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 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…’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!

1 comment:

Phillyradiogeek said...

Wow, great interview, this was awesome!

I managed to talk with James Cross, Jonathan's business partner, about the release of the specials this week. Check it out if you'd like. Thanks!


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