Pee-wee's Playhouse, the 80's TV show crafted by "responsible hippies," defined that decade's Saturday morning cartoon landscape. Three self-called "responsible hippies," Rick Heitzman, Gary Panter and Wayne White, recently drew a crowd to the Ray Stark Theatre for a look behind-the-scenes at the making of Pee-wee's Playhouse with "I Know You Are But What Am I?"
Their work on Pee-wee's Playhouse initiated lifelong careers in the arts. They began working on the show as newly-graduated art history students, looking for a break into the industry. Their passions for animation, puppetry, and art history certainly left their mark on Pee-wee's Playhouse, but even more Pee-wee's Playhouse left its mark on them.
White's years spent designing and operating the the Playhouse's puppets translated to present years as giant art installations comprised of puppetry-influenced sculptures. Similarly, Heitzman's work behind the stop-motion and computer animation in the original show evolved into his current work on stop-motion animation featuring incredible botanical creatures of pine cones, flowers, and twigs. Finally, Panter's passion for comics evidently bled into his graphically-abstract paintings.
The same creativity and passions that shaped the development of the Playhouse continue to shape their artistic practices. Unlike myself, the "hippies" never reached a cut-off point where they stopped imagining, where they ceased being artists.
Attending this Visions and Voices event on January 21st, I was brought back to the time when my swimming pool had a shark infestation, my closet led to Narnia, the vacuum cleaner was my sworn enemy, my dog was a dragon, and there was most definitely a monster living under my bed.
At some point in adolescence, I cleaned the toys out of my room to make space for more mature things. I sold some toys and shoved others into a box that now resides in the attic. At some point, many of us are told to not be so "childish" and to "grow up." Responsibilities of independence set in; I sold out my imagination to make room for more rational and logical matters.
When I went to college, the Toy Story 3 moment intensified — the moment when Andy plays with Woody one last time. I packed up my bags and with that left Elle, my childhood beanie-baby, behind. I turned to STEM and business to lead a practical life as an aspiring physician.
Heitzman, Panter and White invited the Peter Pans of America like me to return to their childhood. White insisted the show was created as a spoof on pop culture, but not insincerely or cynically. He claimed with unanimous support that the show was completely genuine and that "kids sensed the sincerity with which the show was made."
With the wit and satire of Pee-wee Herman's origin in late night television, the show attracted large demographics, but the concept of the playhouse was the true draw – a fantasy world where adults could escape mundanity and revert to childhood creativities we had been trained to suppress. The true irony in Pee-wee's Playhouse was that so many people thought it was a satire, but, in fact, the artists were proving that cartoons, puppets, and imagination were necessary.
As a neuroscience major, I am guilty of ignoring half my brain. I have repressed the artistic inclinations of my right brain for a more analytical education. From the success of these Pee-wee artists, I learned that as I develop into a scientist that if I want to have a full brain and a full life then I should keep my imagination active.
When they spoke post-show, one thing was evident – as White phrased it, "we truly never left the playhouse." And, as for me, I'm headed right back to it. Now, where did I put Elle?
Reach Staff Reporter Nate Overholtzer here.