When I was in grade school, they used to push the heck out of an annual Halloween party for younger kids that would be put on at the high school. The fliers they sent home with us made this look like a costume party for the ages, and I suppose I imagined it as being not unlike the party from the end of The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t. Or perhaps even the really wild party from Teen Wolf.
I finally managed to go in second grade, and was I horribly disappointed. After the costume contest, which I lost to a kid who had a fancy store-bought mask from Spencer Gifts, they sat us down to watch a movie using the old film projector. It started out seeming promising enough: a man said, “I hope you’re feeling brave, because we’re going into a very scary place.” So far, so good.
But that “scary place” was the average household, and the movie was half an hour of Bugs Bunny narrating tips for household safety. Boy, was I mad! They set us up for a good Halloween video, then show us a freaking safety movie. That night might have been the night I did the most swearing under my breath of my young life, an art I perfected later that year playing right field in Little League games that seemed to go on for years without anyone ever hitting the ball into right field. I was already mad that my mummy costume - a combination of a flimsy vinyl mask and a whole lot of toilet paper - had lost to some kid with a fancier mask, and now they’d pulled this crap on us.
I started off with wonderful nostalgic feeling as I slipped the tape into the VCR (just doing THAT is almost nostalgic now) and saw the balloon logo for the Children’s Video Library come onscreen as the mellow keyboardy woodwind music played. This really did take me back to a whole world of similar low-end cartoons that I watched as a kid, but haven’t tapped for nostalgia yet.
Then the show opened with two kids, Lulu and Tom, going into a pumpkin patch in their Halloween costumes, accompanied by an odd fellow named Mr. Scrabble who is referred to as their “friend and servant.” He reminded me of Fred from Scooby Doo. So we had a nice autumnal background and kids in costumes talking about going to a Halloween party, and I was feeling nostalgic. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, all references to Halloween and all of the Halloweenish atmosphere that you get in the first minute are over by minute two. At that point, the characters fall down a hole in a giant pumpkin that leads them into a strange town called Nonsense. In Nonsense, all the signs are missing letters, and what letters they have are sometimes in the wrong order (ie, the school sign says SCHL). Horrors!
In 1984, I suppose everyone was trying to launch their famous brand as a Care Bears-style multimedia property. Of all the companies that tried, the people from Scrabble probably did the worst job out of anyone. The “Scrabble People” were designed by the same company who made the Cabbage Patch Kids, and you can see some similarities; the Scrabble People look sort of like the Cabbage Patch Kids might have looked if the designers had done a really half-assed job. “Mr. Scrabble,” in particular, makes no sense to me - his relationship to these kids is never quite explained, leaving me with the uncomfortable feeling that he was some weirdo who took those kids into the pumpkin patch to perform unspeakable acts.
Anyway, Mr. Scrabble and the kids find out that no one in town is allowed to read or write, because their evil overlord , The Muddler (who looks like a goofier version of the Mad Doctor from Mickey Mouse and the Mad Doctor, who was much scarier), has made such things illegal in order to make sure he’s always better than everyone else, since he can read and write. A great many of what jokes there are here are tasteless fat jokes at the expense of the Muddler’s daughter, Rotunda, who demands that Mr. Scrabble marry her. “Is there anything my fiance would like before he walks down the aisle?” the insufferable girl asks. “A very narrow aisle,” Mr. Scrabble replies.
From there, with the help of a princess in exile who knows how to read, the people of Nonsense learn that letters can be made into “their very own words,” and fight for what the back cover describes as “the freedom to read and spell.”
The freedom to spell. Now there’s something our founding fathers had on their minds when they crapped themselves to death of dysentery during the brutal winter at Valley Forge. I realize that some people spell stuff for fun, but did you ever wonder who came up with the idea of spelling bees? Who was the first person who said, ‘I know, guys, let’s all stand around and spell stuff!” What a nut that person must have been.
Outside of the general nostalgia of watching a cartoon on VHS, the best part of this one, to me, was taking a certain delight in how alarmingly un-PC it all was in regards to the character of Rotunda. Now, Rotunda is not a nice person - when her father sentences a boy to a year in a dungeon for wanting to put letters on the signs, she lobbies for two years before falling through the floor (as she’s wont to do). She could almost be a fun villain with a few tweaks. But what’s shocking about her is how free the show is with the cheap fat jokes at her expense. Even at the end, when books are restored to the world and people are being nice to her, someone thoughtfully gives her a diet book.
In the end, I felt bad for the kids who turned this on on Halloween, 1985, when it aired in a handful of local markets. They wanted a Halloween special and got an edutainment video that made no attempt at all to be scary. The animation was decent (I was amused that it looked as though it could have been made any time between about 1947 and 1987), but really, who cares?
There are moments in the script when I can tell the writer wasn’t as bad as the concept forced him to be, so I wasn’t too surprised to look him (George Atkins) up and find that he had quite a list of credits, including episodes of Ducktales, Pound Puppies and The Real Ghostbusters, as well as The Bullwinkle Show. I’m more inclined to blame the producers for this one. A revision or two might have made this one pretty neat, in a Phantom Tollbooth sort of way, except that giving the Scrabble People something to do was probably a requirement, and those guys just dragged the whole thing down.
Maybe I’m being too hard on it. Maybe I’m just mad about the ol’ bait-n-switch they pulled on me in 1988. The Scrabble People tried to entertain kids while teaching them stuff, which is a noble thing to try, and I suppose I wouldn’t have minded this, maybe I even would have liked it, if we’d watched it during class in kindergarten and nobody told me it was supposed to be a Halloween cartoon in the first place. The Scrabble People, in any case, never even got into our cultural vocabulary to the extent that, say, Sweet Pickles did. There were a few Scrabble People books and toys, but there were no more videos. All it did for me now was bring back those old feelings that I got when I was duped into watching that safety film after losing a costume contest to a little asshole in a store-bought mask.
And that Bugs Bunny thing they showed us? I believe it was a piece called An Ounce of Prevention. It’s never been released on video at all - only 16mm prints. Extant descriptions say that it showed graphic scenes of burn victims, which I somehow don’t recall at all, even though they were probably far more gruesome than any costume from that night.