Pee-wee: Will His Career Be Ruined?

Posted: July 30, 1991

Nancy Nurse, Tiger Shark and Turn Up the Heat could have been titles for zany skits on the sometimes brilliant children's TV show Pee-wee's Playhouse.

But alas for Paul Reubens, the 38-year-old actor who plays the helium- voiced and manic man-boy, Pee-wee Herman, they are the titles of pornographic films that could haunt him the rest of his life.

On Friday, Sarasota, Fla., police arrested Reubens on a charge of indecent exposure after an undercover police detective allegedly twice saw him masturbating during a showing of the films at the triple-X South Trail Adult Theater. Reubens denied the allegations yesterday.

"According to Paul, the facts as stated by the vice squad were totally untrue and he never exposed himself or engaged in any other improper activities," his Los Angeles publicists, Richard Grant & Associates, said.

CBS said yesterday that it would drop the five remaining Pee-wee's Playhouse reruns from its Saturday morning lineup. The Emmy-winning show was canceled in April.

Before CBS's move, Reubens' attorney, Dan Dannheiser, predicted the scandal would ruin Reubens' career: "He does a lot of things with kids over the world, and his career will be over."

The incident has been no less awkward for parents whose children delighted in Pee-wee's antics - and now want to know why he's in trouble. One father was taken aback on Sunday when his 4-year-old daughter ran up to him saying, ''Daddy, Daddy, Pee-wee Herman was arrested!" When she asked why, he fumbled for an explanation and wound up telling her that Pee-wee had taken his clothes off "in front of strangers."

Reubens' arrest generated some sympathy from parents.

"I think it's unfortunate, but I would have no qualms about allowing my daughter to continue watching the show," said Barbara Hanek, a Philadelphia nurse whose daughter, Rose, is 4 1/2. "I think it's very creative."

If Reubens was masturbating in a theater, it was "pretty dumb on his part," she said. "But at least he wasn't doing it on TV."

Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children's Television, said she thinks "young children won't even pay attention to the story. And if older kids ask questions, it is a good opportunity for parents to talk about sex education."

She added that "if we worried about the personal behavior of people who appear on television or in the movies, we might do away with the whole medium."

"It's very unfortunate. There is no question this (arrest) destroys this person as an image for children," said Dr. Alberto Serrano, medical director of the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center. Reubens' sexual appetite "may not be directly dangerous to children," Serrano said. "After all, he was with other adults in an adult theater."

But masturbating in public, said Serrano, is "definitely abnormal" - typically compulsive and self-destructive behavior that "may be an indication of other problems."

Reubens has had earlier brushes with the law, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported yesterday. According to sheriff's records, he was arrested in 1983 for allegedly loitering outside an adult film theater. The state attorney's office declined to press charges.

In 1971, he was arrested for possession of marijuana in Sarasota, where he grew up Paul Rubenfeld. A judge withheld a formal finding of guilt and placed him on two years' probation. His parents still live in Sarasota.

Sarasota police did not immediately associate the man with the shoulder- length hair and goatee with the character Pee-wee, a shrieking, crewcut nerd in a bright red bow tie, shrunken suits and rouge. It was a character that Reubens developed in 1979 when he was part of a Los Angeles improvisiational group, the Groundlings.

At first, the character was more risque. The original character was a parody of a children's television host who would look up girls' skirts with mirrors attached to his shoes.

Inquirer staff writer Michael Vitez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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