Los Angeles Film Festival: Paul Reubens to mark 25th anniversary of ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’


Sometimes inspiration strikes in unexpected ways. For Paul Reubens, it came in the form of a fully restored 1947 Schwinn Racer bicycle.

Reubens recalls working on the Warner Bros. lot with Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, penning the script for what would become the 1985 comedy favorite “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” complaining that everyone there had a bike except for him. Returning to his office after lunch one day, he was presented with the Schwinn Racer — “It was parked next to a post with a sign on it that had my character and said ‘Bicycle parking for Pee-wee Herman only,’” he said — and it set Reubens off on a whole new direction for the movie.

“I looked at the bike and looked at the sign and I ran into the bungalow and, this is how long ago it was, pulled the paper out of the electric typewriter, and I took off.”

“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” which became the story of child-man Pee-wee going on a wild journey to find his Schwinn after it’s stolen, turned out to be one of the surprise hits of that summer. On Saturday afternoon, Reubens will host a 25th-anniversary screening of the movie at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival, which is sponsored by The Times.

Reubens’ Herman character has been enjoying a renaissance of late after nearly two decades of retirement. A new edition of the original 1981 stage show, “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” enjoyed a successful limited engagement run at Club Nokia in January, and Reubens is now readying the production for Broadway, where it will debut later this year.

It’s the enduring appeal of the film, which marked the feature directorial debut of Tim Burton, that has helped keep Pee-wee alive in the pop culture consciousness. Burton wasn’t the first person selected to step behind the camera, however. Reubens said he submitted to the studio a list of filmmakers he wanted, then left town to go on vacation. By the time he returned, someone had been selected who was not on the list, and Reubens pleaded with executives to recruit a different director.

“They gave me an extension for a week and said if you can find somebody who is affordable, approvable and available,” they would consider making a change, Reubens said. “I went to a party that night and asked every single person at the party frantically, ‘Does anybody here know a director?”’

A friend Reubens knew from the comedy troupe the Groundlings enthusiastically recommended the director of a short film she had just seen called “Frankenweenie,” a Frankenstein spoof featuring an English bull terrier. That director was Burton.

Reubens said he knew 10 seconds into the movie that Burton was the right man for the job. “Here’s a director who understands style and art direction. That’s what I was looking for. The studio said yeah, we are very familiar with him. He’s passed on every project we’ve sent him. He won’t even read your project. We are not going to send it to him.”

Reubens persevered, though and an associate of his manager got the script to Burton. “He agreed to do it that same day,” Reuben said.

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