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. 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.