As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Disney Channel, I’m looking back on two of the channel’s earliest cable movies. In 1983, all the original movies made for the network were called Disney Channel Premiere Films, and these were eventually replaced by Disney Channel Original Movies (the more well-known brand which debuted in 1997). Filmmakers Alan Shapiro and Mark Rosman were instrumental in the early lineup of Disney Channel Premiere Films.
Tiger Town was the first Disney Channel movie ever, premiering in October 1983. Written and directed by Alan Shapiro, the film starred Jaws’ Roy Scheider as an aging Detroit Tigers baseball player named Billy Young. Alex (Justin Henry) is a local kid who loves attending Tigers games with his dad. When Alex’s father dies, the boy keeps going to the stadium and becomes a good luck charm to Billy. I always get emotional watching this movie, especially seeing Justin and his dad have one last day out where they enjoy a game together and splurge on an Italian dinner. Shapiro, a Michigan native, directed many scenes at the real Detroit Tigers stadium, which is now at a different location (right by my church, actually!). If you’re a baseball fan, you need to add this one to your list and see the late announcer Ernie Harwell in action. The film is not on Disney+, so I purchased it on VHS some time ago.
Without a doubt, Tiger Town was an excellent way to kick off Disney’s legacy in telefilms. In fact, it had an angle that would become the bread and butter of the DCOM brand later on — a young person whose character and story easily bring the audience in emotionally. The same is true for The Blue Yonder. A few Disney Channel Premiere Films later, Shapiro produced and Mark Rosman wrote The Blue Yonder with a focus on another sensitive, kindhearted character. Jonathan Knicks (Huckleberry Fox) is growing up without his grandfather, Max Knickerbocker (Peter Coyote), who died flying across the Atlantic decades earlier. Young Jonathan learns from his grandfather’s ailing friend Henry (Art Carney) that Max designed a time machine, which Henry has completed. The boy travels from the 1980s to 1927 in an effort to save his grandfather — and he gets to know him in the process.
This was Rosman’s first Disney Channel project of many. We of the Lizzie McGuire generation certainly have seen episodes he directed, along with Even Stevens and iconic 2000s movies such as Model Behavior, Life-Size, and A Cinderella Story (which isn’t Disney but obviously includes our beloved Hilary Duff). Shapiro also continued to work with Disney — check out his film The Christmas Star on Disney+ next holiday season. In the early ’90s, he discovered Alicia Silverstone, who starred in his dramatic thriller The Crush. Disney Channel fans have Shapiro and Rosman to thank for establishing the pulse of the Disney Channel family feature. Sure, DCOMs changed with the times to eventually reflect a 2000s tween, but the masterful storytelling present in Tiger Town and The Blue Yonder makes this ’90s kid even more appreciative of the Disney Channel of the ’80s. Both films earned CableACE awards. I’d recommend watching behind-the-scenes slideshows on Alan Shapiro’s website commemorating each of the movies: here’s Tiger Town and The Blue Yonder!