You're Old: 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' Came Out 30 Years Ago

You're Old: 'Pee-wee's Big Adventure' Came Out 30 Years Ago

Aug 10, 2015

It's been three decades since a certain bow-tied man-child danced to "Tequila," fought a fat kid in a pool-sized bathtub, and inquired about the Alamo's basement. If Pee-wee's Big Adventure were a person, it would now be way too old to be acting like that (though still not as old as Paul Reubens was when he filmed it). And yes, if you saw Pee-wee's Big Adventure in the theater on Aug. 9, 1985, I have bad news: you're old.

(Your response: "I know you are, but what am I?" Touché.)

Pee-wee's Big Adventure is 30, but the character is almost 40. Pee-wee came to life in 1977, when 25-year-old Paul Reubens was performing with The Groundlings, the L.A. sketch-and-improv troupe that has spawned an astonishing number of stars (including Melissa McCarthy, Craig T. Nelson, Kathy Griffin, Pat Morita, Lisa Kudrow, and more than 15 SNL cast members). In Reubens' original conception, Pee-wee was an untalented stand-up comedian who nervously laughed at his own non-jokes. The rest of what we now know as classic Pee-wee evolved over time, including a cameo in Cheech & Chong's Next Movie (1980) and three 1979 appearances as a contestant on The Dating Game. We can only imagine how annoyed the other contestants must have been to be sharing space with a comedian doing a character.

In 1981, after auditioning for Saturday Night Live and losing out to Gilbert Gottfried, Reubens mounted The Pee-wee Herman Show, a live precursor to Pee-wee's Playhouse. Co-written by fellow Groundling Phil Hartman, the show was first performed on the Groundlings stage, and later moved to its own theater, where it ran for five months. HBO aired a filmed performance of it, exposing Pee-wee to an even wider audience, and he soon started showing up on Late Night with David Letterman. The Pee-wee Herman Show toured the country, and in 1984 sold out Carnegie Hall -- the big-time! 

As you know, the only option for a comedy character after that level of success is to star in a movie. Reubens, Hartman, and a third Groundling, Michael Varhol, wrote a screenplay, one that they've said was inspired by the classic Italian drama Bicycle Thieves, but which has nothing in common with it beyond the idea of a bike being stolen. Warner Bros. hired an inventive young fellow name Tim Burton to direct, on the strength of his short film Frankenweenie, and Burton asked an inventive young musician named Danny Elfman to compose the musical score. It was the Oingo Boingo frontman's first major film gig, and the beginning of a long collaboration with Burton. 

It was a strange movie (to put it mildly), but Warner Bros. was content to let Burton, Reubens, and company do their thing. The budget was a low $7 million, and WB was more heavily invested (financially as well as philosophically) in The Goonies, which was shooting at the same time. Our beloved fantasy adventure was thus allowed to come to life without much studio interference, for which we should be grateful. 

Pee-wee's Big Adventure has developed a cult following, but it was a fairly mainstream hit at the time, too. Reviews were mostly positive (though The New York Times hated it) , and when it opened, it had the highest per-screen average of any movie in theaters that weekend.  It went on to make $41 million (about $93 million at today's ticket prices), enough to place among the top 20 movies of 1985.

A final note of trivia. In case you were wondering, most of the film takes place in January 1984. We know this because the plaque in the diner commemorating Large Marge says she died Jan. 11, 1974, which we're told was "ten years ago tonight." Pee-wee's stumbling into an autumnal Day of the Dead parade a couple days later is thus inexplicable, and probably the only flaw in an otherwise perfectly logical movie. 


When Pee-wee's Big Adventure was released, on Aug. 9, 1985...

Back to the Future was the hit of the summer, then nearing the end of its eight-week stretch at the top of the box office. Pee-wee didn't open in second place, either, but third, after Summer Rental. Real Genius also opened that day (seventh place), while European Vacation, Fright Night, Weird Science, Cocoon, and Silverado were also in the multiplexes.

If you listened to the radio on your way to the theater, you probably would have heard "Shout" by Tears for Fears, "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" by Sting, and/or "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis. Let's be honest, if you went anywhere in the summer of 1985, you probably heard Huey Lewis. Dude OWNED that season. 

On TV, Richard Dawson had recently (June 14) ended his nine-year run as the original host of Family Feud. David Letterman was a month away from premiering a new feature called the Top 10 List. And in September, NBC would become the first network to air its prime-time shows in -- wait for it -- stereo. 

Anna Kendrick was born on this very day. Anna Kendrick is exactly as old as Pee-wee's Big Adventure! Actors John Francis Daley, Chace Crawford, and Lou Taylor Pucci were all less than a month old. 

Madonna and Sean Penn would get married a week later (and divorced four years after that). 

Pointer Sisters, Heart, Patti LaBelle, and Eddie Murphy all had new albums out in the last month. 

The Live Aid concerts had recently (July 13) raised more than 40 million pounds (as in British money, not weight) for Ethiopia famine relief. 

In a few weeks (Sept. 1), ocean explorers would finally locate the wreckage of the Titanic, lost for 73 years. Billy Zane's and Leonardo DiCaprio's frozen corpses are still missing.  


Pee-wee's Big Adventure is now streaming on Netflix.

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