Suspended Animation #343
In a career spanning more than seventy years, Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5th, 2012, at the age of 91, inspired generations of readers.
A prolific author of hundreds of short stories and close to fifty books, as well as numerous poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays, and screenplays, Bradbury won an Emmy for his screenplay adaptation of his book The Halloween Tree for Hanna-Barbera’s 1993 seventy minute animated film.
Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel was the third in a series of books referred to as the “Green Town” stories. The other two are Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.
The Halloween Tree 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. 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.
Curiously, most animation fans are unaware that this tale of Halloween actually originated as a half hour animated special script written by Bradbury for Chuck Jones.
With business partner Les Goldman, Jones started an independent animation studio, Sib Tower 12 Productions. In 1963, MGM contracted with the studio to produce new Tom and Jerry short cartoons. In 1964, MGM absorbed the studio and renamed it MGM Animation.
The studio under Jones’ direction produced the 1966 television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jones was always looking for more material that led to projects like 1969’s The Pogo Special Birthday Special.
The second holiday-themed, prime time half hour Charlie Brown special, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown aired on CBS on October 27th, 1966. Bradbury and his daughters eagerly sat down that evening to watch that special and none of them liked it.
Bradbury complained about his disappointment over lunch to his friend 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 about Halloween for Jones to produce and direct. However, soon afterwards MGM closed its animation department in 1970 and the script was never filmed. In 1972, Bradbury revised and expanded the story into a book with illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.
In 1967, Bradbury wrote, “I’m writing a film. It’s going to be a cartoon by Chuck Jones. A wonderful man to work with. It’s a history of Halloween in cartoon form. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun and it’s going to be much better than the ‘Great Pumpkin’ show by Charles Schulz.
“I thought the Great Pumpkin was just dreadful. So mean. It was dreadfully mean, to anticipate the ‘Great Pumpkin’ arriving for a half hour and when it was over my kids sat there, and they were depressed. And so was I. I thought it was dreadful of Mr. Schulz not to know that you can’t build up this kind of need in people to see the Great Pumpkin, and not have him show up one way or another. It’s a shame. I thought he knew better.”
In October 1993 with the release of the Hanna-Barbera version, Bradbury wrote: “Run back with me to the day after Halloween 1966. While sharing drinks with Chuck Jones, creator of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, he described an amazing encounter from the night before.
‘Some kids rang my bell,’ Chuck said, ‘and when I opened the door they cried ‘Trick or Treat!’ I yelled back, ‘Trick!’ which stunned and surprised them. So one little boy ran out on the lawn and stood on his head! In the old days, if I hadn’t handed out treats, they would have soaped my windows or firecrackered my mailbox. I stared at all these kids, dressed up as witches, mummies, and ghosts and asked them why they dressed that way. No one knew. They had no roots in the past!’
“I countered with my own tale. “Every Halloween for years,’ I said, “I go visit my father’s grave. Friends protest, ‘Don’t you have any respect for the dead?’ To which I reply, ‘It’s because I do respect the dead that I go.’ That’s what Halloween is, but we have forgotten.
‘Shucks,’ said Chuck, ‘why don’t we make a cartoon to teach people why they wear bones and sneeze mummy dust?’ So we started work on a half hour television special about the history of Halloween.”
A longer limited-edition “author’s preferred text” of the novel, compiled and edited by Donn Albright, was published in 2005. This edition also included both the 1967 and 1992 screenplays and a joint interview with Bradbury and Chuck Jones discussing that original screenplay.
At a birthday party celebrating Jones’s 55th. Someone asked Bradbury what he would like to be when he grew up and he replied, “I want to be 14 years old, just like Chuck Jones.”
Two decades after the novel appeared, Hanna-Barbera approached Bradbury about adapting the story for television. The animation of the film was produced overseas for Hanna-Barbera by Fil-Cartoons in the Philippines. The film premiered on ABC on October 2, 1993.
Bradbury made some changes in the adaptation narrowing the eight children in the original story down to four and changing one of the boys into a girl. The laser disc release has a commentary track by Bradbury but there were no extras on the DVD.
The film won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program, triumphing over “Animaniacs”, “Batman”, “Bobby’s World”, “Eek! The Cat”, and “Rugrats” that defeated Halloween Tree in the Outstanding Animated Children’s Program category.
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.
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 would visit the tree several times before he died in 2012.
Disney writer and historian Tim O’Day told me, “Ray and I actually came up with the idea of placing a Halloween Tree at Disneyland in late spring/early summer 2007 over lunch at Storyteller’s Cafe at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. We were joined by Duncan Wardle from Disney Parks Public Relations.
“I was unaware of Ray’s book and when he mentioned that he had a ‘new’ book coming out (an anniversary re-print) the proverbial light bulb went off in my head.
The original idea for The Halloween Tree was to fabricate a large, 60-foot tall, gnarly oak tree in Town Square where the Christmas tree traditionally resides. The Oak tree would have been hung with hundreds of swinging, illuminated, jack-o-lanterns. It would have been quite the impressive sight!
“To be sure, Ray was VERY enthused about the idea and couldn’t wait to see the concept become a reality. Duncan and I valiantly tried to move the idea forward but plans were already in place for the giant ‘Mickey’ pumpkin to be placed in Town Square. Not letting a good idea die, I told Imagineer Tony Baxter about the book release and the tree idea and he and Imagineer Kim Irvine made it a reality.”