I’m sad to have to report the passing of another beloved TV icon that I’m sure many of our readers grew up with, even if they didn’t know her real name. Actress Billie Hayes died last week in Los Angeles of natural causes at 96. You know her better as the inept “Witchiepoo” on the 1960s-‘70s Saturday morning kids’ shows, “H.R. Pufnstuf” and “Lidsville.”
Hayes honed her boisterous comic chops in nightclubs and on stage, with her first big part being the indomitable Mammy Yokum in the Broadway musical of “L’il Abner” and the movie made from it.
Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (her full name) was meant to be the show’s villain, but Haye’s ball-of-energy comic mania and slapstick antics were so hilariously endearing that she became the show’s star. You know you’ve got mad charisma when kids are rooting for the villain, and you can steal scenes from a bunch of psychedelic puppets and a talking flute.
Witchiepoo became so popular, she was later transplanted into the Krofft series “Lidsville,” where Hayes also played Weenie the Genie. “Pufnstuf” became a theatrical movie in 1970, with Martha Raye and Mama Cass Elliot teaming with Witchiepoo as fellow witches (Martha Raye seemed a perfect match for Hayes, and later became Benita Bizarre in the Krofft series, “The Bugaloos.”) Cass Elliot reportedly wanted to appear with Witchiepoo because her daughter loved the show. She sang an excellent song called “Different.”
And of course, Witchiepoo popped with her “sister,” Margaret Hamilton, in Paul Lynde’s notoriously campy 1976 Halloween special. This takes you to her entrance:
But if you watch the whole thing, you get to see KISS make their TV debut.
Hayes played many other roles, including a stint as spy Brighton O’Reilly on “General Hospital,” and did countless cartoon voices, as well as founding the animal rescue charity, Pet Hope. But she will be loved by an entire generation as Witchiepoo – even if she never did manage to steal that annoying talking flute.