Pee Wee's Playhouse
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At the very end of the first Pee-wee Herman Show, Paul Reubens' original early-1980s stage revue, the hero finally gets his one true wish: to fly. As he zips through the air courtesy of intentionally cheesy special effects, the campy mood suddenly turns unexpectedly touching. "Wow," says Pee-wee in genuine awe, "I'm the luckiest boy in the world!"
He might still be, if Reubens hadn't walked into that adult movie theater on the evening of Friday, July 26, 1991. Nothing brings a star crashing to earth like the words sex scandal, and this particular scandal—a kid-show host charged with exposing himself in a porno theater—looked like a career killer of the first order. Banishment, disgrace, and permanent pop-cultural ignominy seemed guaranteed.
But this time public reaction has been notably different. Pro-Pee-wee rallies have been held, celebrities and common folk alike have voiced their support, and a special Entertainment Weekly poll finds a surprisingly high percentage of people feeling that the actor has been maltreated by both the law and the media.
When even the staid New York Times backs Pee-wee Herman on the editorial page, it's tough not to admit that something unusual is taking place here—something as unusual as Pee-wee himself and the skewed affection many Americans suddenly realize they've had for him all along.
The simple facts of what happened that Friday night in Reubens' hometown of Sarasota, Fla., are familiar by now. According to the county sheriff's office, three detectives went to the XXX South Trail Cinema to watch the audience that was watching a triple bill of Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy, and Turn Up the Heat. After the sting operation had hauled in three men on charges of violating Florida State Statute 800.03, Exposure of Sexual Organs, Det. William Walters allegedly saw a man "masterbate"—that's how the rap sheet spells it—in the darkened theater at 8:25 p.m. and again at 8:35. Placed under arrest upon leaving the theater, the alleged offender quietly told the detectives his famous pseudonym and, according to the police, made a novel, Pee-wee-esque attempt at a buy-off: He offered to perform a children's benefit for the sheriff's office if the charges were dropped. (A department spokesman said that "the deputies did not feel at that time that they had enough probable cause" to charge Reubens with attempted bribery.) A local reporter recognized Reubens' name on the arrest sheet the next day, and within hours the scandal machinery was roaring at full throttle.
With mug shots that made him look like Twin Peaks' Killer Bob, Reubens overshadowed the Moscow summit on many front pages. The mortified actor released a statement on July 29 protesting that though he was in the theater, he in no way exposed himself or "engaged in any other improper activities." He then went into seclusion until his Aug. 9 arraignment. If found guilty, he faces up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
The immediate reaction followed a predictable pattern. Pee-wee jokes tumbled out of Wall Street at a dizzying pace, while psychologists went on the record with the best way to break the news to children. Montreal child psychologist Jeffrey Derevensky said children should be told that "(Pee-wee) is an adult, and while he can play children's parts on television, he's interested in some adult things." And then the damage control itself grew damaging:
On July 29, CBS announced that it was pulling the five remaining reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse.
The same day, Disney-MGM Studios in Florida suspended from its studio tour a tape in which Pee-wee explains how voice-over tracks are made.
On July 30, it was reported that Toys-R-Us was removing Pee-wee toys from its stores, but as the Herman fad had peaked three years ago, few were left on the shelves."It's not like something happened with Cabbage Patch," said Toys- R-Us spokeswoman Angela Bourdon. "Then we'd have a problem.."
At the same time that Pee-wee product was being banished, however, some celebrities came to the star's defense. Bill Cosby, whose Fat Albert show and Jell-O spots made him a family cult-hero years before Cosby, released a statement saying that "Whatever (Reubens has) done, this is being blown all out of proportion." Longtime friend (and voice of the Playhouse theme song) Cyndi Lauper blasted the charge as a "victimless occurrence."
Even more unusual was that the public came to Pee-wee's defense in surprising numbers. A spokesman for the syndicated TV program A Current Affair said the show had received "tens of thousands" of responses to a Pee-wee telephone survey on July 31, and that the callers supported Reubens 9 to 1 with recorded messages like "We have sons his age and these things happen."
Then the rallies began. To protest CBS' pulling the plug, several dozen vocal Pee-weeites picketed in L.A. and New York on Aug. 2, and 250 demonstrated in San Francisco the following day (a second Manhattan rally was planned for later in the week). David Burke, 25, a political consultant and organizer of the San Francisco "Hands Off Our Pee-wee Rally," summed up the protesters' annoyance when he told Entertainment Weekly, "Look, Pee-wee Herman made (CBS) millions of dollars the past few years…(Now) he stands accused of something and they were ready to sell him down the river."
The message "WE (love) U PEE-WEE!," sprayed in hot-pink letters on the exterior of Sarasota's South Trail Cinema on the night of Aug. 1, suggests that some people in Paul Reubens' hometown are with him as well. Even Capt. Terry Lewis of the Sarasota sheriff's office says, "I sure hope things work out for old Pee-wee." The actor was visiting his parents, Milton and Judy Rubenfeld, when his troubles occurred, which may explain why he went to a theater instead of renting an adult video for the family VCR.
Although born in Peekskill, N.Y., in 1952, Paul Rubenfeld grew up in Sarasota, where his parents ran a lamp store and where Paul and his younger siblings, Abby (now an attorney active in gay-rights issues) and Luke, put on shows in the family basement. After graduating from Sarasota High in 1970, he logged a year at Boston University before finding his niche at the California Institute of Arts at Valencia in 1971.
By the late '70s, with his last name shaved down to Reubens, the would-be actor was capable of almost anything if he thought it might get him a break—including several heavily disguised appearances on The Gong Show in a vain attempt to win Worst Act of the Week (it didn't work; he won Best Act of the Week instead). Soon he was part of the Groundlings, an innovative comedy troupe that is to L.A. what Second City is to Chicago, and began finding small, twisted roles in The Blues Brothers and Cheech and Chong comedies. His star was about to rise, but whether struggling or triumphant, Reubens remained close to his circle of friends in Sarasota.
One of the closest of those friends is Cpl. Joan Verizzo of the Sarasota sheriff's department, who has known Reubens for 22 years. When the actor, $40 shy of meeting his $219 bail on the night of his arrest, asked his old friend for help, Verizzo gladly pitched in—and received a day's suspension for breaking departmental policy against posting bail for anybody except family.
All this sympathy raises a possibility that seemed unthinkable a week or so ago: Could Pee-wee's Big Misadventure turn out to be the career wrecker that wasn't? The groundswell of support is an indication that, in the 11 years between his creation of Pee-wee and his extended sabbatical last spring, Reubens connected with audiences in a way few performers have—especially performers so patently bizarre.
What made Reubens' character special was that he was more than a kid-show host, or a pop-culture oddity, or a tongue-in-cheek, time-warped fusion of Pinky Lee and the bratty kid next door. He was all of these at once. Anarchic, creative, obnoxious, and liberating, Pee-wee appealed to all sorts: to kids and to parents; to mainstream stars like David Letterman, and to maverick artists like Batman director Tim Burton and Playhouse designer Gary Panter. Pee-wee struck a chord with any perplexed soul who has ever echoed his famous cry, "I know you are, but what am I?"
There are more of them out there than one might think. When Reubens created Pee-wee in 1979, the character was just another Groundlings oddball. Audiences flipped for Pee-wee, though, and soon the Groundlings were staging The Pee-wee Herman Show to enthusiastic midnight crowds. HBO taped the show in 1982 (it's available on video), and Pee-wee began baffling audiences nationwide via guest spots on NBC's Late Night With David Letterman.
At that point, he still seemed to most people an inexplicable show-biz freak. That all changed with 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the feature film debut for Herman and director Burton. Adventure cost $6 million to make, opened to uncomprehending reviews—and stunned Hollywood by grossing $45 million. All of a sudden, Pee-wee Herman was a cult figure with a mass following. And they loved him in France.
Reubens used his newfound respectability to get Pee-wee's Playhouse off the ground. Debuting on CBS in 1986 to critical acclaim, eventually winning 16 Emmys and carving out a solid ratings niche, Playhouse will always be remembered as one of the few bright lights in the history of Saturday-morning programming, taking place in a universe that Rolling Stone likened to "the collision of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with a raspberry-and-lime Jell-O mold constructed by Disney technicians recovering from Taiwan flu."
Then there were the Pee-wee toys and clothes, a merchandising bonanza that generated more than $25 million at its peak in 1988. Reubens reportedly oversaw this mini-empire with incredible attention to detail, sending the Pee-wee doll back to the drawing board eight times.
Behind the Playhouse scenes, too, the head honcho's perfectionism was legendary. Phillip Trumbo, who directed Playhouse segments for the show's first season, thinks his boss' "persnickety" approach paid off. "(The 'Dinosaur Family' segments) probably had more revisions than anything I've ever worked on professionally," he says, "but it won an Emmy."
Even more remarkable was the engagingly tolerant mindset insisted upon by the show's star. Reubens said repeatedly that through Playhouse he was "just trying to illustrate (to kids) that it's okay to be different — not that it's good, not that it's bad, but that it's all right."
That misfit's manifesto may be the key to understanding why people are sticking up for Pee-wee in his time of trouble. Playhouse made clear that underneath Reubens' whacked-out stage persona beat the gentle, genuine heart of a lost boy. "There's something fragile and non-lasting about the image he projects," said Wayne White, another Playhouse designer, in 1987, "and that gives it another power, also, besides the weird freak-out quality."
Pee-wee's special quality isn't the only reason much of the public hasn't rushed to pillory him. Many people feel that the alleged crime—of which Reubens is still innocent until proven otherwise—is hardly heinous. As E.G. Daily, his love interest in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, told Entertainment Weekly, "This could be a blessing in disguise for him. Maybe it will make people see him as a normal sexual human being."
The irony is that a desire to live "normally" is apparently what prompted Reubens to give up the successful but narrow character that had taken over his life. He once told Newsweek that he didn't "want to be a 50-year-old man with a really bad toupee and a face-lift doing this." That may be why he declined to sign a new television contract last spring, quit giving interviews, and went traveling. That may be why he grew his hair and beard out the way he'd had it back in the '70s (what a relief that must have been after a decade of Pee-wee's dippity 'do). Fans have shown in the last two weeks that they want to see Pee-wee Herman sail into the future on his way-cool bike, just as he did at the end of every Playhouse episode. But the question remains: even if Paul Reubens achieves that happy ending, will it be the one he wants?
His own lawyer may have promptly declared Paul Reubens' career dead, but according to a Gallup poll commissioned by Entertainment Weekly, the American public hasn't rushed to judgment so quickly. Of the 500 adults Gallup surveyed after Reubens' arrest, fewer than one-third think that Pee-wee's movies and TV series should be off-limits to children, and by a 3-to-2 margin, the parents we asked have no problem with letting their kids watch his shows.
While Pee-wee's future looks brighter than many predicted a very short time ago, the poll respondents also drew a clear distinction between his on-camera and off-camera styles: Only 21 percent described themselves as "sympathetic" to Reubens personally after his arrest. But the public's opinion of Pee-wee's many attackers is also harsh: Nearly 40 percent think the actor is getting a raw deal from the media, while only 30 percent think the press has given him a fair shake. Thirty-six percent also say CBS was wrong to pull the last five reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse, and fewer than half think that the Sarasota sheriff's department treated Reubens fairly.
The men in our poll were more likely to forgive and forget than the women, and among people under 30, support for Reubens was especially strong. So it seems possible that Pee-wee may not have to retire that red bow tie after all, but if he should decide to call it quits, he can take heart in the fact that an astounding 96 percent of the American public knows his name. With that kind of fame and infamy, he can always run for office.
Did CBS act fairly in canceling reruns of Pee-wee's Playhouse?
Would you let your children watch a Pee-wee Herman movie or TV show?
Pee Wee's Playhouse
By Mark Harris and Ty Burr