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 lesson, my mother would try to wear us out and keep us busy by taking us to the video store (remember those, kids?) followed by the pet store. 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 the playset growing up, until fairly recently too, but they were destroyed 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 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 I looked 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 still wearing that coat.
As an airline pilot with severe wanderlust, any movie or tv show that involves travel and road trips is right up my alley. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure certainly fits that bill! I genuinely 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 smell the popcorn, candy, and car exhaust at the drive-in at the end of the film. It’s hard to explain, but, I consider that the mark of a good film.
Because of this movie, I’ve always wanted to sit in a dinosaur’s mouth and watch the sun come up. I’ve yet to do that.
But because of this movie, I’ve also always wanted to visit the Alamo, which I’m happy to say I’ve done twice now. When my wife and I went a few years back, it was quite the experience. It was over 100 degrees in San Antonio while we were there, and we darn near roasted walking to The Alamo. You remember the scene with Pee-Wee at the Alamo fidgeting as his eyes rolled impatiently? That was her 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 do have to admit, for all my school books and this movie make The Alamo out to be, the real thing is a bit of a disappointment.
But I digress.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure debuted on 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 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” tv 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, Big Top Pee-Wee. I’ve seen half of it on TV once. 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.
True to their comedy ensemble roots, Reubens 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.
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, but one named 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, 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 bright red hair. Seriously, someone had to tell me that it was Elvira, and I didn’t believe them until I looked it up.
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.”
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 this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, one of my favorite YouTube personalities is “Adam the Woo.” He films all sorts of things, mostly Disney and theme park related, but occasionally puts together a “filming locations” video. He’s done several videos, all of them very detailed and fun, for hit movies like National Lampoon’s Vacation, Beetlejuice, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. I highly recommend you check out Adam’s video below that shows what the filming locations currently look like (as of 2013, anyway) and then come back and finish my article here. Wouldn’t you, kindly?
Now that you’re back, here are my top 5 favorite scenes from the movie.
5. The Breakfast Rube Goldberg Machine:
What child wouldn’t want one of these? After waking from his Tour de France dream, Pee-Wee slides down a fire-pole, and just like Batman, he is fully dressed when he lands in his kitchen. That’s cool enough. After greeting his dog, Speck, he kicks off the device by lighting a candle under a string. A chain of events created by a vacuum, golf ball, miniature Ferris wheel, Abraham Lincoln statue, a drinking bird toy, and a garden gnome begin making his eggs, bacon, and pancakes. A flying dinosaur on a string carries his bread to the toaster while the incredible invention spits out food into Speck’s dog bowl.
Pee-Wee’s pancakes, eggs, and bacon make a big happy smile on the plate… which he promptly covers in “Mr. T cereal.” He then gets up after only eating a handful of cereal to get his bicycle. Check out blooper when the stagehand ducks out of the way as his secret garage opens to reveal the bike for the first time.
Even as a kid, I thought this must be wonderful to have but what a pain it must be to set up every night so it was ready to go in the morning. The magic of movies!
4. Mickey Lets Pee-Wee Drive:
After Mickey picks up the hitchhiking Pee-Wee, the two grow into fast friends after we find that Mickey was incarcerated (and escaped) for ripping the tags off of a mattress. They grow closer after Pee-Wee pretends to be Mickey’s wife to help him evade the police.
As day turns to night, Pee-Wee takes the wheel and starts to ask a sleepy Mickey about life in the “big house.” Pee-Wee himself gets drowsy, and suddenly the road begins to make twists and turns, complete with ridiculous matching road signs. Pee-Wee takes them right off a cliff, but the two are saved when the cloth convertible top acts as a parachute. Once on the ground, an angry Mickey tosses Pee-Wee out of the car and uses Pee-Wee’s “I’m a loner, a rebel…” line on Pee-Wee and drives off.
The red glow of tail lights slowly fades to an all-black screen where an animated pair of Pee-Wee’s eyes move around the screen. Weird animal noises begin to frighten Pee-Wee, and he finds his flashlight goggles. The screen suddenly lights up to see Pee-Wee surrounded with all sorts of stuffed and live animals. Everything from a live cougar to a stuffed deer and black bear. The image of him surrounded by so many animals still makes me laugh, 35 years later.
3. The Shopping Mall:
Not only is this a pivotal scene in the movie where Pee-Wee’s bicycle gets stolen, but this scene alone reminds me of my childhood. While I didn’t grow up in California, this outdoor shopping mall, complete with a movie theater with its giant marquee that read “Cartoon Cavalcade,” the small mom and pop shops like Mario’s Magic Shop and Bookworm’s BookShop, and Chuck’s Bike-O-Rama. All of the stores have signage that screams mid-1980’s: bright colors, goofy fonts, and matching awnings. Chuck’s even has red, yellow, and blue shapes sprinkled on the sign that I consider the 80s version of 90s splatter paint.
I mentioned earlier that when I watch this movie, it appeals to all of my senses, and I can just imagine what Mario’s Magic Shop must have smelled like. I figure it smells like dust, burning incense, and rubber from the Halloween masks. It’s dark and dingy, complete with an amazing red-light washed out look as Pee-Wee tries out things like rubber ears, bow ties, and other magic tricks. Mario’s store is cluttered with fun items kids and adults will love, as was the Halloween/hobby shop I grew up visiting.
In contrast, Chuck’s is bright, organized, and sterile inside. The colorful red and blue bicycles counter the mostly white store. The whole scene just takes me back to the malls of my childhood.
2. Large Marge, The Diner, and the Dinosaurs
Perhaps everyone’s favorite scene in the movie, once Pee-Wee is left alone in the desert by Mickey, a big rig truck comes along and picks him up. A quiet, grumpy old woman is driving. After Pee-Wee tries talking to her, she relates a story about “On this very night, ten years ago, along this same stretch of road…” and ends with a claymation face with bulging eyes that scared every child of the 80s to death.
When Pee-Wee gets out at the truck stop diner, he walks in and lets everyone know that “Large Marge sent him.” The restaurant grows quiet, and a man retells the same story that Pee-Wee heard from Large Marge. The camera pans over to a plaque dedicated to the late Large Marge, where Pee-Wee discovers he was riding with… (in unison, now) “Her Ghost!”
Pee-Wee realizes that Madam Ruby has stolen his wallet days ago and cannot afford to pay for his meal, so he gets to washing dishes. Here we get to know Simone, who offers to continue their conversation as the sun comes up out in the dinosaur.
The Cabazon Dinosaurs were made famous in this scene, as the giant tourist attractions light up in glowing red and green neon lights. Simone and Pee-Wee climb to the top of the red T-Rex and watch the sunrise in what looks like a comfortable theater setting to talk about Simone’s “big but.”
While I’ve since found out you can’t actually sit in the mouth and watch the sunrise in the real thing; the Cabazon Dinosaurs are towards the top of my bucket list as a must-see. Just watch out for Andy when you’re there!
1 The Alamo Tour
Jan Hooks, as Tina, the tour guide, comes off as one of the funniest moments in the movie. Oblivious to Pee-Wee’s desire to hurry, and adored by everyone in her tour group but Pee-Wee himself, Tina rambles on about The Alamo and the Tex-Mex history of the locals. Can you say, “Buenos Dias?”
Tina beams sunshine through her toothy smile. Even as she ignores Pee-Wee’s boredom and exaggerated eye rolls, she delivers her lines with an upbeat dry sense of humor. A personal favorite of mine is, “There are thousands and thousands of uses for corn… all of which I’ll tell you about right now.”
Who hasn’t been trapped somewhere, like a school field trip or the DMV, where we haven’t been Pee-Wee? Bored and antsy while we are shuffled around in a line, forced to listen quietly when all we want to do is something else. Anything else.
At the top of this article, I mentioned my personal experience with the Alamo. It was amazing to be there; don’t get me wrong. Having my photo taken in front of the iconic mission building is something I’ll never forget. The rest of it? Well, it’s in the middle of a downtown city block. They keep the grounds nice, but the building itself is really just one big room.
As someone with a Pre-Civil War American History “concentration” (my college didn’t allow minors on a 4-year degree), I’ve always thought of the Alamo as this fantastic place. One last stand for the brave frontier folk moving out for a better life in Texas. All of the romanticism that comes from such an important place in American history has made the Alamo, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, legendary in my view.
Any specific memories about Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below!