There are certain characters in pop culture that are akin to comfort food for Gen Xers. They’re never characters that you obsessed over like Star Wars or He-Man, but they brought you joy no matter how old you got. I think for a lot of us, the characters from Harvey Comics could be considered the meatloaf and mashed potatoes of our childhoods.
Out of all of Harvey’s many characters, arguably the most impactful has been Casper, the Friendly Ghost. Perhaps only rivaled by Richie Rich, Casper’s popularity has helped fuel a phantasmic empire of movies, cartoons, comic books, board games, Halloween costumes, and, of course, records for decades. The mix of charming artwork and wholesome, spooky fun has made him an American icon.
Casper the Friendly Ghost was the creation of author and illustrator Seymour Reit and animator Joe Oriolo in 1939 or 1940, accounts vary. The duo were both working at Fleischer Studios, one of the biggest animation houses at the time, when Reit developed the idea of a ghost that didn’t want to frighten people, but wanted to become their friend instead. Oriolo illustrated the story and they tried to sell it as a children’s book.
But, after a few years of unsuccessfully pitching to publishers, they wound up selling the rights for a one-time payment of $200, or about $3,400 today, to their employer, Famous Studios, who had bought Fleischer Studios in 1942.
Casper made his first appearance in The Friendly Ghost, a 9-minute theatrical animated short based on the unpublished book, released in November 1945. He would go on to star in a total of 55 shorts for Famous Studios that ran until 1959.
Casper’s career as a comic book began in 1949 under St. John Publications, running for 5 issues until 1951. In 1952, Harvey Comics took over publication and would eventually buy the rights to Casper, as well as many other Famous Studios characters, in 1959. Casper was a mainstay at Harvey, headlining dozens of his own titles over the years, as well as helping to launch new characters like Wendy the Good Little Witch, The Ghostly Trio, and Spooky The Tuff Little Ghost.
Starting in 1959, Casper began appearing on Matty’s Funday Funnies, an ABC cartoon that broadcast the Famous Studios theatrical shorts.
But he got his own show in 1963, The New Casper Cartoon Show, which featured a mix of new, original cartoons, as well as re-broadcasts of the old Famous shorts. Only 26 original stories were produced, but the show lived on in reruns until 1970 nonetheless.
Despite featuring Casper, Wendy, and The Ghostly Trio, as well as dozens of one-off characters ranging from a martian to pilgrims to evil magicians, the entire show was voiced by only two actors, Norma MacMillan and Bradley Bolke. MacMillan would go on to voice Gumby, Sweet Polly Purebred on Underdog, and Davey on Davey and Goliath. Bolke would later play Chumley the Walrus on Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and was a featured voice on Rankin-Bass holiday specials, The Year Without a Santa Claus and Mad, Mad Mad Monsters.
Since then, Casper has been on a handful of other animated shows, like 1979’s Casper and the Angels. The show was a bizarre take on the character that saw Casper helping out two female officers from the Space Police who patrolled Space City. The show only lasted for one season before it was canceled.
Following on the heels of 1995’s wildly successful live-action Casper film starring Christina Ricci and Bill Pullman, The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper ran from 1996 until 1998 for 52 episodes.
And, finally, Casper’s Scare School, a computer-animated cartoon, debuted in 2009 and ran for 52 episodes.
While I had a handful of Casper comic books growing up, the main thing Casper in my collection today are a couple of records. The first is Casper, The Friendly Ghost: Haunted House Tales, was released in 1973 by Peter Pan Records. Although The New Casper Cartoon Show ended in 1970, it appears that Harvey wanted to keep the property in the public eye, so they teamed up with Peter Pan to release an LP of Casper stories. Side A features one tale, The Scariest Halloween Ever, and side B features three shorter stories, Where Do you Hide in a Haunted House, Good Luck Isn’t Bad, and The Creaky Staircase.
I can’t be certain, because kids’ records didn’t usually credit the actors, but the voices on the record are similar enough to the cartoon that I have to wonder if they’re the original actors, Norma MacMillan and Bradley Bolke. If they’re not the original actors, they’re doing some amazing impressions.
Oddly enough, the side A story, The Scariest Halloween Ever, was re-released in 1976 as a read-along record book, renamed Casper, The Friendly Ghost and the Demon of Darkness. The book is quite different from the standard Peter Pan read-along book, featuring artwork and layouts that are much more reminiscent of a Casper comic book.
In fact, the cover art for the book is credited to Warren Kremer, the creator of Richie Rich, who helped define the Harvey Comics’ style during its heyday. The interior artwork also looks like it could be Kremer’s as well.
Peter Pan released a handful of Casper records in the 1970s, like Jungle Friends, The Creaky Staircase, A Musical Adventure In Make-Believe, and a single of the Casper TV show theme song.
If you’d like to get a dose of pop culture comfort food, check out The Spookiest Halloween Ever from the Ghost Tales LP, available as part of my podcast series, When You Hear This Sound. I’ve also made the record book, Demon of Darkness, available to read and enjoy as you listen. Be sure to head over to spacemonkeyx.net for more!