How Pee-wee's Big Adventure Scarred Me For Life

Photo: Peter Sorel/Warner Bros./Getty Images.
I can picture what happened on Saturday mornings when I was a kid between the ages of 3 and 5 so very clearly. My brother and I would wake up before our parents, and creep downstairs to the family room to watch Muppet Babies and Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Even though I have very distinct memories of everything from how we liked to sit while we watched — my brother sprawled across the couch and me relegated to the floor because I was younger — and the pajamas we wore, I have zero recollection as to what happened on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I remember something about a talking chair, and that the characters, who weren’t all human, got really excited by the “Tequila” song. Since I have fairly excellent recall for most other pop culture nostalgia from my childhood, I chalk up this complete block of all things Pee-wee Herman-related to one thing: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
came out in 1985. It was directed by master of eccentricity Tim Burton, which should probably be the first big, flashing sign that it’s really not meant for children. I’m not sure when I watched it for the first time, but I was definitely between the ages of 5 and 7 (that’s when I would have spotted it at the video store and begged my mom to rent it), and it scared the living daylights out of my tiny self.

It also completely ruined Pee-wee’s Playhouse for me. This was fine, because I’d moved on to other TV shows (namely Full House) by that time. But I still find it kind of shocking that I have absolutely no memories of Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Upon learning that Netflix is releasing Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, a new film in the Pee-wee oeuvre, on March 18, I decided to revisit the film that once filled me with such horror. Is it as terrifying as I recall? Or have I gotten over my childhood fears in the two decades since I first watched the movie?
Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images.
On the whole, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is a completely whimsical movie. Even though it involves Pee-wee meeting an escaped convict while hitchhiking, facing off against a biker gang in a bar, and other seemingly high-risk situations, the plot of the movie is decidedly low stakes. Basically, Pee-wee Herman has a red beach cruiser that’s his most prized possession. He doesn’t have much else to do in life besides ride it around town and get more accessories for it.

There’s a Billy Madison-esque rich kid in town named Francis (Mark Holton) who covets Pee-wee’s bike. The movie starts on Francis’ birthday. His father (Ed Herlihy) tells Francis that he can have anything he wants for his birthday, and Francis obviously wants Pee-wee’s bike. Pee-wee nixes this idea, so Francis pays someone to steal it while Pee-wee’s in the bike shop picking up a new horn.

Pee-wee's efforts to retrieve his bike lead him on a cross-country journey that takes him everywhere from the Alamo to Hollywood. The climax of the movie involves a huge chase through Warner Bros. studios — which, what do you know, produced Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — after Pee-wee steals his bike back from a spoiled child star (Jason Hervey) to whom it’s somehow made its way.

After Pee-wee eludes the Warner Bros. security guards, he comes across a burning pet store and rescues all of the animals — save for a few fish, much to his dismay. When police and firefighters discover a passed-out Pee-wee on the street (it was holding snakes that did him in), they announce, “This man is a hero.” The Warner’s guards, who have now caught up to him, counter, “This man should be arrested.”

Cut to a Warner Bros. executive’s office, where Pee-wee thinks he’s going to get severely chastised or arrested. Instead, Terry Hawthorne (Tony Bill) says that he thinks Pee-wee’s story would make a fantastic movie. How very meta.

Even while watching the movie as an adult, the second that haunting, teasing refrain started playing as Pee-wee drifted off in the hospital, I tensed up, knowing it was coming.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure ends with everyone at the drive-in watching the big-screen adaptation of Pee-wee’s wild journey to get his bike back, only it’s become a lot sexier and much more badass. James Brolin plays P.W. Herman. Morgan Fairchild plays Dottie, the bike shop clerk who has a huge crush on Pee-wee. In the biopic, P.W.’s bike is stolen by ninjas.

The final line of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure completes Pee-wee’s transformation into a total conquering hero. Pee-wee gets on his bike and tells Dottie they should get going. “Don’t you want to see the rest of the movie?” she asks. “I don’t have to see it, Dottie. I lived it,” Pee-wee replies as he looks at the screen, where James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild are kissing.

It really is quite a fun movie. Things do get a bit hairy, though, when you’ve got Tim Burton steering the ship, and that’s why the film has those two iconic scary moments that stick out in everyone’s minds: Large Marge, and the evil clown bicycle dream (shudder). Add in Danny Elfman’s carnival funhouse score, and these two moments contain all the elements of children’s nightmares.

First, there’s Large Marge (played by Alice Nunn). The truck driver picks up Pee-wee on the side of an abandoned highway in the dead of night. She tells Pee-wee a story about a night 10 years ago very similar to this one, when she witnessed the worst accident she’s ever seen. “It was the sound like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building. And when they finally pulled the driver’s body from the twisted, burning wreck, it looked like this…” Then Marge turns to Pee-wee, and her face turns into an animated, nightmarish creature, akin to Judge Doom’s death in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Pee-wee immediately asks to be dropped off at a rest stop. When he walks into the diner, he announces, “Large Marge sent me.” Everyone in the diner stops and stares. It turns out that Large Marge died in the accident she told Pee-wee about, which took place 10 years ago that night. “That means the Large Marge I was riding with was…” Pee-wee begins to say.

“Her ghost,” everyone in the diner responds.

So yes, the Large Marge encounter is pretty terrifying to any impressionable young folks watching the movie.

It’s not quite as scary, though, as Pee-wee’s clown nightmare. Well, it depends on your idea of what’s scarier, I guess. Is it eyes popping out of the face of a truck driver (who doesn’t blink the entire time she’s telling her story, it should be noted), or is it evil clown doctors sending a beloved bicycle to hell, where Francis is the devil? (Related thought: Was The Book of Mormon’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” inspired by Pee-wee’s clown dream?)

For my younger self, it was definitely the clown dream. Even while watching the movie as an adult, the second that haunting, teasing refrain started playing as Pee-wee drifted off in the hospital (where he goes after crashing through a highway billboard following the famous “Tequila” scene in the biker bar), I tensed up, knowing it was coming. It’s so very Tim Burton. All of the clowns are total precursors to the clown with the tear-away face in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Watching Pee-wee’s Big Adventure as an adult is both reassuring and not. On one hand, I realized that most of the movie is a lighthearted romp about an eternal man-child trying to get his bike back. On the other, I was faced with two scary moments from my childhood that led me to block out all other recollections of one of my favorite TV shows, and by extension some warm and fuzzy memories of Saturday mornings with my older brother. Now that technology like YouTube exists, though, kids today can enjoy the movie in much more pleasant, segmented parts. I suggest leading with “The Breakfast Machine,” because this thing is awesome.

Now, all together: Tequila!

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