Illustrating Faerie Tale Theatre

Researched and Written by Doug Gardiner

Shelley Duvall with the 'Today's Stars in Timeless Treasures' poster.

Shelley Duvall posing with a Faerie Tale Theatre promotional poster 

Once Upon a Time…
It was 1980, the sun reflected brightly off the limestone cliffs surrounding Anchor Bay in Malta. The green sea gently washed against the rocks and the timber supports of the wharf. Construction had recently been completed on the town of Sweethaven and the strong smell of cut timber and fresh paint filled the air. The ramshackle locale was the set for the ambitious and original motion picture production of ‘Popeye’. From behind the camera, director Robert Altman was watching Robin Williams, a new talent chosen to portray the eponymous sailor. The energetic actor was performing a scene and was leaping about the set.

Playing the role of Popeye’s lady love, Olive Oyl, actress Shelley Duvall sat reading under the shade of an umbrella. It would be some time before she was required for filming but her hair and makeup had been completed and her costume fitted. Looking up from her book, she watched Williams as he danced about. Duvall returned to her book, she had read it many times before but the stories felt as fresh and exciting as the time that she had first read them:

‘Princess, why do you weep so bitterly?’ ‘Alas!’ said she, ‘what can you do for me, you nasty frog? My golden ball has fallen into the spring.’ The frog said: ‘I want not your pearls, and jewels, and fine clothes; but if you will love me, and let me live with you and eat from off your golden plate, and sleep upon your bed, I will bring you your ball again.’

Duvall smiled to herself; she looked up at Williams again and thought he would make a great frog in a live adaptation of the tale. The fact that this thought occurred to Duvall was not unusual. For the past few years she’d had the idea to create a live action series that brought her much loved fairy tales to life.

The idea became a reality in September of 1982, when ‘The Tale of the Frog Prince’, starring Robin Williams was broadcast on Showtime, the US cable television channel. The premiere episode of Duvall’s ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ series was followed by 25 more adaptations of world famous classic tales brought to life with creative scripts, dazzling special effects and lavish production design formatted aesthetically after the work of a famous illustrator or painter. With Duvall serving as executive producer, the series ran until 1987 and featured the most popular entertainers of the day playing the parts of the celebrated characters. Conceived with special consideration to entertain and instruct the young, the series was also executed to amuse and appeal to adults. By 1983, the immense popularity of ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ led to the decision to begin releasing the episodes on home video.

Released by CBS/Fox Video, the covers of the 26 titles in the series featured unique illustrations that depicted the actors rendered in the style of the famous illustrator or painter whose work had inspired the production design of the episode. The artwork on each cover was complemented by an exquisite art nouveau style border that gave the series of videocassette boxes an aesthetic and uniform look. Posters featuring the artwork for the first 15 titles were also produced.

As the 30th anniversary of the CBS/Fox Video release of ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ approached, I began thinking more about these beautiful cover illustrations and how much they still resonated with me after so many years.  When the series was re-issued on VHS in 1990 under the CBS/Fox Playhouse Video label, the cover illustrations were retained but the border was altered. Since then, ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ has been re-released on VHS and DVD. However, none of these subsequent releases have featured the original artwork.

Determined to rescue this series of illustrations from obscurity, I set out to contact those involved in the production of the artwork to find out about the creative process and hopefully locate material that would enable the illustrations to be officially reproduced. Following some preliminary research, I confirmed that art studio Skidmore Sahratian, based in Detroit, Michigan, produced the illustrations. This studio was also responsible for designing the artwork featured on the first home video release of the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy as well as early video releases of classic Hollywood films such as ‘Robin Hood’ starring Errol Flynn and ‘Casablanca’ starring Humphrey Bogart.

I conducted telephone interviews with designer John Dudek, artist and designer Ron Rae, artists Chuck Gillies, Bob Andrews, Rob Kuester, Rudy Laslo, David McCall Johnston and Gary Cooley. All of whom were gracious enough to share their memories with me about their work on ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’. I also spoke with Petra Pepellashi, the account representative for Skidmore Sahratian to CBS/Fox Video. In addition to client contact, she managed the art and print production processes. Her insight into the story behind the commission was invaluable to my research. Pepellashi also shared her knowledge of the beginning of the home video industry and the creation of CBS/Fox Video.

The story of CBS/Fox Video
In 1968, Andre Blay established a company called Magnetic Video which was based in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In 1977, Blay came up with the idea to release pre-recorded motion pictures on videocassette. That year, he convinced Twentieth Century Fox to license fifty of their films for home video release. These titles included ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, ‘Hello, Dolly!’, ‘M*A*S*H’, ‘The King and I’ and ‘The Sound of Music’. These initial releases by Magnetic Video provided the first major impetus for the establishment of the successful video retail and rental industry. Magnetic Video later released titles from other film studios in addition to the original titles from Twentieth Century Fox.

In 1979, Twentieth Century Fox purchased Magnetic Video, with Blay staying on as a major shareholder and Chairman. In 1982, shortly after Blay’s departure from the company, Fox reorganized Magnetic Video into 20th Century Fox Video. Later that year, Fox merged its video operations with CBS Video Enterprises, resulting in the creation of CBS/Fox Video in mid 1982.

The Artists and the Artwork
At the 1983 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Lawrence Hilford, Chief Executive Officer of CBS/Fox Video signed a deal with Shelley Duvall to release ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ on home video in both the VHS and Beta format. Hilford approached Skidmore Sahratian to design the videocassette covers and produce the artwork that would be featured on the cover of each title in the series. Pepellashi recalls that the commission for the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ series was very exceptional as projects rarely came along where a company was willing to commission the volume of artwork that would be required for 26 individual videocassette covers.

The fact that each of the 26 illustrations required for the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ videocassette covers would be based on the work of a famous illustrator or painter generated much excitement within the art studio. Skidmore Sahratian was perhaps the only art studio in the country at the time that could have done the volume of artwork that was required and with that diversity of styles necessary to appropriate the work of the well known artists including Gustav Klimt, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham and Norman Rockwell. In most cases, the artists were familiar with the style of the artist that they were to emulate.

John Dudek was employed at Skidmore Sahratian as a designer and art director. He controlled the artwork and design aspects of the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ project. Dudek recalls that a title would arrive at the studio along with publicity stills provided by CBS/Fox Video. He would review the publicity stills and then decide on a composition for the illustration. With most of the artists, he would then prepare a small sketch that would lay out the composition. Along with the publicity stills, this would be presented to the artist and they would create the illustration using the sketch as a guide.

The exception to this process was artist and fellow designer Ron Rae, who composed his own illustrations and would often work closely with Dudek on projects. Rae illustrated ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘The Three Little Pigs’. He also illustrated the image of a castle on a hill that served as the main piece of promotional art for ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ and worked with fellow artist Bob Andrews on ‘The Princess who had Never Laughed’.

When a new title arrived at the studio to be illustrated, it was up to Dudek to decide which artist at Skidmore Sahratian could best be utilised on the project. Being based in Detroit, a lot of work that the studio did was for the automotive industry. Consequently, many of the artists employed at the studio were “mechanical”’ artists, meaning they mostly worked on illustrations of cars or parts and accessories for cars that were used in catalogues. These artists were not used to illustrating images that featured people. However, due to the number of illustrations that needed to be done for ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’, Dudek made the decision to approach “mechanical” artists Rob Burman (‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’), Larry Dodge (‘Rip Van Winkle’) and Jerry Monley (‘Beauty and the Beast’) to complete the work.

CBS/Fox Video stipulated that the actors who starred in each production had to have a prominent portrayal in the illustration. It was also very important that the artwork match the style of the illustrator whose work the production design of the episode was based on.  Whilst artist Rob Kuester recalls using the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ publicity stills as the main reference for his illustrations of ‘Cinderella’, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’, in some cases the limited publicity stills provided by CBS/Fox Video did not lend themselves to creating an effective composition.

Artist Gary Cooley was not employed at Skidmore Sahratian at the time he was approached by the studio to work on the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ project. Working from New York, he recalls using a Polaroid camera to take pictures of a paused image from a video on a television screen to supplement the images in the publicity stills. When working on ‘The Nightingale’, ‘The Boy who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Cooley discovered that photographing the television screen while the video was playing actually resulted in a clearer image than photographing a paused image. ‘The Nightingale’, starring Mick Jagger, was Cooley’s third project that required him to paint the Rolling Stones front man. The cover of the January 1973 issue of ‘Creem Magazine’ features an illustration of the Rolling Stones by Cooley. A Chicago based radio station also commissioned Cooley to paint Jagger. This painting was later reproduced by sign painters on a building that was eight storeys high.

Like Cooley, artist David McCall Johnston was also not employed at Skidmore Sahratian when he was approached by Ron Rae to illustrate ‘The Princess and the Pea’, featuring Liza Minnelli. McCall Johnston recalls that illustrating Minnelli was very difficult due to the limited reference material that was available.

For his Norman Rockwell inspired illustration for ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’; Bob Andrews photographed his wife in a dress and used the photographs as a reference to complete his illustration of actress Tatum O’Neal. This was necessary to achieve a level of detail that other reference material did not provide. Andrews worked with oil paint for this illustration as he knew Rockwell painted in this medium.  When completing  the artwork for ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Andrews employed his own method that involved painting in water colours that he would then tint over the top of with a thinned down, watery oil paint. This consistency would give the desired texture and give the illustration an old world look that better emulated the work of British illustrator Arthur Rackham.

When illustrating Robin Williams for the Maxfield Parrish inspired artwork for ‘The Tale of the Frog Prince’, artist Chuck Gillies recalls using a publicity photo of Williams as the character ‘Mork’ from the television series ‘Mork and Mindy’ as a reference. Gillies simply added the Prince Valiant hairstyle worn by Williams in his role as the prince to complete the illustration. While Gillies has fond memories of the project, he admits that the artwork was a challenge for him. Wanting to make the most of the opportunity he had been given, Gillies recalls that he spent about three weeks on each title. Apart from ‘The Tale of the Frog Prince’, Gillies also illustrated ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘The Dancing Princesses’.

Dudek stated the time originally allowed for the completion of the artwork was about two weeks. The first few days would be spent creating the composition. The artist would then take a week to ten days to complete the illustration. There was no standard size that the illustration had to be and the artists could work in any size or medium that they wanted. The only requirement was that the illustration had to fit within the dimensions required for the videocassette covers. The largest illustration was artist Tim Paul’s ‘Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp’ which was about 24 x 30 inches. David McCall Johnson’s ‘The Princess and the Pea’ was the smallest illustration at about 8 x 10 inches.

The art nouveau style border featured on each videocassette cover was originally conceived by Dudek. When sketching the composition for the artist he would add a rough scrawl around the edge. Rae stated that he looked at what Dudek had done and refined it, resulting in the final design that was used. He recalls a definite art nouveau influence. In relation to the colour that was selected for the border of each title, Dudek chose colors that he believed complimented the image. Rae commented that the colour of the border was intentionally dark for the majority of titles in the series in order to draw attention to the colour and detail in the cover illustration.

Original border artwork by Ron Rae

Dudek and Rae were responsible for the design of the videocassette boxes including the marbling effect on the interior. They also selected the production stills that would be featured on the rear of the videocassette box. The synopsis was apparently produced by a staff writer at CBS/Fox Video.

Dudek and Rae both recall working on the front and rear design of the Laserdisc and CED VideoDisc release of the first 15 titles in the series. These square shaped covers contained a slight variation of the border art that was used on the rectangular video cassette covers. I enquired about a rumoured CED VideoDisc release of the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ retrospective television special ‘Faerie Tale Theatre: Greatest Moments’ made in 1985. It appears under the title ‘Grimm Party’ in contemporary publications as either being available or soon to be available on CED VideoDisc but there is no evidence to support an actual release. If a release was ever planned, Dudek and Rae stated that they were never aware of it.

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let Down Your Hair…”
While there were no alternate concepts for any of the final illustrations, there was one instance where a piece of artwork had to be altered. Dudek stated that when an artist would commence work on a project, he would check their progress daily to confirm that the project was going to meet the deadline. He recalls doing this with artist William Klemm, who from all accounts was a popular employee at the studio, a real personality with a great sense of humour. His illustration for ‘Rapunzel’ was inspired by the work of Gustav Klimt and incorporated many intricate details that Klimt commonly used in his paintings. These details were worked into the background of the illustration and also into the elaborate cape that actress Gena Rowlands is depicted wearing. Rowlands is illustrated with her arms raised and stretched wide in the centre of the painting, displaying the full detail of the cape.

Dudek approved the finished illustration and it was sent to the printer. Promotional posters were printed using the approved illustration and were delivered to Skidmore Sahratian. Dudek recalls arriving at the studio the morning that the posters were delivered. He came across a group of employees who were laughing. When he asked them what they were laughing at they told him that Klemm had done something to the artwork for ‘Rapunzel’ that wasn’t picked up on prior to approving it for printing.

At the same time Petra Pepellashi recalls she was approached by an employee at the studio who told her he thought it was “pretty funny” what Klemm had done to the artwork for ‘Rapunzel’. Unaware of what he was referring to; Pepellashi enquired what had been done to the artwork. She was told and immediately went to see for herself.

Dudek soon discovered what the employees who had seen the printed poster had found so amusing. On closer inspection of the detail on the cape worn by Rowlands, Dudek saw that Klemm had illustrated a pair of naked breasts, complete with nipples. When Pepellashi saw this, she questioned Klemm who thought the situation was hilarious but denied the detail was intentional. Later, friend and fellow artist Rudy Laslo (who illustrated ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Pinocchio’) asked Klemm if he intentionally illustrated the breasts but he still denied it.

The original artwork was retrieved and Klemm painted over the offending details. Bob Andrews recalls that CBS/Fox Video were not pleased and that there were concerns at the time that the art studio may lose the contract. Pepellashi took a printed poster and the amended artwork to New York and met with Leonard White, President of CBS/Fox Video. However, White was amused by the whole situation, the posters had not been distributed and the videocassette boxes had not been printed. Pepellashi informed White that Skidmore Sahratian would pay for the re-printing of the posters and he was also assured that none of the uncensored posters would be distributed. White was satisfied the situation had been addressed but did request one of the uncensored posters for himself.

“Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall…”
Dudek states that when completing a commissioned illustration, it is not unusual to go through rounds of changes, especially when the client has a particular image in mind. However, this was not the case with the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ project. CBS/Fox Video and Shelley Duvall trusted the designers and allowed them to complete the work without interference. Dudek never met with Duvall but did speak with her once on the telephone. During the conversation, she thanked him for the work that the studio was doing on ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’. In her role as the account representative, Pepellashi met with Shelley Duvall several times. Pepellashi recalls that Duvall was quite a dynamic personality, vivacious and very enthusiastic about the artwork and design.

The meetings that Pepellashi had with Duvall were incidental. Duvall didn’t attend the art studio to look at the artwork and wasn’t involved in the production of the materials. As CBS/Fox Video commissioned the artwork, the majority of contact was made by their Marketing Director. However, through CBS/Fox Video, Shelley Duvall saw and approved every piece of artwork that was produced and also approved the final design of the 26 individual videocassette boxes. Pepellashi and artist Rob Kuester recall that the artwork for ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ was Duvall’s favourite from the series and that CBS/Fox Video actually presented Duvall with the original piece of artwork.

According to Pepellashi the CBS/Fox Video release of ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ was officially announced by Shelley Duvall at a Video Distributor’s Conference held by CBS/Fox Video in San Francisco in 1983.

Will we see the artwork again?
When asked about the fate of the original artwork, Pepellashi recalls that when the art was completed, CBS/Fox Video purchased it outright. They retained the rights to the image and the original artwork. While there may have been some original pieces of artwork that were retained by the artist, Pepellashi believes that the majority were sent to CBS/Fox Video. Bob Andrews claims that he had his original artwork for a year or two after they were completed before CBS/Fox Video requested them. As Pepellashi was the account representative on the project, the request for the artwork would come through her personally. She believes that the original artwork may have been displayed on the walls of the New York office of CBS/Fox Video until the office moved to Los Angeles. It is unlikely that the decision was made to send the artwork to Los Angeles with any other assets from the New York office. I recently contacted the Los Angeles office of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment in an effort to confirm the location of the artwork or any original material but they were unable to assist.

Pepellashi confirmed the name of the company that printed the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ videocassette boxes for CBS/Fox Video. The company was still operating and I decided to contact them, hoping they would still have the printing masters of all 26 boxes. My enquiry was well received by a helpful staff member who was interested in my search and confirmed they would contact me after they had checked the company archives. This sounded promising! I eagerly awaited their reply, optimistic that the printing masters would be located. However, I was eventually informed that all films and proofs that the company had for VHS items had been either destroyed or returned to the client as the format was virtually obsolete. I was further advised that the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ videocassette boxes would have been produced before the company had digital files and VHS artwork that they received on film was never converted to a digital format. However, the staff member assured me that I would be contacted if it was later discovered that the ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ material did survive the purge of VHS files.

Even though I was not able to confirm the existence of material that would enable all 26 illustrations to be officially reproduced, I was pleased to have made contact with those involved in the production of the artwork. Speaking with the designers and artists about their work on ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ and about their careers in general was a memorable experience for me. Everyone involved still has a real passion for art and design and many are still working in the industry.

30 years later, admirers of the CBS/Fox Video artwork for ‘Faerie Tale Theatre’ can only see these images on worn and faded videocassette boxes. I hope that these illustrations will one day be officially reproduced in a way that captures their original brilliance and beauty. When this happens, I’m sure the efforts of those involved in the production of the artwork will be appreciated by a new generation of fans.