I never thought that I would see sold out crowds for four-decade-old movie, but nevertheless it’s there that I found myself last week. Golden ticket acquired, I attended the Alamo Drafthouse’s cast reunion screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This event was the result of a beautiful stroke of serendipity. The Drafthouse had already planned a reparatory screening of the film when they were contacted by representatives of Austin Comic Con. Apparently ACC was bringing several of the original cast members to town as part of the convention. The collaboration was as natural as mixing chocolate with peanut butter.
It seems odd to be surprised by the number of children present at the screening of a children’s film, but in my experience, the Alamo Ritz is not a location that lends itself to a regular evening out with the family. It’s nestled among some of the rowdiest bars in Austin, TX, plus on a typical Friday night the parking downtown is nightmare and the torrent of drunkenness does not a convenient family outing make. And ye,t in the lobby, a smattering of little ones could be found whose excitement to see this movie on the big screen was matched only by the excitement of their parents.
We were like the crowds gathered outside Wonka’s factory on that fateful October 1st. This multi-generational fandom swelled to near fever, as finally we were lead inside. Passing through the doors of theater was similar to stepping through the gates of the factory. Suddenly the world outside faded away and it was hard not to be caught up in the din of excitement. The preshow featured an array of classic cereal and candy commercials as well as clever mashups of the original Willy Wonka trailer. Much like the opening of the film itself, these commercials seemed to have an augmenting effect on our appetites. Thankfully, unlike most theaters, the Drafthouse is equipped to slake our collective sweet tooth.
After the screening, our master of ceremonies Henri Mazza introduced the very special guests. First to the stage was Charlie Bucket, or Peter Ostrum as he is known in the real world. Following him was Julie Cole, formerly Veruca Salt, and Paris Themmen, better known to all as Mike Teevee. They were at last joined by Ms. Violet Beauregarde of Miles City Montana (alias Denise Nickerson of Denver, Colorado). They were greeted with applause so thunderous that even the roar of a vermicious knid could not drown it out. It was here that we learned of where life had taken our intrepid young factory tourists after the after the shine faded from those golden tickets.
Even though Charlie Bucket is one of the most seminal characters in cinema, Peter Ostrum never appeared in another film after Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He now lives in upstate New York and applies Charlie’s signature caring and compassion in his new profession as a veterinarian. Veruca Salt was a child with so many personality issues that she came off nuttier than her father’s factory. Ironically, Julie Cole grew up to become a psychotherapist in her native England; helping folks connect with their inner good egg. Also it seems Mike Teevee never outgrew his obsession with the boob tube. Paris Themmen now works in television production and is currently working on the series Damages starring Glenn Close. And Violet Beauregarde, who swelled to the size of a small planet in the film, grew up to be a financial analyst working for a rocket science company. These tykes had grown into a group as distinctive and individually colorful as the characters they portrayed.
A few sweet revelations were unwrapped during the Q&A. The chocolate of the chocolate river was actually brown water; the coloring agent thankfully remains a mystery. We also learned that the copious amounts of chocolate consumed by the cast, despite the fact that the film was shot in Germany (renowned for its phenomenal confections), was comprised of cheap, stale Peter Paul bars shipped over from the U.S. This turned to be doubly troubling for little Veruca Salt, as Julie Cole always hated chocolate of any variety. But probably the most stunning revelation, at least stunning to me, was that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was not particularly well received when it was released. It was met with lukewarm reviews and disappointing box office returns; taking almost fifteen years to find its audience.
We got the chance to speak with the cast after the show. The first thing I had to know was how they felt about the film’s legacy given its rocky start. Here’s what they had to say…
Denise Nickerson: The best part is that it keeps being passed on from generation to generation. So you have your 50-60 year old people turning their children and grandchildren on to it who then enjoy it just as much as they did.
Peter Ostrum: It’s a welcome surprise that something you did so long ago and had since put in the back closet so to speak all of a sudden has resurfaced and been so successful. Mel [Stuart] was really thinking and crafting the film that stood the test of time. You can put it on and it still resonates today. There aren’t many films that can do that.
Paris Themmen: And it resonates with kids and with adults because of the approach that Mel took. He didn’t want to speak down to the children.
Ostrum He didn’t want to make a kids movie. He wanted to make a film about kids, but that wasn’t geared as a children’s film.
Nickerson: And the basic message of the film, which is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, is timeless.
Movies.com: It is a bit of a mortality play.
Nickerson: Exactly, and there’s no one better than Charlie to prove that.
Movies.com: It’s something you don’t necessarily want to read too much into, but when you watch this movie now, especially with everything that’s currently going on politically and economically, it’s almost more uplifting now then when it was released. Charlie is this kid with barely two nickels to rub together who never wavers from being a good person and is ultimately rewarded for that. It’s not hard to see how modern audiences would relate to that.
Julie Cole: Curiously, I think the popularity seems to be growing rather than receding. I’ve noticed that in the last ten years that it’s escalated, even in the last five. It’s extraordinary, and maybe it is a sign of the times. When times are tough we do want that moralistic side. We want to believe that if we’re kind, decent people good will come.
Movies.com: One thing we can still control is how good we are. Do any of you think the negative reaction to the remake may also be a factor in the renewed nostalgia for the original film?
Nickerson: No, I think it had become quite popular prior to the remake being released. Now, I’m not saying the remake didn’t boost favoritism toward the original.
Ostrum: It got the conversation going again, so that was good for our film.
Movies.com: Something interesting, going back to what you’d mentioned about the director not wanting to pander to children, I remember watching this movie as a child and being downright terrified by certain scenes. As you were all fairly young while on set, did you find any of these scenes frightening?
Nickerson: The Wonkatania. I don’t think there was much acting on my part because I was just stunned. When Gene took off into that wild tirade, with the hair and everything, and then the chickens in the background, I thought, ‘this is really weird!’
Cole: I remember being quite frightened of Slugworth. He kept to himself as well because he wanted to keep the character going. I really didn’t like being around him.
Movies.com: He was method actor it seems.
Themmen: I wasn’t scared by the footage they showed in the background of the Wonkatania scene. That didn’t really affect me, but when Gene did what he did, that actually changed the mood in the room in the moment with all of us. He was so committed and it was so different from anything he’d done in the shooting up to that point. So yeah, we were kids but we were also able to see behind the curtain. So the footage didn’t scare me, but Gene did.
Ostrum: People always assume that it must have been so magical and so exciting to be on the set. Well in a five-month shoot, that excitement wears off in about two days. You then realize you’re in it for the long haul. It’s very difficult to put the pieces of the film together. So the first time I saw it at the opening, I was amazed. It was fascinating how they put it all together. Then that tunnel scene became much more frightening. Shooting it, doing take after take, it loses its impact. But seeing the final cut made me proud to be involved in the project.
Themmen: And then other than Slugworth and the tunnel scene, I think the third thing that scares people is the Oompa Loompas. Not everybody, but some people. In terms of their role in the book, I don’t think they were meant to be a vehicle for fright; they were pygmies. But some fans say to me, ‘I can’t look at them, they give me nightmares.’ That’s another thing that scares people.
Movies.com: See I was always more frightened by the guy randomly peddling knives and axes outside the factory; the guy with the cart full of blades accosting young children at the gate.
Themmen: He was also supposed to be scary.
Movies.com: That’s good, because he scared the hell out of me. Well, thank you all so much for coming out here to Austin, and I hope you enjoyed your first visit to the Alamo Drafthouse.
Nickerson: Oh, it’s so cool.
Themmen: I would definitely want to see a movie here.
Cole: Yes, what’s playing tomorrow?
Nickerson: It makes seeing a movie much more of an experience.
Cole: It’s the way you want to see movies. I wish we had them in the UK.