In a dank, sticky floored, small movie theater, with once cushioned chairs now falling apart, a wide-eyed 8-year-old girl sits with a huge fake butter popcorn tub dripping in her lap. Crimped hair held by a purple scrunchy, she sports a Jem and the Holograms bejeweled tee with yet another scrunchy holding up the side of the extra large shirt. An important reminder: you can never have too many scrunchies. She sits in the front row next to her cousins who are just as excited as she is, and her mother and aunt who are clearly annoyed at being along for the ride. It is the thick of a Florida summer and with no AC, this theater has seen better days. The cartoon coke and popcorn duo dance on the screen, previews play out, (Jurassic Park, My Girl) and then the movie starts: Mannequin 2: On The Move.
Instead of a backdrop of Edfu, Egypt with a sexy Kim Cattrall, such as in the 1987 original Mannequin, we are transported to the Germanic Kingdom of Hauptmann-Koenig. It is the age-old fairytale of a prince finding his true love in the form of a peasant girl, who is then turned into a mannequin by an Evil Sorcerer (looking strikingly similar to Bernie of Weekend at Bernie’s fame), in a spell that lasts 1000 years. Typical.
The peasant girl Jessie (Kristy Swanson), is awakened by her true love, Jason (William Ragsdale), 1000 years later, in 1991 Philadelphia, and my 8-year-old self is as spellbound as the enchanted peasant girl. In the opening credits, Jason seems so cool to me, as he runs late to his first day of work at the department store, brushing his teeth with a Diet Coke as he speeds along in his jeep. I tap my Jelly sandals in time to the song “Wake Up” and will attempt to brush my teeth just like Jason as soon as I get home.
As the movie unfolds we see the world through Jessie’s eyes as she comes into 20th century consciousness. We see the timelessness of a love story through the generations. We see a misunderstood mannequin struggling to be free from men who want to own and possess her. We see sword fencing, we see a fabled hot air balloon showdown, we see a medieval and modern slow dance sequence at a club, we see chivalry that is “not dead.” We see an ever so slightly recycled plot of Mannequin with new and exciting twists and hilarious characters.
My cousins and I can barely contain ourselves. We love this movie. I look over at my mom and aunt who I imagine will be asleep by now, but who instead have tears streaming down their faces from laughing so hard. Despite their best efforts to remain indifferent, they love it too. When the movie ends we can’t stop talking about it. We go back the next day to see it again. And the next day. We went back every day our parents would take us, and would act out scenes at home in between. Mannequin 2 is an instant family classic. A film we will watch on repeat for years to come. A film our family still quotes and references to this day.
The real crown jewel of the film is the manager of the department store Prince and Company, Mr. James, played by the incomparable Stuart Pankin, whose one liners and comedic timing steal the film. For the 30 year anniversary of Mannequin 2 this year, I had the delight of interviewing Stuart, who is the sweetest and kindest man, and every bit the opposite of his tightly wound character in the movie.
Well known for his voice role as Earl Sinclair (the dad) in Dinosaurs, Stu is an incredible actor with hundreds of stage, film and TV credits to his name. Films and shows like Not Necessarily the News, Arachnophobia, Fatal Attraction,The Artist, The Dirt Bike Kid, and Curb Your Enthusiasm are just a few of many in his filmography. I joked that I, of course, was interviewing him about Mannequin 2, a film that completely flopped at the Box Office and that Rotten Tomatoes gave a 13% rating. Poking fun at Rotten Tomatoes then became a running joke in our talk together.
Stu has a way that makes you feel at ease, has a warm presence, is humble, and speaks in earnest. He made me deep belly laugh multiple times and in our short conversation together, I felt we were kindred spirits. In our talk, he tells stories of filming Mannequin 2, revisits familiar places in Philadelphia where he grew up, and shares memories of working on set with Meshach Taylor, William Ragsdale, Kristy Swanson, Cynthia Harris and Terry Kiser. He tells a hilarious story about filming the ending scene to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” We reflect on the importance of nostalgia as it relates to pop culture and the role it has played in our lives. We discuss how we ascribe meaning to film based on where we are and who we are with, and how Mannequin 2 holds up 30 years later.
Filming in Philly: “Meet Me At The Eagle”
Emily: You’re from Philadelphia where Mannequin 2 was filmed. Did you grow up there?
Stuart: Oh yeah, I lived there until I was 11, then we went to Massachusetts for about two and a half years. Then we moved back until I went to college, then we moved to New York. So I was in Philadelphia a long time. All those formative years.
Emily: A major site of filming in the movie is Wanamaker’s department store (aka Prince and Company) which is a historic landmark. What do you remember about Wanamaker’s?
Stuart: As a kid we used to go downtown…to Wanamaker’s. There was a statue with an eagle and that was a phrase in Philadelphia when people wanted to get together, “meet me at the eagle” and that meant go to Wanamaker’s, shop around, have lunch, whatever. Yeah, Wanamaker’s was a classic department store in my time. It was great to film there. We filmed there all the time.
Emily: Did you ever see the gigantic pipe organ in Wanamaker’s? I read that it was the world’s largest pipe organ.
Stuart: I did see it. When you are on the first floor the atrium goes up past two or three floors, I think the organ was tucked in the back. It was a beautiful store.
Emily: Was the whole movie filmed in Philadelphia?
Stuart: It was all Philadelphia. Mostly Wanamaker’s, a persons house, on the street (Terry and his goons filmed on the streets of Philadelphia) and Schuylkill River where I used to row as a kid. My mom was still alive then so we got to see her, my son came and we stayed near Independence Square area which is a great beautiful place to be with a lot of history. There was a set for Meschach (Hollywood Montrose) when he had the big splashy spectacular at the end. We actually went to a club with a stage and filmed it there…that was a big few days of filming. It was a really nice experience to be back in Philadelphia and film it in my hometown.
Working with Cynthia Harris: “I am Mr…Ja…Jones…”
Emily: I’m curious if you saw Mannequin before signing on to the second one?
Stuart: If I did, I don’t remember a lot about it. I remember James Spader was in it and he was really good. I think my friend Steve Vinovich had a part in it too. But I don’t remember a lot about it. I’m sure I saw it, but I’m not sure if I consciously saw it before we went to film the second one, cause they were very different. But yes, I remember it. How did Mannequin I do? What did Rotten Tomatoes think about it? (laughs)
Emily: (laughs) I don’t know I’d have to look it up, I think it did a lot better. But for me Mannequin 2 is and will always be #1! It is just the best.
Stuart: Good! I was looking at a few clips today before talking to you, and it ain’t bad you know? It’s kinda funny and the people in it—Billy Ragsdale, Kristy Swanson and Meshach Taylor and Terry Kiser—these are really skillful, wonderful people. I remember the director giving us leeway to write scenes. He literally said “…we need a scene!” The scene when I went to Cynthia Harris (who was a friend of ours) who played Billy Ragsdale’s mother. She was great—she actually babysat for our son when we were filming in Philadelphia. But the director actually came to us and said “…we need a scene,” when I go there and give her a fake name, he said “we need to punch that out, could you guys write that scene” and we did. He was very accommodating for us actors. Cynthia is a terrific lady, we have been Christmas card friends for years.
Emily: That scene you are describing is hilarious. It makes me laugh out loud every time because you are filming a video for a dating service with Cynthia Harris. You realize at some point that her son [William Ragsdale] is your employee at the department store. You then take the VHS and start pulling out the tape and then hitting it against the wall. I was gonna ask you what you remember about that.
Stuart: I thought it was really funny, I remember improvising when I was hitting the tape (it was somebody’s house) and I was banging the VHS tape against the wall. I think I chipped it, so I reached into my pocket and said “here is $10 and I will pay for it.” It was that kind of set that we had the liberties and the freedom to feel comfortable about improvising or even during the scripted acting scenes just having a nice time.
On Managerial Catch Phrases:“Make a showplace of the workplace”
Emily: You mention the late great Meschach Taylor, you have a lot of scenes with him. Anything you remember and would be wiling to share about working with him?
Stuart: Well, I just remember him being extremely funny and a nice guy, we used to eat together occasionally. He was a pro because he had done the first one. I just remember him being a nice guy, funny, that character that he played—I saw the scene of him recently where he pretended to be the army guy trying to be Butch—it was wonderful, very funny. He was terrific, died much too soon. When I saw the clips and I saw us working together I remembered how much fun it was to be with him and to work with him.
Emily: There is a scene where Terry Kiser is coming out of his little Hauptmann-Koenig plane, and the goons are there, and you’re there with Hollywood and you’re both just turning your heads to view Terry’s wart hair that’s protruding from his face. You say, “what a pleasure it is to have you hair…wart…here. What a pleasure it is to have you here!” Because no one can deal with his wart hair. In my family we still quote “what a pleasure it is to have you hair.”
Stuart: What I remember is that we filmed it at some sort of small airport, he got out of the plane and we did the scene, and again I saw it recently and was happy with it. Sometimes an actor sees himself—a lot of actors say they don’t watch themselves, I watch myself all the time (I’m too self involved not to) (laughs). It was very funny, Meshach and me we coordinated the head thing and all that, it was great. And Terry was great too.
Emily: You have all of my favorite lines in the movie including the managerial catch phrases that you say with your staff, “deplore neglect, demand respect,” “make a showplace of the workplace,” etc.
Stuart: Not to brag, but I wrote all those! I mean I put those in.
Emily: WHAT?! You did?
Stuart: Yes, I decided that might be a nice little running gag, which paid off at the end when they shoot me and I say, “I need help,” “Stop it,” [and the staff repeat the phrases instead of actually getting him help], it paid off on that. He [Director Stewart Raffill] gave me leeway to do that and I wrote all those interstitial interjections.
Emily: You mention the big scene at the end with the dance number, and there is fencing and shenanigans. You get punched in the face by Terry Kiser and then shot in the foot. Anything you remember about filming that part?
Stuart: As far as on the set it was great, I mean getting punched by Terry and getting shot and having all those repeated things with the minions. It was big production as I recall, a big stage. I don’t remember where it is but it was a big venue. Billy came down on a wire onto the stage and there was fencing and shooting—-it was a huge complicated production. There were hundreds of extras, I just remember looking around thinking, wow, this could be good! Unfortunately Rotten Tomatoes didn’t think so, but I think so!
Emily: They don’t know anything! (laughing)
Stuart: They know nothing! They’re ROTTEN! (laughing)
It’s a Wrap?: “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”
Emily: Any other days or memorable moments you remember during filming you might want to share?
Stuart: Yeah, I remember when I was finished, when I was wrapped, I went to the airport and it was a very busy travel day, they couldn’t get me on the plane. I called the production office and they got me on another plane from Philadelphia which stopped in Washington and then went on to Los Angeles. OK great, I’m done with the movie and everything. The east coast was rainy, we took off in Philly, landed in Washington, I’m sitting in the first row because they give you good seats. The door opens and a flight attendant comes in and says, “Mr. Pankin?” and I go “…Yeah?” And she says “…could you come with me you’re wanted back in Philadelphia for some work on your movie.” I went “what are you talking about?”
So I got off the plane, I think I flew back that night to Philadelphia to do a scene, it turned out to be the end scene where they were driving away in the car at the very end of the movie. I remember the room I was staying in, it wasn’t even the top floor it was leaking, rain was pouring into this hotel (I won’t say what hotel). I changed rooms because I couldn’t sleep in that room. I put a wastebasket with towels to catch the drips so I could get some sleep. I show up the next day on the set if you remember (you probably do) when we all get in the car with a bunch of people in the car and the car drives away, do you remember that scene?
Emily: Yes of course.
Stuart: They could have used a watermelon with a wig! Nobody saw my face. Nobody saw my back. Nobody saw nothin! (laughing) And they called me back to do that. Look at that scene again, you can’t see me, it doesn’t matter who I was seriously, they could’ve used a mop with a bucket on its head! So that I remember very well.
Stuart: As far as other things it was just a very pleasant shoot. I remember buying some things at Wanamaker’s for my wife because they give you a discount that was a nice perk. And just hanging around Philadelphia, being with my family was nice. It was a pleasant experience because they were nice people and Stewart Rafill was a nice guy. Of course he never cast me again, but I’ll talk to Rotten Tomatoes about him. (laughing)
Emily: I wanted to ask you a funny question. When I talk to people about Mannequin 2: On The Move, I’m always curious why they think it is subtitled “on the move.” Why do YOU think it is called “On the Move?’
Stuart: I have no idea, maybe it has to do with her being shipped from Hauptmann-Koenig to Philadelphia? Well, “on the move”—she was on the move in the movie. She was all over the place! South Street and dancing in bubble baths. But as far as why it was called “on the move,” I don’t know I mean they never consulted me about the title. (laughs)
30 Years Later: “…and that’s why it lives in you.…”
Emily: There is a fanbase for this film. I feel like it is an underground fan base but I’m curious: have fans talked to you about this movie? What do they ask you about?
Stuart: You know, I hate to disappoint you. Not a lot of people talk to me about Mannequin 2 because not that many people saw it, unfortunately. I don’t even think my son and his wife have seen it. No, not a lot of people mention it. You know Dinosaurs, which I’m involved with, has just been released on Disney+ and I’m getting alot of autograph requests on that because it is now much more out in the open than it was. And there are other things people remember me from, but not alot of people know me from Mannequin 2 or mention that to me. For better or for worse, I’d be thrilled to be remembered for it! I’m happy with the work I did and I’m happy with the movie, so I’m not gonna say “oh no, no, no, no, I wasn’t in Mannequin 2,” I would say “sure I was, thank you very much.” But they don’t, they just don’t.
Emily: This year, Mannequin 2 is having its 30th Anniversary. Describe what it is about the film that has made it so memorable and long-lasting. And things from the movie that hold up now (30 years later) and those that don’t.
Stuart: Oh that’s a tough question. What holds up: the performances hold up. I mean Meschach’s performance was memorable in both the movies, that’s why they brought him back, because he did that so well. That certainly holds up—among the fanbase I’m assuming. Sort of an iconic character that people point to. Billy and Kristy did a terrific job. Billy Ragsdale I love, I think he is a terrific actor, I’ve seen him in other things and I just think he’s really good. So is Kristy, she has had a wonderful career. Cynthia Harris has had a great career I think mostly on stage, she has done alot of stage work. People remember the performances. People when they see movies, latch onto certain things, some people remember the goons, some people remember and latch onto Terry because he was famous for…what’s the one where he died?
Emily: Weekend at Bernie’s
Stuart: Weekend At Bernie’s, yes, so they might look at him and remember that. People might remember me for something, I don’t know. [Mannequin 2] didn’t do great at the box office, but there are people like yourself where it resonates. There are movies, like I did a movie called Scavenger Hunt which a friend of mine watches every month, and it didn’t necessarily do great in the box office but people latch on to certain movies for whatever reason.
Stuart: [Mannequin 2] was kind of broad comedy and there are a lot of silly broad comedies today. It might be too silly for some people. For some “sophisticated” people (laughs). I’ve seen movies in theaters where people scream at the jokes that I wouldn’t clean off the bottom of my shoe. But that isn’t Mannequin at all. I think it’s pretty good. People react to movies and plays and television in certain ways, certain things touch them. And that’s why it lives in you, and lives in what you say is the fanbase.
What doesn’t hold up is what I said, like the broad comedy. People might not like the broad comedy. I’ve been doing comedy all my life, some of it broad, some of it not, and I think anything that is done well will be remembered positively to people who react positively to this kind of stuff. If you don’t like fights in an air balloon you’re not gonna like the movie. But if you admire the skill and technical achievements you’re gonna like it, so it’s such an individual thing. Why someone likes something, why someone doesn’t like something, what’s gonna last forever, what’s gonna be forgotten. Everyone’s guess is as good as anybody else’s.
Emily: As a younger person I saw Mannequin 2 over and over again. It was like a blanket, a comfort. And it still resonates for me and brings back all those feelings of security and safety.
Stuart: You know that’s interesting, a lot of times we see movies and we associate them with happy times. Like every movie I’ve seen with my father and when I was young. Every one. I don’t care if it’s good or bad. I love it. Because I was with my father, and I love my father. When my parents and I used to go out to the movies together, I loved those movies. So you probably maybe associate Mannequin with some time in your life that was great and that’s great!
Emily: I really like what you just said about making the connection based on who are around us in a certain time in our life.
Stuart: It’s like you eat a food and you love it, and then you realize, “oh I loved it when I was a kid with my grandmother and my mother.” You know there were these associations that really make what’s going around at the time count and memorable. Like what I said about these movies with my father, I remember many of them—they’re not great movies but I love them…Like The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner and we saw Planet of the Apes. In Massachusetts we went to see Teacher’s Pet with Clark Gable and Doris Day. And I’m sure there were others because my dad and I used to hang alot but those three I remember.
Emily: Thanks so much Stu I just really love your energy and you have so much humility and humor. It was so fun to talk to you!
Stuart: Well that’s really kind, and I appreciate it and it was a pleasure talking to you. I’m just very happy you reached out to me and happy to talk about Mannequin because I don’t get a chance to talk about [it] that much. And it was a nice time in my life filming the movie in Philadelphia with my family and with all those good actors, so thanks for bringing that up.
It’s 30 years later and much of Mannequin 2: On The Move still holds up today. Impeccable comedic performances from Meshach and Stu, and the improvising and flexibility that Stu spoke about, are classic and make the film work. The amazing absurdity of the plot that viewers are asked to accept, (why would a department store in Philadelphia care about hosting a display of an enchanted peasant girl from a tiny European country?) is awesome, niche, kitschy, and cult status perfection. Not to mention the ridiculous early ’90s soundtrack featuring such classic non-hits as Gene Miller’s “Wake Up,” Gene Miller’s “I Can’t Believe My Eyes,” Gene Miller’s “Do It For Love,” and SHOES’ “Feel the Way That I Do.” And of course a reprise of the actual hit song, Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” from the first film.
Aspects of Mannequin 2 that don’t quite hold up today: gay male stereotypes reflected in Hollywood’s character (Meshach Taylor), and the damsel in distress archetype that follows Jessie as the peasant girl/mannequin (Kristy Swanson). Yet despite these early ’90s over the top characterizations, Taylor brings authenticity, fierceness and tenderness to Hollywood, and Swanson’s depiction of Jessie shows her strong determinism to fight against all odds for her true love and for her freedom. Lest we forget that Hollywood is the mastermind behind breaking Jason out of jail and saving his life numerous times, and Jessie reverses the necklace spell onto Count Spretzle (Terry Kiser) thereby making him into a mannequin, the ultimate revenge.
As Stu and I discussed, the broad comedy moments are not for all audiences of today (hot air balloon fights, getting shot in the foot, getting punched in the nose, falling out of a moving van into a lake). At times the script is questionable at best (it went through so many rewrites and writers that it sometimes loses its way). Regardless of the shortcomings of some outdated content, the magic in this fairy tale storyline stands the test of time and spans the decades (or centuries, if you will).
After all these years, I still remember sitting in the theater with my mom, aunt and cousins on that sweltering Florida afternoon. I still remember the shirt I was wearing, the previews I saw, and how we all laughed until we cried. I’m 38 now and rewatching this film is just as exciting and hilarious as it was all those decades ago. Mannequin 2 still makes my heart smile. It brings me back to that time of my childhood and in each rewatch, I’m taken to the fantastical land of possibility, of true love winning over evil. To a simpler and more predictable time, when we took family trips together and ate copiously buttered popcorn and family-sized Junior Mints just because we could.
My conversation with Stu turned into an opportunity for both of us to reflect on our childhoods and memories of seeing films with our families. As Stu remarked, “…we see movies and we associate them with happy times.” Nostalgia and meaning making are self defined; so whether you are watching silly films like Mannequin 2 or Teacher’s Pet or something more serious, it doesn’t matter. What makes a movie enjoyable is of course subjective, but for us, it had to do with who we were with, and what parts of the story resonated for us, not how well the movie did in the box office (or what Rotten Tomatoes had to say about it!). The plot, the acting, the reverence of the film is less important than the sentiment. What is most important is the connection you have to characters, the way you felt watching it, and the people who were with you, when you saw it. That’s what holds up the most.