The cult of Shelley Duval’s Faerie Tale Theater - and how a new generation discovered her

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Louise Thomas

Cinderella. Sleeping Beauty. Rapunzel. These fictitious tales of damsels in distress and prince charmings have influenced generations of young children, often unwittingly providing a false sense of chivalry or romance for decades to come. But Faerie Tale Theatre – the award-winning series helmed by late actor Shelley Duvall – was unlike any other fairy tale adaptation that major production studios have since churned out today (and without all the headache-inducing CGI, too).

Duvall – known for her roles in The Shining and Popeyedied aged 75 at her home in Texas. News of her death was shared on July 11 by Dan Gilroy, her partner since 1989. According to Gilroy, Shuvall died in her sleep of complications from diabetes.

The beloved actor was unarguably most recognized as Jack Nicholson’s wife, Wendy Torrance, in director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 Stephen King adaptation of The Shining. But for someone like me, who was born two decades after the horror film hit theaters and never had much of a desire to watch someone wield an ax at his wife, my early introduction to the waif-ish icon came with the much more child-appropriate series, Faerie Tale Theatre.

Of course, there aren’t many Gen Zers out there confessing that their favorite childhood series had legendary actors of the 1980s dressed in leotards and frilly oversized collars. But if there was one goal my parents had in raising a child during the internet age, at least she would have a wide breadth of 20th Century pop culture knowledge.

Faerie Tale Theatre, also executive produced by Duvall, was a live-action hour-long series adapted from classic fairy tales and fantasies, written by The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen. The series originally aired on Showtime from 1982 to 1987, before being syndicated on the Disney Channel, PBS, and on DVD and VHS.

Shelley Duvall’s ‘Faerie Tale Theatre': The Tale of the Frog Prince

Celebrities such as Robin Williams, Christopher Reeve, Mick Jagger, Carol Kane, Jeff Bridges, and Susan Sarandon were enlisted by Duvall to portray fairies, princes, evil queens, and even a frog in her Faerie Tale Theatre. The sets were whimsical, yet practical and stagy. Essentially, it was the pinnacle of camp. The late great Paul Reubens donned an over-the-top prosthetic nose in his portrayal of Pinnochio, while Joan Collins as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel (green skin and all) gave me nightmares for several years.

What made Faerie Tale Theatre such a treasure weren’t the fictional stories it was adapted from, but how Duvall presented such tales in a new and inventive way. Instead of setting Sleeping Beauty in the typical Westernized scene of Disney’s 1959 animated film, for example, Duvall decided it should take place during Imperial Russia, like the ballet of the same name composed by Tchaikovsky. In fact, much of the episode included music from the famous ballet.

Duvall even immersed herself into the passion project as the host of Faerie Tale Theater. “Hello, I’m Shelley Duvall,” she began in her sing-song tone at the top of every episode. Now, her words have gone on to become a viral TikTok audio, as most things do these days.

The sound, set behind a heavy drum beat, has been used by the app’s “fashion girlies” to showcase their daily fit checks. While it’s unclear if TikTok’s widely Gen Z audience is aware of the cultural prominence behind the viral audio, the sound has nonetheless carried out her legacy. Aptly enough, Duvall herself donned some eccentric shoulder-padded blouse or a new curled hairstyle with every introduction to Faerie Tale Theatre.

Before her passing, scenes from Faerie Tale Theatre only returned to me in fever dreams or during conversations that often begin: “Did anyone else watch that show…” Now, in remembering Duvall’s indelible effect on both Hollywood and the young audiences that watched her children’s programming, Faerie Tale Theatre will go down in history as an innovative take on age-old stories for generations to come.

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