Katrina Van Tassel: An Endangered Species? October 21, 2014 09:28

If you saw this picture and your first thought was that you were looking at a costumed Princess Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, you wouldn't be alone.

Last Friday, Jess and I attended Disneyland's Halloween party. It was the maiden voyage for Jess's newest costume, in progress since spring: Katrina Van Tassel from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." "Sleepy Hollow" was the second of two featurettes released together in what was the last of Disney's "package" films. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad was Disney Studios' 11th animated feature, and it premiered on October 5th, 1949.

Jess was sure no one would recognize the costume, and while I thought she was mostly correct, I still believed that someone at Disneyland would recognize it. From the beginning, no one did. Most believed, as we suspected, that she was dressed as Princess Aurora. A few were confused, thinking she was a fusion of Little Bo Peep from Toy Story and Sleeping Beauty. She was also mistaken for Cinderella, and Charlotte from The Princess and the Frog.

Again, none of this was a surprise.

Katrina has probably been one of the more obscure Disney characters from the beginning. Like a Disney princess, Katrina has a wardrobe change during her cartoon. When Katrina first appears she wears a bell-shaped pink dress with a blue laced front, she carries a green parasol, and she wears a white Dutch cap. Later, at a Halloween party thrown by her father, she wears a longer pink dress with a more open neckline and no blue accent. This is the version that Jess chose to portray.

What was a surprise, was that after revealing that the costume was in fact that of Katrina Van Tassel from the animated feature, there was, to a person, not a glimmer of recognition. Not even amongst the park's Cast Members.

"You know, 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow'? The Halloween cartoon with Ichabod and the Headless Horseman? Narrated by Bing Crosby?"

Blank spot here - then, "You mean that 'Sleepy Hollow' TV show?"

"No, the Disney cartoon."

What inevitably followed was the look of someone who you had just spoken to in ancient Babylonian. Apparently no one under the age of thirty or maybe even forty has ever seen this cartoon.

At the end of the night, on the way out of the park, someone finally recognized the costume. A girl dressed as Princess Aurora, of all things, traveling with a group of other costumed princesses, yelled "Katrina! Katrina!" from across the street, then ran over for a picture. Aurora seemed surprised she was the only person who got it - so I won the bet: someone, one person, had known who Katrina was. Fifteen minutes later one guy in the World of Disney store recognized the character as well. So, two out of many thousands. Which greatly saddened and distressed me.

As a kid, I learned to tell time largely because I wanted to be sure my family made it home from Sunday dinner by six-thirty. Sunday dinner for us was always at the same place: Furr’s Cafeteria in Arvada, Colorado. This, for us, was extremely fancy. The first thing you noticed after your eyes adjusted to the dark was the weird brick walls. As we stood in the tray line with other hungry families I studied the walls made of weird, goopy, sloppy bricks. They all looked a little melted, some much more than others. If one took the proper cues from the bricks and the medieval prints on the walls, I guess they were trying to make the place look like it was from ancient Europe. So waiting in the tray line was like traveling backwards through time to a cafeteria in the Middle Ages. A time when people weren’t so good at making bricks but they could still make Jell-O in every color conceivable.

We each got a tray and pushed it down the line while we picked which plates we wanted from the hundreds that were cooling on crushed ice beyond the glass sneeze guard which was at an adult's chest level. As a kid I could easily reach beneath the glass and get whatever I wanted. I always chose the same things: Salisbury steak which came with a mandatory side of green beans, green Jell-O presented in cubes, and a sugary green drink. Dad always got the chicken fried steak.

As I ate my Jell-O in the dark medieval dining room, which was hung all around with colorful knights' shields, I repeatedly checked Dad’s watch. We needed to get home before Wonderful World of Disney came on.

Never was this so urgent than the night in October when they broadcast "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

If I was lucky I saw it twice - once on TV, and again when they herded every kid in Foster Elementary into the gym and screened it in 16mm. We had been making construction paper cats and witches and ghosts since the end of September. But it wasn’t Halloween till I saw "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." That was when it really began. That Disney film was, and still is, the portal by which I reach the heart of the holiday. The kids-in-costumes, plastic-mask-held-on-by-rubber-bands, smell-of-burned-pumpkin-lid, sound-of-candy-dropped-in-a-bag Halloween.

Everything about "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" I consider to be perfect. The fall colors, the narration by Bing Crosby, the disarmingly cute opening and the scary end. Brom Bones’ song at the Van Tassels' Halloween party always make me feel like I was there amongst the frightened guests. And the execution of Ichabod’s final, lonely ride through the deep woods and hidden graveyards of his township is a masterpiece of tension, humor, and sudden terror.

And the characters! There is only one Ichabod, and certainly Brom Bones is the ironclad prototype from which Beauty and the Beast's Gaston was later hammered.

But none of it would work if not for Katrina. Presented as an unearthly beauty who arrives out of nowhere at the side of her father, she is a creature that only animation could conceive, floating around like a cloud, prancing across streams more like Bambi than a human being. Katrina lifts nothing heavier than a teacup or parasol while a willing army of admirers carry entire picnics and weeks of provisions for her. And yet she never came off as manipulative to me. Rather, Katrina seemed to occupy a needed space in that world. Like a thunderstorm that sweeps through the mountains, she was a disruptive necessity. She kicked everyone into gear. She was the planet all the other characters fall into orbit around.  I like that Katrina messes with people, but in the end she, like Brom Bones, is without malice. Her willingness to toy with Ichabod is in direct proportion to the less-than-noble designs Ichabod has for her.  This fantastic little story by Washington Irving recognizes both Brom's and Katrina's awareness of their inevitable pairing, thus this last dance of courtship choreographed by Katrina.  In a situation like this any of these three characters could have come off as a victim or a villain, but in the hands of this particular team of artists they all end up quite likable, indeed.  No one, I think, more than Katrina. She's beautiful and provocative at her entrance, and even moreso at the finish.  I wish she showed up in attractions and merchandise more than she currently does. Which is to say not at all - save for an often overlooked restaurant in Walt Disney World.

Katrina is, I think, unique amongst Disney characters. She exudes more dimension, charm and attitude than a character with her screen time has a right to. And all without uttering a single word. And the unapologetic audacity of her design is refreshing. Jessica Rabbit gets a lot of attention for how she’s drawn, but I think Katrina has her beat in all categories. Katrina's animators include Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Ken O'Brien, Woolie Reitherman, John Sibley, and, of course, Fred Moore.  I'm not sure if a featurette usually had such an all-star lineup, but this film obviously owes a good deal of its longevity and strength to its roster.  But a huge amount of credit should be given to the story crew, the background painters, and the editing and sound work in the climactic sequence.

So what's the point of all this? I guess I just want to keep the memory of this cartoon alive. A new generation shouldn't miss out on this perfect piece of American Halloween. Take an hour to share "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" with someone you think would like it. You can find it on Netflix (although not streaming, sadly) and Amazon Instant Video, or even newly bundled on DVD and Blu-ray.

And Happy Halloween!

UPDATE (10-14-15): In addition to adding some photos of Jess taken by Ryan Astamendi, we're happy to note that, at this year's Disneyland Halloween party, Jess was recognized as Katrina by four different groups, including one Cast Member. That might not sound like much, but it's twice as many as last year!