadway, national company and motion picture), and Minnie Fay in "Hello Dolly" (Las Vegas).
"Witchiepoo" said Billie "is really wilder and nuttier than Mammy. She's allowed more freedom. She can cry and admit she was scared or frightened."
Witchiepoo's gentler elements remind Billie of Minnie Fay in “Hello Dolly.”
“Minnie had a sweet character,” said Billie. “This comes out from time to time in Witchiepoo, too, when she is down and feels a warmth for Seymour (one of her two otherwise abused sidekicks).
Billie, who is the youngest of four children (two boys and two girls) was born to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Brosch in Duquoin, Ill.
"My dad still lives there," she said. "He's a retired coal-miner. He was president of his Local for 40 years. My dad is a sort of colorful kind of character, and I'm a lot like him. He's like a gremlin. He's a nonstop talker. He has a booming voice and stands up and uses his hands when he tells a story." Billie's mother passed away in 1952.
"She was a great, softspoken cheery, outgoing person," said Billie. "I was thrilled when a family friend came to me after the show in Las Vegas and said, 'I can't tell you how you remind me of your mother.' You look and act just like her. Mother was very dedicated to helping people who were in need. She was also the school's Santa Claus every year. I believed her till the third grade. Then I recognized Momma's voice. I asked her if she was Santa Claus. She said, 'Only at school.' I called her Santa in class, but when she gave me my present, I whispered 'Thank you. Momma.' "
Billy, who is single, lives in Hollywood. She has two new hobbies, photography and bicycling (she just bought a 10-speed bike). She also has an 11-year-old dog, Tina, a boxer-Great Dane.
"She's my true life sidekick" said Billie. "But I don't hit her, like I do Orson in the series."
Billie is pleased at the way youngsters are taking to Witchiepoo. As one adult friend put it, "They love Jack (Wild), but they don't hate you you've got that hangup!"
If she needed evidence that children like her, she got it recently when a mother kept prodding her shy youngster to speak to Witchiepoo, As she knelt down to the boy's level, he asked, "Will you hug me?"


Margaret Hamilton, who knew a little something about witches, praised Hayes’ performance on ‘Pufnstuf,’ calling her “one of the best witches ever.” Perhaps for once, the Wicked Witch of the West got something right.

3 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear of Billie's passing. I had some conversations years back with Bob Bergen, who was her good friend. He said with all her experience,( Stage, large and small screen) she still wanted to take voice acting classes from him. Humble and willing to learn. The last I saw her was during the last " TV Land Awards ". She will certainly be missed.

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  2. Witchiepoo was glorious! There's an album of music from HR Pufnstuff around which features her singing "I'm the loneliest with in town" - great stuff.

    For Bob and Ray fans, "New Faces of 1956" is where the musical number "In You Hat" comes from, which was of course the big number of Mary Backstayge's "Westchester Furioso".

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