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Pure Imagination: Remembering Gene Wilder

on August 30, 2016, 12:30pm

Music Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. 

“I was already having a bad day,” CoS News Editor Ben Kaye texted me yesterday, “and then I found out I had to write an obituary for a legend.”

COS_Music_Movies_Moods (2)Nobody likes writing these types of articles. And if you write about music or film for a living, 2016 has meant a steady diet of them. Plenty of goodbyes to people whom you’ve likely never met but still feel as though you owe a tremendous debt. Like David Bowie, Prince, and so many others this year, Gene Wilder has left us, and the world once again seems like it has shifted on its axis. Oh, we’re still spinning, but it feels a bit different.

CoS Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman asked if I would write something about Mr. Wilder for today. Again, nobody ever likes writing these articles, but I particularly don’t. I just never have the first idea of what to say, especially a day later. I didn’t write about Robin Williams until he had been dead two months. I waited 25 years to bid Jim Henson a belated farewell in a column. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t say the right thing in either case. It’s said that I’m sorry are the most difficult words in the English language to say. Well, goodbye can’t be too far behind.

the producers

I think part of the reason goodbyes elude me is that I never see them coming. Not when it comes to rock stars or actors anyway. The pieces of themselves that they give us never grow old, never fall ill, never pass on. Yes, David Bowie may have gotten sick and beamed home, but Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke are just a turntable and needle drop away and as eternal as anything can be. And yes, Mr. Wilder is gone, but just last week while visiting my parents, I heard the notes of “Pure Imagination” gently waft through the house. I went downstairs to see my father nodding along with Willy Wonka in the chocolate room. And I imagine Mr. Wilder will be singing that song thousands of more times in that home in the years to come. So he’s gone, but not really.

Maybe goodbye, then, isn’t the word. Maybe I’ll try thank you. I’m better at thank yous.

One thing we can all be thankful for is that Wilder’s best work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Long after we’re gone, the characters he created will continue to bring people together and make our world a little less weary. Yesterday afternoon, my friend Heather wrote the following on her Facebook wall: “It happens every time… they all become blueberries.” No attribution. No footnote, and yet everyone who reads that post knows who said it — Mr. Wonka Willy (“wait, strike that, reverse it”). Just like everyone knows what the snozzberries taste like. And just like if you hum the melody to “Pure Imagination” at a bus stop in most any country in the world, you’re likely to soon find a new friend humming along beside you. There are far worse things to have in common.

The men in my family introduced me to Gene Wilder through Mel Brooks movies. My uncle rented The Producers, Wilder’s big break, and I remember falling in love with the poetry of opposites played out by Wilder’s meek accountant, Leo Bloom, and Zero Mostel’s boisterous and bawdy Broadway producer, Max Bialystock. Even as a child, before I understood what was going on, I cracked up at how the security-blanket-toting Wilder could transform from church mouse to hysterical lunatic in an instant (early shades of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein … sorry, Fronkensteen). My favorite bit in that film takes place as Bialystock and Bloom emerge from Yankee Doodle Nazi Franz Liebkind’s apartment with the rights to surefire flop “Springtime for Hitler”. “What’s the matter with you?” Bialystock asks a clearly uncomfortable Bloom. “Look, I’m just not wearing this armband,” an anxious Wilder replies, revealing a swastika on his sleeve. “I don’t care how big the deal is.” It wasn’t until some years later that I learned Gene Wilder, born Jerome Silberman, had been bullied and assaulted for being the only Jewish boy at his military school. But, like Brooks, he turned the tables and channeled that childhood trauma into a laugh. It’s one of art’s great gifts — it can turn utter pain into something as joyous as laughter.

When I was in high school, my father made a habit of falling asleep to the same movie for weeks at a time. One of those films was Blazing Saddles. Wilder’s character, Jim (but his friends call him … Jim), acts as the sidekick and voice of sanity to black sheriff Bart’s Bugs Bunny in a bigoted, incestuous town of maroons. What I love most about The Waco Kid is how his pulse never rises once in that film; he just sits there, blue eyes and that untamable tuft of blonde hair (you know the one), smiling and comforting Bart with pep talks like “What did you expect? Welcome, Sonny. Make yourself at home. Marry my daughter. You gotta remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new west. You know … morons.” So many nights I lied awake in my bedroom, my father asleep and his television on several volumes too loudly, listening to that calm, soothing voice deliver ridiculous lines one after another. And I think that’s what I loved most about Gene Wilder. In a Hollywood where explosions, vulgarity, and raising one’s voice are often the tickets to gaining attention, he exuded a gentleness and warmth that always managed to command a room and, more importantly, the screen. His type we may not see again.

As I’m sure is the case for many, Gene Wilder came somersaulting into my childhood as eccentric confectioner Willy Wonka. And, fittingly, that’s the last character I saw him perform before he passed. It was at a special Easter sing-along screening of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. A sold-out house of golden ticket winners ranging from children the size of Oompa-Loompas to adults the age of Grandpa Joe laughed, sang, and nibbled on chocolate together. Talk about a final curtain call. Mr. Wilder left us with smiles, a song, and a bit of sweetness. It’s a gift as everlasting as any gobstopper.

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