Being dead has never looked more fun! Beetlejuice pops back up – in a cloud of smoke – Dec. 26-31

Dec 12, 2023 / Blog

Fants of Tim Burton's 1988 movie Beetlejuice - in which a dearly departed couple tries to haunt the new inhabitants of their former home - may remember this bit of movie magic: A character eerily exhales cigarette smoke through her tracheostomy.

That effect first stumped Jeremy Chernick, special effects designer for Beetlejuice (the musical), which opened on Broadway in 2019. Yet he made it happen. Special effects designers use pyrotechnics, atmospherics, mechanics, puppetry and other stagecraft to create an alternate reality. 

“I had no idea how to do it,” Chernick said, “and had to figure it out – not just how to make it happen, but how the actor can control it. We always have to consider ‘escape hatches’ – how actors and crew can troubleshoot or avoid an effect altogether if it doesn’t feel safe.”

(Beetlejuice special effects designer Jeremy Chernick shows off one of the show's iconic illusions.)

He’s been creating illusions for 25 years, and safety has always been paramount. 

Even with careful planning and safeguards in place, not everything always goes according to plan. “You hope that any glitches aren’t noticed by the audience – and they’re usually not,” he said. “But I’ll get notes about them.”  

Mistakes can lead to innovations, though. At one point in the show, Beetlejuice throws a smoke bomb while trying to make a dramatic exit. “When we tried that during a demo, the smoke bomb didn’t go off; it was a dud,” Chernick said. “We realized that was funny, and it made it into the musical.”

Everything interconnected

Chernick has worked on over 50 Broadway productions from Sweeney Todd to Tootsie, as well as in film, TV, music videos and more.

As head designer and co-owner of J&M Special Effects in Brooklyn, his goal is for special effects to bring the audience deeper into the story. “My vision is to have everything interconnected,” he said. “Not all the effects have to pop. But even a special effect that stands out should still feel like part of the whole.”

Beetlejuice’s Netherworld setting allows Chernick to be wildly imaginative. So does the storyline about Lydia Deetz, a teenager who meets the dead couple and the titular character – an exuberant, green-haired ghost dressed in stripes.


(Isabella Esler (Lydia) Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2022)

Special effects should support – but never overshadow – the story, Chernick believes. In fact, special effects don’t always have to snap, crackle and wow. They can be subtle.

But “subtle” isn’t a word readily applied to Beetlejuice. For instance, during a big dance number near the beginning of Act II, “there are about 10 fog machines going on and off as spooky characters pop up at different angles,” Chernick said.

It all happens while eight Beetlejuice clones sing “That Beautiful Sound” with Lydia. It’s a silly scene where multiple Beetlejuices dance, jump, cavort and high kick.


(Justin Collette (Beetlejuice) and Tour Company of Beetlejuice Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2022)

It starts with the script

Chernick’s creative process always starts with the script. In this case, inspiration came from Eddie Perfect’s music and lyrics and Scott Brown’s and Anthony King’s book.

Of course, Tim Burton’s source material also provided plenty of fodder.

Sending a Broadway show on the road is a hurdle – but one Chernick enjoys. “The difference between a Broadway show and a touring show is huge,” he said. “It’s always a good and interesting challenge.

“We go for everything on Broadway – we’re always looking to wow audiences. When we open a show, I’m inevitably thinking: If I’d only had one more week, I’d have tried X, Y and Z. A tour gives you a chance to … attempt some of the things you wanted to do initially, if only you’d had time.”

Chernick believes the “fun and irreverent” Beetlejuice is something special – in part, because of its devoted fans.

“The fan base is amazing,” he said. “They show up in costume – sometimes very elaborate ones. In most shows, the performers inhabit their own, separate world. In Beetlejuice, there’s a collaboration between audience and performers.”


Chernick won an Emmy Award for Jesus Christ Superstar Live and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Frozen. “It took years to create all that snow and ice magic in Frozen,” he said. “I had a lot of creative leeway. When you have the backing of Disney, there’s a lot you can do.”

There was a lot for Chernick to do with this oddball story, too. But ultimately, all those effects have to serve the material. And in this case, the material is surprisingly touching.

There are loads of bells and whistles (and fog and smoke), but Beetlejuice is ultimately a story about family, love, grief and making every Day-O count! 


(Justin Collette (Beetlejuice) and Tour Company of Beetlejuice Photo by Matthew Murphy, 2022)

Article by Page Leggett


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