Dinner With Veruca Salt And Friends

Hanging out (from left) with Rusty Goffe, Paris Themmen,
Mel Stuart, Denise Nickerson and Julie Dawn Cole.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

Yes, it’s true, the classic film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is 40 years old. To celebrate, Warner Home Video has reissued the movie in a very attractive Blu-ray/DVD combo box complete with golden ticket, book and discs packaged in a Wonka Bar case.

On Monday, October 17th I had dinner at Rue 57 in Manhattan with director Mel Stuart and actors Julie Dawn Cole (who played Veruca Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), Paris Themmen (Mike Teevee) and Rusty Goffe (one of the beloved Oompa Loopmas) to discuss the legacy and behind-the-scenes tales of this legendary film. (Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket, had to return upset to his veterinary practice after a day of promotion. Gene Wilder retired from acting years ago.) We chatted for a collective Wonka story for NextMovie, and I got some amusing stories from Cole and Stuart for a separate piece about Veruca Salt.

Mel Stuart and Julie Dawn Cole share funny memories.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

Something that many people may not know about the film is that it is one of the first (maybe the first?) product placement movies, at least from the standpoint of promoting a product consistently (see comment #3 below). Back then director Mel Stuart and producer David L. Wolper did documentaries for Quaker Oats, who funded many documentaries at the time. “We went to see them after my daughter Madeline had screamed and yelled at me that I had to do this [book] as a movie,” recalled Stuart of how Willy Wonka the movie was born from Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “I said, ‘I don’t make kiddie movies, I make serious documentaries like Making Of The President and Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ She said, ‘I don’t care, daddy! You have to make this into a movie!’ So I read the book and thought it was a nice story for kids. She said I had to tell Uncle David too. I told David that the kid wants us to do this movie. I explained it to him. He never read the book. I hardly read it, but I did it because of my daughter.”

A happy reunion with Denise Nickerson and Julie Dawn Cole.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

In their subsequent meeting with Quaker Oats, one executive asked them, according to Stuart, “‘What have you got about chocolate? We’re thinking of making a chocolate bar.’ So David goes into his act: ‘We’ve been working for years on this movie…’ He goes into this whole pitch about how they could make Wonka Bars and sell them” — which they later did after buying the rights to the book — “and they gave me $2.8 million to make the movie. Today you couldn’t open the door for that money, and that wasn’t much then. I just had to figure out how to do it for $2.8 million. So we went to Munich because we didn’t have to pay as much for the studio and the sets and everything.” Thus there was no studio interference during production. Paramount distributed the film but did not renew its deal years later because the movie did not fare well at the box office upon its 1971 release. Warner Bros. bought up the rights from Quaker Oats in 1977 and has owned them ever since, during which time Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has become revered and highly profitable thanks to television and home video.

Now you know why the Wonka candy line exists on top of this classic film.

Following are some photos of my evening with the Wonka cast, most of them taken following a dinner with approximately 15 people attending. Watching Stuart, Cole and Goffe chat about special memories at the tail end of the evening was endearing and fun, especially as some of us were a bit tipsy.

Rusty Goffe enjoys the evening.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

Julie Dawn Cole, Paris Themmen and Rusty Goffe hamming it up.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

A kick line is forming! (L to R) Rusty Goffe, Paris Themmen,
Mel Stuart, Denise Nickerson, Julie Dawn Cole
and Ronnee Sass from Warner Home Video.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

Mel Stuart recalls Veruca Salt mischief.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

Some Wonka kids all grown up with
an Oompa Loompa that helped straighten them out.
(Photo ©2011 by Bryan Reesman.)

5 Responses

  1. Joseph J. Finn

    Very enjoyable post, but I have to admit that I’m curious as to where you obtained that excellent red shirt.

  2. Thelonious

    Um, “…it is one of the first (maybe the first?) product placement movies” – not even close.

    Let me show you this (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_placement#Product_placement_in_movies)

    Among the famous silent films to feature product placement was Wings (1927), the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It contained a plug for Hershey’s chocolate.

    In Fritz Lang’s film “M” released in (1931) there is a prominent banner display on a stair case in one scene for Wrigley’s PK Chewing Gum which is right in the viewers eye for around 20-30 seconds.

    Another early example in film occurs in Horse Feathers (1932) where Thelma Todd’s character falls out of a canoe and into a river. She calls for a life saver and Groucho Marx’s character tosses her a Life Savers candy.

    The film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra, depicts a young boy with aspirations to be an explorer, displaying a prominent copy of National Geographic.

    In the film Love Happy (1949), Harpo Marx’s character cavorts on a rooftop among various billboards and at one point escapes from the villains on the old Mobil logo, the “Flying Red Horse”. Harrison’s Reports severely criticized this scene in its film review[17] and in a front-page editorial of the same issue.

    In the film noir Gun Crazy (1949), the climactic crime is the payroll robbery of the Armour meat-packing plant, where a Bulova clock is prominently seen.

    In other early media, e.g., radio in the 1930s and 1940s and early television in the 1950s, television programs were often underwritten by companies. “Soap operas” are called such because they were initially underwritten by consumer, packaged-goods companies such as Procter & Gamble or Unilever. When television began to displace radio, DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars television show was, in its era, notable for not relying on a sole Sponsor (commercial) in the tradition of NBC’s Texaco Star Theater and similar productions. Sponsorship exists today with programs being sponsored by major vendors such as Hallmark Cards.

    The conspicuous display of Studebaker motor vehicles in the television series Mr. Ed (1961–1966), which was sponsored by the Studebaker Corporation from 1961 to 1963, is another example of product placement.

    Incorporation of products into the actual plot of a film or television show is generally called “brand integration”. An early example of such “brand integration” was by Abercrombie & Fitch when one of its stores provided the notional venue for part of the romantic comedy film Man’s Favourite Sport? (1964) starring Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss.

    and on and on

    • Bryan Reesman

      Thanks for the history lesson. That’s pretty cool. I suppose how it should be worded is that it was one of the first films solely created, at least from the producers’ standpoint, to promote a product all the way through!


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