For almost 20 years, Halloweentown has been an annual destination for many people.
The cult favorite Disney Channel Original Movie first debuted in 1998, introducing a world most kids (OK, and adults) can only dream of: Halloweentown, the whimsical place where all the supernatural creatures live every other day of the year. Four movies later, the Halloweentown franchise is one of the most beloved seasonal offerings, with fans even flocking to the town of St. Helens, Oregon, where the first movie was filmed, to live out their childhood fantasy. (Consider it the original Hogwarts.)
E! News spoke to executive producer Sheri Singer and star Kimberly J. Brown about the film's legacy, the controversial recasting of Marnie in the fourth film and the magic of Debbie Reynolds, the legendary star who played Grandma Aggie.
Sheri Singer first heard of Halloweentown when she was an executive at Walt Disney Television just after the Wonderful World of Disney programming had ended in 1991, transitioning into a six-movie deal with NBC. As part of that new deal, she was set to collaborate on up to three movies with producer Steve White, and wanting to spread out the projects to other people, she tried to convince him to duck out of the deal. He almost did, but then decided not to at the last minute. Then...fate stepped in.
Singer: What ended up happening to the man that I had tried to fire was I married him. And toward the end of my time at Walt Disney Studios, he came in one day to me and said…"I don't know where to go with this but my daughter said to me, 'Dad, where do all the creatures from Halloween go the rest of the year when it's not October 31?'" And that's how it was born.
After dubbing it Halloweentown and coming up with a seven-act structure, Singer and White pitched the project to NBC as part of the six-movie deal.
Singer: It had to have a little bit more adult appeal because they were airing these movies at 9 o'clock at night. [NBC] bought it, we developed it in 1994, and we had a writer write the script, and NBC passed. They decided they didn't really want to do anything, even though we put in adult characters.
A few years later, they brought it to Disney Channel, who initially passed. But after airing their first successful original movie in 1997, Under Wraps, they wanted Halloweentown after all. The movie was quickly redeveloped so that it was more of a kids' movie.
Singer: Doing it at the Disney Channel, which was really the best possible home for the idea, we were able to be very whimsical. We needed to create these really interesting characters. They were fun and slightly scary, but not too scary.
After getting the go-ahead from Disney Channel, casting began. First up, legendary star Debbie Reynolds.
Singer: I think right about this time, Debbie had decided she wanted to open herself up to doing some television. When we saw the list, we took one look at her name and said, oh my god, would she really do it? This is absolutely unbelievably blessed and terrific idea for casting. And she did. We never went to anyone else.
When it came to the rest of the roles, the casting directors read everybody, from the leads to characters with only one line, as the Disney Channel had yet to establish a field of talent to pull from. A 13-year-old Kimberly J. Brown eventually landed the lead role of Marnie.
Singer: She came in and she wasn't who we had visually pictured, but she was the role. She blew everyone else away. She was great.
Brown: It was so exciting when I found out I got it because I remember loving the script and loving the idea of playing a teenage witch. And then hearing Debbie Reynolds was signed onto it, it was like, oh my gosh, I'm going to play Debbie Reynolds' granddaughter!
Singer: Debbie was coming in with the blonde look and Judith [Hoag] was reddish blonde, so I thought it would maybe be a lighter girl. Of course, this is so politically incorrect today, but they were all related…I had just envisioned a Blondie. But she came in and she was it.
The role of Kalabar, the mayor-turned-villain, was the hardest to cast, as he had to be scary-but-Disney-Channel-scary. Robin Thomas, who had worked with White on an indie film, Amityville Dollhouse, was cast.
Singer: Of all the actors I've worked with in my life, he's in the top five of doing his homework and really prepares. There was a lot of discussion about how do we do this. I think part of what we did…in his role as the mayor, he was more charming and likable, so that the audience would get used to him not being that scary so when he was, he really was.
To create Halloweentown, production chose a small town, St. Helens, outside of Portland, Oregon. In 1980, Mount St. Helen erupted, and was one of the most disastrous volcanic eruptions in U.S. history.
Singer: Because of the volcano from a few years before that, it was kind of a ghost town. In terms of making the store fronts and getting the location and making a huge town square, there's not a lot of places in LA you can do that. They were so grateful to have us there and so easy to work with. We had a good crew up there and it fit the demands of the movie. We made all these storefronts. It was really fun and became very iconic.
Disney Channel was heavily involved in establishing the look of the town. "Whimsical" was the goal and the big pumpkin in the town square was always the focal point.
Singer: It needs to almost look like a Disney ride for young kids. One of the nice things about doing something for Disney is you know there are certain tent poles and goals you want to reach in terms of giving kids a lot of eye candy that's appropriate for their age and is sort of wish-fulfillment.
Brown: The town square really did feel like Halloweentown. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The costumes were also a major part of the process, with some of the cast members even keeping their wardrobe to use for Halloween.
Brown: I have Marnie's outfit from the second Halloweentown. Debbie gave me the idea, but she had Aggie's cape and the purple dress and she used to answer the door for Trick-or-Treaters on Halloween in the outfit. I started doing it, too, one or two years in a row, I put on Marnie's outfit, and gave out candy. It would take some kids a second, but it was really fun. But then it started getting out of hand where some people would come other parts of the year, knock on the door and ask for Marnie.
Working with Reynolds, who passed away in December 2016, just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died, was a memorable experience for everyone on set.
Singer: We were doing this scene in a theater…and Debbie had to dance and she pulled a muscle doing the dance. She got up and she said, "You know what, I've been doing this for years and years. I've dance with pulled muscles and pain and I'm not going to hold you up. I'll do it." It was so impressive for the young actors, to see what a real work ethic is. Obviously, she went on for the rest of the show and was fine, but it was very interesting and everyone was applauding.
Brown: I just remember how incredibly warm and vivacious she was and very welcoming. She was just so sweet and trying to make us laugh and just very excited. Her energy was infectious. She treated as us peers and not just like, "You're the kids." She wanted everyone to shine and succeed and it was so inspiring to watch.
Singer: Debbie Reynolds…started telling us, she had a granddaughter at the time, who's Billie Lourd, and she said that put her on the map with her granddaughter and all of her granddaughter's friends and she started getting stopped in airports and all over the place.
In the fourth and final installment of the franchise, 2006's Return to Halloweentown, the role of a college-bound Marnie was played by Sara Paxton.
Brown: I've been in the entertainment industry since I was five or six years old and there have been many, many things along the way that have come and just been things that have happened and decisions that are out of your control. That was one of those things where they chose to use somebody else instead of me. I was definitely disappointed for the fans and a little personally disappointed because I love Marnie and have loved being able to participate in her adventures as much as people have seemed to love watching her go through them.
Singer: It was not something we wanted to do. We could not come to terms that we felt were fair. We just weren't able to. We couldn't make the deal work. That was why and we didn't want to not do it. I know people didn't like it, but it's not like people haven't been recast before. I always was sorry. That's how it went.
Brown: I can't say that I've seen the entire movie...but I do appreciate over the years how much the fans have continued to make memes about it and just really want to talk about it and support me in that sense. It's been very touching over the years.
Halloweentown lives on in St. Helens. The town dedicates the month of October to the film. In 2015, media outlets picked up on the tradition, letting fans know they could visit Halloweentown. (The first Twilight film also filmed in St. Helens.)
Crystal Farnsworth, communications office for the City of St. Helens: The festival first started in 1998 to celebrate the release of Halloweentown. With the exception of a few years when a lack of funding and volunteers meant that no celebration occurred, the festival has happened every year since then.
Brown: It spread like wildfire [in 2015]…they ended up calling me and that was the year 15,000 people showed up. It was incredible.
Farnsworth: Not only do we see tens of thousands of extra people in the city during the month of October, but we also have people who travel here at other times of the month to see the filming locations. We have people that show up all year long looking for the giant pumpkin in the Plaza Square (although we only put him out during the month of October). We start getting calls at City Hall in the early spring from people wanting to know what events are happening which weekend in October because they are already trying to plan their trip to Spirit of Halloweentown for the fall. We estimate that this year, we will have had around 40,000–50,000 people attend the festival during October 2017.
The original cast of Piper-Cromwells, including Brown, Hoag, J. Paul Zimmerman, and Emily Roeske, reunited at 2017's Spirit of Halloweentown festival on Oct. 14.
Brown: It was the first time the core cast members of the family have been together since I believe we did Halloweentown High. That was their first time back in St. Helens, so that was really cool. We all keep it touch over social media, but it was the first time all of us were together and it was really nice. It was nice to go back and honor Debbie. It's such an honor that people want to come and hang out and see where it was filmed. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this is what we would be doing.
Singer: I realized [Halloweentown] was just one of those things that spoke on so many levels. Beside just the holiday theme, it was about family, and family connections and family secrets and allowing kids to be themselves and come into their own. It just had many, many themes that at the time did not feel overused or seen too many times. When you're making a movie and you're post-producing a movie, you get so sick of looking at the movie. I never got tired of seeing the movie.