“My father was a hero of the early Israeli air force — isn’t that an amazing story?” Paul Reubens said recently between rehearsals of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” at Club Nokia.
“Amazing” might be an adequate description if the performer were most anyone besides Reubens, famed for his character of the wildly eccentric man-child Pee-wee Herman. “Bizarre” or “surreal” is more like it.
But there was Reubens, his voice calm, speaking decibels lower than the impish Pee-wee as he marveled about his dad’s exploits in a battered S-199, having gone from teaching airplane acrobatics and fighting the Nazis for the Brits to answering the call to join the original leaders of the Israeli air command.
“Growing up, he told us a lot of stories that are mentioned in Ezer Weizman’s book, ‘On Eagles’ Wings,’” the 57-year-old Reubens said with awe. “Once he was shot down over the water, broke three ribs, and swam for hours. And finally he felt he couldn’t swim any longer, felt he was going to die. But when he stopped, he discovered he was standing in about 3 feet of water. He’d been swimming over some kind of a sand bar, so that when he just let his feet go, he hit the bottom and walked.”
The story could be a metaphor for Reubens’ own experiences in Hollywood — he knows about crashing and burning. In the 1980s, his puckish character of Pee-wee, with his undersized gray suit, red bow tie and quirky cast of friends, skyrocketed to fame as a kiddie entertainment icon. Adults loved Pee-wee, too, for his mix of subversive humor, timeless vaudevillian antics and colorful pop-art sensibility. Wickedly naughty, yet naively chaste, Pee-wee hit exactly the right note of irony and kitsch in his Saturday morning children’s TV show and subsequent feature films, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and “Big Top Pee-wee.”
But Reubens fell to Earth, hard, in 1991 when he was arrested for indecent exposure and allegedly masturbating inside a porn theater in Sarasota, Fla. CBS quickly pulled reruns of the final season of his show, and a talking Pee-wee doll with the catchphrase, “I know you are but what am I,” was yanked from Toys “R” Us shelves.
Reubens was shocked and devastated by the ensuing media circus: “Jeffrey Dahmer’s story broke the same time as my story, and for a week I was leading the news, followed by Dahmer eating people,” he told Vanity Fair in 1999.
But just as Americans can be prude about infractions of sexuality, audiences love a comeback, and time, it seems can still cure all ills. After a 19-year hiatus, Pee-wee is now poised to fly once more in a multimillion-dollar live “Pee-wee Herman Show,” which he will perform at Club Nokia Jan. 20-Feb. 7. Continuing the antics of the TV series, once again he’ll cavort with puppets and human pals, such as Miss Yvonne, Jambi the Genie and Cowboy Curtis. Except this time there will be 11 actors, 20 puppeteers and Pterri the Pterodactyl will fly about the stage.
The show’s 31-year-old director is Alex Timbers, a Yale graduate known for his innovative theater productions, who grew up watching Reuben’s show from the age of 7.
“Pee-Wee represents our Id,” he said of the character’s continuing appeal. “He’s the impulsive, naughty, irritating, desirous person within all of us. And this time around, it’s a slightly edgier Pee-wee with more of an alternative comedic sensibility.”
In the current incarnation, Pee-wee dreams of flying. Reubens acknowledged this could be his way of paying tribute to his late father, Milton Rubenfeld, to whom the show is dedicated, along with his mother, Judy.
Reubens said his parents have been unwaveringly supportive, since his father built the 5-year-old Paul his first stage, in the basement of their Oneonta, N.Y. home. After the family moved to Sarasota, where Paul and his siblings attended Reform services and Sunday school, Paul was allowed to eschew bar mitzvah studies in favor of theater rehearsals.
At the time, he said, “My father’s war stories were so incredible, so daring, it seemed they must be embellished. It wasn’t until I was in high school and read Weizman’s book that I realized the magnitude of it all.”
Sarasota, winter headquarters of Ringling Bros., provided a different kind of education. Neighbors included a clan that shot out of a canon and the Doll Family: “I had never seen a little person before,” he said, recalling ringing their doorbell one Halloween. “I knew they looked old, but I was bigger than them, and when we went inside their house everything was miniature.”
“The circus people stuck out in Sarasota,” he added. “You could tell who they were because of how they looked. That taught me it’s OK to be different, and to weigh out conformity and nonconformity.”
Pee-wee was born from just that sense of wonder and diversity as Reubens worked with The Groundlings improvisational comedy troupe in the late 1970s and continued on to create “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which ran on CBS from 1986 to 1991. “I’ve always maintained that Pee-wee was a kind of performance art,” said Reubens, who studied theater at the California Institute of the Arts.
After his 1991 arrest, Reubens was reduced to supporting himself with the occasional bit part, comforting himself with his hobby of obsessively collecting everything from fake food to toys — until his role as a bisexual cocaine dealer in Ted Demme’s 2001 film, “Blow,” looked like it might resuscitate his career. But as luck — or bad luck — would have it, police raided his Hollywood Hills home that same year, confiscating his collection of vintage erotica and arresting him for possessing what they called child pornography. Those charges were later dropped, but the media circus returned. Reubens’ dream of reviving Pee-wee, via two scripts he wrote while in celebrity limbo, seemed farther away than ever.
But not everyone had forgotten Reubens. “A producer kept calling me every two months for two years, asking me to reprise the character,” he said. The performer vacillated, but finally agreed to the new stage show, in large part, to prove to studios that Pee-wee is relevant enough for a movie.
And he is, judging by the 3,000 fans who screamed as if he were a Beatle as Reubens introduced a screening of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in September.
“I could feel the love,” he said.
For tickets to the show at Club Nokia @ L.A. LIVE, call (800) 745-3000