Actor/writer/director/singer/national treasure Gene Wilder passed away this week at age 83. Wilder’s movie comedy stripes were earned with “The Producers” in 1968 with co-star Zero Mostel and director Mel Brooks, starting a decades-long run of some of the funniest (and profitable) hit comedies of the 70’s and ’80’s. However, the first Gene Wilder movie I saw was a commercial flop. It eventually made significant money, but not until my generation watched it repeatedly on TV and purchased it on VHS (and later DVD) as adults.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, based on the the Roald Dahl story, may have been panned by adult critics in 1971, but for the hundreds of thousands of my pre-teen peers “Wonka” was a wonder. For the 10-year-old me, “Wonka” was a psychedelic experience affecting everything which came after.
I know that probably sounds over-dramatic, but it’s the truth. You must remember being 10 in 1971 was before video games. (It was before Star Wars, ILM, green screens, Pixar and CG graphics. It was also before Milli Vanilli, the Auto-Tuner, Japanimation, Smurfs and that giant ransom note I receive from Verizon every month, but those are topics for another day.) “Wonka” took you away and made you believe incredible things were real and anything was possible. An army of dwarves with orange skin and green hair. Soda that made you burp and fly. An elevator that goes sideways, through the roof and lands on time in Frankfurt. And that BOAT RIDE! I mean really…when was the last time you watched a “kid’s movie” featuring a real live chicken getting its real live head chopped off with a real live meat cleaver! And all the while there is Wilder, channeling the wild red-headed purple-jacketed sarcastic singer of songs telling rude children and their rude parents where they can get off the bus, all while serving as the ADULT CHAPERONE IN CHARGE! Everlasting Gobstoppers. Fruit-flavored wall paper. Bodiless human hands as a kinetic coat rack. A chocolate river that swallows up overweight German youth. A “bad egg” spoiled little girl falling through a trap door and headed for the furnace. Mike TV. SLUGWORTH!!! And all in eye-popping Technicolor, on one great big curved screen in the local Monoplex.
On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher “Doc” Ellis famously threw a no-hit, no-run game against the San Diego Padres while on LSD, walking 8 and hitting one batter in a 2-0 win. Had Doc had a little patience and waited until the following summer, he could have saved himself a lifetime of headaches and just bought a ticket to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. To my knowledge no one has ever had to answer to authorities for pitching a major league baseball game while sucking on an Everlasting Gobstopper.