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Charlie and the chocolate factory

Charlie Messier, that is

SHREWSBURY -- There's a Charlie in this chocolate factory, all right. Only he's not the gold-ticketed, sweetly altruistic lad who provides Tim Burton's darkly comic film ''Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" with its creamy moral center.

This Charlie -- Charles Messier, 71, a retired Worcester Telegram & Gazette photoengraver who conducts tours of the Hebert Candies Mansion three days a week -- is molded more in the image of Willie Wonka, factory proprietor: a little sugary, a little sour, a little brittle, a little nutty.

All in good fun, to be sure. Because, seriously, whom would you expect to be guiding impressionable children around a plant churning out candy bars and fudge pies? Alan Greenspan?

Listen in, then, as Charlie leads a group of Western Massachusetts school kids on a factory tour one recent weekday morning.

''Last week, we had to empty this tank to clean it," he tells the boys and girls as they converge around a pair of mixing tanks, each containing 22,000 pounds of molten chocolate heated to a gooey 110 degrees.

''So, we put a young guy, maybe 17 years old, into one of the tanks to lick it clean," continues Charlie, deadpan. Meanwhile, the children are inhaling factory fumes so chocolaty, they ought to be tested for diabetes on their way out.

''Now, how do I say this?" Charlie says. ''I was holding this kid by the ankles, like I'm going to hold -- what's your name, son? Greg? -- Greg here, when he slipped out of my hands and . . ."

Well, you can just imagine the rest.

Naturally, nobody believes Charlie for a minute. Least of all Greg, a thoughtful sixth-grader who obviously knows when his taffy is being pulled. His chances of being dropped into the tank are roughly the same as the odds Johnny Depp will fish him out.

Then again, nobody believed Charlie, either, when he threatened to administer a written test at the end of the tour. (''I'm going to ask you a bunch of hard questions," Charlie warns. ''And if you don't know the answers, I'm going to laugh at you.")

Or explained the origins of chocolate milk. (''There's the world's ugliest cow out back, see. Every morning I bring her a big bucket of chocolate syrup to drink, then I pick her up and twirl her over my head like this . . .")

Or indicated there were Oompa-Loompas working back in the storeroom, out of sight if not out of tune. (''You're lying!" shouted one pint-sized visitor, apparently unaware that when Willie Wonka gets yelled at like this, bad things happen.)

If anything, this Charlie makes that other Charlie seem like a mature, level-headed literalist.

''I'm in no way informative," Messier confides to a reporter as the group files by on its way into the factory. ''All my figures are erroneous. I haven't told the truth for five years."

So why moonlight in a chocolate factory, he is asked.

''Because," he says with a wink, ''it's the only place that would hire me Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays."

In reality -- a tenuous concept when applied to candy factories, admittedly -- Hebert's method of making chocolate bars, novelty items, and other such confections is almost nothing like the operation Burton and crew conjure up in their psychedelic adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel.

In Burton's version, the high-tech and retro are blended into a futuristic ghost ship of an operation run by dancing dwarfs and anti-gravity machinery. Rivers of chocolate run through it, and lollipops grow on trees. As the film reveals, though, most notably in the case of Wonka himself, scary secrets lie deep within.

Experiments go awry. Trained squirrels attack. Young egos get crushed -- shrunken and flattened, too. It's symbolic that young Charlie Bucket, the film's hero, builds himself a facsimile of the Wonka factory out of broken toothpaste-tube tops. Underneath the marshmallow frosting of Wonkaland lies -- for some, at least -- a world of pain.

By comparison, the Herbert Candies factory, attached to a Tudor-style stone house bought by the Hebert family in 1946, is as sweetly conventional as a plain milk-chocolate bar. Started by Frederic Hebert, a Frenchman (''manufacturer de bonbons" as he's known in company literature) in his Fitchburg garage in 1917, the candy company was three decades old when it moved into the mansion post-World War II. Not a great deal has changed since then. Imagine the 1952 ''I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy and Ethel take jobs in a candy factory, and you've pretty much got the picture.

''This is probably one of the oldest molding machines in existence," says vice president of manufacturing Charles Teixera, patting a Carle & Montanari machine that rattles and clanks as it dispatches trays of molded chocolate toward the wrapping area. Teixera's proudest creation, he says, was an 18-pound chocolate bunny produced for the Easter holiday, the busiest season at the mansion (Christmas and Halloween are second and third).

The bunny retailed for $259. Inserted into the Burton film, it might spring to life and consume a family of four.

Upwards of 60,000 pounds of chocolate pour through the factory each week, according to Teixera. Leading his own tour for a reporter's benefit, he notes that factory rooms, separated by plastic sheets, are kept extra cool or superheated depending on what process they house. Even the manufacturing signage (''Peanut Butter Only!") conveys an air of sweet simplicity.

''We have over 500 different molds," Teixera boasts. ''Turtles, golf balls, rabbits, hockey sticks, you name it."

In this real-life candyland, kids rule. Just as they do (sort of) in the ''Charlie" version.

With retail stores in Boston, Bolton, Sterling, and East Longmeadow, Hebert spreads its candy far and wide. At its Shrewsbury headquarters, though, kids can even attend Candy Camps, where they can make their own confections for a modest fee of $10.95. Birthday parties, concerts, after-school programs, and antique car shows are also held on the mansion grounds. Visitors can pile on goodies at the ice-cream sundae buffet or browse the gift shop. In a corner of the building devoted to company history are autographed photos of Larry King and Chubby Checker. The latter has lent his his name to a licorice-and-chocolate Hebert candy called -- what else? -- the Twist.

To June Chamberlain, one of the grown-ups who's chaperoning the kids from Western Massachusetts, all those details are well and good, like chocolate sprinkles on a sundae. But the real motive behind visiting the mansion this day is plumbing the difference between fantasy and reality.

''Part of our goal," says Chamberlain, standing in the Candy Camp room, ''is to compare 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' with the previous movie and the book. We'll also use it to design math and reading exercises."

Visiting the mansion and getting a tour from Charlie is a fun way to approach concepts such as weights and measurements, she says. Even if Oompa-Loompas and candy-cane forests are nowhere to be seen.

''We live in the sticks," a smiling Chamberlain says, ''so it's a big deal to be in a factory like this."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached by email at jkahn@globe.com.

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