Witch’s Night Out, a rare, retro gem from 1978, is a perfect Halloween special to add to your freaky festivities. This year is especially noteworthy for the animated movie since 2018 marks its 40th year! There really is no other holiday special quite like it. With its eerie electric soundtrack, psychedelic color scheme, and meaningful Halloween message, you’ll be dazzled by the display of magical mischief.
Gilda Radner (SNL, Haunted Honeymoon) brings the star of the show, The Witch, to life with dramatic flair. She laments that she’s “a washed-up witch” since she hasn’t gotten any Halloween wishes or calls all day. She longs for the old days when she was in demand and in the spotlight, wielding her magic wand with dexterity. But she’s in for a treat when she gets not one, but two calls on the most wicked night of the year. But what happens if her wand falls into the wrong hands?
The Witch’s throaty voice and black, capped dress give her a unique look and sound, making her feel like a glamorous fallen star from the Golden Age of Hollywood. And Radner’s vocal performance is energetic and memorable, especially set against such a uniquely detailed backdrop.
Welcome to Anytown
Our cast of colorful characters reside in Anytown, a community that’s looking for a fun way to celebrate Halloween. Small and Tender are kids who want nothing more than to scare their neighbors with their spooky costumes. Small is disguised as a werewolf while his big sister, Tender, is a ghost. Their boiling excitement becomes a simmer when they realize that they’re not only recognizable in their costumes, but some even consider them “cute.” But if anyone can make them feel better, it’s their babysitter, Bazooey (Gerry Salsburg, Breaking Point). Bazooey encourages their antics after meeting their fairy godmother aka, The Witch.
Meanwhile, adults in the community start to plan a Halloween party at an old, abandoned house on the edge of town. Anytown Mayor Goodly (John Leach, The Gift of Winter), helps plan the shindig along with Nicely (Fiona Reid, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Malicious (Catherine O’Hara, Beetlejuice), and Rotten (Bob Church, Videodrome). What the citizens don’t realize is that the rundown Victorian house is actually not abandoned at all. The Witch and her cat occupy the ramshackle house and she is more than happy to play hostess.
Unique Art and Sound
I recall seeing Witch’s Night Out at my very first Halloween party in 1982. At the time both Witch’s Night Out and I were only four years old, but I recall so many details of that party and of the animated special. There’s a certain feel to the animation that sets it apart from other cartoons. Jean Rankin designed the backgrounds, which consist of lush autumn colors that take you straight into October. Rankin would use xylene-based markers to doodle out the colors she needed. Next, she would flip the drawing onto another sheet of paper and smear it with a form of turpentine. This caused the marker to bleed into the new sheet and gave it a softer, blended look.
I honestly think Jean Rankin is probably responsible for my love of old Victorian homes because of her lovingly rendered version from this glorious Halloween special. She notes that the house The Witch lives in is actually modeled after older Toronto architecture.
John Leach, now known as Jonathan Rogers, not only voiced Goodly but was also the director and co-writer with Jean Rankin. If you watched Sesame Street as a kid, you very likely saw art by Rogers in some of the insert segments. (And if you were an MTV-era teen maybe you even saw his “Atomic Dog” video for George Clinton & The Funkadelics).
The other interesting aspect of Witch’s Night Out is the music. Peter Rochon composed the soundtrack for both the Witch’s Night Out and Leach/Rankin’s holiday special The Gift of Winter. (The latter starred Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd). The opening theme for the Halloween special is called “Witch Magic” and is heavy on the synthesizer. Some of the tracks for the film felt playfully spooky while others were more sinister sounding and John Carpenter-esque. Each of these elements come together to create this unforgettable tribute to Halloween.
Witch’s Night Out originally aired on NBC in 1978 and was shown each October for several years. Then, Fox and The Disney Channel broadcast the special in the ’80s and ’90s. As it turns out, I’m not the only kid to have this comical cartoon committed to memory. James Cross was seven when he first saw Witch’s Night Out in 1978 and felt inspired by the special. As he grew, he studied animation at Cal Arts Institute and eventually made contact with Jonathan Rogers. The two became partners creating Cross/Rogers Productions. The goal was to revive Witch’s Night Out (as well as The Gift of Winter) and produce new specials and comics featuring the “monochrome characters.”
Beyond the recent accomplishments of Cross and Rogers, there is also a theatrical production of Witch’s Night Out in development. Composer Jim Dooley has partnered with director Rye Mullis create an off-Broadway musical of the Halloween cartoon.
At the end of the day, all The Witch wanted was to make Halloween a happy holiday for everyone. Sure, she’s mischievous and a bit of a trickster, but it’s all in good fun. Along with Bazooey, Small, and Tender, The Witch teaches the citizens of Anytown how magical Halloween night can be for everyone.
This is what Halloween is all about, my darlings! Everyday we go about our lives in the same old way. But once a year, we can be whatever and whomever we please! ~ The Witch
What each of them discovers is that on Halloween they can become someone different, even opposite, from their everyday selves. It’s a great, whimsical message for viewers of all ages. This cartoon is filled with humor that will soar over the heads of children but will make adults chuckle. Sure, many of the characters are clad in bell bottoms and some of the references are a little outdated, (like when The Witch proclaims “So I ain’t the Avon lady!”) But like all great lessons, the message in Witch’s Night Out about Halloween is timeless. You need only to watch, laugh, and listen.