Christmas Town or Halloween Town?
Fans of Tim Burton’s 1993 stop-motion animated classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas” don’t have to choose so long as they can get to San Antonio Town for the McNay Art Museum’s “Dreamland | Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas,’” on view through January 14, 2024.
The exhibition coinciding with the movie’s 30th anniversary spotlights original models of beloved characters like Oogie Boogie Exposed, Bone Crusher, and the story’s hero, Jack Skellington. Also included from the Academy Award-nominated film is a full set model of “Jack Skellington and his dog, Zero, in Jack’s Tower” made of painted wood, metal, plastic, fabric, found objects and more.
The items were accessioned into the McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts in 1994.
“Robert L. B. Tobin (b. San Antonio, 1934; d. San Antonio, 2000), namesake of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, purchased them, as the story goes, on a whim. He sent the objects directly to the McNay without much advance notice—so, a lot of excitement was generated when staff opened the crates to see ephemerae from ‘Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,’” R. Scott Blackshire, Curator, The Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, told Forbes.com. “That excitement remains to this day and is imbued in every exhibition of these artworks. The McNay is fortunate that Tobin acted on his instinct to acquire artworks 30 years ago that remain pop-culture touchstones for so many people.”
The McNay’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts is one of only a few collections focused on the theatre arts—scenic design, costume design, lighting design, costumes and the like—anywhere in the world. It holds more than 12,000 artworks—mostly works on paper—and 2,000 rare books documenting over 500 years of excellence in theatre arts. Among the artworks related to opera, theatre and dance, the collection holds important pieces integral to the fabric of American culture, such as scenic designs by Oliver Smith for the 1957 Broadway premier of “West Side Story,” and designs by Christine Jones for the Broadway premier of “Spring Awakening,” a 2006 production that launched the stellar careers of Lea Michell and Jonathan Groff.
Museum guests come up close to the movie’s maquettes (small-scale working models), set pieces and character puppets Burton used in formulating his vision that would ultimately occupy the big screen.
“‘Dreamland’ visitors will recognize visual elements designed for the movie—a one-of-a-kind world that could only come from the heart and mind of Tim Burton,” Blackshire said. “Two of Burton’s maquettes from the Tobin Collection show how Burton’s creative team worked out early design details that would inform the final look of the larger sets used in the stop motion filming of the movie. The black-and-white maquettes in the exhibition are made of paper, cardboard, tape, and, if you look closely, the pen and pencil markings on the walls and floors reveal Burton’s imaginative thinking. Comparing the model for Jack’s Tower with the realized set, for instance, shows that the initial idea was for the spiral staircase to descend counterclockwise; however, the staircase on the full-scale set is oriented clockwise.”
The McNay does its best staging the exhibition to recreate a “Burtonesque” ambiance matching the filmmaker’s distinctive style, “setting humorous, melancholy, and heartwarming stories in liminal, often dark, make-believe worlds,” as Blackshire describes it.
In addition to the movie materials, the exhibition features a “Hall of Peculiar Portraits” filled with quirky items from the McNay’s permanent collection by artists including José Clemente Orozco Farías, Pablo Picasso, Julie Heffernan, Eugene Berman, Marilyn Lanfear, Willem de Kooning, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Julie Speed, among others.
The portraits nod to Burton’s early career as a Walt Disney animator which led McNay staff to the revelation that there are similarities between Burton’s film characters and those found in Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.
“It was clear there are also a host of fanciful characters in McNay artworks that quite possibly could live in the same realm as Burton’s ‘Nightmare…’ cast,” Blackshire explains. “In a fun way the exhibition recognizes both Burton and Disney in its ‘Hall of Peculiar Portraits’ showcasing exquisite artworks from the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts and other areas of the McNay’s collections that celebrate funny faces, eccentric characters, and the whimsical narratives they inspire. Visitors might even feel like the eyes in a portrait are moving… maybe even following them.”
As the Christmas movie for people who don’t like Christmas movies, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” holds up as a classic for the extreme detail and intricacy of its visuals, a memorable cast of fantastic and frightening characters, a spooky soundtrack equal parts dirge and bouncy, and for Burton’s unique macabre sincerity.
“The film’s unlikely hero Jack Skellington, although an odd character, represents curiosity and generosity—qualities we all might want to embody,” Blackshire said. “Jack’s intention is to recreate the bright colors and festive spirit of Christmas for the residents of Halloween Town. Jack fails at every attempt, but remains hopeful and resolute as he faces a slew of obstacles in his pursuits—which is a timeless and appealing moral for viewers of all ages.”