By: Colton Dunham
When the phone rang one afternoon in the summer of 1979 while JoAnn Gehrke-Wahlen was working inside of her beauty shop, JoAnn’s Hair Designers at 114 Henry Street in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, the hairstylist answered only to discover that an opportunity of a lifetime was being offered to her.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Wahlen said. “They said they’re doing a movie in town and they’d like me to do the hair. I was like a kid saying, ‘Shut up. Who is this really?’ I mean, how many phone calls can you get like that? They said, ‘No, really. We heard you’re a good hairdresser and we want you to work on the movie.’” While on the phone, the caller asked if she could stop by the shop for an appointment so the stylist could be “put to the test.” JoAnn recalls, “She came in and I prayed through the whole thing so it would look good as I usually did with all of my customers.”
JoAnn passed the test, and a few short weeks later, she and her husband Ted were on the set of Teddy, which was later renamed The Pit, a film that’s now considered a horror cult classic. On the set, they were exposed to a new world that over the course of those six weeks of production became a lifestyle for each of them as they were bitten by what she calls the “movie bug.” The film, which was initially intended to be a psychological study of a 10-year-old autistic boy by the film’s writer Ian Stuart, was entirely transformed into what it’s known for: being an ultra campy blend of horror and intentional comedy. For those of you who have not seen or possibly never heard of the film, the plot revolves around a perverse boy by the name of Jamie who is left in the care of his babysitter. Upon discovering a pit that is the home of prehistoric, hairy and hungry creatures known as Troglodytes (trogs for short), he is urged by his demonically possessed teddy bear to lure people into the pit as an act of tempered revenge.
So, why was Beaver Dam selected as the location for a movie? It happened by chance. Executive producer John Bassett Jr. visited Wayland Academy to watch his daughter compete in a tennis camp. During his visit, he realized the town’s potential as a primary location for the movie with details and exteriors that any town in Canada couldn’t possibly match. “When I read the script . . . it absolutely fit a perfect Midwestern town,” Bassett stated about Beaver Dam in an interview with Variety.
Beaver Dam was transformed from that perfect sleepy Midwestern town into a hustling community when the film crew from Amulet Pictures Ltd. with truckloads of equipment arrived from Toronto, Canada. Along with professional actors, producers, and a jokester of a director named Lew Lehman, they stationed their headquarters at the Best Western Campus Inn. Several homes, local landmarks and schools were secured in Beaver Dam, Waupun and Oshkosh for the shoot. Locations such as Wayland Academy’s library, Stevens Park, City Hall, Washington School Playground, Downtown Beaver Dam, and the Beaver Dam Junior High School were used. The crew even staged a football game by taking cameras to an actual Titans game at UW-Oshkosh.
Along with a large number of extras who were paid a salary of $4 per hour, JoAnn and Ted were among a group of locals that were given key roles in the behind-the-scenes crew. As the hairstylist on set, JoAnn worked up to 10 hours every day for the duration of the six-week shoot. While she trimmed some of the hairstyles, her main objective was to keep the talent looking constant throughout the film, which included having to watch continuity closely. To help achieve this, the crew and herself took Polaroid pictures of every scene. “I had a script because I had to write everything on there because of continuity,” Gehrke-Wahlen said. “People think that when you film, you just film it and it doesn’t happen that way. You could be doing the end of the film first and then you put together the middle and then the beginning. It’s not like a play where you just come in and watch it. It was so goofy.”
Meanwhile, her husband Ted, who was a local contractor at the time, was appointed as the assistant to Peter Stone, Amulet’s art director. Ted’s objective was to help construct the most important element of the film – the pit itself. Once the 15-foot deep pit was dug in Elmer Vanderkin’s woods between County Trunk I and Shamrock Road, Ted built wood framework around it to support the film equipment. The pit was lined with aluminum screening, sprayed with foam insulation and then painted black with added roots and twigs to make it appear as a natural habitat for the trogs. For scenes where actors are thrown into the pit, hundreds of boxes lined the bottom to cushion the fall. “That was quite the production itself,” Wahlen said of Ted’s daunting task of working on the pit. “He was really a good, hardworking carpenter. He was just pounding nails and helping design. He was in another location and I’d be with the crew at all of the other different locations.”
JoAnn and Ted were both completely engrossed in the experience, especially JoAnn as she says that she was in the general vicinity of the main action at all times during the shoot – forming friendships with the Canadian crewmembers whether they were on set or hanging out during one of four wrap parties when cameras weren’t rolling. “The director called me hair all the time,” Gehrke-Wahlen said. “That was funny because as soon as he said action, it was all business. Before that, though, he was a real jokester, a real character. I liked to stay out of his way because I didn’t want to be the butt of his jokes.”
When asked how she felt when filming concluded that October, she said it was tough getting back to reality. “It’s fun to be in a make-believe world,” she said. “To me it was more real to me than my real life because it was so fun. The movie was a part of my life that was really nice because I got to escape reality for a little while. I didn’t have customers. I just had this little group that I worked with and I didn’t have to make supper. It was a refreshing change of lifestyle. Then it was like rubber hitting the road when everybody went home after the wrap.”
Although she was married and raising a nine-year-old daughter at the time, she was so involved that she once had the pipedream of moving to Canada to pursue being a hairdresser on more film sets – in hopes to replicate the experience she had while on the set in Beaver Dam. “A news crew came in from Milwaukee or Madison and they interviewed me,” she recalled. “Of course, I was like, ‘Maybe next fall or next spring, I’m going to Canada and become a hairdresser for the movies.’ Now I just chuckle when I look back at that. It’s so funny. I had my life in Beaver Dam. It was fun while we had the opportunity on set, but to actually commit to something that you said you were going to do, it was more of a dream. After rational thought took over, I was like, ‘I have a beauty shop here. I have a husband and a daughter.’”
A couple of weeks ago, for the first time since October of 1981 when she and Ted attended the premiere of The Pit at Beaver Dam’s Wisconsin Theater (now the location of Rogers Cinema), she sat down to watch the movie again. The second viewing was a reminder of how awful the movie actually is, perhaps intentionally so. “I was appalled at the nudity,” she said with a chuckle.
When she talks about the movie, however, she strongly suggests that she is more willing to talk about the experience of being behind-the-scenes and not necessarily so much about the finished product. “That sounds weird, but you live the moment,” she admitted. “It was a fun thing to do. After this wonderful experience meeting the people and doing these things and then all of a sudden 35 years later, you watch the actual movie and you’re going, ‘Oh my gosh. I was a part of that?’”
No matter how appalled she is by the perverseness of the nudity and the shocking gore, she admits that she’ll attempt to watch The Pit every 30 years. With a smile, she proclaims, “I’ll be close to 100 when I’ll watch it again.”