Halloweentown: An Oral History With The Cast & Crew

Photo: Everett.
Before people my age knew Debbie Reynolds was a Golden Age-era screen star (and long before we heard stories about her love triangle with Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor) she was just Halloweentown's Grandma Cromwell — an ancient witch with attitude.

The made-for-TV movie first aired on the Disney Channel back in 1998; nearly two decades later, it's certainly showing its age. But while the film lacks the bells and whistles of today's movie magic (and, if we're being honest, those goblin masks are a little ridiculous) Halloweentown did manage to capture the Halloween spirit in a way that endures to this day.

Of course, she's far from the only memorable Halloweentown character: Kimberly J. Brown played Marnie, the tween witch who butted heads with her mother over their Halloween heritage. The Cromwell women: Her mother Gwen (Judith Hoag), her sister Piper, and grandma Agatha "Aggie" Cromwell — were all witches. Gwen was determined to force them all to lead normal human lives. But when Marie and the kids sneak out of the house and follow their grandmother to Halloweentown, they get caught up in an evil plot to return the metropolis to the dark ages. So here you have it: an oral history of Halloweentown, with behind the scenes insight from the movie's cast and crew.

Arriving in Halloweentown
Before she was cast as Marnie, Kimberly J. Brown was a successful Broadway child star. The summer of Halloweentown was a busy one, she says, because she was also in production for an independent feature that went to Sundance. Judith Hoag starred in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990. DuWayne Dunham had directed some episodes of Twin Peaks and Homeward Bound, and liked working on movies his kids could see. Before this TV movie turned into a franchise and a festival, it was just another project waiting to be picked up by the relatively new kids channel.

DuWayne Dunham, director: "The Disney Channel was just starting to make these kinds of family movies. I had come in and met with them and they gave me this project called Halloweentown. It was very well-written, it just was big, because it was written as a feature. We spent some time trying to keep the integrity of the story but get it down, where we could afford to make the movie.

"It was a fun, fun shoot because we were in this little town, up north of Portland, Oregon. The town was kind of deserted. We took over the whole town square, everything. It was ideal — like shooting on the back lot."

Kimberly J. Brown, who played Marie Cromwell: "I did the first Halloweentown when I was 13. It was the fourth ever original movie that Disney Channel had ever done. The town square itself really added to that whole magical feel. Especially the way that they dressed it up and everything. Being a young teen in there, it was so exciting to be a part of it.

"I'm doing the Spirit of Halloweentown Festival this year, in St. Helens, Oregon, which is where we shot the first Halloweentown movie. Last year’s event was my first time being back since 1998. It looked exactly like I remembered it. Even the outside of the movie theater. They still put a big jack-o-lantern in the middle of the square like in the movie for the festival every year."

Judith Hoag, who played Gwen Cromwell: "I had an agent, it was just another audition. Michael Healey, who was a head of Disney Channel, had a son who was a big Ninja Turtles fan. I was in the first movie. When I walked in, Michael said ‘I’m so excited that you’re here, we’re huge Ninja Turtles fans in our house.’ At some point I did a little autograph for his son, and posed for photos. So I was like, Oh this is good. This is working out nicely. I thought that it was a sweet script. And hearing that Debbie Reynolds was attached to it, I was like 'I’m in!"

DD: “I'm not quite sure the genesis of how Debbie got involved. We wanted something of a name [to get involved], and Debbie Reynolds is terrific. We all jumped at the opportunity to work with her. And she was, she was great! [Laughs] You know, comes from the school of one take. ‘What's the matter, I didn't do it right? I have to do it again?’ [she'd ask]. It was great.”
Photo: Photofest.
'Debbie glides into a room'
On set and off, Debbie Reynolds (who couldn't participate in this story) was a guiding figure on the Halloweentown set. She’d spent decades in the Hollywood studio system, gone through a Brangelina-level love triangle with Eddie Fisher, and is the mother of Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher. That last claim to fame is how she introduced herself on-set, recalled her Halloweentown colleagues. “When she showed up on set the first day, she said 'Hello, hello! I’m Princess Leia’s mother,'"Hoag said. “And I looked at her like “What the hell are you talking about, you’re Debbie Reynolds!”

JH: “When we were shooting, I was in her trailer one day. She’d had a hotel in Vegas, and it didn’t do well. It was at a time when that brand of hotel just wasn’t as successful. She said, ‘Well it’s on the chopping block! My life is one series of fascinating disasters after another.’ I just thought Oh my God, I love this woman. She’s a bonafide grande dame broad extraordinaire. Debbie glides into a room.”

KJB: “By the time we started production, I believe I had seen The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which is such a great movie. I knew that she had done Singing in the Rain, and some other films, but I hadn't seen a ton of her work. With young kids, she still introduces herself as Princess Leia's mom, which is always fun to see.”

DD: “Debbie came from a school of acting where you came prepared, and you knew your stuff, and you delivered. It should be one take, and move on. I think she was an education and an inspiration to all of the other actors, especially the young kids.”

KJB: “Over the years, as I got older and got to know her more, we just had so much fun on set. And she was a big champion of mine, which I always appreciated. She always looked out for me.”

On set in Halloweentown
There's a sense when you're watching these Disney movies that one day they just appeared. Production on this movie was like any other — Brown was a 13-year-old running around a movie set, Hoag sometimes had to wrangle with the kids and keep them focused. Dunham — who directed several other Disney Channel movies after this one — called Halloweentown's production a "labor of love."

JH: "Gwen was described to me as a Martha Stewart kind of character, back during her pre-prison days. She was the quintessential perfect person: Her house was perfect and her hair was perfect. Everything she cooked was perfect. But when I went to my first fitting, I had the most imperfect wardrobe waiting for me. It had been tailored imperfectly. I had a hard time coming out of my trailer that day because I felt so uncomfortable. I didn't think the character was right at all.

"I thought Gwen is pretending to be something that she's not, and she wasn’t doing it well. [My character] didn’t want them to celebrate Halloween even though I was from Halloweentown. So the fact that my hair was awkward and my clothes didn’t fit actually was kind of perfect. I thought Gwen doesn't feel comfortable in your skin because she's not comfortable in her skin.

KJB: “The broom flying scene in the first movie was probably one of my favorites to shoot. That was actually our last day. We did it in front of a big blue scene in the studio, and I just remember that just feeling like a special day because it was Debbie and I up on a broom for hours.”

DD: “We tried to populate this story with some real funny characters: Benny, the taxi driver was pretty funny. And we had the two-headed coffee-drinker. One of my favorites was the big fat guy who went in the steam room and shrunk up, and came out real skinny. We just did funny things like that that kept it light and entertaining, and really kept the story moving.

"When you’re making these kinds of movies, it’s important to never talk down to your audience. Just because a person, a viewer, might be considered a child, or you know, young, it doesn't mean that they're not sophisticated. That was Walt Disney's big thing: never talk down to the kids. They'll get it."
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Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Halloweentown Nostalgia
It’s seems hard to remember now, but when Halloweentown aired on the Disney Channel in October 1998, the channel was relatively new. But action-filled TV movies made with high production values proved lucrative. By the time the series’ fourth installment, Return to Halloweentown, aired in 2006, it was the fourth most popular Disney Channel Original Movie of all time. Everyone has moved on now — Dunham is working with David Lynch on Twin Peaks. Hoag has been on Nashville since the show's first season. Brown is working on personal projects, but when she isn't lighting jack-o-lanterns in St. Helens, she says she's still recognized for the Halloween film.

KJB: “I have three nephews and I have some very good friends who have little kids. My nephew calls Halloweentown Two, 'Aunt Kim's Halloween Number Two,' which literally makes my day.

"When I'm out, I'm recognized for it on a daily basis. I'm asked about it constantly from fans and stuff, which is so flattering. Not only that people still watch it after all these [years], but they still, you know...wanna talk about it. And it's just amazing to me.”

JH: “I have fans who are well into their 30s who still watch it, which I love! And the parents of kids who watched it are like ‘It’s our thing. Halloween comes around, and we love to watch it, even though the kids are grown.’ It touched a little nerve.

“There’s something about when you do stuff for kids and it just hits them at a crucial time. Kids like to watch things over and over and over again. You never know this when you’re doing something — I’ve been at it for years, and some things resonate with people, and some things are just a blip on the radar. This is one that really resonated, and that’s lovely.”

DD: “Every now and then I'll teach a course at USC. A year ago on Halloween, one of my former students sent me a picture and said, "We are having a Halloween party. You'll never guess what we're watching." (laughter) And I saw a bunch of students from USC, crowded around a TV, watching Halloweentown.”