Friday, February 7, 2020

Terrible Shows I Like: Magic Mongo

There’s no justifiable way to defend the joy I get from watching Magic Mongo

Sure, I’m an easy mark for what Sid and Marty Krofft unleashed upon an unsuspecting generation. But there are limits: try as I might I can’t get into The Lost Saucer or Far Out Space Nuts.

Viewed objectively, Magic Mongo clearly belongs in that second tier of Krofft creations. Forget comparisons to Pufnstuf or Land of the Lost: even among its fellow segments of The Krofft Supershow, most fans would likely rank Mongo behind Dr. Shrinker, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, Wonderbug and Bigfoot and Wildboy.

I get that. And I get that there is nothing in its 16 episodes that is not derivative of other, better TV shows. But I still like it.

The saga of Magic Mongo begins with three teenage friends hanging out at the beach: Donald (Paul Hinckley), nice guy but a bit of a dweeb, Kristy (Robin Dearden), his sort-of girlfriend, and Lorraine (Helaine Lembeck) as the Joyce DeWitt of the trio. 

Chasing after an errant Frisbee, Donald finds an old bottle (“it didn’t seem much of a find”, the theme song tells us). But when they rub it, out pops the affable, blundering genie Mongo (Lennie Weinrib).

Surprisingly the kids don’t use their genie to make them rich and successful, and cure all of the ills of the world. Instead, they call for help when they run out of gas in their VW van, or to help Donald after he is dumped into a trash can by local tough guy Ace (Bart Braverman) and his sidekick Duncey (Larry Larsen). 

When there’s trouble brewing, Donald yells, “Mongo! Monnnn-gooooo!” while putting his hand to his forehead and wincing like he’s getting a migraine. And then Mongo appears, always (like Dr. Bombay on Bewitched) in a different costume – white tie and tails cause he was just giving Beethoven his piano lessons, or in a U.S. Cavalry outfit cause he was helping General Custer.

After he magically changes into his beachcomber duds, Mongo hears the wish of his master and enthusiastically replies “No problem!” Then he grabs his earlobes, sticks out his tongue and makes a “bliddle bliddle bliddle” sound, with a bit of Curly Howard body language. And something always goes wrong with the spell and stuff gets worse before it gets better. 

How bad? Donald’s request to avoid a butt kicking from Ace results in Mongo turning him into a woman (“The Two Faces of Donald”); when the gang asks for babysitting help with a spoiled brat (played by Robbie Rist) Mongo turns the kid into a frog (“Hermie the Frog”); another attempt to avoid Ace results in Mongo zapping everyone back to prehistoric times (“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby”).

And once order has been restored, our trio laughs over their latest adventure and exclaims, “That’s our Mongo!” And…roll closing credits.

The series was not a launching pad to stardom for its young cast, and given the levels of hyperactive over-emoting in each show that’s not really a surprise.

Paul Hinckley has just one other IMDB credit; he passed away back in the 1980s.
Robin Dearden was on the soap Generations for a while; several years ago I was watching Game Show Network, and was surprised to see her pop up as a contestant on Card Sharks. There’s a funny story in David Martindale’s book on the Krofft shows about how a staff photographer was sent to the set for one day to shoot promotional photos for the series. He took 150 shots – 100 of them were of Dearden in her red bikini. 

You may remember Helaine Lembeck from Welcome Back, Kotter. She probably got the part in Magic Mongo because her brother Michael hosted the Supershow as Kaptain Kool. 

But she’s still working, and according to Martindale’s book she and Dearden remain close friends. 

The part of Mongo was written for Alex Karras, who played a character with that name in Blazing Saddles. But when he passed the Kroffts hired Lennie Weinrib, the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf. Classic TV fans should know him from memorable episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as a long and impressive career of cartoon voices (including Scrappy Doo, but we won’t hold that against him). 

I guess I really haven’t yet answered the question of why I still like this largely forgotten series.

For me, shows like Magic Mongo are the ultimate in carefree, silly, happy escapism. Each episode is only about 12 minutes long so there’s no time to get bored, and like every Krofft show it has a catchy theme song. 

When I watch it I think how delightful it would be to travel back to 1977, hang out with some friends at Huli’s Hut, have a hamburger at the beach, and just enjoy the summer sunshine. Maybe that would be one of my wishes if I ever found an old bottle in the sand. 

Note: A photo used in this piece was taken from the blog Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon time. You can read its take on this series here


  1. The Krofft shows were big deals for me as a kid. Just fun, and didn't need to be more than that. Just be happy you have some comfort food for your brain to snuggle up with.

    1. I am - if this show came out on DVD I'd buy it just for that reason.

  2. Fun Fact:

    Robin Dearden began dialing down her acting career circa 1984, when she got married.
    You may have heard of her husband: Bryan Cranston.
    Mr. and Mrs. Cranston are still together, 35 years on; they have an adult daughter who's an actress, known professionally as Taylor Dearden, who's doing pretty well on her own.

    As for Helaine Lembeck and her brother Michael, it was their dad, Harvey Lembeck of blessed memory, who ran a comedy acting clinic that served the Kroffts (and many others over the years) as a talent pool.

    1. Thanks as always for the additional info! Glad Robin married well and it's nice to know they are still together.

  3. God bless all that silly 70's stuff, that could never fly with today's jaded youth. I miss those innocent days...

    1. Don't we all - that's what makes it nice to go back and visit every so often.

  4. After all these years I'm just learning that Judy (Helaine Lembeck) from Welcome Back Kotter was Capt.Kool's sister? Unreal. I would also say that I never thought I'd be reading someone's like of 'Magic Mongo' (ugh the worst! The worst!) but why can't I stop staring at that photo of Robin Dearden at the top? I don't recall such hotness on this awful show, and I used to get warm n'tingly watching those toon-girls in Josie & the Pussycats :)

    1. The Kroffts gave us Kristy, Joy on the Bugaloos and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl - for this we can be grateful even when the shows are not always Emmy-winning material.

  5. PS. Being relatively new to this blog, I had to go back & check out your other 'Terrible Shows You Like'. Good stuff!