In the world of pop culture, there are only a handful of things that Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials can all agree upon for their level of sheer awesomeness. One would be the music of the Beatles, and another is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Equal parts children’s movie, musical, morality tale, and psychedelic carnival, the 1971 film based on the 1964 Roald Dahl novel (actually titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and starring a frizzy-haired, enigmatic Gene Wilder in the titular title role. To this day, it evokes strong memories and can reduce grown men to tears.
Its popularity has only grown in recent years, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Katy will host a screening on September 10. Sweetening the pot for fans is that two of the movie’s five Golden Ticket winners will be in attendance, Paris Themmen (who played the cowboy-suited, television obsessed Mike Teevee) and Julie Dawn Cole (the greedy tyke of a tyrant Veruca Salt). After the screening, Themmen and Cole will have an audience Q&A and then sign autographs and pose for photos with fans.
“The filmmakers and Gene didn’t talk down to the kids. It succeeds as a film for both kids and adults, and when the kids get big, they show it to their kids,” Themmen says on the phone of the movie’s appeal. “Here’s a nine-week period I spent in 1970 in Munich, Germany, and 48 years later, I’m talking to you about it, and you care, and a lot of people care about this movie.”
“I didn’t realize the longevity and the impact it has/had on so many people until the late ‘80s or ‘90s,” Cole adds via email from her home in England. “It didn’t do well at the box office and was largely forgotten, but with the advent of DVD and it being shown at holiday time it reached new audiences.”
As to what she thought of the ‘90s alt-rockers Veruca Salt (“Seether,” “All Hail Me”) using the name of her character for their band, Cole says she thought it was cool – but alas, they “beat her” to the Twitter handle!
And yes, goody-goody Charlie passed the Everlasting Gobstopper test and ended up as Wonka’s fair-haired boy – while also getting new digs for his washerwoman mom and four bedridden grandparents. But his four other tour companions were far more interesting.
“They’re all characters of excess and it’s a morality tale,” Themmen says. “Mike wants more TV, Augustus wants more food, Violent wants more gum, and Veruca wants more of everything! The interesting thing about Mike Teevee’s obsession is that it’s based on technology, and technology has evolved. It’s screen addiction today.”
As Cole details in her 2016 memoir I Want It Now! titled after Veruca’s show stopping number in the film, the sets and some of aspects of filming were kept from the child actors so as to get a more genuine reaction on camera. Though she admits she was taken to see the “Pure Imagination” room before filming, a secret she kept from director Mel Stuart until fessing up in the book.
It was also the favorite set of Themmen’s, who notes that the props were either truly edible, or made of plastic and Styrofoam. He credits Art Director Harper Goff’s sets as integral to the look and appeal of the movie - pretty amazing work in the pre-CGI days. And while Cole did manage to ferret away a few souvenirs – including a Gobstopper and a Golden Egg - Themmen did not. Today, he runs the website Wonkapops.com which sells cast-signed merchandise including Wonka-related Funko Pop figures and pictures.
“I was very rambunctious and running around like a loose cannon,” he laughs. “But in a rare moment of doing what I was told, I gave everything back like I was supposed to. Even my Golden Ticket.” Both Themmen and Cole also note that the surprise was real in one scene when they children gasped as “coat hangers” of actual human hands grabbed their garments.
Given the attention the film receives today, it’s hard to imagine that its original 1971 run in theaters was only modestly-successful and garnered mixed reviews. Annual TV showings a’ la The Wizard of Oz (that you used to have to wait for!) increased its exposure, but it wasn’t until the advent of DVDs that the film became ubiquitous and accessible. And the harsher-toned and much-maligned 2005 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake seemed to only increase affection for the original, and internet fan sites abound.
After not seeing each other for nearly 30 years, the five child actors began doing conventions and appearances in 1998. Themmen says it’s amazing the stories people tell him about what the film means to them – although there are a number of, um, diehards as well.
“I met this woman once who had an entire back tattoo of Veruca Salt screaming – and this was not a small woman!” he laughs. “Another time, a guy had me sign his arm with a Sharpie pen, and he came back and he had it turned into an actual tattoo!”
“You can’t top the back tattoo! I still find that incredible,” Cole adds “Though it amuses me also when I meet really famous people who want to hear all about the movie. I met Mark Hamill years ago when Star Wars first came out. And he wanted to meet me at an event we were doing. It’s weird, to think we have been part of so many people’s lives.”
As to their feelings about the man who played Willy Wonka himself and guided them on this cinematic journey, both Themmen and Cole have nothing but fond memories and warm feelings. Themmen even saw Wilder a couple of times before his 2016 passing: once at a book signing, and once at a “Wilder’s Picks” movie screening and Q&A, where Gene signed a Willy Wonka poster for Themmen’s son.
“I said ‘Hi Gene, I’m Paris Themmen. I was Mike Teevee.’ And he said ‘Oh…you were a brat!’ And I said ‘Yes, but I’m 50 now and I hope that I’m less of a brat!’” Themmen recalls, adding that Wilder signed the poster “To my favorite brat.”
Like Themmen, Cole heard the news about Wilder’s passing while at home.
“The first thing I knew was the press calling. It was very sad. We knew he was frail, but no more than that,” she recalls. “Deeply sad, and we all felt we had lost a family member. I guess we weren’t the only ones. Wonka was so loved by so many of us.”
As to why this particular film has had such amazingly deep and cross-generational appeal, Cole has had a lot of time to ponder that, saying that the sets and shooting location give it a sort of timeless feel, the “pure imagination” of the centerpiece song. Though she still can’t quite put her finger on the rest of it.
“I wish I knew the formula, but maybe it is a combination of lots of things,” she sums up. “The hope that good things happen to good people and bad deeds do get punished is probably a wish we all secretly harbor.”
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory will have two screenings (7 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.), followed by a Q&A and meet and greet with Paris Themmen and Julie Dawn Cole, September 10, at the Alamo Drafthouse La Centerra, 2707 Commercial Center in Katy. For information call 281-492-6900 or visit Drafthouse.com. $25
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