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Billie Hayes, memorable witch on 'H.R. Pufnstuf,' dies at 96
The actress Billie Hayes in her best-known role, as Witchiepoo on the 1969 children’s television series “H.R. Pufnstuf.”

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Billie Hayes, who rode a memorable cackle to kiddie-TV fame, playing a witch named Witchiepoo in the short-lived but much remembered 1969 series “H.R. Pufnstuf,” died on April 29 in Los Angeles. She was 96.

News of her death was posted on her website.

Hayes had built a moderately successful stage career and had portrayed Mammy Yokum in the 1959 film version of “Li’l Abner” (reprising a role she had played on Broadway) when she was cast as Witchiepoo.

“H.R. Pufnstuf” was the first of a string of children’s shows made by the brothers Sid and Marty Krofft in the 1970s — trippy, slapdash-looking affairs that contrasted noticeably with the carefully pitched messages of “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which were born in the same era. Krofft shows tended toward the bizarre: “Lidsville,” for instance, which also starred Hayes (as well as Charles Nelson Reilly), involved a land of living hats.

Few of the shows lasted long — “Pufnstuf” survived only 17 episodes — but they made an impression.

“The Kroffts dished up a swirl of psychedelia, vaudeville and cheesy production values that might be described as brown acid for the toddler soul,” Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New York Times in 2004, when TV Land broadcast a marathon of Krofft creations.

“Pufnstuf” was a sort of comic sendup of “The Wizard of Oz,” with Witchiepoo pursuing a talking flute possessed by a boy named Jimmy (Jack Wild) in much the way Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West craves Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

The red wig and elaborate makeup Hayes wore made her a striking figure, but witchy ineptitude kept Witchiepoo from being too scary. In 1970 she played the character in a film version, called simply “Pufnstuf,” in a cast that also included Martha Raye as a character named Boss Witch and Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas as one named Witch Hazel.

For years afterward the role made Hayes popular among casting directors in search of a witch. In 1971 she played one in an episode of the sitcom “Bewitched” in which she was ultimately bested by Samantha, the series’ star witch, played by Elizabeth Montgomery. In 1985 she was the voice of the witch Orgoch in the animated Disney film “The Black Cauldron.” She was the voice of a cackling witch in “Shrek Forever After” in 2010.

Perhaps most memorably, in 1976 comedian Paul Lynde, with whom she had first worked decades earlier, managed to pair her and Hamilton in a running sketch on “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” which also featured appearances by Betty White, Donny and Marie Osmond and the rock group Kiss, and which has taken on a sort of kitschy fame.

“The two witches bookend Lynde as they cackle their way through the hardcover editions of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Exorcist,’ call ‘The Sound of Music’ a real horror movie and play Witches’ Monopoly, a board game in which contestants can either buy a property or blow it up,” The New York Times wrote in 2007 when a DVD of that television rarity was released.

Hayes played other roles in her somewhat sporadic career, including providing the voices for characters on “The Brothers Flub,” “Transformers: Rescue Bots” and other animated shows. But Witchiepoo was the one that stuck in people’s heads. In 2003 Inside TV ranked her No. 3 on its list of Top 10 witches in TV history, behind only Montgomery and Catherine Hicks, who played Amanda Tucker on the 1980s series “Tucker’s Witch.”

Billie Armstrong Brosch was born on Aug. 5, 1924, in Du Quoin, Illinois. Her father, Charles, was a coal miner, and her mother, Marie (Armstrong) Brosch, was an administrator for the Perry County General Assistance Office.

She began performing as a child and continued to do so after leaving high school early, performing in Chicago and with USO shows. (An agent at the start of her professional career suggested that “Brosch” was not an ear-friendly name for a performer.)

She eventually secured a role in a touring show called “What’s New” with Lynde. In 1956, Lynde wrote and directed sketches for a Broadway revue called “New Faces of 1956,” and Hayes found herself as one of those new faces — along with a young British actress named Maggie Smith.

Hayes said her commitment to “New Faces,” which ran for 220 performances, kept her from accepting an offer to originate the role of Mammy Yokum in “Li’l Abner,” a musical based on Al Capp’s comic strip characters, when it opened on Broadway in November 1956, but she later stepped into the part, replacing Charlotte Rae. She won the role in the 1959 film version.

Hayes was also president of Pet Hope, an animal care organization. She leaves no immediate survivors.

In a 1969 interview with the Dallas-area broadcaster Bobbie Wygant, Hayes noted that, though Witchiepoo was the villain of “Pufnstuf,” she received a lot of fan mail from children seeking her help with kid-size problems.

“I’m the Ann Landers of the witch world,” she said.

“I don’t know why they pick the witch to write to,” she said, “unless they figure either she’s so dumb she’ll give me a funny answer or she’s so smart I’ll get out of trouble.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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