He may be a perpetual man-child, but Pee-wee Herman has been around for more than four decades (the character made his first appearance in 1977). His first feature film, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, debuted in August of 1985. Since then, millions of people have no doubt pondered the question, "Does the Alamo have a basement?" The answer is, yes! Read on for more fascinating facts about Pee-wee and his big adventure.
1. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was originally supposed to be a remake of Pollyanna.
Before the inspiration struck for the quest for Pee-wee’s missing bicycle, the writers planned on more or less remaking the Disney classic Pollyanna. Pee-wee would arrive in a new town in need of some fresh perspective, and by the end of the movie, he would have endeared himself to even the most curmudgeonly of the citizens.
2. The movie changed when Warner Bros. gave Paul Reubens a Schwinn.
Cast and crew members often take bicycles around studio lots to get from point A to point B. Reubens was given a 1940s Schwinn to ride while he was at Warner Bros. working on the movie script; he loved it so much he decided to retool the whole Pollyanna concept.
3. Pee-wee's Big Adventure is a retelling of Bicycle Thieves.
After the idea of Pee-wee as Pollyanna bit the dust, the script ended up turning into a “surrealistic reworking” of Bicycle Thieves, an essential example of Italian Neorealism that was given an Honorary Oscar and regularly shows up on every “must-see” film list. But Pee-wee’s Big Adventure has its own champions ...
4. Pee-wee's Big Adventure made Roger Ebert’s list of “Guilty Pleasures.”
Though he never officially rated the movie, in 1987 Ebert confessed that it made his list of Guilty Pleasure movies:
“The movie is not just a strange little man acting goofy. Pee-wee has created a whole fairytale universe as consistent and fascinating as Alice’s Wonderland or the world of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of those movies like The Wizard of Oz, I think, that kids can look at in one state of mind while the grown-ups enjoy it on a completely different level.”
5. Paul Reubens fought to get a 26-year-old Tim Burton to direct Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Although Paul Reubens had a long list of directors he wanted to work with, the studio chose one not on the list. Rather than go along for the sake of getting the movie made, Reubens put his foot down and refused to proceed. Shortly thereafter, one of Reubens’s friends mentioned a short film called Frankenweenie (the precursor to the feature-length movie that came out in 2012) by Tim Burton. Reubens was friends with Shelley Duvall, who was in the Burton film, so he gave her a call. She agreed that Reubens and Burton would make a perfect match, and the connection was made. “It was the biggest piece of luck early on in my career that I could have had,” Reubens later said.
6. Pee-wee's Big Adventure was Tim Burton and Danny Elfman's first collaboration.
Not only was Pee-wee's Big Adventure Tim Burton’s first big movie, it was also Danny Elfman’s. Elfman wasn’t actually scoring films at the time, at least not on the scale that he is now. But Burton knew him through his work with Oingo Boingo, and Paul Reubens knew him from music he had written for a film called Forbidden Zone. After meeting with Burton to chat about the project, Elfman went home with a tune in his head.
“I did a demo on a four track tape player, playing all the parts, and I made a cassette and sent it to him and never expected to hear from him again," Elfman told Entertainment Weekly in 2015. "But that piece of music became the main title of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and it got me the job. I was really shocked.” It was, of course, the beginning of a longtime collaboration and friendship.
7. Elizabeth Daily, a.k.a. Dottie, is the voice of Tommy Pickles.
In addition to acting in front of the camera, Elizabeth Daily is also a talented voice actress. If you don’t know her as Tommy Pickles in Rugrats or Buttercup in The Powerpuff Girls, you’ve probably heard her in a number of small roles in Wreck-It Ralph, Happy Feet, and many, many more. She was also on season 5 of The Voice.
8. Tim Burton has a cameo in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Tim Burton made a cameo in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which you can watch below:
9. Warner Bros. thought Pee-wee's Big Adventure was weird.
After seeing the finished product, the studio wasn’t so sure it wanted to put much more money behind Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Finding it all a bit bizarre, they decided to roll the film out slowly and on a regional basis. When it proved to be popular with even a limited audience, Warner cranked up the publicity machine. By the time all was said and done, Pee-wee had earned nearly $41 million at the box office.
10. Phil Hartman co-wrote the script for Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Reubens and SNL legend Phil Hartman originally developed the Pee-wee character when they were in the Groundlings together. HBO picked up Pee-wee for a comedy show in 1981, which is what eventually led to the movie in 1985. Hartman was Reubens’s writing partner throughout all of that, and also for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he made occasional appearances as Kap’n Karl.
11. Pee-wee’s bicycle from Pee-wee's Big Adventure was sold on eBay in 2014.
Though Pee-wee estimated his bike’s value at “a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars” in the movie, it didn’t quite fetch that much when it was sold on eBay in 2014. It did, however, sell for $36,600.
12. There were at least 10 bikes used in Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
Missed out on the auction? Never fear—there could still be an authentic Pee-wee bike in your future, since at least 10 bikes were built for use in the film. The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh had one of them on display for a while.
13. Pee-wee's Big Adventure wasn’t the first time Paul Reubens did the “Pee-wee Dance.”
He performed it on The Gong Show in the late 1970s, but the choreography goes back even further than that. The dance, he has said, was actually inspired by a dirty joke his dad used to tell. “The joke was something [like] you put one thumb in your [Reubens points at his backside] and one in your mouth, and then you switch.”
14. The idea for Pee-wee's Playhouse came up at the Pee-wee's Big Adventure premiere.
Executives at CBS approached Reubens’s manager at the movie's premiere and wanted to know if “Pee-wee” was interested in doing a cartoon show. But Reubens had another format in mind, and asked how they would feel about something live-action.
“I was thinking about how important all those kids’ shows were to me when I was a kid, and how much I feel like they affected me, and that just seemed really exciting to me," he said. "I was really excited by the idea that doing a real kids’ show could potentially affect kids in an amazingly positive and great way.” Pee-wee’s Playhouse debuted a year later.
15. Large Marge almost got the axe from Pee-wee's Big Adventure.
It’s one of the most memorable scenes in the entire movie, but it almost didn’t make it to the screen. “I almost cut the best thing before an audience saw it,” Burton said in Burton on Burton. “It was a special effect and those are the first things to go.” IFC lists the scene as #5 on their list of "25 Scariest Moments in Non-Horror Movies."