Interview with Jonathan Rogers, creator of WITCH'S NIGHT OUT!

One of the reasons I love Witch's Night Out, the 1978 special that became a cable staple in the 80s and 90s before vanishing completely, is that it seemed like such a mystery. It seemed to come from nowhere. When it became clear that the post on it here was going to endure as my most popular post, I tried to find out what had happened to John Leach, who created the special, wrote it, directed it, and did the voice of Goodly (while his then wife, Jean Rankin, painted the backgrounds) but I could never find him. He was practically un-Googleable.  

Last year, I finally found out that after Witch's Night Out, John Leach had changed his name to Jonathan Rogers and moved to Los Angeles. He practically forgot all about Witch's Night Out until just a couple of years ago, when he found that it had a little cult following. Now, he's not only helped release the remastered DVD, but he's hard at work on new specials featuring the characters from Witch's Night Out and Gift of Winter.  Today, he's an artist in upstate New York, and spoke to me by phone:

ME: There’s a thing in the news today saying that this is the first sSaturday morning in 50 years there were no cartoons broadcast on network TV.

Jonathan: REALLY? I didn’t know that?

Well, the Saturday Morning Carttoon tradition pretty much died out in the 90s, but I guess there was always at least one cartoon being broadcast every Saturday morning until today.  But at the same time, I understand that your cartoon, Witch’s Night Out is actually airing today for the first time in years.

Oh today? Really?

Yeah, on some channel called THis TV. I'm not sure I get that one.

I haven’t looked into it... I’ve seen the show, so , what the hell!  (Laughs). As for This TV, well…I don’t even have a television set! I’ve got to get one, I’ve got to - there’s stuff happening that I need to know about. not necessarily in animation, but in comedy, entertainment, all kinds of marvelous things. I’ve never even seen Breaking Bad or Game of Throne!. These things are changing our whole audience. People are getting educated, it’s opening up in a very big way. So I’m getting looser... I predict I’m getitng towards the end of the Valentine’s special….it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s five love stories, all twisted together. Goodly and Nicely, Rotten and Malicious, the kids and their parents, Bazooie and a new character named Valentisia, and the witch herself runs into an old flame.

What got you started on animation? What cartoons got you interested?

Uh… I never really decided (to go into animation) when I was a kid, I just found myseif DOING it. I mean, I went to see the Disney animation that was current in those days, like Dumbo, which for some reason has vanished. I saw Fantasia and Snow White and all that stuff. But I didn’t really difnt get turned on until UPA started doing Gerald McBoing Boing and the near-sighted Mr. Magoo. And in school I woul do little drawings in the right hand corner of my text book, so you could flip the book and get a little action sequence. I did some pretty elaboate stuff. 



So when I grew up, finally, mostly, I was teaching at Sheridan University, and they had just stared an animation course. I was teaching in the school of design, but I was on the faculty, so it meant i could abuse my privileges and use their equipment!

 So I started doing some shorts, and I did the famous Evolou, which nobody’s evern seen. It won about ten awards internationally - New York and Chicago and London and Berlin. Everybody thought that I must know what I’m doing! (laughs). It was an oil painting, just a single frame oil painting that tells a story, the evolution of a person. I thought I was being very clever in calling it Evo-lou. I hope it’s not available anywhere; it has showed up from time to time.

So, let's talk Witch's Night Out. How did you come up with the story? Do you remember much of the drafting process?

Not really, except that it was just what we tended to do…(Jean and I) were just full of very complimentary thoughts and ideas and sense of humor and values. My motive for doing the Christmas special was that I noticed that The Grinch and Rudolph kept coming back year after year, and I thoguht “Hey, somebody’s putting some money in their pockets, maybe we can do this.” (laughs) We created our own characters and imposed our own values of them, giving them names like Goodly and Nicely… we chose colors that would be approrpriate to each one, and painted them all one color. Part of that was that we had very, very skimpy budget and it was a very fast way of painting them.

What was life like in the Rankin-Leach household? I talked to Tony, who played Small, and he described a very laid-back, hippie vibe.

(laughs) Is that what he said? Well, that was very polite of him (laughs). Yeah, it was. We were happy. We were hippies, in a way. We never went the whole hippie route because we had two children and were kind of responsible as parents. We wanted our kids to grow up really well and go to nice schools. There were no drugs. We never smoked marijuana or anything like that. Geez. Now, I smoke it whenever I can get it (laughs).

Uh, would you like me to leave that part out of the transcript? (laughs).

Aw, what the hell. It’s all gonna be legal in my lifetime, I think. But we’ll see. But we didn’t DARE touch it, because it was highly illegal at the time. It was crazy. Not that things are any different in certain states. Like New York, where I am. They’re hysterical here. It’s made everybody nervous, so we all smoke marijuana to calm down (laughs). I can’t do much (of it), because it interferes with this new life that I’ve got. These shows that are coming out have really changed everything. 


Write down the name of a gallery called the Burchfield Penney. It’s in Buffalo, and it’s sort of like the Norton Simon in Pasadena. It’s not the Museum of Modern Art, it’s a municipal gallery. And it’s up there. They get some very hot shows, and they’re giving ME a show of drawings and paintings in 2017. 

The reason I’m mentioning it to you is that we’re doing a preview screening there of Witch’s Night Out. And a thing they’re doing, Adam, is get this: instead of a trivial, cheap little TV cartoon, now it’s ART! It has been redefined! All these experts are going “ooh, ahh, this is really cool!” It’s given it some prestige that it didn’t have.

Now, you did the voice of Goodly, who is always talking about organizing, delegating responsibilities, and making the world safe for democracy. Was that the opposite or you, sort of a mirror image?

Or, no no no. I’m a bit…certainly in those days I was quite idealistic, quite social minded, a straight-ahead kind of guy, even though I had long hair and a scraggly beard. We were pretty straight folks. I’m much more liberal now.

Are you still doing the voice of Goodly in the new ones?

I don’t know. I don’t have any plan. I’m so much older now, I’m afraid my voice might sound old. So we’ll see.

What other specials are you working on? You spoke about a Valentine's special and on one of the videos on the Cross/Rogers page you mention a Thanksgiving one that you whole Jean will work on.

Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, and we have another one called…I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention the title, but it’s about the Witch. She’s not in the Thanksgiving special, but I’m thinking of rewriting it. We wrote another one about how she goes on holiday, because what does she do between Halloweens?  (he talks me through the whole plot here. there are zombies.) We’ll save it for the show. I don’t know it’ll ever see the light of day, but it’s a funny show and we have some faith in it.

Did you have any idea that Witch's Night Out was even still airing all that time?

Well, no! No…I didn’t find out about it really until about five years ago, when a couple of people talked about it. I said “What? What are you talking about? It’s ancient history!” It’s amazing, isn’t it? They didn’t tell me, and I didn’t know it was on Disney Channel! I’d changed my name, it used to be John Leach, as you know. So people saw it, but they didn’t relate Leach to Rogers. So here’s me, I’m an animation producer at Marvel, and nobody ever said anything!  Well, it’s all changed now. It was a total surprise to me. I don’t know how much of a cult following it really has; all that stuff on the internet could be ten people.

Well, one thing I can say is that the entry on halloweenspecials.net isn't just my most popular page, it's twice as popular as the second-most popular page.

Well, you’re just trying to cheer me up! Wow!

People email about specials they can't quite remember the name of all the time, and it turns out to be Witch's Night Out just about half the time.

Well, son of a gun. Well that’s interesting. I’m gonna start getting optimistic! My expectations are pretty low. I mean, I’m old (laughs). I’ve been through this shit a few times. Adam, what do you do, when you’re not talking to dirt like me?

Oh, I write young adult novels.

Oh! Are you making a living?

I have a night job as a tour guide, but between the two I just about make a living.

Wel, you’re not hanging outside the strip mall with a cup in your hand. What are some of your titles?

Well, the new one is called Play Me Backwards…..it’s about a guy who hangs out outside of strip malls. Simon and Schuster put it out about six weeks ago.

Well, they’re not a fly-by-night outfit. I’m gonna ask my library to buy it. They just bought three DVDs of Witch’s Night Out. And they didn’t even ask me, so that was kinda cool!


Now, I found a couple of old articles from the late 70s, early 80s about a third special with some of the same characters called Let's Play Grown-Ups.

It’s never been released. In fact, it was never finished. Now, I patched it up a bit, oh, about five or six years ago… I had some old tapes of it, and I did what I could with it, and I thought “Hey, this is pretty good.”  And then I showed it to some young people, and they flipped! They thought it was great! I haven’t paid attention to it at all, because Witch's Night Out and Gift of Winter have completely taken over my brain, but I’d love to see it come out.

I think the company you were starting at the time was The Toronto Maple Leach Cartoon Platoon?

Yes! Well, Jean was departing, and I was going to start a company, and that was the title I was going to use. But I imploded and went out west to die.

But you didn't die.

No, I didn’t. I changed my mind. Met a pretty girl and changed everything.

Had you remained in contact with Jean?


Oh, yeah! I’m going up to Toronto tomorrow because the DVDs of Gift of Winter came, and one is for her, and I’ll probably take the storyboard for the Valentine special. I’m hoping she’ll participate a little and paint the backgrounds, because she’s retired and she’s interested. We get along fine. We talk all night and we laugh a lot, so things are cool.  We were always in touch with our kids and saw each other on holiday occasions. We’ve always been very friendly and cordial and decent, we’ve never had the horrors.

Now, here's my question for everyone involved in the special: What would you have the witch turn you into.
A young man again? That’d be cool. Aw, geez. I really miss what I used to be able to do. I stayed up all night writing last week. I didn’t get any sleep. Well, the following day I was like an idiot, I was walking into the walls! When I was younger I could do two or three nights and I’d still be bopping. I miss that. It’s a provocative question. We all have our own hidden wishes. Next time I talk to you Adam, remind me. I’ll know.


That's almost exactly what Tony said! Now, did Gilda Radner and Catherine O'Hara have as much fun as they sound like they’re having doing their voices? Part of the charm of the show is that it sounds like everyone is having a lot of fun.

Oh, hell yeah! Well, they were in second city together. Catherine took over for Gilda when she went to SNL. They were all in Second City and then Gilda and Dan (Akroyd) took off, and Catherine moved in. I saw her the first night she took over, and she was such an imitation, physically, and she just did a total imitation of Gilda, and I couldn’t believe it. I was hoping that she would get over it, because Catherine O’Hara is an original talent of substatial proprortions. But I saw her the next night she was already half cured, and when I saw her a week later, she was Catherine.

Strangely enough, my wife is at Second City (the Chicago version, not the Toronto one) right now. I just dropped her off at acting class.

No kidding? Wow! Really? Oh, well then, if that’s your thing, then it’s irresistible. I hope she loves it, I hope it takes off. It’s a great kind of life, as crazy as it is. But life is crazy anyway, so you might as well have some fun while you’re doing it!

Official WITCH'S NIGHT OUT dvd finally here!

A lot of times when I'm visiting schools or doing bookstore events, people ask me what my favorite of my books is. "The new one," I'll say. "Because it hasn't flopped yet, and I haven't banished it down to the basement of my psyche." This is, I admit, me being a whiner, but those of you who've created content that didn't make much of a splash in stores and made your publisher/network/studio give you dirty looks probably know what I mean. It's the way John Leach felt about the cartoons he made in the 1970s for years; he even took the step I never have and changed his name (he's Jonathan Rogers now, which is probably why I could never find him!). He told himself that that part of his life was over and done now. I've sure as hell thought about doing that sometimes.

But meanwhile, perhaps unbeknownst to John, one of his cartoons, in particular, was still alive; in fact, my review of it was the most popular post on this site.

Often, you see, people email me asking for help in locating some Halloween special that lingers vaguely in the back of their memory - they remember a few details, and they remember loving it, but if they don't have a tape, they never remember quite enough for them to figure out what the title was. Four times out of five, that turns out to be Leach's 1978 classic Witch's Night Out, which aired on NBC that year before going on to become an October staple on the Disney Channel in the 80s and TNT in the 90s.  You see our main post on it here.  I once compared it to McDonald's Pizza: so many people of my generation remember encountering it once in some far-flung McDonald's in a city they were passing through, but we can never quite remember which city it was.

It was released on video once or twice, but is long out of print. With the small cult following that's grown up around the special over the years, demand for the tapes ran high. I've seen VHS copies go for upwards of a hundred bucks. Deleting comments offering to sell bootleg DVDs took up quite a bit of my time some years (and a few of the bootleggers have quite happily told me they were making a pile off of them before I took their posts down).

Unlike most of the long-lost specials, the copyright holders were vigilant about taking the special off of youtube and streaming sites, where it would sometimes be posted without permission. Now and then I've tried to embed a version of it here, and I always got "cease and desist" orders. I didn't argue. Though some posters out there really, really got ticked off that someone would stop them from pirating something, I respected the claims of the copyright holder and hoped it meant that they planned to do something with it.

Well, folks, after all these years, it finally happened: the creator, now known as Jonathan Rogers, found out about the little cult following a year or two ago (I like to think this site helped) and, according to a facebook post last year, watched his hand-drawn cartoon for the first time in thirty years, then started plans in motion to bring it back into print. The video clip on the left is a trailer for the new edition.


Some time ago, Jonathan (Leach) Rogers teamed up with James Cross to form Cross-Rogers, which has now released an official DVD - fully remastered for the first time, with a crispness that was probably not apparent even in its very first broadcasts. Surely those boxy old console TVs didn't make it look as sharp and vibrant as it does here.

Now, I've sometimes mused that maybe we didn't need a fully-remastered version of this special. The VHS tape I watched for years was fuzzy, but it's not like I was watching an HD version back in 1987, when I first saw it. And the animation is wonky and stylized and a bit crude anyway, right?

Perhaps I was just afraid that any change would mess with a nearly-perfect experience or something. You know that Hawthorne story about the person who tries to remove one splotch on something otherwise perfect and wrecks the whole thing in the end? It's like that. Maybe the murkiness and mysterious origins were part of the cartoon's charm.

I needn't have worried, though, because, except for the fact that the dust and scratches in the print are more noticeable now, the DVD is stunning. Watching it now, the colors absolutely POP in a way that they never did before, and the backgrounds, in particular, are bright and crisp. I'm seeing things in the background (and even the foreground) that I never saw before.  Looking at the trailer above will probably be sufficient for most people, but here are some side-by-side comparisons of the cartoon as it appears now (right) next to the same shot in the bootlegs:




This, folks, is absolutely essential. If you're among the many who dropped a few bucks on a bootleg DVD or even downloaded an avi for free someplace, you owe it to yourselves (and the creators, of course) to put a few bucks into upgrading.

The DVD set also features a comic-book version of the story (on-screen only; you can see it on the new website, witchsnightout.com), as well as ten bonus cartoons, mostly very old ones featuring some sort of Halloween theme (like a 1950s Popeye short). Of particular interest is a fascinating 1920 Felix the Cat short in that stunning black and white (seriously black and white - there's hardly a shade of gray in the whole thing) that was common in those early toons of the "Scratchy runs afoul of an Irishman" variety. Also of note is a "Meany, Miney, and Mo" short - a "Lonesome Ghosts" type of clip in which three chimps run into hijinks in a magic shop (though my first time watching the first few minutes I was holding my breath and cringing, certain that it was going to turn out to be alarmingly racist any second now).

Cross/Rogers is also releasing a remastered edition of the 1974 Christmas feature, The Gift of Winter, whose existence is the only thing that keeps WNO from being a true "standalone" feature. Their website even announces plans for NEW material featuring these characters (apparently starting with a Thanksgiving special), of which I'm of mixed feelings. Part of the charm of the original is that Witch's Night Out, unlike most of the cartoons on this site, wasn't tied into a larger series or licensed characters or "multimedia properties." It seemed to come out of nowhere, create a world that existed only for twenty-five minutes, and then vanished into our memories. It was, in every sense of the world, a "special," not just a "Halloween episode." On the other hand, though, I really WOULD like to have action figures or PVC figurines of all these characters, ya know?

This seems to be going around a lot lately - a number of long-lost VHS bootleg favorites are coming back this year (including Mr. Boogedy, about which more later), and I think that this may be The Year of Witch's Night Out on this blog. I tried to interview Jon for the site last year after interviewing Tony, the guy who played Small, though it sort of fell through the cracks. This year I hope to talk more with as many people as I can find. There may have been some value to having the whole thing stay in the woodwork, a quaint little mysterious cartoon that seemed to come out of nowhere, leaving no clues to its origin, but if it's coming out of the woodwork, lets do it right!

Cross/Rogers has started out strong on this front. Though Jean and Jon, the creators, have been divorced for years, they reunited for a couple of "making of" features that the company has posted to youtube, pulling back the curtain on this cartoon for the first time.

Here's one of Jean Rankin showing off some of her original background art:



And an 18 minute clip of Jean and Jon talking and reminiscing. Jean says she couldn't stand to watch "Gift of Winter" for years, and both reveal that they were sort of embarrassed by their early work for years; "all our animation friends thought it was %^@;*," says Jon. Both have warmed up to it over the years, though. "Now, people think it's kinda cool."

This is a fascinating watch today (particularly if you're like me - a creator of all sorts of flops that you sort of want to disown now and then). Watching the two of them reminisce about a now-bygone era of animation is just wonderful:

Witch's Night Out: An Interview with "Small" (Tony Molesworth)

No Halloween cartoon seems to be remembered quite as fondly as Witch's Night Out, the 1970s cartoon that was aired for years on the Disney Channel around Halloween. As I stated in our previous article, the adventures of Small, Tender, Bazooie, and the Witch tend to live in people's collective childhood memories like that one McDonald's we were in one time in Cedar Rapids, or maybe Minneapolis, that served pizza. People everywhere are sure it existed, and remember loving it, but can't quite remember enough about it to find it again. Often, they end up on this site, where the WNO post is the most popular page by a wide margin. John Leach, the producer, is currently working on getting it back into print. (update 2014: done and done!)

"Small" in action.
Today, as a special treat, we've tracked down Tony Molesworth, who provided the voice of Small (while his girlfriend, Naomi, played Tender). He's still performing as a vaudevillian and comedian in Canada, and graciously agreed to answer a few questions for halloweenspecials.net! 


HalloweenSpecials.net: What do you remember about working on the cartoon? How did you get involved?
   In high school I was dating the Naomi the daughter of the Animators, John Leach and Jean Rankin (and who played Tender -ed). I was a performer, unicycle, comic, juggler, magician and all around clown who was performing for parties and events so they thought i was a natural. I was good at voices; I had built some ventriloquist puppets and that was also part of my act. 

Tony Molesworth, the voice of "Small"
  So they were on a home budget to make the film and John asked me if i wanted to do a voice in the film, i had done a bit of voice work for a few commercials so i jumped at the chance. 

Any "behind the scenes" stories you'd like to share? 
   I thought it was amazing how John's wife, Jean, painted all the backgrounds and then dried them in her kitchen stove there were a few layers of backdrops piled up with the stove open, then they ended up in the film. A very DIY grass roots kinda film. And it was great to meet and work with Gilda Radner; she was already a big celebrity then. 




What was the recording process like? Any anecdotes you'd like to share?
  We, like most recording studios, did each voice part separately; thats how i did Small, it was in a little recording studio in an old brick building downtown Toronto. I believe some of the other actors doubled up for some scenes. I remember everyone was in a very positive mood and all were joking around and having fun. I guess that what you would expect with a buncha clowns like that group. And John liked crazy people - as far as i could tell, he encouraged it, No feeling of work, just play. When God retires.. we need someone like him to take over this world.  

Tony as he appeared in the late 70s.


What did you think of the show when it came out? Were you aware that it had a cult following today?
 No cult following that I knew about, i thought the film was great, i liked the clown-cartoon feel of it and its universal characters. And i liked John a lot. He had a great sense of humor
and it was a laid back cool sorta hippy house, I had lots of dinners with them and let stay over there all the time.  



Just for fun - if a "fairy godmother" offered to change you into some sort of monster for one night, what would you pick? 
Small..... lol.....  I'm into saints not monsters, saints don't sleep at night, the halos keep them awake.. monsters don't look good in halos.... lol  

How long has it been since you watched the show? 
I have not seen it since it was made

What are you up to these days? I see that you're still doing a lot of performing! 
 I have been full time in the comedy biz, cruise ships, corporates, headlining comedy club, fringe and music festivals, opening acts for bands, and opening acts with celeb comics like  Howie Mandel. I created an art deck of yoga cards on computer; they are very popular. I never stop writing comedy, songs, shows, bits,  I have an kids animation movie i am working on, and  a few new one man shows I'll be touring the next summer, and almost finished my first book. One of my new projects i will releasing a music CD, I play melodic and bluegrass styles of banjo and have written some magical and mystical songs, with a universal spiritual flavor.  My new music site will be up in Feb 2014 www.anantta.com . ... you asked!


Thank Peace Infinity 
Tony Molesworth.

Thanks for talking with us, Tony! And readers, stay tuned for our upcoming interview with John Leach himself!

1995: The Ketchup Vampires

Long about 1985, my friend and I used to sit on top of a set of monkey bars. We'd pretend that it was a space ship or a WW-1 style plane, and that we were under attack by some group called The Ketchup Vampires. "Fire mustard!" we'd shout. When that failed to blow them out of the sky, we'd shout "Fire horse relish!"  (we were about confused about the actual names of condiments).

A decade later or so, in the late 1990s, I happened upon a VHS tape called The Ketchup Vampires 2 at Blockbuster and figured that that must have been where we got the idea. But the tape was dated a few years too late for us to have seen it, so it was sort of a mystery. Naturally, I rented the video out to see what it was was, even though they only had part 2, not part 1.

What it was, was awful. It was apparently a foreign cartoon that had been badly dubbed into English and was pretty much impossible to watch, despite some decent animation (or decent backgrounds, anyway). I seem to recall that you could still hear the German audio track in the background. Information on this thing is scarce even now, but it seems that The Ketchup Vampires was a short-lived series in Germany that spawned a couple of 90 minute specials that were then released in the States with narration by Elvira. Sources differ as to whether the videos are the specials or a whole season of cartoons edited into individual movies. The latter explanation would explain a lot.


The movies were released in 1995 and 96, a full decade after our monkey bars game, so this wasn't where we got the idea for it. It couldn't have been. Even if it EXISTED (and enough people seem to think of it as an "80s movie" that I'm willing to concede that it might be older than the VHS release implies, though I found no evidence), we probably wouldn't have sat through it. And man, we sat through a lot of crap in those days.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of vampires who, according to the theme song, would "rather kiss you than kill you." I don't want them to do either of those things to me. As the name implies, they eat ketchup - and various "ketchup products" - rather than drinking blood. This sort of conceit has worked well enough for others; Bruce Coville did a book in which Dracula drinks V8 juice, and a couple of my own books with vampires had them drinking a vegetable compound that was developed during the Civil War and found to be more satisfying than blood (I needed some plausible reason that they could be let into high schools after "coming out of the coffin.") And, no, contrary to some popular youtube comments, I can't imagine that this cartoon was the inspiration for Stephanie Meyer's "vegetarian" vampires, who still drink blood, just not human blood. It's an easy joke for when you want to have vampires, but need them not to be too violent.

Having seen this cartoon years before writing those books of my own, I do wonder if maybe it was lurking somewhere deep in my subconscious when I wrote out I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, but I somehow doubt it, because only now, 15 years after I came up with the initial version of this page, after years of scouring the world for new specials to write about, have I even remembered that this thing existed.

I'm usually willing to forgive the real stinkers on the grounds that nostalgia is nostalgia, and quality doesn't always figure into these things. But I doubt that many people could watch this and feel particularly nostalgic. For one thing, I don't think very many people ever saw it to start with, and I think that even fewer people saw more than a few minutes of it before getting bored and going to do something else. Even at age 5.

I can picture the scenario in which this would get watched. The lady down the street whose house you go to after school is having some of "The Girls" over, and needs you and the other kids she watches to be quiet. So she rented this cartoon, and unless it's an emergency, you're all to sit quietly and watch the cartoon until it's over. But even then, and even if said Lady Down the Street was one of those mean ones who wasn't ABOUT to let you do anything else besides watch the movie, your mind would wander. You would focus on picking your nose, scratching out shapes in your arm with your fingernail...pretty much anything. Or stare at the window, maybe, where the trees swaying in the branches were putting on a better show than what was on the screen.

Then again, googling around shows that there ARE people who don't hate this, so I suppose it takes all kinds of kinds. Many maintain that Ketchup Vampires 2 is a LOT better than the first installment, which is sort of terrifying.

All that said, The Ketchup Vampires 2 has some good visuals, and the songs WILL stick in your head. It may be that they could have edited this down into a really fun 20 minute cartoon. Information about it scant enough that I'm not totally sure that it didn't exist, at least in Germany, when my friend and I were playing on the monkey bars, but how we would have heard of it is completely beyond me. Here's the intro to part 1, if you're so inclined, with a catchy theme song:




And part 2, the one I saw:


1982: Bunnicula

James Howe's 1979 novel Bunnicula belongs in the pantheon of cozy mysteries in which the story is narrated by a great detective's roommate, ala Watson narrating the Sherlock Holmes stories, or Archie telling the stories of Nero Wolfe. Sure, in this instance the narrator is a talking dog named Harold, the detective skills of Chester the Cat are probably questionable, but the venerable children's book maintains a certain coziness and charm, as the two household pets investigate the theory that the new pet rabbit, Bunnicula, is a vampire. After all, the vegetables in the house are being drained of color. There's not much harm in this, but, as Chester says, "Today, vegetables...tomorrow, the world!"

Re-reading Bunnicula this week was a pleasure - it's a very smart book; smarter, in many ways, than we can get away with in a 90 page middle grade book today. Like a great many middle grade books from that era, the father of the house is an English professor (fathers seem as though they're almost always writers or professors in smart kids' books of the '60s-'80s). In the end, Chester is in therapy, reading books with titles like Finding Yourself by Screaming a Lot.

The book spawned several sequels, incluing The Celery Stalks at Midnight, my own pick for the best comic horror title of all time, and an animated one-off special that was aired as an ABC Weekend Special in fall, 1982.

The cartoon varies quite a bit from the plot of the book. Here, the father works at a factory, and the factory is being shut down due to strange vampire-like activity. Harold and Chester, the dog and cat, are a bit more, well, cartoonish than their cozy counterparts in the book. It all ends in a big chase scene inside of the factory, during which Bunnicula exhibits explicit vampire powers (which also never happens in the book).

Compared to the book, the cartoon seems like a real disaster. But taking the cartoon on its own, it's really not bad at all; visually, and in terms of the plot and the humor, it comes off like a second-string Scooby Doo episode (which is a darn sight better than a third-string one). It has the visual look of an early Scooby, and even some voices that sounds Scooby-like, and the same general premise of a big chase scene as we find out that the real culprit in the factory was a bunch of wolves or coyotes or something, not an actual vampire.



Judged on its own merits, Bunnicula is a pretty enjoyable 22 minute cartoon. If you enjoyed it as a kid, it will be fun to revisit now. And you can, thanks to youtube:


1988: The Canterville Ghost (animated)

Very little information exists about this 1988 half hour special, which was aired Sept 26, 1988, apparently (based on the data in the circulating video file) on the USA network. It does look like something they would have shown on USA back then. Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson) provides one of the voices. Some remember it playing on USA in the 1990s in a double feature, perhaps with Double Double Toil and Trouble (an Olson Twins affair) and Trick or Treason, an Alvin and the Chipmunks flop from 1994 that was nowhere near as good as their Wolf Man movie.

With stylized animation that makes it look like a 16 bit version of the style of Witch's Night Out, or perhaps WNO cross-bred with one of those picture books they'd animate a little on Reading Rainbow, this is probably fairly gorgeous in good quality (though the circulating video, which was made available by halloweenshows dot net , is a bit rough).

About as rare as these specials get, this edition of The Canterville Ghost actually seems to generate more interest (certainly more emails from fans) than the 1986 live action movie that featured Alyssa Milano, with many people in particular remembering the sequence in which Sir Simon talks about the death of his wife.

 Plenty of people have made movie and cartoon versions of Oscar Wilde's short story, and it seems to be made for the format: the story of a ghost having trouble scaring the people who move into his house is an easy generator for Home Alone-style pranks and laughs - and this version plays up the humor much more effectively than most of them do, as poor Sir Simon is tormented by the young twins and offered some lubricant for his chains by the father.  However, it's only like this for the first two thirds. After that, it abruptly turns into a much sadder story, as Sir Simon tells Virginia how he let his wife go riding one day, and the carraige went off a bridge. They found her drowned body the next day, and he himself wound up buried in an unmarked grave, unmourned. You don't see a lot of cartoons talking about unmarked graves. Virginia has to mourn over Simon's grave, then help him learn to forgive himself so he can go from haunting the attic to the "beautiful garden" in the next world. It's a night and day switch from the tone of the first two-thirds.

It's this portion that keeps the story from simply being a Looney Tunes romp, but it's tends to make for an uneven story that turns too quickly from pure comedy to pure tragedy (with a lot of Victorian-style sentiment in most cases).

In this version, though, it seems to be the dark sequence towards the end that lives in peoples' memories. The scene (illustrated with a few non-moving painted backgrounds) in which Sir Simon's wife rides off, and the scene of the edge of the carraige poking from the water, are said to have inspired a few nightmares.

 But the whole piece is really as good an adaptation of the story as I've seen, and the animation is really quite unique, like a really cool picture book come to life.

On Sleepy Hollow (2013 TV series)

On the show Community, they occasionally show clips of of a Doctor Who parody called Inspector Spacetime. The Inspector and his companion will crash-land somewhere, and the companion will say "Where are we, Inspector?" to which the Inspector replies, "The question isn't where, but....when?"

This line appears, almost verbatim, in the first episode of the new Sleepy Hollow TV show, which I've taken to describing as "If Inspector Spacetime crash-landed in Twin Peaks." I can't do much better to describe than my fellow Firebrand Literary survivor Scott Neumyer did in his Rolling Stone review, which was entitled "Sleepy Hollow Is Batshit Crazy." But I mean all this as a compliment. Sure, the show may make very little sense, really, but it has foggy graveyards, catacombs full of the bones of dead witches, dusty old books full of ancient secrets, and some pretty slick coffins. And, now and then, a headless horseman. I'll give pretty much anything with a headless horseman in it a shot.

Now, this show and its premise have almost nothing to do with the original Legend of Sleepy Hollow. To refresh, the story there is that in the early 1800s, a lanky New Englander named Ichabod Crane comes to Sleepy Hollow, New York, to teach school. While there, he becomes enamored with a coquette named Katrina Van Tassel, whose father owns a heck of a farm. After being strung along by her for a while, he's chased out of town by the Headless Horseman, the chief among all the local ghosts. It's said to be the ghost of a Hessian soldier from the Revolution that had taken place in living memory, but Washington Irving's story, the one that chases Ichabod is strongly implied to have been Brom Bones, Ichabod's romantic rival, in disguise, just trying to scare him.

Here on the show, Ichabod Crane is a British official who switched sides to fight under George Washington in the 1770s, and died in battle just after decapitating a horseman. His wife, Katrina, put him under some sort of spell that kept him asleep for more than two centuries until he wakes up in New York, where he finds that Katrina was burned as a witch in the 1790s and now inhabits some sort of world-between-worlds, like the Black Lodge only with more shrubbery, and that the horseman is actually one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Teaming up with the police officer who found him, Ichabod and Katrina now fight various demons and witches every week as they try to keep the horseman from finding his head and bringing about the end of days.

Now, there are plenty of things wrong with this. As a historian, I don't even know where to begin saying what's wrong with Katrina being burned as a witch in the 1790s. I'm hesitant to call it a "modern day take" on the old legend, since it has basically nothing to do with it (I don't think the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman exists in the world of the show). Take out the names Ichabod and Katrina, and there's basically no connection at all.

And I'm pretty sure that one day soon, perhaps as soon as next week (we're three episodes in as I write this), I'll turn the show on and realize that I no longer have any idea what the hell is going on. It happened about midway through season 2 of Twin Peaks, and about halfway through the run of The X-Files, and I doubt I'll last the whole season on this one. For now it's mostly just a "monster of the week" sort of show, but sooner or later it'll bogged down on the underlying plot and I'll lose track of things.

But for now, I'm really enjoying it. Though Ichabod's jokes about seeing a Starbucks everywhere now were a bit cheap, I enjoyed watching Ichabod adapt to the 20th century. And though I have some issues with its awful grasp on history, problematic uses of religious themes, etc, it is nice to see such a diverse cast. And it's kind of fun to watch a headless horseman with an assault rifle. He's a pretty bad shot, but, hey, how's he supposed to aim the thing without any eyes? Most Sleepy Hollow variants seem to take it for granted that the horseman can see pretty well.

And, as mentioned, it's got foggy graveyards and catacombs full of the bones of dead witches that you can apparently find just by poking around in suburban New York basements (hey, they find dead bodies all over the place; they found a whole underground chamber full of skeletons in Union Square back in the 60s).  If the show is over-the-top with its corniness and insanity, at least it knows it. It's the kind of show where if someone seems like they'd look good in a cape, they'll probably go ahead and have them wear a cape. Where a villain probably wouldn't be afraid to say "It's mine! All mine!" Where no production assistant would ever dare to utter "Hey, do you think people will wonder how come there's a fog machine going?" It's nice to see a show that seems to have no real interest in taking itself too seriously.

1987: Ghost Stories from The Pickwick Papers

How in the HELL did I never hear of this? I'm a big Dickens fan - I have a whole blog called Drink Like the Dickens in which I make drinks out of Dickens books (smoking bishop, wassail, negus, etc). And yet, somehow it escaped me that there was actually a made-for-video cartoon that functions as a Charles Dickens Halloween Special.

Dickens's first novel, The Pickwick Papers, made him a star. Something like 80% of all people who could read bought a copy, and its hardcore fans rivaled Harry Potter fans for obsessiveness (I would have loved to see what they did on Tumblr). The book, a rambling narrative in which Mr. Pickwick and his friends wander around from adventure to adventure, presented a sort of "Englishness" that everyone recognized, but which had never been captured before. I like to compare it to Clerks, which presented a sort of suburban lifestyle that much of my generation recognized at once, but had never really seen on film before.

The book hasn't held up particularly well. For a good century, it was the go-to book to mention when people were talking about the funniest book of all time, but today it's funny in an "I guess you had to be there" way. Most of the adventures seem like Laurel and Hardy shorts. But that isn't to say it's bad, by any means.

At various points in the book, presumably whenever Dickens was short on ideas, some character or another will tell a totally unrelated short story, the best known of which is probably The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, which was sort of an early version of A Christmas Carol.  Many of the stories had ghostly themes, and, in Ghost Stories From The Pickwick Papers, we get animated versions of four of the stories, strung together by a framing device in which the Pickwick Club is telling ghost stories to kill time.

Emerald City animation was making a lot of Dickens movies in those days, as well as adaptations of classics like The Phantom of the Opera. From what I can see from the previews, they all look similar to this one: gorgeously painted, but still obviously low budget work by skeleton crews.

The animation is of that Filmation style, and a lot of corners are clearly being cut. The script could stand to be a bit punchier, as it drags in places. But the visuals are so fantastic that none of this really matters. The characters themselves look a bit simple, but the backgrounds have some of the best foggy Victorian streets, tumble-down mansions, moldy graveyards, and gnarled branches in the business. The producers were not afraid to be scary, and the result is a great "Halloweenish" vibe throughout.  If only the budget had been bigger, you get the impression that this could have made a really dynamite feature film.


All quibbles aside, though, there are some really good parts here. My favorite story, both in the book and the cartoon, concerns a guy who meets a ghost in an old inn (there are a LOT of inns in this book), and asks the ghosts why ghosts are always haunting gloomy places. Why not go someplace nice? The ghost is astounded. "I never thought of that!" he says. And off he goes.

Here's it is; thanks to John Bolles for the tip.



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