Welcome the next installment of my year-long look back at the decade that was ruled by big hair and bigger egos. Every other week I’ll be covering pop culture tidbits from the 1980s, sharing memories, choking on the ridiculousness, and maybe offering an insight or two into what made the 1980s so great/bad/silly. Serving as my inspiration are two lists from Buzzfeed, and I’ll include links to the original list items in each post. So throw on your neon windbreaker, lace up your hi-tops, and adjust your Wayfarers, because this DeLorean is taking off! (Ugh. Did I really just type that? Gag me with spoon, seriously.)
List item #35 from 50 Things only ’80s Kids Can Understand
Pee-wee’s Playhouse and a big bowl of cereal was the highlight of Saturday mornings.
Twenty-four years ago this week, on November 17, 1990, the last episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse aired. It’d be foolish of me to sit here and spout anything other than “meh” about that event because until I did some online searching about the unsinkable Pee-wee and his playhouse, I had no clue as to the show’s duration. Though I avidly watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse for as long as it was on, I wasn’t watching with a mind towards its cultural significance, but rather with that part of my brain that refused to grow up. That part that still got a kick out of watching [old and new] Saturday morning cartoons (Garfield and Friends preceded Pee-wee’s Playhouse, so there was that), re-runs of The Muppet Show, and vignettes from Sesame Street. And the “childlike sense of wonder” that I retained despite being an anti-social teen who was trying desperately to “be adult” was what Pee-wee’s Playhouse was all about. It was one of many shows that straddled quite brilliantly the line between being a kid’s show for kids and a kid’s show for kids who wanted to be (or had to be) adults.
Going online nowadays to search for all things Pee-wee’s Playhouse, one is hard-pressed to find much negativity about it. Never you mind about Paul Reuben’s later fall from and return to grace, Pee-wee’s Playhouse is now as critically acclaimed as a show can be. People L-O-V-E it and hold in high regard Reuben’s unstoppable ability to both educate and entertain, which he did well within the confines of his fantastical made-up world. His tenets were simple: be smart, be kind, and be positive…and have fun! Sorry, I meant Fun! with a capital “F.” But I don’t know that any of the teachy-teachy stuff really mattered to my “elderly” self at the time. What really drew me into Pee-wee’s Playhouse was the playhouse itself.
I have a pretty severe fetish concerning the creation of alternate worlds through craft. By that I don’t mean animated cartoons (old-fashioned, CGI, or otherwise), but the actual act of building spaces with wood, fabric, plastic, clay, wire, glue, etc. Blame for that falls squarely on George Lucas, Jim Henson, and an early fascination I developed with their “making of” shows that took people behind the scenes of Star Wars and the Muppets, respectively. Even as a kid I simply adored these and similar documentaries – by far my favorites remain The World of the Dark Crystal (1983) and Inside the Labyrinth (1986). But it wasn’t just the fun of puppetry that caught my attention, it was the art of making the puppets, the scenery, the costumes, the claymation characters, everything that populated and decorated those fantasy worlds. I wanted to be a part of that! I wanted to…make! (In roundabout way, this led me later in life into sewing, fashion, theatre, costumes, and today, yarn stuffs.)
So the thing about Pee-wee’s playhouse was its real-ness and tactile-ness and sense that it actually existed in the world. It wasn’t a computer creation or an animation sensation – it was a place where someone lived and created. It was a place with talking furniture, adorable neighbors, and visiting marionettes and genies. It was awesome! Though…I would never have told you that. Because Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a kid’s show, remember? Hell if I was going to spout my love of it to my fellow high schoolers! Are you kidding??! I had enough to worry about without also worrying about being made fun of for liking Pee-wee’s Playhouse. So my adoration of its wackiness remained between me, my siblings, and our television, as did my interest in craft. (Though I did excel in home economic classes, so maybe my secret wasn’t really a “secret.”)
And yes, part of me probably also liked Pee-wee’s Playhouse for escapism as my life in the real world was far from pleasurable. In the playhouse, everyone was nice and quarrels were met with rationality not anger. Everyone watched cartoons and ate ice cream soup and exuberantly celebrated the “secret word of the day.” And friendship abounded not just with humans but with everything from the sun to your pet pterodactyl to your chocolate syrup dispenser. Simply put, I wanted all that. You know where I found it in the real world? Through craft. I found a way to connect with others, strangers even, through the art of the hand-made. Oh, I couldn’t draw worth a damn, but I sure as hell could make a mean set of macramé bracelets or a trendy Parker Lewis shirt or a shiny, beaded headband or a tasty zucchini parmesan casserole. Okay, so I never created anything on the scale of a talking chair, but the stuff I made spoke volumes to creativity and, to a much lesser extent, design (never really developed a good eye for design). And I credit Pee-wee’s Playhouse for making me believe in and manifest my own crafty nature.