We can rightly consider it the most insanely innovative program in Saturday morning television history. And with the recent death of creator Paul Reubens, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” is drawing renewed attention to the show and the Richmond talents who helped create it.
In September 1986, Saturday morning viewers had no clue what they were about to witness. An animated beaver drops a campground sign announcing the show’s title before the camera meanders through a critter-filled forest, up a hill onto an architecturally mis-transfigured structure with a winking sphinx on the roof.
Once inside, as Cyndi Lauper croons “you’ve landed in a place where anything can happen,” everything literally did – animated dinosaurs, refrigerator contents, artwork on walls, and mutant toys on shelves all inexplicably exploded to life. Rubbery doors and windows opened and closed and sang along and every piece of furniture flopped up and down and made googly eyes. Cranks, cogs and cables coordinated to an array of loopy music and zany, illogical sound effects operated all of it. It was surreal Saturday morning chaos, a yuk-filled heaping helping of “Looney Tunes” and Tex Avery cartoons brought to chaotic life. It was intended for children, of course, but also for their parents who grew up watching those absurdly creative cartoons.
“‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ was like [making art in] Richmond’s Fan district, but with a budget,” recalls former Richmonder Phil Trumbo, who was the animation director for the first season. “The thing that was cool for all of us was to feel like, wow, we’re going to reach a mainstream Saturday morning audience. We were influenced as kids by the TV shows that we watched, and we got to be part of that.”
- Trumbo is shown animating his dinosaur family for the first season of "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
A family atmosphere
Trumbo explains that he and three other full-time Richmond creators on the show—David Powers, Greg Harrison, and Frank Gresham—all were onetime Virginia Commonwealth University art students, and all worked for the Washington, DC-based animation company, Broadcast Arts. The company luckily landed a contract with Reubens to create for the proposed show, which was to follow on the heels of the wildly popular 1985 feature film, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
Trumbo, along with partner Steve Segal (who would soon animate the lariat for Cowboy Curtis, played by Laurence Fishburne) had just completed and premiered their stop-motion feature film, “Futuropolis,” in the summer of 1984. Trumbo joined Broadcast Arts that fall, knowing that it was moving to New York.
“We were immediately established as one of the big New York special effects animation houses,” he explains. “We were in lower Manhattan, right around the corner from CBGBs, in the epicenter of this exciting arts scene. CBS was talking to Paul Reubens at that same time. He had done a Showtime special that Steve and I had watched in Richmond, and just thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”
Trumbo and the others recall that Reubens had a much different personality than his alter ego, Pee-wee. “When he wasn’t shooting, he kind of looked like a beatnik, with the beard and sunglasses and stuff. Very soft-spoken. My bosses and I talked to Paul and his producer about what he wanted to do. We sat around and watched stuff like Soupy Sales and Pinky Lee.”
Reubens may have been a soft-spoken beatnik type, but he was also “a ruthless, cutthroat businessman,” remembers Frank Gresham, who performed a variety of tasks on the show, including supplying grunt and oink voice effects for the animated dinosaurs. “He was a very hands-on creator. He knew exactly what he wanted.” Greg Harrison says that on the first day on the set, Reubens took the trouble to learn everyone’s name. “It put people at ease, and it just kind of created a family atmosphere.”
Trumbo says he was responsible for the opening sequence, for which he won an Emmy award for Outstanding Graphics and Title Design, and the stop-motion dinosaur family that lived inside the playhouse walls. “I worked with Kent Burton, who was my creative partner on the project, and he did some dinosaur drawings that were kind of realistic. Paul didn’t approve those, so I made a set of drawings that were a little more anthropomorphic.”
- Courtesy of Phil Trumbo
- One of Trumbo’s concept sketches for the dinosaur family.
Trumbo recalls the frayed nerves and time crunches involved in generating from scratch such an intricate show in spring 1986 to meet their September premiere. “We had to create this whole world, all the live-action, all the stop-motion, and have it go on the air at the beginning of the fall season.”
Sweaty, controlled insanity
“The un-air-conditioned studio was over a sweatshop,” recalls David Powers, who was an animator, voice and sound effects engineer on the show. “I remember there was a garbage strike at the same time. It was like the hottest June of ... whatever, and it was like, terrible.”
“The building had the noisiest elevators,” Gresham laughs. “We had to shut off the elevators while taping.”
Harrison, Powers, Gresham, and Trumbo were natural fits for the controlled insanity of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” as their fantastical 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s do-it-yourself artistic sensibilities seemed to be in perfect sync with those of the show’s ‘official’ design team: Ric Heitzman, underground cartoonist Gary Panter, and artist Wayne White. In addition to “Futuropolis,” Trumbo and Segal had in 1972 directed a stop-motion commercial for Richmond’s Mr. Moe’s Sub Shop (starring future “Animal House” star Stephen Furst), as well as three 10-second stop-motion station IDs for MTV in 1983 (remember the MTV flag on the moon)?
Headquarters for this lunacy was Trumbo’s second-story studio apartment at 903 W. Grace St., which was packed with 20th century American pop ephemera, including mannequin heads, 1950 stuffed chairs, Salvation Army lamps, tin toys, pulp paperbacks, comic books, and his own phantastic retro-style artwork. “My apartment was Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” he says with a laugh. Trumbo was also the former bassist for the experimental, improvisational Richmond band, the Ortho-Tones, which became the Orthotonics in 1982.
In 1983, Powers and Gresham joined Richmonders Kelly Alder and Jude Tolley under artist Michael Kaluta to animate with stop-motion and traditional cells the Alan Parsons Project music video “Don’t Answer Me.” In addition, Harrison and Powers, with Gresham’s assistance, later produced three hilariously bizarre short films for MTV called “Brickface and Stucco” (1991) that also utilized stop-motion photography, Harrison’s wacky props and Powers’ almost inexplicable music, voice, and sound effects. Gresham had also created his zany cartoon “Speedbump the Roadkill Possum.”
“I think the reason you got hired on ['Pee-wee’s Playhouse'] was that it was your sensibility,” Producer Prudence Fenton once said in a 2015 interview at artofthetitle.com.
- Courtesy of Gregory Harrison
- Former Richmond art student Gregory Harrison in his Conky 2000 costume, taking a break during the filming of "Pee-wee’s Playhouse."
“I was a prop builder at Broadcast Arts, building stop-motion sets in the shop with David Powers,” Harrison recollects of how he landed in the show. “When Broadcast Arts got the job of producing the first season, I was hired by Sid Bartholomew, the on-set art director, to build props for the show. I got to know the design team, but they had so much on their plates that they let me have some design input. And then subsequently, I ended up designing the Pee-wee scooter, his exercise machine, and then Conky 2000, the robot.”
Thanks to Conky, Harrison was the only Richmond guy to get actual camera time. “The way I ended up getting on the show was kind of unusual,” he explains. “When I got the job designing Conky, they wouldn’t tell me who was going to be inside of it, so I built it to fit myself. On the day that I had to debut Conky, I got inside to run him through his paces. The puppeteers were so busy they lobbied for me to be Conky, and Paul gave me the job. And I was absolutely thrilled.”
Gresham maintains that David Powers’ formidable animation and sound design strengths made him an unsung hero of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” “I was, like, living some kind of dream, you know?” Powers recollects of his youthful experiences in the New York arts district. “I was living in this janitor’s closet of an apartment, and somebody had cut a hole in the floor, and I ended up putting a sound studio down there.”
- Courtesy of Phil Trumbo
- One of Phil Trumbo’s anthropormorphic animated dinosaurs.
Powers explains that if Reubens accepted your animation idea, he expected you to direct it. “I never had directed, but I got to direct an animation segment, ‘Mutant Toyland,’ for the first 13 episodes. They assigned me an animator, and I did the storyboards and set up the shots.” He still remembers that after an exhausting day of animating, he would go back to his basement apartment in Soho and do sound effects editing all night.
“I was doing sound effects the old-fashioned way, even though I invested in digital samplers,” he says of his sound design process. “When an animated character would look like he was saying something, I would just kind of do this weird mumbling thing in a bad accent or whatever. So, I basically invented all the sound effects, rather than using stock effects.”
Powers remembers that when he finally met Reubens, he sensed a lot of tension among his staff and the Broadcast Arts team, exacerbating Reubens' dislike of working in New York rather than California.
“I had to go play Conky voice demo tapes for him, and I was scared to death to meet him," he says. "He looked pretty disgusted with me. I think he was disgusted with the whole place. He and his manager did not like the Broadcast Arts people. I felt like I was a child working for divorced parents.”
- Courtesy of Phil Trumbo
- Trumbo holds up his “Dinocar.” The production of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was moved to Los Angeles for season two in 1987.
West Coast bound
Sure enough, after the first season, the entire production packed up from New York and moved out to Los Angeles, where, as Powers says, Reubens had a “real studio with air conditioning and real set builders.” None of the Richmond dream team went with them, and most of the guys lost contact with Reubens, except for Greg Harrison, who worked closest to him and continued to receive birthday cards from him.
“I wouldn’t say I had a close relationship with [Reubens],” Trumbo recalls of the last time he saw his old boss. “But the last time I saw him, in 2013 for the release of the Blu-ray, it was cordial, and he treated me right. It was neat to feel a part of it, to be acknowledged as someone who had contributed to it.”
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” ran a remarkable five seasons before ending in 1990. The show was nominated for an astonishing 48 daytime Emmys, won 18, and was named by TV Guide as one of the top ten cult classic television programs.
A few weeks ago, Reubens died unexpectedly on July 30 after secretly battling cancer for six years, which touched off an outpouring of memories on social media. John Jurgensen of The Wall Street Journal tried to place the show in historical context: “As MTV was to cable and 'The Simpsons' would soon be to prime-time, 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' was a disrupter of the TV domain for kids. The show's psychedelic absurdism also attracted an audience of teens, college students and savvy parents of the show's target viewers. With his wild remix of the kids' shows that he grew up with as a baby boomer, Reubens put a stamp on Generation X."
Also, and importantly, as journalist, author and filmmaker Kembrew McLeod noted in a 2013 interview with Reubens: "Another thing that made 'Pee-wee’s Playhouse 'so forward looking was the diversity of the cast—in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and even body type."
The older artists from season one's animation team still fondly remember where it all began for them.
“Richmond in the early 1980s, with VCU as ground zero, was a real artistic incubator with quite a talent pool of creative designers, illustrators, and musicians,” Harrison recalls of the heady environment that spawned creative talents that somehow managed to land on CBS Saturday mornings as part of one of the most legendary cult shows in broadcast history.
“Just a ton of people that I was really excited to be in with," he adds. "An urban setting with a Southern flavor to it, you know?”