22 years ago, ‘Halloweentown’ became a spooky classic. Its stars still feel the love
On display in Kimberly J. Brown’s house is a framed letter from the late Debbie Reynolds.
The “Halloweentown” actress thinks about her on-screen grandmother “all the time” — especially during the month of October, when she and Reynolds used to break out their old witches’ robes to bring smiles to fans’ faces on the 31st. Now, when she needs a reason to smile, Brown rereads the words Reynolds wrote for her upon wrapping their final film together.
"[I] tried to soak up as much time with her as I could because she became another grandmother to me,” she told The Times during a phone call last week. “So much of their relationship on screen mirrored what our relationship was in real life, so I’m grateful for that time I got with her.”
Brown, 35, starred opposite the screen icon in the hit “Halloweentown” TV movies as Marnie, a spirited and determined young witch-in-training who joins forces with her grandmother, Aggie Cromwell (Reynolds), to save the universe from evil beings who want to keep the mortal and magical worlds divided.
Since the first in the series premiered on the Disney Channel in 1998 , the family films have maintained a cult following, spurring annual fan events attended by Brown and other original cast members in celebration of the saga’s title holiday. Because of the pandemic, this year’s festivities are going virtual with GalaxyCon’s “Halloweentown” Q&A and meet-and-greet featuring Brown and her onscreen mother, Judith Hoag, on All Hallows’ Eve.
"[GalaxyCon] approached us to do something on Halloween, and I thought, ‘What a fun idea,’ because I do I travel around a lot usually doing different appearances at different cons,” Brown said. “I love meeting fans and ... getting to connect with them personally too. And so I was bummed that that has been not really as much of an option this year.”
Also participating in the cyber panel with Brown is her boyfriend and “Halloweentown II” costar, Daniel Kountz, who played her nemesis, the vengeful son of the wicked warlock Kalabar. (Spoiler alert: Marnie and her fellow Cromwell witches defeat Kalabar in the first film. Hence the sequel’s subtitle, “Kalabar’s Revenge.”)
The full-circle irony of Brown and Kountz’s off-screen relationship is not lost on them or their loyal “Halloweentown II” fans. Upon discovering they’re dating in real life, many are quick to remind the couple of dialogue from the beginning of the movie, which sees a smooth-talking, undercover Kal (Kountz) flirt his way into Marnie’s good graces.
“People always love the ... ‘If witches were all as pretty as you, they’d have a better reputation,’” Brown said, reciting one of Kal’s pickup lines. “And then there’s, ‘Meeting you was everything I hoped it would be,’ and that kind of thing. ... Before I discover that he’s evil, obviously.”
Kountz, 42, has largely retired from acting and now works as a Realtor. But that hasn’t stopped eagle-eyed Disney Channel aficionados from trolling his listings with comments such as, “Don’t trust him. He’ll turn your house gray” — a reference to the dark spell Kal casts on Halloweentown, transforming the vibrant haven for mythical creatures into a monochromatic wasteland.
“A lot of [fans] say, ‘I can’t believe you’re with Marnie now. Didn’t she learn from her past mistakes?’ Funny things like that, which kind of crack me up,” Kountz said.
“I have a client that I’m gonna be working with next month, and she was a big ‘Halloweentown’ fan ... and she’s like, ‘Hey, I got a house I want to sell, and who better to sell it than Kal?’ And I’m like, ‘OK, that’s great. My name is Daniel, but, yeah, sure, you can call me Kal if you want.’”
The niche obsession with the spooky series is nothing new to Kountz and Brown, who began dating a few years ago after reconnecting on a “Halloweentown"-themed project for Brown’s YouTube channel that updated fans on what Kal has been doing since Marnie vanquished him in the finale of “Kalabar’s Revenge.”
Across her YouTube and social media pages, Brown frequently rewards hundreds of thousands of followers looking for nostalgia in the form of behind-the-scenes photos, cast reunion videos and inspirational merchandise featuring popular quotes from the films, such as Grandma Aggie’s defiant motto, “Being normal is vastly overrated.”
“I’ve gotten countless notes from people saying that they lived by that sentence and by that feeling growing up,” Brown said. “They didn’t feel as ‘normal’ in school, or something like that, and it made them feel like it was OK to be that way. And that always touches me so deeply.”
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With the “Halloweentown” flicks now available to stream on Disney+, Brown and Kountz have noticed increased engagement with the them. Brown has even been able to track the streaming platform’s international rollout based on which countries she receives messages from at any given moment. The latest Disney+ launch site she’s logged? Norway.
“I get the sweetest notes from people ... that were teenagers when the movie came out,” Brown said. “And then some people who tell me all about how they just introduced it to their 3- or 4-year-old. And then a different generation of people that watched it with their parents or grandparents and remember it being on [TV], and people that are just discovering it now because of Disney+. ... It’s surreal. We had no idea when making them that they would continue to live on like this.”
“Over the past couple years, the exposure has gone up so much,” Kountz added. “Especially with [Disney+], you can readily watch it any time you want ... even when it’s not Halloween time. In March, people are like, ‘Oh, we just watched ... “Halloweentown II.” I’m introducing it to my kids.’”
The most common feedback Brown gets are questions about — and plot suggestions for — a potential franchise reboot from “Halloweentown” lovers who want to see Marnie’s kids develop their powers or Kal return for a rematch with the Cromwells. And although nothing is officially in the works, Brown has a good feeling “there would be an audience for it.”
“I have always thought that Marnie would maybe be, like, running for mayor” of Halloweentown, she said.
For now, the legacy of “Halloweentown” survives through October programming on Disney Channel and Freeform, plus year-round streaming on Disney+ and, most recently, Brown’s TikTok account, which has attracted a lot of attention this month for obvious reasons. One viral video of the actress trying on her purple witch’s cloak, hat and dress from “Halloweentown II,” for example, has amassed more than 12 million views on the Gen Z-facing platform.
“I appreciate that they still want to see Marnie’s costume,” Brown said of her newfound TikTok fame. “It amazes me that stuff like that gets seen so many times. ... It’s been a weird year, so if I can do something that helps people remember that magical feeling or something that they felt when they were younger, I’m all for it.”
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According to Brown, the tradition of dressing as her Disney Channel sorceress for Halloween was started years ago by none other than Reynolds, who used to surprise trick-or-treaters in costume as Grandma Aggie. Inspired by her costar, Brown did the same — that is, until strangers began showing up at her door regularly in search of “Marnie’s house.”
“We had to pull back a little bit on that, but, yeah, she gave me that idea, and it was so fun,” Brown said. “What a thrill for kids — and parents, who probably know [Reynolds] from so many things over the years because she was a freaking legend.”
Whether via Instagram throwbacks, TikTok stunts or COVID-safe virtual conventions, Marnie will forever be here to welcome folks home to Halloweentown — partly because of Reynolds, who always made time for the fans who once came out in droves “to see if they could catch a glimpse of her” on the set of “Halloweentown.”
“That was something that was always very important to her,” Brown said. “She really taught me what a gift it is to be in that position to be able to make people happy. ... That always has stuck with me.”
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