I tried to play it cool as my fingers drummed the index cards that contained too many questions about a cult-adored '90s kids movie. I'd over-prepared as a means of trying to tame the butterflies in my stomach, which were doing an intense FANGRRL flutter. It'd been 25 years since Hocus Pocus hit theaters in the thick of a summer ruled by Jurassic Park and Free Willy. But I'd been in awe of comedienne Kathy Najimy for far longer. The special guest for an anniversary screening at Brooklyn's Alamo Drafthouse Theater, Najimy entered the theater to the delight of star-struck fans, and sat down with one of them (me!) to answer questions about the witchiest comedy ever made.
1993's Hocus Pocus was a live-action Disney movie that starred Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, the terrors of 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. Though they'd been hanged for sucking the lives out of the town's children, this tricky trio vowed to return when a virgin dared to light the Black Flame candle on Halloween. 300 years later, a skeptical virgin named Max (Omri Katz) does just that, bringing Winifred, Mary, and Sarah back to life for one wild night of high-flying thrills and running amok amok amok!
Singing nun by day, feminist comic by night
The year before Hocus Pocus hit theaters, Najimy broke through with her scene-stealing role as the contagiously joyful nun in the Whoopi Goldberg smash-hit Sister Act. She regaled the Alamo audience with her journey from a San Fran stage to mainstream movie stardom. "I did a two-woman feminist comedy called Kathy and Mo Show for many years," she began.
"We did it in San Francisco. And I heard that they were doing a musical called Sister Act about singing nuns. So I would do Kathy and Mo in San Francisco's Theater on the Square at night, wake up, and fly to LA and audition (the next day). And I had to audition five times for Sister Act. Then, right as we wrapped Sister Act, I got a call that was crazy."
A fangrrl's dream come true
"My whole life, I had been a really sycophantic fan of Bette Midler's," Najimy said, continuing her tale. "I had broken in backstage on Broadway, in Los Angeles, into the theater. I had done a singing telegram to her from somebody else that was really from me. I had gotten into the gate in her New York apartment building and left a message for her housekeeper. I had done crazy things. I have a one-woman show, and the first 30 minutes of it is my relationship with Bette before she knew that she had a relationship with me."
"So then, I get the call from Jeffery Katzenberg, who ran Disney at the time, " Najimy explained. "And he said, 'Hey, listen, I don't know if you're available, but do you want to star in a movie called Hocus Pocus, playing Bette Midler's sister?' So they picked me up off the ground and mailed me to Los Angeles."
Najimy's singing telegram stunt may have inspired Midler's Beaches role.
"Here's the best part to that story," Najjimy said, leaning in conspiratorially, "When I was in San Diego, I was a singing telegram person. And I (dressed as) a big furry bunny, because my boyfriend had designed Alice in Wonderland at some college…I had barged in backstage at some theater to get to see Bette, saying, 'Singing telegram! Live wire singing telegrams. I have a singing telegram for Bette Midler.' But it was really just from me."
"So anyway, I had done this singing telegram to her. (Years later), we go to see Beaches," she said, "And in it, Bette plays an actress who makes a living as this big, white, furry singing telegram bunny. And that was me! She like inadvertently stole that from me. But that was before we really had met. That was really crazy."
When they met on Hocus Pocus, Midler didn't recognize Najimy as the eager fan or the singing telegram bunny. "She didn't know any of that," Najimy said. "When I arrived, I was just an actress." But she couldn't contain her inner fangrrl. (Who among us?) "Slowly on the set, I'd say things like, 'Oh my god, those boots. You wore those boots in 1979 in Chicago when you did the concert at the something.' She was like, 'Oh, OK, great.' I'd go into her trailer—we'd go back and forth, Sarah and Bette and I, into each other's trailers—and I'd be like, 'Oh my god, that's your little dog Pepe that you had backstage once in Canada in 1942. And slowly she started realizing that her co-star sister was her stalker." But over the course of the six months it took to make Hocus Pocus, Midler, Najimy, and Parker grew to become friends.
Mary's crooked mouth and signature hairdo were Najimy's ideas.
Lovable and loony, Mary Sanderson's look is a red dress complete with slanted smile and a hairstyle that looks like a witch's hat, minus the brim. Najimy corrected the latter misconception, telling us, "The costume designer (Mary E. Vogt) was brilliant but then we were talking about wigs and we couldn't really decide. And I said how about if her wig is the top of a pumpkin? Like the stem." So, Mary's style inspiration for her twisted 'do is a Jack-o-lantern. As for that quirky smirk, that was something Najimy discovered in rehearsals.
"The characters (in my previous films) came kind of easy, and I was struggling with Hocus Pocus. Then one day in rehearsal I just sort of went to the side," she said demonstrating, "And we decided she was a like bloodhound, so this sort of sniffy thing sort of happened (as she hunts down the children)."
The film's choreographer helped the Sanderson Sisters to fly their own way.
Najimy noted that director Kenny Ortega had a background as a choreographer, so the physicality of their performance was given a lot of attention. "You usually don't rehearse much for a film," Najimy explained. "You just rehearse that day. But we rehearsed for a month because there was flying and dancing and singing." Hocus Pocus's choreographer Peggy Holmes didn't just deal in the famous "I Put A Spell On You" dance number, she also instructed the witches on how to fly.
"(Peggy went) driving with Bette and Sarah and I, and from our driving she developed how we flew. So Sarah was like very front forward so she would hold it. [She demonstrates miming a broom held closely to her chest] I was like very 10-and-2 while I was driving, so she was like. 'That's how you'll fly.'" From there, stunt coordinator Terry Frazee instructed the stars on how to handle the wire rigs and teeter rig that'd allow to swoop in on Max and his pesky sister Dani (Thora Birch).
Najimy worried the film might harm the reputation of witches.
More specifically, she worried that the Sandersons' obsession with torturing and eating children would promote a negative stereotype and suggest all witches are bad. At the time she spoke to the writers' about this, urging for lines that might make mention of white witches. And notably, Max's salt-wielding crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) is presented as a brave young woman who uses magic to protect her friends, and is identified by Winifred as a white witch.
"I really believe in white witches," Najimy shared. "And I'm a witch and a lot of women I know who are very spiritually forward are witches.' The origin (of witches) is that they were healthcare workers who used to go to either deliver babies or perform abortions, whatever was needed. And so they would come out and there would either be a baby or no baby, so then, of course, they were deemed witches."
Najimy had shared this bit of history on the Today show in 1993. In our Q&A, she recalled, "I made the mistake of one day...doing the Katie Couric show, who's now a very good friend of mine, but at the time it's like 6 a.m. and I was trying to explain this to her. And she's like 'It's a Disney film!' And I'm like "I know! But did you know that these women'… So yeah. I'm a very political person and an activist first and all these other things after so I'm not Hollywood's favorite person to come up against. I have a point of view."
You can watch the clip here. As I said to Najimy and the audience at the Hocus Pocus event, it's amazing. More specifically, she is amazing. (Go to the 6:16 mark.)
Najimy reminds us progress is not a straight line.
Having grown up not just with Sister Act and Hocus Pocus, but also rewatching The Kathy and Mo Show, my idea of comedy was shaped by Najimy's frothy yet fiercely feminist brand of humor. So, it was a surreal moment when I got to ask her how she feels feminism has changed and how it's changed Hollywood in the 25 years since Hocus Pocus debuted. Her answer alluded to both Me Too and the current political climate under President Donald Trump.
"Well, it went very deep down before it started to rise up," Najimy, "And that seems to happen in history. I always wish that we didn't have to go deep down. I wish that we didn't have to have the loss of democracy right now for all of us to stand up and march and scream and protest for peace and equality and humanity. But I guess the way of the world is that it swings." Speaking of the Me Too movement activist group Time's Up, of which she is a member, she continued, "So you know Time's Up came at a time after women were silenced—and men as well—and abused for a very long time with no voice. So now there's a voice."
There are more witch scenes that didn't make it to theaters.
"You know here's a little thing you may or may not know about Hocus Pocus is that it was cut and edited completely differently than it was filmed," She shared with an enraptured audience. "It was really more about the witches and less about the kids, and Disney decided that they wanted it to be more kid-centric and kid-friendly. Oh my God, the internet is gonna go crazy now!" Najimy chuckled, "There are like five huge scenes with the witches that never made the movie." There were loud gasps of horror from the audience. "I know it! But you know they have to do what they have to do to cater to their audience."
Najimy couldn't recall all the goodies that have been cut, but she fondly remembers a sequence in a grocery store. "That was a good one. That was so fun. In it, Mary got to be set loose in a supermarket so when she saw like toilet paper with a baby's face on it!" She threw her hands to her mouth in delight at the memory.
You can spot a glimpse of this supermarket sequence in this trailer:
Najimy's dog has a cameo in Hocus Pocus.
Asked about the cameo of siblings Gary and Penny Marshall as a harried married couple, Najimy said it was "so much fun" to play opposite the pair. Then added, "That scene was really fun for me because my dog got to be in it. My dog Al Finney was in both Sister Act and Hocus Pocus." Al is the winged little pup who chases the witches out of "Satan's" suburban home.
Will there be a Hocus Pocus sequel?
"None of us (meaning Midler, Parker or herself) are in control of it. Like people keep saying. 'Please do a sequel,' and we're like we're on with our lives into other projects and stuff. But if someone wants to make an offer and we happen to be available or wanna do it, well then there's that. But we have no power over the big powerful Oz at Disney." But she and her co-stars have seen the fandom grow and are in awe of that. "We realize that the fans have been so supportive of this. Like beyond our wildest dreams."
Najimy then turned and asked me if someone was making another Hocus Pocus. I replied "a remake," which spurred boos from the audience. But Najimy didn't miss a beat, and asked, "Am I in it?" I asked her If she'd be interested, and she said, "You know every decision I make has to do with what I'm doing at the time and if I have time in the schedule and where do I have to fly to, so I would certainly be honored to answer that phone call."
We don't know if Najimy will fly again as a Sanderson sister. But come what remakes, we'll always have the original Hocus Pocus. Plus, we have Najimy's humorous and heart-warming story of her fangrrling fantasy come to life, and her paying it forward.