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‘A Gorey Halloween’ is an odd-tasting treat

Adapting the slightly askew writings and illustrations of Edward Gorey for the screen is a difficult and seldom-attempted challenge. EGCT friend Todd Camp shares his thoughts on one little-seen adaptation that even Gorey’s most ardent fans may never have experienced. Todd, a former entertainment journalist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas, has been a passionate Gorey collector for more than 30 years. He recently connected with one of the (then) young stars of an obscure Halloween television special.

‘A Gorey Halloween’ is an odd-tasting treat

By Todd Camp

Many have tried to bring Edward Gorey’s unusual works to life beyond the printed page.

He has been adapted for the stage on any number of occasions, including 1975’s Gorey Stories, 1985’s Tinned Lettuce, early 1990s stagings of Amphigorey: A Musicale, and many of his own stage productions produced while living on Cape Cod.

Film/television adaptations have been significantly more elusive. A rarity has been the simple elegance of the animated titles for WGBH’s Mystery! that Gorey created with animator Derek Lamb. Less successful were the seldom-seen Fantods, a 1982 series of crudely “animated” shorts (moving still images really) based on existing Gorey works also created for WGBH to fill out the American television hour following the airing of British productions.

Currently – 40 years later – a film adaptation of the 1957 Edward Gorey classic The Doubtful Guest, is in production. Created by a pair of Hollywood couples, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon are co-writing the script while Andy and Barbara Muschietti will produce. Andy is best known for directing the two-part, jolt-inducing adaptation of Stephen King’s It. Nanjiani is also set to star.

However, as the nights grow chillier and All Hallows’ Eve approaches, there’s never been a better time to revisit the rare 1978 television special A Gorey Halloween. Produced by JWT Productions, Inc. for ABC Television, this 30-minute seasonal special premiered on Sunday, Oct. 29, 1978, and was directed by Sheldon Larry and written by playwright Allan Knee.

Original advertisement of the show from TV/Radio Week Oct. 29, 1979, (The Daily Times of Mamaroneck, NY)

The story centers on four children out trick-or-treating until one disappears into a nearby spooky mansion. The three remaining hold a makeshift seance to see if they can summon their friend (having apparently presumed him dead?). Their incantation begins: “Spirits of the night, welcome! Hippity wippity! Oxiborick! Flappity Flippity! Thip, Thap, Thoo!” Goreyphiles will of course recognize these nonsense verses from Gorey’s 1971 creation [The Untitled Book]. Accidentally conjuring some of the mansion’s creepy former residents, the children unknowingly incite a Gorey revue. 

Benjamin (Jarrod Ross), Emily (Stefanie Levi), and Augustus (Ken Power) — minus the missing Charlie (Charlie Fields) — first encounter Claudius Frederick Earbrass, an eccentric author played by notable Broadway performer George S. Irving. His search for the perfect word is constantly interrupted by a fuzzy, familiar-looking, croquet-playing beast (Ray Xifo), sporting a scarf and white sneakers and reciting lines from Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest.

Earbrass reluctantly introduces the group to the mansion’s other inhabitants, including a stern taskmaster ballet mistress called Madame (Carole Shelley) and her exhausted charge, Maudie (Vivienne Goldschmidt).

They next come across a man named Fingby (John Lithgow) playing a rather extreme game of Double Solitaire with a giant blue-feathered bird named Osbick (played by Michael Gross, best remembered as the father on the ’80s sitcom Family Ties). After helping Fingby defeat the creature, he hands them a key to the West Wing(!) where they meet their final resident.

They come face-to-face with the ominous Gilded Bat, a gold-winged creature of the night portrayed by ballet legend and longtime Gorey friend Allegra Kent, who is backed by three bat-winged dancers from Les Ballets Trocaderos de Monte Carlo. The dancers perform an unnerving and hypnotic ballet, eventually descending on the terrified children. Dizzied by the melee, the youngsters emerge unscathed, staring into the flashlight of their missing friend Charlie. The mysterious inhabitants have vanished. It doesn’t take them long to hightail it out of Missing Mite Mansion (a reference to The Insect God) and beat a fast retreat home.

Despite the general low-budget look of this endeavor (keeping in mind that it was viewed on a nearly 43-year-old VHS tape) the veteran cast members, many of whom were probably on break from existing Broadway shows, bring an element of sophistication unusual for a kids’ television special.

The energetic young stars propel the story forward and leading that charge is the bold and brassy Emily, played by Stefanie Levy. Stefanie Kahn, as she’s known today, received her BFA in theater from Rutgers University and works as a real estate agent in Los Angeles as well as a comedian/writer and a mom. During a recent conversation from her home in LA, Kahn graciously shared a number of behind-the-scenes photos from the making of the special and recalled her experience fondly.

“I was just so happy to be working and it was really my first big part,” Kahn said. “I wish I had that confidence now. My character was sort of like a Lucy from [ the Peanuts comic strip ]. I was pretty bossy.”

Kahn was on track to star in a regional touring production of Annie which had given her a taste for acting when the opportunity to audition for A Gorey Halloween arose. “I went in there and did the audition and said, ‘Do you want to see me sing?’ So I did a song for them and they were like, ‘Yep, she’s it.’ ”

Though Kahn recalls most of the adult actors being extremely kind and welcoming, she’s quick to admit that a lot of the details of filming on the 10-day shoot are a bit fuzzy.

“It’s hard because young eyes see different things than older eyes do,” she said. “It’s like, am I remembering things from watching it or remembering it from being there?”

But when it came to Gorey himself, Kahn said she was completely unaware from whom these curious characters were first concocted.

“No, I had no idea, I don’t think Gorey’s work was in the common child sphere,” she said. “And I wasn’t the kind of super offbeat kid that would be into that … I was reading Nancy Drew.”

Kahn does remember receiving a book of Gorey stories at some point, most likely one of the Amphigorey volumes. “Somebody signed a copy, but I don’t think it was Edward Gorey, unfortunately.”

Despite the young actor being unaware of the man behind the mayhem, it’s clear that the creative minds behind A Gorey Halloween were well aware of his work.

The setting of the story, Collapsed Pudding, and the primary characters are all from Gorey books, with Earbrass from his first published, The Unstrung Harp; Madame, Maudie and the Gilded Bat from The Gilded Bat; Fingby and his avian companion from The Osbick Bird; and the Doubtful Guest from the book of the same name.

Gorey references are scattered throughout the special. Benjamin wears a jersey from Gorey’s alma mater, Harvard, and speaks of becoming a quarterback for the Harvard Crimson. The opening title includes a Goreyesque subtitle: “A Gorey Halloween: Or, an October evening in Collapsed Pudding” and the type is loosely reminiscent of Gorey’s hand-lettering. One of the hallways in the mansion even features enlarged portraits by Gorey himself. It is without question that writer Allen Knee, of 2004’s Finding Neverland and the recent film musical Little Women, is a Gorey devotee.

The Gorey connections extend behind the camera as the Gilded Bat and company’s choreographer, Peter Anastos, was a longtime Gorey collaborator having worked with the artist on Eglevsky Ballet’s Swan Lake and Fete Diverse as well as Les Ballets Trocaderos’ Giselle. (In the late 1980s, Anastos created a 40-minute ballet for Ballet West, based on The Gilded Bat book, though it’s uncertain if any of his choreography here was repurposed for the piece.) Mr. Earbrass’ Russian Sable Coat was even provided by Ben Kahn, for whom Gorey designed a number of fur coats.

And in a bit of spooky synergy, the special was filmed at the Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown in upstate New York. The location later played host to a number of film and television productions but is best known as the stand-in for Collinwood mansion in the two film spin-offs of the cult TV series Dark Shadows.

Production Credits

A Gorey Halloween Or, an October evening in Collapsed Pudding
Based on Characters Created by Edward Gorey
Produced by John H.P. David and Sheldon Riss
Written by Allan Knee
Edited by Ken Gutstein
Directed by Sheldon Larry
Creative Consultant: Peter Parnell; Choreography: Peter Anastos; Art Director: Frank Lopez; Costume Designer: John David Ridge; Makeup: Joe Cranzano; Earbrass’ Russian Sable Coat by Ben Kahn; Assistant Director: Art Salvensen; Stage Manager: Brooks Fountain; Lighting Director: Paul Siatta; Sound: Mark Dichter; Casting Director: Deborah Brown, B.S.A.; Production Manager: Lester Lessuk; Assistant Producer: Susan Vosik; Assistant to the Producer: Ruth Sales; Music by Score Productions, Inc.; Music Selection and Supervisor: Dorothy Krantz

Taped at Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, N.Y., A Property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation

A Production of JWT Productions, Inc.