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Behind the Making of Pee Wee's Playouse by Michael Walker

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  • In 1985, writer producer Michael Chase Walker (The Last Unicorn, He Man, She-Ra, Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Dino-Riders) joined the CBS Television Network as Director of Childrens Programs with a mandate to overhaul the network’s third place standing.

    Walker’s vision was to shape the Saturday morning lineup into a Saturday movie matinee format with an eclectic blend of genres: westerns, comedy, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. He turned to Hanna Barbera to develop the fantasy western, "Wildfire", with his Last Unicorn alumns, Peter S. Beagle and Jimmy Webb. He also commissioned a Johnny Quest inspired adventure based on "Ripley’s Believe it or Not" from Alan Burnett.

    He was approached by Sidney Iwanter of TMS studios with the hilarious space comedy, "Galaxy High School", designed by Ren and Stimpy creator, Jon Kricfalusi. Learning there would be considerable resistance from CBS brass to working with an untried animation studio, Walker persuaded up and coming screenwriter director Chris Columbus (Goonies, Gremlins, Young Sherlock Holmes) to come on board as the series show runner. (The main characters bear the names of Columbus siblings.)

    As the schedule shaped up, Walker sensed he needed a name talent to frame the morning schedule on. As an independent producer, Walker co-controlled the rights to Louis Sachar’s "Sideways Stories from the Wayside School", and was looking for a way to turn it into a live-action animated hybrid.

    Walker commissioned the East coast animation company Broadcast Arts to come up with a series of stop motion, claymation vignettes to be included in the prospective series. Their designs for Life in the Fridge, The Toy Shelf and Penny Cartoon were so much fun, Walker was even more determined to find the right vehicle for it. Accepting an invitation from LA Entertainment critic David Sheehan, Walker attended an early screening of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and all the answers fell into place.

    Walker saw the rich promise of inserting an eccentric, Chaplinesque character into an environment of puppets, zany characters, and animated cartoons.The only problem was Paul Reubens was about to become a huge feature film star. Film stars didn't do television let alone Saturday Morning children’s programs. Undaunted, Walker called Paul Reuben’s manager Richard Gilbert Abramson and pleaded for a meeting. As expected, he was rebuffed time and again with the same terse response, “Paul was not interested in doing television PERIOD”.

    Walker did not give up and finally begged for five minutes of Paul’s time. A few days before Christmas 1985, Abramson invited Walker to meet Paul Reubens and make his case. He did, and with flourish. “It’s simply not true my pitch was either ill-conceived, or ill-received, because it was a tour de force.” Walker says. “I’m not saying it was perfect, but it was exciting enough for Paul to look at me squarely and tell me outright, ‘ he always wanted to do a children’s show'. Abramson called Walker a week into the New Year and a deal was eventually hammered out. That’s when the fun and the fury began.

    Walker goes on to reflect, “In 1985 Saturday morning television was the left hand of the entertainment business. On the network side, the children’s programming executives were risk adverse and violently skeptical of anything that might be considered artsy or creative. On the supply side there was Hanna-Barbera, Ruby Spears, and newcomers, Nelvana, Marvel, and DIC. I realized if I was to accomplish anything truly groundbreaking I would have to do so from the ground up, and covertly. To go through conventional channels was to risk seeing it crushed at inception, or worse, handed over to one of the “approved” cartoon mills. I’ve got to laugh at the credit posturing that goes on as if the Playhouse's success was a fait accompli. It certainly was not. After the turbulent first season and the hugely disappointing ratings, I was blamed, not praised. My boss told me bluntly, “We should have stayed with Hulk Hogan’s Rock and Wrestling.” It wasn’t until February of 1987 when the esteemed critic for Vanity Fair, James Wolcott, called it ‘one of the most creative television shows in history’ that the CBS brass started to come around. Over night they were stepping over themselves to claim credit for it.”

    Be sure and read the full account in Caseen Gaines' excellent book: Inside Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon <iframe frameborder="0" scrolling="no" src="http://books.google.com/books?id=AMJT-VBMzoIC&lpg=PA35&ots=tYP7FCa6wE&dq=Michael Chase Walker&pg=PA37&output=embed" width=500 height=500></iframe>
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