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Pee-Wee's Big Adventure turns 35!

Some of my earliest memories include Pee-Wee Herman.  My brother took piano lessons when I was really little, and on Saturday mornings after his class, my mother would take us to the video store (remember those, kids?) followed by the pet store just to wear us out and keep us occupied for a while.  At the video store, for the longest time, my brother and I wanted to rent nothing but Pee-Wee's Playhouse tapes.  I had all of the Pee-Wee figures and playset growing up, up until fairly recently too, but they were ruined in a flood in my parent's basement during Hurricane Irene.

Somehow after weeks of renting the Playhouse tapes, we found out there was a full-length movie, Pee Wee's Big Adventure!  I had to be around 5, which would make it 1989 or 1990, a few years after the initial release.  Clear as day, I remember my brother Matt and I both had bomber jackets on in the living room early one Sunday morning as the two of us sat watching the rented Pee Wee's Big Adventure before church.  It was either winter time and a little chilly in the house, or I just thought it was cool, or for all I know, the heat was out. Still, I distinctly remember wearing that bomber jacket because when Large Marge scared the crap out of me, I went running out into the kitchen where my parents were drinking their morning coffee, and I was wearing that coat.

If you're one of the long time readers here, you'll know I love any movie or tv show that involved traveling and road trips, and Pee-Wee' Big Adventure didn't disappoint.  I love everything about this movie.  It has always appealed to all of my senses... as weird as it sounds.  I can almost taste the gum and smell the dust in the magician's shop, and I can smell the popcorn, candy, and car exhaust at the drive-in at the end of the film.

Because of this movie, I've always wanted to sit in a dinosaur's mouth and watch the sun come up.  I've also always wanted to visit the Alamo, which I'm happy to say I've done twice now.  When Lauren and I went in 2011, it was quite the experience.  It was over 100 degrees in San Antonio while we were there, and we damn near roasted walking to The Alamo.  You remember the scene with Pee-Wee at the Alamo fidgeting as his eyes rolled impatiently?  That was Lauren literally the entire time we were in Texas.  We watched the movie on my phone from the hotel room before going out to see the Alamo together, and she rolled her eyes even harder once she was actually there.  I have to admit, for all my school books and this movie drum up The Alamo to be, the real thing is a bit of a disappointment.

We had plans to fly home in the morning, and that night at dinner, we saw that our flight was full.  As airline people, we fly standby and need available seats to travel, so a full flight means that we literally stand as the plane leaves, saying "bye!"  Some quick checking, and we saw that the afternoon flight was delayed until 10pm and had many seats available.  So, it was suddenly "Escape from San Antonio" as we ran back to the hotel to grab our bags.  As I'm trying to call a taxi (Uber wasn't a thing yet,) a little tipsy from dinner, Lauren came out of the bathroom going, "I got the soaps," holding out her paws showing me the bar soaps she swiped from the hotel. 

We wound up stealing someone's cab and made it to the airport just as the TSA checkpoint was closing for the night.  We ended up not even taking off until well after midnight and landed at Newark at 5 in the morning.  Driving through the thick morning fog, we arrived at my parent's house just as the sun came up.  To top it off, we slept until 4 in the afternoon and woke up to 100-degree weather in a home where people don't believe in air conditioning.

Neat.  But I digress.

So, as the 35th Anniversary of this movie came and went on August 9th,  I thought we should take a look at PeeWee's Big Adventure.  Hey, it's a pandemic, and I have a new kid, so I missed the actual day, and I'll be lucky to get this out by September 9th.  But scroll on, dear reader of my blog, for I'm about to tell you about one of my top 5 favorite movies of all time!

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure debuted August 9, 1985, earning $4.5 million on opening weekend.  It would go on to gross $50 million domestically before leaving theaters where it became a cult-classic where it would make that sum many times over.  Paul Reubens starred as Pee-Wee and also co-wrote the script with comedy legend Phil Hartman.  Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (which I'll be referring to hereafter as PWBA) also marked the full-length film directorial debut of Tim Burton.

With rave reviews of "The Pee-Wee Herman Show" (a variety stage show relatively similar to the eventual "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" television show,) Warner Brothers hired Reubens to start working on a script based on the Pee-Wee character.  Reuben's original idea was to do a modern remake of his favorite film, "Pollyanna," but one day, while on the studio lot, Paul noticed everyone had a bicycle and requested one of his own.  Riding around the lot on his new bike inspired him to change the script, and they created what Reubens and Hartman once described as a parody of the Italian film "Bicycle Thieves."

Pee-Wee himself is obnoxious.  He's funny, but if you had to deal with him in real life, you know you'd find him annoying.  He's selfish, oblivious, and is a child trapped in an adult's body.  Perhaps that's why as kids, we all loved him.  He was just like us but had the freedom that comes with being an adult.  Now, as adults, we see the child-like joy in him that we took for granted as kids and wish we could have back.

Paul Reubens was (and is) a talented actor and comedian.  He'd been doing the Pee-Wee gimmick on stage around the country for years before getting his own movie in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and then the not-really-for-children children's show in Pee-Wee's Play House.  He made everything he did in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure memorable.  I think that's why this film is in my top 5 of all time.

Honestly, if you've seen this movie more than twice, you could probably re-tell the movie scene for scene.  It's just so memorable when other films aren't.  Large Marge, the truck driver.  Giant dinosaurs at a truck stop.  The Alamo tour.  The rodeo.  The biker gang.  You likely can remember it all.

Tim Burton was a fresh-faced young upstart when he was chosen for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.  Having done some short films and cartoons, this was his first serious job.  In Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, though, you see early touches of Burton's unique film making style.  From that Rube Goldberg machine that makes breakfast to the downright terrifying laughing clown, or the style of filming during Pee-Wee's nightmare with the titled camera and Twilight Zone moving doorways.  Because of the success of PWBA, quickly followed up by the successful "Beetlejuice," Burton was chosen by Warner Bros. to direct 1989s mega-hit "Batman."

Three years later, there was a sort of sequel, Pee-Wee's Big Top.  I've seen half of it.  It just... didn't hold up.  Nearly 25 years later, Netflix brought Reubens back for "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday."  It, too, was nothing special beyond a nice nostalgia trip with a few familiar faces.

Dottie and Speck
True to their comedy ensemble roots, Reuben and Hartman knew the supporting cast was just as important as the lead.  In addition to a great supporting cast, several Hollywood icons and celebrities make guest appearances and cameos during the film.

The great Elizabeth "E.G." Daily (Dottie) is best known for her voice acting roles after Pee-Wee.  She's voiced Tommy Pickles in Rugrats, the PowerPuff Girls' Buttercup, and since 1996 has been the voice of Bamm-Bamm Rubble in direct-to-video and digital versions of The Flintstones.  She's also had several acting roles in films such as Valley Girl, Dogfight, and The Devil's Rejects.

Phil Hartman (left) and Mark Holton (center)
Mark Holton (Francis Buxton) is likely most famous with my generation for his role as Francis but has also had memorable roles in Little Giants and Teen Wolf.  You may also remember him as the grown-up version of the annoying child Stilwell in "A League of Their Own," or his roles in the Leprechaun film series.  He's also had several television roles, from Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, NYPD Blue, NCIS, and even Seinfeld.

Diane Salinger (Simone) has had appearances in multiple television series and films such as Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, The Power Rangers, How I Met Your Mother, and 20 Years After.  She also returned in Netflix's 2016 Pee-Wee's Big Holiday, but not as her PWBA character Simone, rather Penny King.  She appeared in Burton's Batman Returns alongside Paul Reubens as The Penguin's mother.  Ruebens played his father.

Jan Hooks (Tina the Alamo tour guide) was a fellow member of The Groundlings, alongside Phil Hartman and Paul Reubens.  She later joined Hartman on Saturday Night Live and worked with Burton and Ruebens again, with a small part in Batman Returns as the Penguin's publicity agent.   She would go on to have recurring roles in Designing Women, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and bit parts in 30 Rock and made voice appearances on The Simpsons and The Cleveland Show, before her passing in 2014.

Judd Omen (Mickey) has had roles in seemingly everything.  On the big screen, he was in the 80s hits Dune and Red Dawn.  On television, he's appeared in shows like Kojack, The A-Team, MacGuyver, and CSI: Miami.

Tim Burton himself appears in the film as a street thug who confronts Pee-Wee in the dark alley outside of Madam Ruby's.  Milton Berle makes a small cameo at the end of the movie as himself, while James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild portray themselves playing Pee-Wee and Dottie, respectively, in the film-within-the-film.

Elvira on the far left with red hair
Elvira, the Mistress of the Dark, (real name Cassandra Peterson), portrays the Biker Mama of the Satan's Helpers in the biker gang scene.  She was unrecognizable, a total departure from the Elvira character, with red hair.  Seriously, someone had to tell me that it was Elvira, and I didn't believe them.

Dee Snyder and Twisted Sister make a brief appearance in the film singing their song "Burn in Hell" as Pee-Wee makes his escape through the Warner Brothers Studio lot. 

Ed Herlihy, who plays Francis' dad, Mr. Buxton, is the original announcer for The Tonight Show under Jack Paar's tenure.  He was considered the "non-buffoon" Ed McMahon.  He also worked as the announcer with Perry Como's "Chesterfield Supperclub."

Amazing Larry and Mario
Mario (Monte Landis) and Amazing Larry (Lou Cutell) appeared together in a deleted scene in Mario's Magic Shop.  The two appeared together in Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein."

Several cast members from The Pee-Wee Herman Show (and Pee-Wee's Playhouse) would have roles in the film.  Mailman Mike (John Moody) appears as the bus clerk, while Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) plays Mother Superior in the film-within-a-film sequence.  Jambi the Genie (John Paragon) plays the high-voiced studio extra in red armor, and Cap'n Carl (Phil Hartman) wrote the script and plays one of the reporters interviewing Francis in the final scene of the movie.

The movie was filmed in and around the Los Angeles, California area, including Glendale, Pomona, Santa Monica, Burbank, and Cabazon for the amazing diner/dinosaur scene.  They also filmed on location in San Antonio, Texas for the Alamo and rodeo scenes.

While he may not be everyone's cup of tea, one of my favorite YouTube personalities is "Adam the Woo."  He does all sorts of things, mostly Disney and theme park related, but he occasionally puts together a "filming locations" video.  He's done several, all of them very detailed and fun, for hit movies from National Lampoon's Vacation to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.  I highly recommend you check out Adam's video below, and then come back and finish my article here.  Wouldn't you, kindly?

Below you'll find my detailed book report on the movie.  It may be long, but I enjoyed re-watching the film and summarizing it for you, so please, enjoy it!  It's like letting me watch it for you!

The movie opens while Pee-Wee sleeps, dreaming of riding his heavily accessorized suped-up bicycle and winning the Tour de France.  His celebration during the award ceremony is interrupted by a ringing alarm clock.  He awakens and sets off an incredible Rube Goldberg style contraption (look it up, kids... but think Mouse Trap board game) that cooks up Pee-Wee's breakfast.  Food for Speck (the dog), eggs, toast, and Mr. T cereal!  He heads outside to his treasured bike that is hidden in a secret shed behind his home.  Keep an eye out for the stagehand that steps out of the way on the left side of the door as the shed opens!  Oops!

As Pee-Wee starts out on his bicycle, he runs into fellow man-child and wealthy Francis Buxton.  Francis informs him that it's his birthday, and his father told him that he can have anything he so desires.  Indicating that he desires Pee-Wee's bicycle, Pee-Wee falls over in laughter.  When he gets up, he informs Francis the bike is not for sale.  Francis flashes a wad of single dollar bills, and the two get into an argument.  Pee-Wee rides off, ignoring Francis's vow for revenge as the tubby Buxton man-child shouts, "You'll be sorry, Pee-Wee Herman!"

After a ride through the park, Pee-Wee arrives at a stereotypical 80's shopping mall that gives me instant flashes of nostalgia.  Bright colors, neon signs, and all sorts of little mom and pop shops.  Pee-Wee chains his bike to a mechanical clown and heads into Mario's Magic Shop, which was easily one of my favorite scenes as a kid.  There is something about the dark little shop, with its red lighting, it's friendly owner, and the assortment of novelty items I would have loved to play with.

After Mario's, Pee-Wee heads over to Chuck's Bicycle Store, where we meet Dottie.  Dottie obviously has a crush on Pee-Wee, but the child in Pee-Wee wants nothing to do with a romantic relationship.  He collects his new horn that Dottie made, especially for him, and escapes without a date.

To his horror, he finds his bike was stolen; the chains cut.  The first of many clowns appears laughing at Pee-Wee as he passes out.  The police tell Pee-Wee there is basically nothing they can do for a stolen bicycle as he demands a dragnet and manhunt.  Another great scene follows as the dejected Pee-Wee sees bicycles everywhere he turns, everything from a unicycle to a remote control motorcycle cop.

Pee-Wee returns to the police station where he's told once again they just don't have the resources.  Seeing how upset he is, the policewoman suggests retracing his steps, which helps Pee-Wee remember Francis' desire for the bicycle.  He storms into the Buxton mansion and attacks Francis in the indoor swimming pool/bathtub.  Francis' father runs in to break up the epic water battle, only to have Pee-Wee get the last laugh using the trick chewing gum from Mario's Magic Shop on both Buxtons.

Dottie joins Pee-Wee at a local radio station where he offers a $10,000 reward for the return of his bicycle.  Dottie worries he doesn't have the money, but it's truly remarkable logic for a child.  Whoever returns the bike obviously stole it, so they don't deserve the reward money.  Francis just happens to be listening to the obscure local AM station at the time and grows worried by the relentlessness of Pee-Wee's pursuit and claims he no longer wants the bike.  His henchman, dressed as a 1950's greaser, demands the money and walks off with the bicycle revealing that Francis paid to have it stolen after all.  The henchman has one of my favorite lines of the movie... "Fork over my money... Bux- TON."  Oh, the fat jokes that wouldn't fly in 2020 are still funny to me.

Pee-Wee then holds a town meeting in his basement, complete with scale model diorama of the shopping mall.  At one point, Chuck complains they've been there for 3 hours already, and he isn't even sure why they are there.  Pee-Wee goes a little bonkers and begins repeating himself as everyone starts to shuffle out.  Dottie tries to console him, but we next find Pee-Wee walking down a dark alley in the rain.  He enters the offices of Madam Ruby, a "psychic."  Ruby lifts Pee-Wee's wallet while his hands are stolen, and uses phony psychic tricks to convince him she knows a little something about his bike.  Seeing a sign outside for "Al and Moe's Bargain Basement Shop," she decides that the bicycle is currently in the basement of the Alamo.

To this day, when I hear The Alamo, albeit the real deal or the rental car (my preferred company), I whisper like Pee-Wee... "The Al-a-moe."

We next find Pee-Wee on the side of the road hitchhiking with a stereotypical hobo-sack on a pole.  He's picked up in a pink Cadillac convertible by a gruff looking man named Mickey.  We soon find out Mickey has escaped from jail where hew as incarcerated for ripping the tags off a mattress.  After a funny scene in which Herman dresses up in drag and pretends to be Mickey's wife to evade the police, we find them riding past Pee-Wee's bicycle on the back of a flatbed truck.  Mickey and Pee-Wee take the offramp one way while the bike rides off down the highway unnoticed.

Driving at night, Pee-Wee asks Mickey about "the big house."  As he gets tired, Pee-Wee begins swerving around the dark road before driving them off of a cliff.  The cloth top of the convertible floats them gently to the ground, where Mickey kicks him out of the car and takes off without him.  Some good animation takes over as just Pee-Wee's eyes walk around a dark screen before animal noises scare him.  He digs around in his bag and finally finds a flashlight.  When the lights come on, Pee-Wee is surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals, of the taxidermy kind, and he quickly extinguishes the light.

Two headlights appear in the distance and launch a scene that scared children of the 80s out of our wits.  A big rig truck pulls up alongside Pee-Wee and offers him a ride.  A grandmotherly looking grumpy old woman in plaid doesn't say much as Pee-Wee makes conversation.  Then, she starts off with her famous "On this very night, ten years ago, on this same stretch of road in a dense fog just like this.  I saw the worst accident I've ever seen...  There was this sound, like a garbage truck being dropped off the Empire State building.  And when they pulled the driver's body from the twisted, burning wreck... it looked like... THIS!"

A scary claymation face with bulging eyes and wagging tongue launches out at Pee-Wee, who yells in fright.  She turns back to the road and keeps driving.  They pull off at a diner where Pee-Wee happily hops out to which the driver says, "Tell 'em Large Marge sent ya!" and drives away laughing.

Entering the diner,   Pee-Wee mumbles, "Large Marge sent me" there may as well have been the stereotypical record scratch, then silence as everyone turns to look at him.  One truck driver gets up from the counter and begins with "Ten years ago, this very night..." speech Large Marge had just given Pee-Wee.  They then reveal that the woman Pee-Wee was driving with was... (in unison) "Her Ghost."

After eating, he realizes his wallet was stolen days earlier by Madam Ruby.  The kind waitress, Simone, lets Pee-Wee wash the dishes to pay for his meal.  When he is done, she invites him out to watch the sunrise.  It turns out, though, she intends to watch the sunrise from the mouth of a giant dinosaur statue.  Unfortunately, the real Cabazon dinosaurs (the ones used in the film) do not have seating for viewing like in the movie.  There, in the dinosaur glowing neon red in the night, they discuss their hopes and dreams.  Simone, to visit Paris... Pee-Wee wants to find his bike.

As they discuss their wants and desires, Simone's giant Bluto look-a-like boyfriend, Andy, eavesdrops just as he hears Pee-Wee discuss Simone's big "but" in life.  Everyone has a big but, Pee-Wee says philosophically.

Andy chases Pee-Wee around the dinosaurs as they exit in the morning, and he manages to jump into an open boxcar of a train that just happens to be slowly riding down the rail.  He falls asleep, having safely escaped.

He awakens to find a hobo, who at first he befriends.  Then, hours of singing later, Pee-Wee prefers death and jumps out of the moving train only to find himself at the foot of a sign welcoming him to San Antonio, the home of the Alamo!

My favorite scene in the movie, Pee-Wee, joins an Alamo tour lead by the great Jan Hooks as Tina, the gum-smacking, southern drawled tour guide.  As Tina, all sunshine-and-roses leads the group of happy tourists around, Pee-Wee impatiently waits, rolls his eyes, and sighs in disgust as she teaches them the history of The Alamo and the Tex-Mex history of San Antonio.  Can you say, Tortilla?

Finally, Pee-Wee asks when they'll get to see the basement, and Tina laughs saying there's no basement at the Alamo.  The tour group laughs at Pee-Wee, who runs away in shame.

At a bus station, he calls home to speak with his dog Speck and ask Dottie for bus money home.  Asking where he is, leads to Pee-Wee getting the Texans to sing, "The stars at night are big and bright... deep in the heart of Texas!"  She agrees to send him the money if he would go on a date with her when he gets home, but he feigns static on the line and hangs up.  As he waits for his bus, Simone calls to him from a window of another bus as she has decided to leave Andy and go see Paris!  He waves goodbye and turns to buy his own bus ticket home to find none other than Andy in line asking about Simone.  Andy chases Pee-Wee through San Antonio, right into a rodeo.  Hiding in a trailer, he dons rodeo attire and winds up being placed on a bull, forced to hang on.  Eventually, the bull tosses him off, and he gets knocked out.  As he comes to, he is given the excuse to get one more great Texas line in.  When asked what he can remember, he says, "I remember... the Alamo," to the cheers of the cowboys around him.

Somehow old PW ends up in a run-down, dark, dirty biker bar and tries to use the payphone.  The noise is so loud he turns and shushes the biker gang, who don't take kindly to him.  They toss him out of the bar, where he knocks over their row of motorcycles.   They drag him back inside, and the leader of the gang, played by no other than Cassandra Peterson, says she'd like to have her way with him before they kill him.  Pee-Wee suggests he gets one final request, and once granted, asks the bartender for his platform shoes and a quarter for the jukebox.  He begins dancing to "Tequila!" by The Champs, but only earns their favor once he starts breaking plates and glasses and calls it "break dancing."  They make him an honorary member of the gang and get him set up on a motorcycle.  One that he promptly rides at full speed into a billboard.

Unconscious, doctors wheel Pee-Wee on a gurney down a hospital hallway, where he fades into a scary sequence with clowns and fire, and Francis dressed up as the devil.  The music used here, called "Clown Dream" is also used in the video game Grand Theft Auto V and often played at concerts by the band Primus.  Pee-Wee wakes up in the hospital to see a show featuring child star Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey) being gifted a bicycle... HIS BICYCLE!

Somehow, Pee-Wee makes his way to Hollywood and breaks into the studio following Milton Berle's gaggle of people.  He makes his way on to the set where Wayne Arnold, I mean... Kevin Morton is getting the bicycle from "Mother Superior." Pee-Wee steals the bike right in the middle of the scene and rides off, chased by Warner Brothers studio security.  Going across several stereotypical sets, including a Godzilla film, teenage beach party, and even the music video for Twisted Sister's "Burn in Hell."

Pee-Wee manages to escape with his bicycle but comes upon a pet shop that is on fire.  He runs back in several times to save the animals, dumping them loose on the street each time.  Finally, he goes back in to save the snakes and comes running out screaming.  He passes out from the snakes, only to be awoken by police arresting him for the havoc he created over at the WB studio.

In exchange for the rights to his life story to make a film, Warner Brothers' top brass agrees to drop all charges.

The film finally returns to Pee-Wee's home town on the debut of his life story debuting at the local Drive-Inn theater.  Pee-Wee walks from the snack shop back to his bicycle (and the waiting Dottie in an evening gown) and shares food with all of his newfound friends, everyone from Simone to Mickey, who've come to join him.

The film starts, and they've completely embellished the story in true Hollywood fashion.  The on-screen Pee-Wee (or P.W. in the film-within-a-film) is played by the real James Brolin, and Dottie's character is played by Morgan Fairchild.  The bicycle is now named the "X-1" motorcycle carrying government secrets stolen by those dastardly Soviets!

Brolin does get in Pee-Wee's "I'm a rebel" line.  Pee-Wee himself stars in the film about his life twice as the hotel desk clerk. 

Pee-Wee gets ready to leave in the middle of the movie, and Dottie asks why he doesn't want to see the end.  Why?  "He lived it."

The two ride off as their shadows silhouette on the screen as the movie ends.