Photography by Cap Blackard
It took three minutes to book my trip to Los Angeles so I could attend Cinefamily and FYF’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete reunion at The Orpheum. It took another month to actually calm myself down. For weeks on end, the event’s poster set my mind racing, especially with one little sub-headline: “with special guests Polaris performing live!” Seeing the entire cast was one thing, but never did I think it’d be possible to catch a live performance of Polaris — Mark Mulcahy’s technically-fictional outfit that scored the series’ three seasons.
The Connecticut songwriter is an unmatched American virtuoso of alternative anthems. I’ve long championed his work, whether with former college rock outfit Miracle Legion or on solo records (specifically 1997’s Fathering, whose opening track “Hey Self Defeater” just might be the most hard-hitting lost anthem of the ’90s), but his 12 songs for Pete & Pete will always coddle my heart. They exude a surrealistic charm that coats the show’s timeless themes of adolescence and childlike wonder. A few of them are my personal all-time favorite songs (“She Is Staggering”, “Ashamed of the Story I Told”, and “Waiting for October”), and the show itself slots high on my Top Five TV Shows I’ll Watch Until I Die list. So, I convinced myself that this event was strictly destiny calling.
Lucky me, I started panicking. For the past year, I’ve struggled with the concept or ideology behind nostalgia. It started last October, when I baked my mind to death during a Chicago screening of Halloween, and I turned what was a fun, easygoing night of horror movies into an existential breakdown. Why do you watch these movies again and again? What do they do for you? They’re just tied to memories that you’ll never experience again — you’re wasting your time. My mind’s an unstoppable beast in that, similar to the basic plot line for Christopher Nolan’s Inception, once it latches onto an idea, it spreads like a virus.
Months and months passed and I never fully recovered from that movie meltdown. I felt passive to so many things that were once strong obsessions of mine, from similar cult classics to even fashions and styles. Truth: I used to have this uncanny ability to visualize what it was like to live in certain decades, which came in extra handy when revisiting sacred snapshots of my own past. Sometimes this warped medium actually shoved me through tough times; it was my escape. Because of this, I fell into a deep depression, where I slowly began convincing myself that I’d simply grown up and become a cynical adult.
Now, with The Adventures of Pete & Pete, I fully recognize its power and remarkable creativity and will always endorse it as one of the best things to have ever hit television. But, a large part of its appeal, at least to me (though, I know I’m not alone on this), is how it’s essentially an open door for one’s childhood nostalgia. The show’s premise may be simple — two brothers with the same name growing up in small town America — but its themes, aesthetics, and overall aura are layered into a comprehensive blend that appeals to the youthful spirit swimming around our guts. Following my travel arrangements, I started wondering if the reunion would impact me much, given my recent bout. This nagging feeling clung to my mind even as the show began and as Cinefamily’s curator Hadrian Belove stated, “We look back on our childhood with rose-colored lenses,” concluding that we, as in my generation, “grew up with the best children’s show ever.” He sent my mind into overdrive by adding, “We now have a show for nostalgia about nostalgia.”
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already having the time of my life. FYF’s Sean Carlson is a longtime fan of the show and both he and Cinefamily went the extra mile to capture the true spirit of Pete & Pete here. Staff handed out free temporary tattoos of Petunia, signs advertised Mr. Tastee’s ice cream or an alcoholic rendition of the Orange Lazarus, and the stage itself was topped with astroturf sporting a litter of objects, including: a lawn gnome, a ’60s-styled bicycle, a bowling ball, a dated sprinkler system, etc. Prior to showtime, a screen cycled through myriad clips of the show’s best moments, which elicited cheers from diehards who were already camping in their seats. Once the lights dimmed, Toby Huss provided the proper missile launch introduction as the theatre’s velvet curtains were pulled back to unveil Polaris performing “Hey Sandy”. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few fans soiled their pants.
Following Belove’s introductory speech, Toby Huss returned as Sandy Krebman, CEO of KrebStar, to narrate a clever clip show of all the fictional company’s outrageous products over the 39 episodes and 16 shorts. Sharper than ever, he wrapped it up with a funny catchphrase, exclaiming: “If you don’t feel the pain in your colon, it wasn’t a good product for children!” Not even KrebStar could commission what came next. Minutes following, Belove called out Wellsville’s finest: Damian Young (Stu the Bus Driver); Syd Straw (Mrs. Fingerwood); Don (Hardy Rawls), Joyce (Judy Gafe), Big Pete (Mike Maronna), and Little Pete Wrigley (Danny Tamberelli); Ellen Hickle (Alison Fanelli); “Endless” Mike (Rick Gomez); director Katherine Dieckmann; and creators Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. Huss joined in moments later and everyone gathered their thoughts for a good ten minutes or so.
To no one’s surprise, everyone is much, much older, things have changed, and the cast made no efforts to hide from that. Tamberelli called attention to his weight (“My voice got lower and I got fatter — I know, I know.”) and Fanelli, who quit acting early on and looks beyond fantastic, noted how her husband didn’t even know she was on the television show (“I pulled out the DVD I bought myself at Target”). It was a humbling experience all at once, and both McRobb and Viscardi looked around at the thousands upon thousands of fans gazing back in disbelief. “We never thought the show would last this long,” Viscardi admitted. This led into an intense dissection of the show, to which McRobb instructed that they “had a little checklist,” to acknowledge each episode, insisting each story had to be “funny, sad, strange, and beautiful.” The two agreed they’ve never successfully matched that formula since.
Stories were passed around like hacky sack. Young and Huss digressed on their time together in New York’s burgeoning performance arts scene in the late ’80s, Gafe held a spatula to her head to imply the metal plate was still inside, Fanelli blamed cold weather and friendship for an awful first kiss with Maronna, and Gomez explained how his own children (one who’s, no lie, a redhead) are pretty despicable of his on-screen bullying. Pretty much everyone had a story about Huss’ iconic character Artie the Strongest Man in the World. McRobb contended that he knew Huss was “a keeper” immediately, despite his knack for “chain-smoking, scratching his crotch, [and] smelling like cheap booze.” Similarly, Viscardi shared an exceptional off-screen image of Huss walking around wearing nothing but underwear and the Mr. Tastee foam head whilst pretending to copulate with a nearby car’s gas tank. They even unraveled the mystery behind his name and why he shouted “pipe” to passersby.
This led to a clip reel of Artie’s finest moments. It was here, however, that something turned on, punched in, and stung deep. During the snippet of Artie’s speech from “Farewell My Little Viking, Part Two”, where he explains why he has to leave Wellsville and how Little Pete doesn’t need a hero anymore, I started to lose it. Everything I’d been holding back for months and months crawled up and went base jumping down my eyelids; I just fucking let go. I recalled watching the episode for the first time, feeling just as lost as Little Pete, next to my mother in the living room of our old house. Things were so much different then, life was so much more mysterious, and any troubles were so far and few. In that realization, my stomach tightened up, my throat stuttered some, and the tears kept coming.
That feeling hardly subsided, especially during Polaris’ set. Though the tears long passed, that buzzy nostalgic feeling lingered on as Mulcahy trekked through each of his classic themes, all beneath an endless, muted clip show. Mulcahy delivered on early cuts “She Is Staggering” and “Recently”, but really came alive during a raucous rendition of “Coronado II”. “It’s a great first gig, that’s for sure,” he said with a sly smile. Before the set’s end, Mulcahy took a break and Straw, instead, came out to perform “Water, Please”, introducing it as “a friendly little song about a garden I murdered long ago.” Despite the whole concert being a rare and once in a lifetime opportunity, it also served as a swift reminder at just how bountiful this show was with talent. This was a series that snagged the musical likes of Michael Stipe, Iggy Pop (as a semi-series regular for Christ’s sake), Debbie Harry, Juliana Hatfield, Gordon Cano, and many more — not to mention the other endless supply of celebrity cameos. They even regularly featured tracks from The Magnetic Fields. Viscardi discussed this stroke of luck, insisting, “We put in the songs we liked and I’d like to think how ours influenced some of your musical tastes.”
Tamberelli brought the show to a close by leading a spunky version of “Summerbaby”, which quickly evolved into a singalong that slowly dragged each cast member back to the stage one by one. It was the grandest celebration a small show like Pete & Pete could ever warrant. Nickelodeon might not have appreciated it — and maybe still don’t — but the series without a doubt changed a particular sect of people across the world. Given that the reunion didn’t quite sell out, it’s likely that sect still remains small, but that mattered to no one at The Orpheum — especially its cast and crew. As Viscardi posited, “I have a feeling you folks were a little bit different from the kids you grew up with.” Yes, but despite growing up, we’re still the same kids.
I take nothing but relief in that.