KEENE -- A few hours after hearing of Robin Williams’ death, a small group gathered at the Parrish Shoes sign downtown, lit candles and remembered the actor and comic who is forever tied to the city by the movie “Jumanji.”
The sign was painted on a brick building downtown as part of the 1995 film and has remained as a fond reminder to residents.
“Before our Pumpkin Festival, “Jumanji” really put Keene on the map and Keene really owes Robin Williams a debt of gratitude,” resident Steve Lindsey said Tuesday.
Keene City Council member Randy L. Filiault said that hearing Monday of Williams’ death by suicide was “like somebody just punched me in the gut. It really just knocked the wind out of me.”
Filiault was on a sub-committee that dealt with sidewalk and street closures during the filming of “Jumanji.”
“This was unique because they were requesting large street shutdowns,” Filiault said. “It was very routine to that point, until they mentioned Robin Williams.”
Though some filming also took place in Swanzey as well as Canada and Maine, downtown Keene exteriors were used to establish the look of the small New Hampshire town where “Jumanji” was set.
Filiault said he took a week’s vacation and spent time on the set. He met Williams and other “Jumanji” stars Bonnie Hunt and Kirsten Dunst and attended the city ceremony at which Williams was given the key to the city.
Bob Lund worked at a Keene radio station, WKBK, at the time.
“Back then, WKBK had its studios on Lamson Street downtown. I remember looking out of the window in the newsroom on the second floor. I was looking north over the bank parking lot. I was maybe 200 feet from West Street. For most of the morning, you could see Robin running on West Street toward Central Square. ... He was quite a sight in tattered clothing. Obviously they were shooting multiple takes for the movie.”
Lund also remembers the keys to the city ceremony fondly. Bill Lynch was mayor at the time and presented Williams with the keys.
“Bill wasn’t the tallest person in the world,” Filiault said.
Williams looked at the keys, then at Lynch and back again. Then, in a Munchkin voice, Williams said, “Thanks for the keys to Munchkin City,” Filiault and Lund said.
For the next 15 minutes, Williams continued with his Munchkin speech in an impromptu performance.
Everyone was rolling in the aisles, Filiault said, adding: “Probably the most entertaining experience I’ve had.”
Filiault said about 15 minutes before the ceremony, the City Council Chambers was packed with people. Williams was sitting in a corner of the room with about 20 children gathered around him. He sat talking with the children and wouldn’t let any adults shoo them away. This is what sticks with Filiault — Williams’ generosity and patience.
“It was a real, real fun time back then,” Filiault said. “It was a great time and I feel like I’ve lost a best friend.”
Dave Eisenstadter was 12 when “Jumanji” came to Keene. Like most kids in the area, he didn’t meet Williams but was affected by the filming of the movie.
“Robin Williams holds a special place in my heart, and the fact that he visited my hometown of Keene while filming ‘Jumanji’ is one of the biggest reasons why. I was in the seventh grade when the movie was being shot and the excitement surrounding it was palpable. When it finally came out, and we all saw Robin Williams running around trying to save our downtown, he became like an honorary Keene citizen,” Eisenstadter said. “Everyone in the county owned a copy of the movie and many of us bought the crappy board game as well. A mural of the fictional Parrish Shoe Company from the movie can still be seen in Central Square, and I know I always look at it with pride. Robin Williams was our celebrity, and that distinction led me to watch and love and be inspired by many of his other movies.”