When the Disney Channel was relaunched as a basic cable network in the late 1990s, an entire generation would be raised on its family friendly programming, and one of its earliest and most successful original movies took viewers to a magical place where it’s always Halloween, but no one, including the film’s star Judith Hoag, could have predicted how Halloweentown would live on.
Today, more than 20 years after its 1998 premiere, the made-for-Disney Channel Halloweentown is considered a seasonal classic for families around the world, and after spawning three equally successful sequels, its enthusiastic fandom has never been greater. And who wouldn’t want to visit the titular paradise where Halloween colors everything and everyone?
Judith Hoag had already stepped into a massive and devoted fandom when she played the pivotal role of April O’Neal in the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, but it was the little Halloween movie for the still little known Disney Channel that would solidify her place in the hearts of Hallow-fans everywhere.
She played Gwen Cromwell Piper, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds’ loving witch Aggie Cromwell and the mother of the kids (played by Kimberly J. Brown, Joey Zimmerman, and Emily Roeske) who follow their grandma Aggie to Halloweentown. She would go on to reprise the role for the sequels Halloweentown 2: Kalabar’s Revenge (2001), Halloweentown High (2004), and Return to Halloweentown (2006), as the original film has only grown in popularity with each passing October.
We had the pleasure of meeting Hoag when she was a guest at GalaxyCon Raleigh in July 2019, where I got to talk to her for a few minutes about being part of such a beloved fan favorite that continues to bring joy to families every year.
Read on for our interview with Judith Hoag, on the legacy of Halloweentown, an important lesson she learned from the late Debbie Reynolds, her own love of the Halloween holiday, and how her real life kids got to visit the most wonderful place on Earth.
How did you get involved with Halloweentown?
I got a script, and I heard that Debbie Reynolds was attached to it, which immediately made me want to be a part of it. I read the script, it was really sweet. The head of the Disney Channel at the time, his son was a huge Ninja Turtles fan, so they were really excited about getting me on board, and I was excited to be working with them, and then also working with the kids and working with Debbie.
It was just supposed to be one film. Then it turned into two films, and we thought, ‘Okay great, it’s a sequel.’ And then we did a third film, and we were like, ‘Oh fabulous, it’s a trilogy.’ And then we did a fourth one, and I was like, ‘Oh awesome, it’s a franchise.’ And then that was it. We were like, ‘Where’s the fifth one?’ And there was no fifth one, which is fine. It was just a tremendous amount of fun to do.
So having Debbie Reynolds involved was the main thing that attracted you initially?
Well you know at the time, the Disney Channel was pretty new. It was early on. I didn’t have kids that were old enough (to watch it) at that point. My son was just turning three, so he wasn’t watching Disney. And I wasn’t quite sure what the content on the channel would be like, you know when you’re trying to curate a career and a body of work. But when I heard that Debbie was attached, and really when I read the script, it was just such a sweet script. A lot of times it’s really that it’s a great a script and I want to do that.
It ended up being such a fun ride.
And like you said, nobody knew it was going to be more than one movie, but then there ended up being three more after that.
At the time, it was the highest rated Disney Channel original movie ever. I think we held that title until High School Musical came along, and they just blew us out of the water.
That’s a pretty good run though.
It’s pretty good. And all good things…, you know. And that’s why there ended up being more and more movies, because they realized, ‘Oh wait a second, people are really loving this.’ So it just kind of turned into this Halloween classic.
When did you realize that it is a Halloween classic?
It took some time. It’s now been 20 years (since the original). I think it takes probably about 10 or 15 years to see when people keep coming up, and keep coming up, and then it just – What’s interesting about it is that it doesn’t seem to diminish. It seems to have even more legs on it (now), which is kind of astonishing to me.
There’s a whole generation that was just at the right age when the Disney Channel was re-launching and at just right age to catch it, and then it’s become part of their childhood nostalgia.
And then they had kids. And we have people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and they’re still watching it. It’s really a blessing.
Like you said, it is such sweet story, and even for somebody like me, who just loves everything about the Halloween season, the idea that there is a Halloweentown out there is so fun. When you do events like this, what do you think of the fans? You probably see cosplay inspired by the films.
I see a lot more Ninja Turtles when it comes to the cosplay. I don’t see a lot of Halloweentown, but it’s just so much fun (meeting fans). I have to say that our Halloweentown fans are devoted.
We’ve been doing an event in St. Helens, Oregon, where we shot the very first movie, and they’ve got this really huge Spirit of Halloweentown festival that they’ve been cultivating for years. I did it last year (2018) and the year before. It’s so much fun. I mean the fans just go crazy.
It’s thousands of people, and it’s lovely that everybody’s just happy and deeply into their costumes. It’s just like one big trick or treating fest.
That sounds like Heaven to me. Of course we all love and miss Debbie Reynolds. Do you have any special memories of her that you can share with us?
I have so many of her. Gosh, there’s so many. She taught me how to really appreciate my fans.
Debbie always traveled with a big stack of photos to autograph. You have to remember this was before social media. And she was so good at cultivating and loving her fans. She would take pictures all the time and pose for pictures all the time. We’d be trying to walk to set and she’s stopping and taking pictures.
At one point I was joking with her, and I said, ‘Oh my goodness, Debbie, you would pose with a coat hanger.’ She laughed, and she said, ‘But I would, because I understand that my fans are vitally important. Judy, if you don’t have fans, you don’t have a career.’ And I was like, ‘Girl, I hear that.’
So she really opened my eyes about all these people who support and love you. I think sometimes we work in a vacuum. When you’re filming a movie, it’s just you and the camera crew and the other actors, and there’s no audience. It’s not like doing a play where you get instant feedback. And doing comic cons has been really fun for that, because I get a chance to be with my fans, and I have the best fans in the world. You can quote me on that one.
Did you celebrate Halloween when you were a kid?
Absolutely, yes I loved it. We used to bring our pillow cases and fill them up. We had our little boxes to get money for Unicef.
My kids had a tradition where they used to have a competition with each other. They also brought pillow cases and they would weigh their candy when they got home so that they could see who had the most candy. There was like 10 or 15 pounds of candy. We lived in Studio City in California and people would come from other neighborhoods in minivans filled with kids. The neighborhood was packed with kids, there was candy everywhere. Even if the people weren’t there, they would still leave out bowls of candy.
And then the parents were so gracious, they had wine. So we could walk with our wine glasses. My brother said that where he lived there was one parent who gave syringes filled with cosmos.
Did your real kids ever wish that they could go to Halloweentown like the kids in the movie?
They did go to Halloweentown. I think it was the third movie. We shot in Salt Lake City and both my kids came. What I did was, we’d be shooting and I would tuck them into places on the set and say, ‘Okay, don’t say a word, and you can be right here. You can be in the scene but nobody’s going to see you.’ They loved that.
But more than anything I think they loved craft service, because I was kind of a strict mom and I didn’t let them have a lot of soda or sweets. I mean they had them, but I moderated it. They were like, ‘Oh my gosh’, because it was a table filled with every kind of chip, cookie, candy, soda that you could possibly want. They were in Heaven.
It got to a point where when I was shooting, not just Halloweentown but any job I was working on, my kids would say, ‘Will you bring us home something from craft service?’ So I had to bring something home from every set I ever worked on. Something had to come home and it had to be something good. I forgot about that. My goodness, I haven’t thought about that in a long time.
That’s awesome that they did get to actually visit Halloweentown. That’s too cool. Do you think there might be a fifth movie maybe?
I don’t think so. I mean anything’s possible, but there are no rumors that I’ve heard. There’s nobody writing a script. I think if it happened, it would have to be one of us writing a script and bringing it to the Disney Channel and seeing if there’s any interest. Time marches on, and yet everything gets reinvented, so who knows? Anything is possible, and I wouldn’t hold my breath. (laughs)
But you would be interested in doing another if it ever happened?
If it was a good script, I think I would. But it would have to be a good script.
Thank you so much for talking to us.
You’re so welcome.
For more Halloween news, follow @HalloweenDaily.