Film and TV

The 30th Anniversary: How Phoenix Played a Role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Get ready for a most excellent adventure through time.
Get ready for a most excellent adventure through time. Ward Sutton
Editor's note: To commemorate our upcoming virtual screening of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure this Thursday, April 16, we are rerunning our cover story from February 2019 that highlighted the Valley locations where the comedy was filmed. For more details on this week's screening, click here.

Strange things are still afoot at the Circle K at the corner of Southern Avenue and Hardy Drive in Tempe. At first glance, it resembles any of the convenience chain’s hundreds of other locations of throughout the Valley. To fans of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, however, it’s a shrine to the legendary science-fiction comedy film, which premiered on February 17, 1989.

Three decades ago, the store was prominently featured in the movie, which depicted lovable idiots and high school students Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, respectively played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. They traveled through time to kidnap icons like Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Arc to help ace their oral history report and avoid flunking out. (If they didn’t, their rock band, Wyld Stallyns, wouldn’t be able to transform the earth into a future utopia, or something.)

The Circle K in Tempe became a Circle K in Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California, where they encounter their guide and mentor Rufus, played by the late George Carlin, and begin their excellent adventure through time. (The setting led to one of the movie’s most iconic lines, delivered by Reeves: “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.”)

Just as the movie’s time machine, a phone booth, descended from the sky, fans of the film still descend upon the store a few times a week. Some come dressed as the characters from the movie, including Bill and Ted and Rufus. Others just want to get photos to post on Instagram or other social media platforms or re-enact scenes from the movie, including asking the store’s employees if they know when the Mongols ruled China.

click to enlarge Alex Winter (left) and Keanu Reeves on location at the Circle K in Tempe in 1987. - PHILLIP CARUSO
Alex Winter (left) and Keanu Reeves on location at the Circle K in Tempe in 1987.
Phillip Caruso
Joe Molina, a clerk at the store, has answered that question many times over the past five years during his encounters with Bill & Ted fans.

“Oh, yes, they always ask me that and I always hit them back with the next line, ‘I don’t know, I just work here,’” he says. “There was a dude standing outside with a Bill & Ted shirt on and holding a flashlight while he was telling the whole story, like the entire plot of the movie for a vlog-type of thing he was filming.”

The Circle K is one of several Valley locations that were used in the movie, which was filmed from February to April 1987. Places like Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa, Coronado High School in Scottsdale, the AMF Village Lanes in Tempe, and Metrocenter in north Phoenix became the San Dimas stomping grounds of Bill and Ted.

So why did the film’s producers come to the Valley three decades ago? According to Rick Rothen, a location manager on the film, it was partly because of tax breaks the state was offering Hollywood productions at the time, which also enticed flicks like Raising Arizona. And given Bill & Ted’s relatively small budget — either $6.5 or $10 million, depending on the source — the tax savings came in handy.

click to enlarge The late George Carlin as Rufus at the Circle K in Tempe. - PHILLIP CARUSO
The late George Carlin as Rufus at the Circle K in Tempe.
Phillip Caruso
Connie Hoy, the film’s key production assistant and former Valley resident, says that Phoenix also had the benefit of looking like a lot of other places.

“It makes for a good backdrop. It looks a lot like [California], which helped out since a lot of the movie is set there,” she says. “There was a great crew base there, too. People were flocking to Arizona to shoot movies, because it was only an hour away [by plane], too. If anything went wrong with anything, you just put a piece of gear on an America West flight and pick it up in three hours.”

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a sleeper hit, grossing more than $40 million in the U.S., spawning a sequel, a Saturday morning cartoon, comic books, video games, and even a breakfast cereal. It was also a breakthrough film for Winters and especially Reeves. Eons before he was wasting bad guys in John Wick or The Matrix, Reeves played a high school wastoid with dreams of rock ’n’ roll stardom and uttered his first “Woah!” in the Valley.

And when he wasn’t filming, Hoy says, Reeves was rocking out like his character. “Keanu was totally into his music then, playing bass, not [a rhythm] guitar, in his trailer for hours,” she says.

Reeves was also partying on, dudes, including hitting up bars in Tempe, the home base for the production.

“The main hotel [that most of] the cast and crew was at was the old Holiday Inn near Tony’s New Yorker and we’d saunter over and stumble home. I would still have to drive home to 32nd and Shea and wake up in four hours and be the first person to hand out the walkies in the morning. It was long hours, but it was a blast,” Hoy says. “We may have even dragged Keanu and Alex to The Mason Jar [a landmark Phoenix rock bar back then].”

click to enlarge Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves clown around behind the scenes. - PHILLIP CARUSO
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves clown around behind the scenes.
Phillip Caruso
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was heavily influenced by rock ’n’ roll. The soundtrack was filled with metal bands of the era.

Legendary musicians Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, Martha Davis of The Motels, and onetime Valley resident Fee Waybill of The Tubes played a trio of elders from the future. Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s starred as Joan of Arc.

“I was so stoked, like her first day she was arriving, being a young punk rock fan and eventually having my own band in Phoenix,” Hoy says about Wiedlin. “Knowing that she was going to be there, along with the three elders … that was such a moment to witness. The plot was even about rock, because, essentially, Bill and Ted are musicians and they changed the world with their music.”

Three decades after the film’s release, Bill and Ted are still rocking on. A threequel, Bill & Ted Face the Music, is currently in production. (Sadly, producers reportedly won’t be filming any scenes in the Valley, despite what you might have read online.)

In honor of this week’s 30th anniversary of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, we’re taking our own trip through time and looking back at some of the locations that were used in the film and what they’re like today. We also spoke with some of the folks involved with the filming — neither of the stars returned requests for interviews — and got memories of the experience.

Read on and party on, dudes.

click to enlarge Stuntmen from the production of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure at Carefree Studios in 1987. - PHILLIP CARUSO
Stuntmen from the production of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure at Carefree Studios in 1987.
Phillip Caruso
Film Locations: Wild West Town and Future San Dimas
Valley Location: Carefree Studios, 32331 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

The old-school Carefree Studios in what’s now north Scottsdale hosted its share of famous names over the years. Dick Van Dyke filmed a sitcom there in the 1970s, roughly during the same era that Bob Hope starred in his final feature film, Cancel My Reservation.

And for a few days in late March 1987, the crew of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure used the now-defunct studio, which burned down in 1999 and is currently The Summit shopping center.

click to enlarge The future elders from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (from left): Martha Davis, Clarence Clemons, and Fee Waybill. - PHILIP CARUSO
The future elders from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (from left): Martha Davis, Clarence Clemons, and Fee Waybill.
Philip Caruso
Scenes where the duo recruit Billy the Kid in 1879 were shot in Carefree Studios’ outdoor western town. Its indoor facilities were transformed into San Dimas in the year 2688, which is where Bill and Ted meet future elders played by Clemons, Wade, and Waybill.

“We chose it because it had the western town attached, and it had the size of the stage that [the producers] wanted, and it was an economical choice for them,” Rothen says. “For me it was easy, because it was pretty self-contained, and you didn’t have to deal with exterior issues. It was relaxed and it was a beautiful day to shoot. So my job was easier.”

click to enlarge The location used for Ted's house. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
The location used for Ted's house.
Benjamin Leatherman
Film Location: Ted’s House
Valley Location: 1841 East Berridge Lane
Film Location: Bill’s House
Valley Location: 112 West Kaler Drive

Rothen told Phoenix New Times that the production paid two local homeowners for the use of their homes for filming.

“When we were shooting at each one at night, we put them up in a hotel for a couple of nights. When we did exterior shots when they were home, they would just parked their car around the corner somewhere," he says. "It was customary to move people out if you were using their home at night and pay for a hotel for a few days.”

Ted’s house is located in an upscale neighborhood near Bethany Home Road and State Route 51. Meanwhile, Bill’s place is off of Central and Northern avenues in midtown Phoenix.

“There are some prep days that involve set-dressing the bedroom to make them look like it would be Bill's bedroom, including painting it, Rothen says. “And if the owners liked it, they got to keep the paint as part of the location deal.”

Screengrab from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Film Location: Zyggies
Valley Location: ShowBiz Pizza, 8039 North 35th Avenue (now Chuck E. Cheese)

Early versions of the script for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure featured a scene of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was kidnapped in the film, pigging out at a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. Rothen attempted to secure one of the now-defunct chain’s Valley locations.

“Farrell’s was a real place at the time, and we wanted it to be there since they had thing called ‘The Trough,’ which was like a pig’s trough,” he says. “And if you ate it all, which I did once, you got a ribbon that said, ‘I made a pig of myself at Farrell’s.’ So that’s where the inspiration for that scene came from.”

The location didn’t pan out, though. “We couldn’t find a Farrell’s for shooting, so that’s why we wound up searching for somewhere else,” Rothen says.

click to enlarge The arcade inside Chuck E. Cheese in Phoenix. - GOOGLE MAPS
The arcade inside Chuck E. Cheese in Phoenix.
Google Maps
The production eventually settled on the west Valley location of ShowBiz Pizza Place, a kiddie-friendly pizza chain that had just as much colorful whimsy as Farrell’s. It became Zyggies in the movie, which — like its inspiration — rewarded customers (in this case, Napoleon) who gluttonously devoured mass quantities of ice cream with a ribbon and the title of “Zyggie Piggie.” (Bill & Ted screenwriters Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson play waiters who present Napoleon with the award).

The west-side ShowBiz Pizza became a Chuck E. Cheese location in the early ’90s and is still open for business as of this writing. You can even get ice cream there (well, Dippin Dots, at least) albeit in more reasonable portions.

Screengrab from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Film Location: San Dimas High School (exterior shots)
Valley Location: Coronado High School, 7501 East Virginia Avenue, Scottsdale

Unlike a few other locations on this list, Coronado High in Scottsdale is still around, but it bears little resemblance to the version of the school seen in the movie, which doubled as San Dimas High School for exterior shots. (It’s not the only time Coronado has been seen on the silver screen; scenes in the 1985 teen flick Just One of the Guys were also filmed here.)

According to its website, Coronado High underwent a vast remodeling in the mid-aughts, which removed and redesigned much of its structures that were created by famed mid-century architect Ralph Haver. Sadly, that includes the auditorium that Bill and Ted stroll past early on in the movie. The school’s iconic “Seven Arts” mosaic mural, which was created by local artist Joe Gatti and is seen in the film, still exists. It was moved, piece by piece, to Coronado’s Performing Arts Center.

click to enlarge The grounds of Coronado High School in Scottsdale. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
The grounds of Coronado High School in Scottsdale.
Benjamin Leatherman
Actor Will Robbins played lunkhead jock Ox (the character who ended his oral history report by shouting, “San Dimas High School football rules!”). He has fond memories of shooting at Coronado High.

“It was a fun set. We never really knew at the time how big Alex and Keanu would become; they were just two really cool guys who would hang out,” Robbins says. “I had just bought a new motorcycle, a [Kawasaki] GPZ750 Turbo, and Keanu was really into motorcycles at the time ... still is, obviously. I think I got chewed out by the director [Stephen Herek] for letting Keanu ride my motorcycle in the parking lot in between takes.”

Coronado High’s connection with Bill & Ted has reportedly become a source of pride for its staff and alumni. As a matter of fact, the school will host a 30th-anniversary screening of the film on February 22.

Screengrab from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Film Location: San Dimas High School (interior shots)
Valley Location: East High School, 515 North 48th Street

The climax of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure comes when the two heroes deliver an epic oral report featuring the collection of kidnapped historical figures. It was a most triumphant moment for the slackers, allowing them to (spoiler alert) pass history class, save Ted from military school, and keep their band, Wyld Stallyns, rocking on.

And it all went down (in the real world, at least) inside long-defunct East High School’s auditorium. Back in 1987, production utilized buildings and classrooms at the school, which had been abandoned a few years earlier. (The property is now an enormous warehouse.) “It had closed down by the time we got there so we had the run of the place,” Rothen says.

A slew of extras were used for the auditorium scene to portray the students of San Dimas High. Former Valley resident Marilyn Whitelaw-Rothmund, a film student as Arizona State University at the time, was one of them. It was cool, she told Phoenix New Times in a Facebook chat, if occasionally a tad tedious.

“I was there for about three hours while they filmed us and had us jumping up wildly from time to time,” she says. “It was amusing, but boring, too. Lots of hurry up and wait, but I already knew that from making my own short films.”

click to enlarge The property in east Phoenix that was the former location of East High School - GOOGLE MAPS
The property in east Phoenix that was the former location of East High School
Google Maps
One of the memorable moments from the auditorium scene was when Abraham Lincoln told the crowd to “Party on, dudes!” Whitelaw-Rothmund watched it filmed over and over and over.

“I remember we had to jump up and clap and scream each time Lincoln said that line. We did it many times,” she says. “Mostly we were confused what was going on, I mean as far as the text/dialogue. They only told us the basic situation but we didn’t know about any other parts of the film, you know? So it was confusing. But we all laughed and got into it best we could.”

Shooting at East High had another benefit, Rothen says. “That’s when we discovered Honey Bear’s [BBQ],” he says. “They had just opened up nearby, and the crew loved that place. The owner was very nice and personally came over and catered our second meals if we went long.”

According to Honey Bear’s owner Mark Smith, it was a fun experience for him, too.

“Sometimes they would call us and we would go wherever they asked us to go; sometimes they’d come into the store,” he says. “I was in awe of everything because working on a movie was all new to me, and I was just getting started, so I thought I was really doing something.”

Screengrab from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure

Film Location: San Dimas Bowling Alley
Valley Location: AMF Tempe Village Lanes, 4407 South Rural Road, Tempe

They don’t tolerate deadbeats at this bowling alley, both in real life and within the universe of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In the film, Ted’s little brother is killing time at a San Dimas bowling joint, babysitting Napoleon. He ghosts the diminutive French historical figure when he proves to be an insufferable cad and lout. As a result, Napoleon winds up getting stuck with the check, and thanks to the language barrier, is tossed out on his ear.

Tempe Village Lanes was the location for the scene. The production spent a single evening filming there.

Hoy says it was fun watching actor Terry Camilleri chew the scenery as Napoleon, including taking a buffoonish pratfall into a bowling lane while tossing a gutter ball. “Terry was great; he was really game for anything involved with the role. As an actor, he was really into it,” Hoy says. “I kind of equated him to Dudley Moore in a way, just this little funny guy.”

Village Lanes is still open and remains one of the area’s most popular bowling alleys. And, according to its staff, you still can’t get away with ducking out on the bill, even if you’re a legendary French general with aspirations of conquering Europe.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.