Remembering Paul Reubens
At the end of July, the surprising news came of the passing of actor and comedian Paul Reubens, the brilliant mind who portrayed and created Pee-Wee Herman. The news absolutely devastated me and countless others who all grew up watching the iconic Saturday morning show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” Reubens had been battling cancer for six years, something he kept to himself, not evening telling most, if any, of his friends.
I absolutely loved Pee-Wee Herman as a kid, and even today Pee-Wee holds a special place in my heart. Some of my earliest memories are of running from my bedroom, down the hallway, to the living room, when I’d hear the start of the theme to the “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” When the series was remastered into high definition a few years ago, it was such a treat to see the magical, colorful, vibrant world of the playhouse come to life all over again.
Reubens conceived of the character during his time with Los Angeles’s legendary improv theater The Groundlings, where among his peers with another iconic character, comedian Casandra Peterson, best known to the world as Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The character of Pee-Wee was just one of many Reubens would do during shows at the Groundlings’ theater. Eventually, he had the idea to spin the character off into a stage show, “The Pee-Wee Herman Show” which was done as a special late-night show on weekends.
The stage show, which was essentially like a more adult-humor-oriented test run for what became “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” was a massive hit, eventually becoming so big it was transferred from The Groundlings’ Theater to the much larger, Roxy Club—where the first American run of the stage version of “Rocky Horror” was done in the ‘70s. This production at the Roxy was recorded for a TV special on HBO, and from that was born one of the greatest movies of all time, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
I am very sincere when I say that. For one thing, it’s a hell of a debut movie for any director, but Reuben’s decision to pick a relatively inexperienced director, Tim Burton, gave rise to one of the most prominent directors of the late ’80s to mid-‘90s. The movie tells the story of Pee-Wee’s road trip to find his beloved, stolen bicycle. The late Roger Ebert once said of the movie, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one of those movies like ‘The Wizard of Oz,' I think, that kids can look at in one state of mind while the grown-ups enjoy it on a completely different level.”
This I like is one of the reasons why the character of Pee-Wee Herman has endured, not to mention that with “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” the lesson at the center of the show was that the playhouse was welcoming to everyone. No matter how weird, how strange, or how different they were. This is I think why so many of us kids into adults who have never quite felt like they fit in anywhere has always loved the character, and it’s a lesson I think we need now more than ever.
I know the death of Paul Reubens hit so many other people in my age group hard. I got several texts from friends asking how I was doing, and telling me that they loved me as a death of a performer who created a character that defined so many childhoods sank in. I am immensely sad Paul Reubens is no longer with us, but I do hope very much that he knew just how much his work meant to so many of us, and how many of us always loved him. See you next week.