Three Disney Halloween Treats

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"I didn't treat my youngsters like frail flowers and I think no parent should. Life is composed of lights and shadows and we would be untruthful, insincere and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things, but there are evil things, too, and you could do a child no favor by trying to shield it from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures do." —Walt Disney WISDOM magazine 1959

As we celebrate Halloween, it is obvious that Disney has many significant connections to the holiday from films and animation (my particular favorites are The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Donald Duck short Trick or Treat) to theme park attractions like the original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, whose back story takes place on Halloween night.

While a very young boy in Marceline, Missouri, Walt and his older brother Roy earned some extra money by washing the funeral parlor's hearse. Actually, Roy did all the work. Walt spent the day laying in the back playing dead.

When an unsuspecting citizen walked by, Walt, with his unblinking eyes staring forward, would rise slowly from the back with his arms crossed across his chest. Apparently, he did it all day while an irritated Roy patiently kept working.

On October 16, 1957, Imagineer Ken Anderson, who had a long list of animation and Imagineering credits, submitted to Walt a concept for the proposed Disneyland haunted house with a Halloween eve feeling. Here is his description of the Headless Horseman encounter as guests gazed out huge windows toward a graveyard:

"Commence with a windy moonlit night with the reflection of the moon in the bayou beyond the graveyard. The clouds will obscure the moon and distant flashes of lightning and sounds of thunder will next be heard. While the sky is darkening, the ghostly apparition of the Headless Horseman will fade into view or appear from behind a distant tree and gallop toward the graveyard and house from right to left foreground.

"He will disappear behind some trees to the left, but the sound of his horse's approaching hoof beats will continue to grow louder. Suddenly, he bursts into view in the courtyard just outside the windows and gallops across from left to right… reining to a noisy halt just out of view below the balcony on our right.

"His cape is the only part of him we need to see at this last crossing, since the shrubs will obscure the horse. His cape must match in color and value with the previous projected mirage. Next, a bolt of lightning against the sky and a werewolf's howl signal the appearance of the ghosts rising from the tombs, first one, and then two, and more, until ghosts are materializing from the earth around the tombs as well as the tombs themselves. (1st part is projection with Ub Iwerks' special loop projector using Kronar based film. 2nd part is florescent Japanese silk cape on a wire frame and moved by an aluminum arm from above past the windows. Match the color to the projected image.)"

Here are three other Halloween-related short Disney stories:

Disneyland Frontierland: Ray Bradbury Halloween Tree

On October 31, 2007, 87-year-old, wheelchair-bound author Ray Bradbury attended the dedication of a Halloween Tree at Frontierland in Disneyland that was to be included as part of its annual park-wide Halloween decorations every year.

It followed a special, private dinner ceremony at Club 33 hosted by Imagineers Tony Baxter, Marty Sklar and Tim Delaney celebrating the 35th anniversary of Bradbury's book. Bradbury told stories for about 15 minutes about his connection with Disney and his great affection for Disneyland.

The Halloween Tree is a 1972 fantasy novel by Bradbury, which traces the history of Samhain and Halloween. A group of eight boys (dressed in iconic costumes like a skeleton, grim reaper, mummy, Jack-O-Lantern, etc.) set out to go trick-or-treating on Halloween, only to discover that Pip, a ninth friend, is on the verge of death.

Led by the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud, they must pursue their friend's spirit across time and space to rescue him. The kids travel on a giant patchwork kite, pieced together from the leftover scraps of a hundred carnival posters and powered by Moundshroud's magic.

Along the way, they learn the origins of the spooky holiday. The Halloween Tree itself, with its many branches laden with jack-o'-lanterns, serves as a metaphor for the historical connection of these many different traditions.

The tree in Disneyland's Frontierland is based on the Ray Bradbury story.

In October 1966, Bradbury and his daughters sat down together to watch the Halloween special It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and none of them liked it. They were all disappointed that The Great Pumpkin didn't show up and felt it wasn't a proper Halloween film at all.

Bradbury complained about it over lunch to his friend, animator Chuck Jones, who agreed with him. He soon brought Jones an oil painting of a Halloween Tree Bradbury had made a few years before, a dark, haunting tree decorated with jack-o-lanterns swaying from its autumn branches.

Jones arranged for MGM to hire Bradbury to write a half-hour animated special for Jones to produce and direct. However, soon afterward, MGM closed its animation department and the script was never filmed, but Bradbury adapted it into a written story.

In 1993, Bradbury wrote another screenplay based on the novel, but with some changes (like including a girl as one of the trick-or-treaters) for a feature-length animated version for television for which he won an Emmy Award for outstanding writing of an animated program. He provided the narration for that Hanna-Barbera production as well.

After that special banquet at Club 33, Bradbury was taken outside with the rest of the attendees for an unexpected dedication. An oak tree near the Golden Horseshoe Saloon was designated to be the representation of Bradbury's Halloween Tree during the Halloween season and is decorated with nearly 1,500 glowing red and orange lights and roughly 50 different hand-painted jack-o-lanterns.

Bradbury, a longtime Disney fan who knew Walt personally, had collaborated with the Imagineers on some Disney projects, including Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

"I belong here in Disneyland, ever since I came here 50 years ago. I'm glad I'm going to be a permanent part of the spirit of Halloween and Disneyland," said Bradbury at the dedication as he pulled the stem of a lighted jack-o-lantern to light up the tree. He added "I know the ghost of Walt Disney is blessing me this very moment."

Bradbury would visit the tree several times before he died in 2012.

A plaque featuring some of the mask imagery from the book at the base of the tree commemorates the night of its dedication: "On the night of Halloween 2007, this stately oak officially became 'The Halloween Tree,' realizing famed author Ray Bradbury's dream of having his symbol for the holiday become a permanent part of Disneyland."

Brad Kaye, Creative Entertainment art director at Disneyland Resort, who helped decorate that very first Halloween Tree stated, "As a fan of [Bradbury's] books, it was really an honor. For the first year, [Walt Disney Imagineers] Tony Baxter, Kim Irvine, and I sat in front of the Golden Horseshoe late one night and 'magic-markered' all the pumpkins. In the years following, park enhancement has done a wonderful job of keeping it up in all its Halloween glory."

"As the tree gets older and bigger, it will get more and more décor every year," Baxter said.

During Halloween, the Disney Cruise Line ships put up a Pumpkin Tree in the lobby as an homage to Bradbury's Halloween Tree.

Ben Cooper Disney Halloween Costumes

From 1937 to 1992, Ben Cooper Inc. was one of the largest Halloween costume manufacturers in the United States. The inexpensive plastic masks (made from "virgin vinyl") held on the face by a rubber band and sleeveless vinyl smocks were a part of most children's Halloween trick-or-treating rituals, especially from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The company had originally begun as a vaudeville and masquerade costume company in Brooklyn, New York (even making costumes for the famous Cotton Club nightclub and the Ziegfeld Follies) founded by brothers Ben and Nat Cooper.

They soon saw the opportunity to become the kings of children's inexpensive costumes for Halloween (which started to rise in popularity in the 1930s) because of their assumption that kids liked to dress up when they played, and that parents in more urban cities often didn't have the time to make the costumes for their children.

The company had assumed control of A.S. Fishbach Inc., which had an existing license to produce costumes based on Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White. They began selling Disney costumes under Fishbach's Spotlight brand and the two companies officially merged as Ben Cooper Inc. in December 1942. The first masks were made with gauze and later rubber.

While there were other children Halloween costume manufacturers, like Collegeville and Halco, Ben Cooper Inc.'s rights to the Disney characters helped establish it as the largest and most prominent company and helped it to get other high profile properties like Superman.

Their costumes were sold through major retailers, like J.C.Penney and Sears, and dime stores like Woolworth's, in boxes for $1-$3.

As Nat's son, Ira told writer Michael Eury:

"They got the existing Disney license when they purchased the other company. They would take trips to the West Coast to get approval for various new designs. For instance, Mickey was popular, but he evolved as to his looks so that he became more and more kid friendly. There must have been five to six changes to Donald Duck over a 10-year period. Snow White was next, and the prospect of success was not necessarily optimistic. But like Walt who they knew, Ben and Nat saw the value in the sheer quality of what Disney was producing and so they risked it. Superman approached Mickey Mouse in volume—but not overall, as Mickey sold to a wider age range of kids. In those days, Superman was strictly for boys ages 8 and up."

As Ira told writer Matt Artz:

"I know one of their earliest visits to Disney was when he was still at the Hyperion Studio. My sense of it is that Walt was a pretty busy man but always made time for them. There was a time in the early '60s, I must have been about 7 or 8 years old, where we had lunch in the Disney dining room, and they had previously met with him. So when he came into lunch, we were instructed not to go over and say 'hello'. But it was clear that everybody knew each other. I think in the early years, when Snow White and Cinderella and all those things were coming out, I think those were critical meetings, where there were real decisions made on what they were going to produce for the company. And there was always a difference of what was produced for sale in Disneyland, which came later, and what was going to be out in the marketplace. The walls of our early office were lined with original cels from Snow White signed by Walt to Ben and Nat."

To produce costumes in time for the Halloween season, the company had to begin production eight to ten months beforehand and it might take weeks to get final approval on a mask. At one point, Disney leaned on Ben Cooper Inc. to produce character costumes to promote the release of The Black Hole and those did not sell well.

In 1982, roughly a month before Halloween, several people, including a child, died after taking Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. It set off a nationwide panic that something could be so easily poisoned, so parents worried that someone might attempt the same thing with Halloween candy. Sales of candy at grocery stores dropped almost 50 percent that year and many parents did not take their children trick-or-treating.

The holiday custom started to shift to indoor parties and more adults began participating demanding a higher quality cloth costume. While Ben Cooper Inc. did make cloth costumes, they were much costlier to produce. The company continued to hang on through the 1980s, thanks to its many popular licenses but eventually was bought in 1992 by Rubie's Costume Company that dissolved the name and operations.

Some of the earlier costumes are considered highly collectible and can be priced at several-hundred or even thousands of dollars because few survived in good shape or complete because they were meant to be worn by children. Even the Disney boxes are coveted because most were thrown away after the costume was removed.

Tim Burton's Disney Channel Halloween Special

When most Disney fans think of Tim Burton in connection with Disney, the first things that usually come to mind are The Nightmare Before Christmas, Frankenweenie, Alice in Wonderland and perhaps even the wonderful short Vincent, about a boy who wanted to grow up to be Vincent Price.

I doubt many if any Disney fans think of Hansel and Gretel, a thirty-five minute live action Disney television special of the famous story directed by Tim Burton and written by Julie Hickson that aired only once on the Disney Channel on Halloween night October 31, 1983, on the series Walt Disney Studio Showcase.

A recently discovered and restored version has only been shown a handful of other times over the decades at Tim Burton retrospective film shows around the world.

The Disney Channel Magazine indicated another airing was scheduled for October 29, 1983, but there is no confirmation that it was shown at that time. Supposedly Burton was embarrassed by the final production and Disney executives found it too dark and disturbing.

To promote the show on April 26 1983 the Walt Disney Studio Showcase had an episode eitled Backstage at Disney with animation historian John Culhane. The show included a three minute segment of Burton and production designer Rick Henrichs discussing their films Vincent and Hansel and Gretel.

Costing $116,000 and filmed on 16mm film, the live-action Hansel and Gretel special featured a cast of amateur Asian actors; Japanese toys and kung fu fights blended with Burton's distinctive designs working with Heinrichs who made the three-dimensional models.

It reflected Burton's interest in Japanese toys (which is why he made the father a toymaker rather than the traditional woodsman) and the Godzilla movies and featured highly stylized, surrealistic sets familiar to fans of Burton's work. The production incorporated puppets, forced perspective and some stop motion animation.

It had a short, live introduction by actor Vincent Price, because the showing also included the Burton stop motion animated short Vincent, narrated by Price so that the entire program would be 45 minutes long. The music for the special was done by John Costa who was the music director for the television series Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood for approximately 30 years.

The story follows the traditional tale with unexpected Burton twists.

A poor toymaker (Jim Ishida) and his son and daughter (Andy Lee and Allison Hong) suffer under the toymaker's wicked new wife (Michael Yama) who hates Hansel and Gretel. During an altercation during dinner, the two children are sent to their dark attic bedroom where their father later comes and tries to cheer them up with a performance by a small clown puppet named Jocko and a few cookies. He also leaves a small toy swan to watch over them.

The next morning, the stepmother tries to lose the children in the forest, but they find their way home thanks to some small stones Hansel has dropped along the way. The next day while the father is in town trying to sell his toys, the stepmother again tries to lose them in the forest. She gives them a toy duck that eats the trail of stones they leave behind them to help find their way home.

While they are sleeping at night in the forest, the toy duck transforms into a small toy robot that leads them to a house made of gingerbread and candy that oozes out of its walls. The witch with a curved candy cane nose who lives there (also played by Yama, who played the stepmother) lures them inside with promises of sweet treats. She tells them the furniture, like the chairs and table, are real candy and the two children greedily enjoy devouring them completely.

Tired, they are led by the witch to two marshmallow beds that capture them with candy cane arms. The bed drops Hansel into a large room with a huge mobile of Dan Dan, the gingerbread man (a puppet voiced by David Koenigsberg) who insists Hansel eat him so that Hansel will be fattened up for the witch's meal. Hansel does eat some of the gingerbread man, but comes to his senses and shatters the creepy clown's head into pieces.

Meanwhile, the witch has taken Gretel down to the kitchen to help heating the oven to bake Hansel. Two long candy cane arms drop from the mobile above Hansel and bring him to the kitchen. Before he can be put into the oven, Gretel grabs the fire iron and hits the witch with it. The witch and Gretel engage in a kung fu style battle using cookie cutters, candy cane nunchucks and throwing star cookies. Hansel breaks free to join the fight.

When the witch makes a flying kick, the children duck out of the way and she flies into her own oven and is trapped. The house begins to melt into a pool of colored frosting while Hansel and Gretel escape just in time.

A toy swan their father had given them earlier appears out of the melted candy and enlarges into the form of a boat and takes the children back home. The father explains that their wicked stepmother is gone for good, which is why it is so quiet now. The swan boat begins to spout gold coins from its mouth providing the money the poor family needed to live happily ever after.

At best, the film is an interesting curiosity, but the pacing is very slow and uneven and the acting is very amateurish. It is very much as if someone made a home movie or even a student film, but did not have the professional expertise to make its ideas come to life. It may be a scary Halloween treat, but for all the wrong reasons.

A Happy Halloween to all MousePlanet readers and make sure to save some candy for me!



  1. By RJSmith

    Jim, thank you once again for a wonderful article on Walt, Disneyland and the fun trivia that seems to be so abundant. It makes visiting the park that much more special and gives a person ideas of how to bring some of that magic into their own personal life/space. We just might work on our own adaptation of a Halloween Tree!

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.