Updated: Aug 2, 2021
“ I began to dream of finding hidden rooms and magical places, the surprise always flooding me with feelings of happiness and relief. I would sometimes cry if I woke up from these dreams prematurely, closing my eyes tightly to return there, even if just for a few minutes. "
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was the first movie I ever saw twice at a theater. My first grade teacher had sensed that I might benefit emotionally from reading James and the Giant Peach and the other books of Roald Dahl. So my mother began to read Chocolate Factory to me and with me in bed each night before I slept, and I developed a good idea of who the characters were. I was beginning to need a reason to escape, although no one in my family knew that someone was hurting me, and I was too young to articulate it. During this time of secret darkness, I began to dream of finding hidden rooms and magical places, the surprise always flooding me with feelings of happiness and relief. I would sometimes cry if I woke up from these dreams prematurely, closing my eyes tightly to return there, even if just for a few minutes. When the movie musical version of Chocolate Factory premiered, with Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, I wanted to be first in line, and both of my parents went with me, one of the few times we all went out together. I was mesmerized from the first frame to the last, with Charlie and his search for the Golden Ticket, and the way he won out in the end by staying true to who he was, a good kid. I tried to memorize the actor’s voices and expressions, and after the movie, my parents took me to a local department store and bought the 8-track soundtrack, which I listened to over and over on my portable player for weeks. When one afternoon, many years later, my boss, Sandy, walked up to my desk and asked if I would sit in on a meeting about the cancer charity Gilda’s Club, with herself and Gene Wilder, I tried to remain calm as I said, “Yes, of course.” I noticed his curly, unkempt mane of hair and heard the inflection of his voice before I fully entered her office, and struggled to keep my composure long enough to shake his hand and squeak out a hello from my tightening throat. For the next half hour, he spoke of his late wife, Gilda Radner, how her loving nature and sense of humor and embrace of her disease had inspired him and so many other people. How her beautiful spirit and her passing had ignited the need in him to provide a safe house for cancer patients, filled with hope and laughter and all things healing. I nodded. I listened. I remembered being alone in my room, hearing his voice singing “Come with me, and you’ll see, a world of pure imagination.” How I had followed that voice out of my own darkness so many times, if only for brief, bright moments. And when he was done speaking, Sandy said, “Thank you,” and turned to me, finding me in full stare, unable to respond or even move as he left the room. “Are you OK?” she asked. “I just met Willy Wonka,” I muttered, softly. “Oh, dear…” she said.