As a kid, there was nothing like the excitement of October with Halloween looming at the end of the month. Growing up in Wisconsin, the weather got cold and all of the leaves turned orange. Going to school got 10 times better because of the class parties and opportunity to show off this years’ costume. Never mind that every boy was a Ninja Turtle and every girl was Belle, I was the odd kid going as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz for the second year in a row because that costume was everything.
Returning from a few hours of trick-or-treating around the neighborhood, my cheeks and nose were pink from the cold, but you’d never know it with all the silver makeup on. After peeling off my tin suit and getting down to just my long underwear, it was time for a serious sugar rush while watching whatever The Disney Channel was playing, which was usually a 90-minute special called A Disney Halloween. I looked forward to this every year, mostly because it gave me exposure to Disney films I hadn’t seen yet because they were in the “vault.”
For me, that’s what made A Disney Halloween so special. I was familiar with most of the Disney characters from annual vacations to Walt Disney World, but I didn’t see many of the movies because Disney was saving them for later. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
was the most unobtainable film ever, with Disney claiming they were never going to release it on home video (obviously they changed their minds). The true highlight of A Disney Halloween for me was getting to see clips from Snow White.
Little did I know that my Halloween tradition of watching A Disney Halloween was really a remix of three previous TV specials. The first dates back to 1956 with an episode of Disneyland called “Our Unsung Villains.” In the beginning of that episode, Hans Conried (voice of Captain Hook) takes over hosting the show as the Magic Mirror from Snow White. In the special, the Magic Mirror paid tribute to four Disney villains – The Evil Queen, the Big Bad Wolf, Brer Fox and Brer Bear, and Captain Hook.
In 1977 to promote the upcoming film The Rescuers, “Our Unsung Villains” was re-edited to include more villains, including Madam Medusa. New Magic Mirror segments were recorded to introduce clips of Edgar Balthazar, Willie the Giant, Shere Khan, Maleficent, Lady Tremaine, Cruella DeVil, The Queen of Hearts and Madam Medusa. This Wonderful World of Color episode was called “Disney’s Greatest Villains” and introduced a new generation to these classic antagonists. It received a VHS release in the United Kingdom in 1983.
Five years later in 1982, The Wonderful World of Color presented a Halloween special that became an instant classic, Disney’s Halloween Treat. This 60-minute special featured clips from spooky Disney Shorts like Donald Duck and the Gorilla and Pluto’s Judgement Day in addition to clips from Disney films, mostly featuring villains. The host for this special was a jack-o-lantern puppet, but the real highlight of the special was a theme song written by John Debny and Galen R. Brandt. Once you’ve heard it, it will never leave you. This special received a VHS release as well.
Following the success of Disney’s Halloween Treat, the following year brought a revised version to ABC called A Disney Halloween. This 90 minute special aired on October 1st, 1983 and enjoyed annual airings on The Disney Channel (it had a “The” in its name back then) through the late 1990’s. If it felt too familiar to audiences, it’s because it was really just a repackaging of Disney’s Halloween Treat mixed with Our Unsung Villains. The jack-o-lantern host was replaced by an unknown narrator mixed with the Magic Mirror segments. A new introduction featured Michael Eisner interacting with the walkaround versions of Mickey and friends from the parks.
Watching A Disney Halloween today brings back all of the memories of waiting for it as a child, but it’s also interesting to view it now that I know the history behind it. The show opens and closes with the song “Disney’s Halloween Treat.” Some of the segments seem like they were grasping at straws to get enough content to fill the special. There’s nothing particularly Halloween about many of the villains presented, particularly Edgar from The Aristocats or Madam Medusa from The Rescuers. Even some of the shorts, like The Old Mill or Donald Duck and the Gorilla, lack any references to the holiday. The highlights are definitely Hans Conried’s Magic Mirror, especially when he is cut into the segments of the queen talking to her slave. And full color animation from a 1956 episode of Disneyland called The Great Cat Family is a treat to see, which tells the history of why black cats became associated with omens.
The special ends with the classic shorts Lonesome Ghosts and Trick-or-Treat. The latter is the only Halloween specific piece of material in the special and was the first time this tradition was depicted on film. The pacing of A Disney Halloween is probably too slow for modern kids, and the relevant shorts are used in the more recent Mickey’s House of Villains. That direct-to-video spin-off of Mickey’s House of Mouse is a more pleasing Halloween special if you’re looking to celebrate this spooky holiday with classic Disney characters, but the concept is clearly owes a debt of gratitude to Disney’s Halloween Treat and A Disney Halloween.