The character Pee-wee Herman was intended for kids and was a complete necessity in the '80s. But when the actor behind the bow tie was arrested in 1991, the whole country quickly realized he wasn’t as wholesome as he seemed.
Paul Reubens made a name for himself as a comedy icon, but his role as Pee-wee Herman was one that could not be topped by any of his other characters. It didn’t seem to matter that Pee-wee wasn’t real, everyone just assumed they were one and the same. That was, until Reubens was arrested in 1991 for indecent exposure.
But how did this all happen? Well, on Friday, July 26 1991, Reubens entered an adult theater. They were showing a triple bill of the X-rated films Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark, Nurse Nancy, and Turn Up The Heat when the sting operation took place. The authorities arrested three men in the theater for violating Florida State Statute 800.03: Exposure of Sexual Organs.
Apparently he may have been able to walk away with only a $219 fine, but because he decided to reveal who he was to the cops, things took a worse turn.
According to an Entertainment Weekly article published shortly after the event, Rubens “quietly told the detectives his famous pseudonym and, according to the police, made a novel, Pee-wee-esque attempt at a buy-off.”
Apparently he offered to make an appearance at a children’s charity event as Pee-wee Herman if the officers would drop the charges, but they didn’t go for it. He was lucky they didn’t charge him with bribery, but apparently the department spokesman said that ”the deputies did not feel at that time that they had enough probable cause” to make the charge.
Even if he hadn’t mentioned his job to the cops, he still would have had it rough. His arrest was found out by the media the very next day, and the details were published alongside his mugshot. The whole ordeal caused quite the controversy, and people everywhere started to think about the famous character differently.
Reubens was forced to come out and deny the accusations, saying that he “never exposed himself or engaged in any other improper activities,” but then quickly retreated from the public eye. His career took a hit as the entire country seemed to turn on him at once. The reruns of his television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, were removed from television, Disney stopped using the narration he had done for a backstage tour, and stores removed the Pee-wee Herman dolls from the shelves. Everything that he had previously been so proud of was now tainted and ruined.
He stepped out of the spotlight while waiting for the trial to begin, with his management saying that he was “on an extended vacation.” His publicist, Richard Grant, said that “Paul, who is emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation, is currently in seclusion with friends and eagerly anticipating his complete vindication.”
Reubens’s celebrity friends were quick to defend him. Valeria Golino played Pee-wee Herman’s girlfriend on the show said that ‘Paul Reubens is why I am in America. He is a gifted and sensitive man with a great sense of humor. I find it very hypocritical. They have these porno movies…and they put police in the theaters? I don’t understand this. I don’t care if he did it or not — he’s a great guy.”
Actress Annette Funicello didn’t understand why the world was being so hard on him. “What is the big deal? He has given so much pleasure to little kids, and what they’re doing to him is sad. I like him a lot. If I were able to call him now, I would say, ‘So many people are on your side. We love you. Just hang in there — it will blow over. These things do.”
Others hoped that it would help him evolve. Randal Kleiser was the director of Big Top Pee-wee and he said, “in a way, fate may have stepped in to help him change his direction. People forget that the original Pee-wee Herman used to put mirrors on his shoes and look up girls’ dresses. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and I think what he’s probably going to do now is re-invent himself the way that David Bowie and Madonna do from time to time.”
As for the public, audiences were divided on how to react to the incident. When polled by Entertainment Weekly, 40% of readers thought that Reubens was getting a “raw deal from the media”. More than half of those surveyed believed that Reubens was treated unfairly by the sheriff’s department, and 49% would still let their children watch TV shows or movies starring Pee-wee Herman.
Despite how bad things looked for him, Reubens claimed to have proof that he was innocent.
While the case would cause his career to stumble, he managed to make his way back into the popular media. It hadn’t been his first time dealing with authorities, and it wouldn’t be his last.
In 1971 he was arrested for marijuana possession and placed on a two year probation. In 1983 he was arrested for loitering and prowling at another adult theater, but the charges were dropped.
After successfully surviving the indecent exposure charges, Reubens found himself in trouble with the law again in 2001 when a search of his home revealed images that were categorized as child pornography. He claimed they were just part of his “historical art photography collection,” but he was still registered as a sex offender and fined $100.
How does Paul Reubens feel about all of this? Well, he feels like he was wrongfully accused in both cases. Reubens is convinced that had he not pled “no contest” the trial would have revealed that he was innocent.
In an interview in 2010 he said, “Had we gone to trial, we had ready an expert from the Masters and Johnson Institute who was going to testify that in 30 years of research on masturbation, the institute had never found one person who masturbated with his or her non-dominant hand,” Reubens revealed. “I’m right-handed, and the police report said I was (masturbating) with my left hand. That would have been the end of the case right there, proof it couldn’t have been me.”
As for the child pornography charges, he said that “the police had been given a false tip in an alleged sting operation and came to my house. They thought the wrong thing, and they were there for the wrong reason, and when that became clear, they should have left. Or they should have taken all my computers like they did but spent three minutes looking through them and realized they were wrong. … The state eventually realized I had nothing offensive, but the city attorney decided to put me through three years of hell anyway.”
He has tried to move on from these incidents, but they have followed him throughout his life. Luckily for him he has a positive attitude about it. “Much as I like to pretend it’s not there or imagine most people know nothing about that one, it’s there. It’s always going to be a footnote. But you know what? At this point the footnote is neither here nor there for me. It has no effect on me. I’m cool with it.”