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Pee-wee Herman is back at the playhouse

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For anyone old enough to have come into pop cultural consciousness in the mid-'80s, Pee-wee Herman casts a long shadow -- albeit, an almost transcendently nerdy shadow, one most often recalled dancing atop a bar to the Champs' jaunty instrumental "Tequila" in his 1985 breakthrough movie "Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

The impish man-child with an outsized laugh and an undersized grey suit became an improbable icon, graduating from guest appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" and cameos in Cheech & Chong movies to his Saturday morning children's show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse."

The show enjoyed cult-like popularity with grown-ups and kids alike thanks mainly to the man behind the character, Paul Reubens. His creation was a combination of unbridled silliness and surrealism, childlike naivete and hipster knowingness -- a mash-up of subversiveness and magical thinking still rare in mainstream entertainment a quarter-century later.

The character's run continued with "Big Top Pee-wee" (1988) and hit its apogee with the release of his own talking doll, a kitschy toy that brays Pee-wee's adenoidal catchphrase -- "I know you are, but what am I?"

Until 1991, when everyone stopped laughing with him and Pee-wee became a national punch line. That year, Reubens was busted for indecent exposure at a Florida adult movie theater. CBS unceremoniously dumped his show; late-night comedians and op-ed writers feasted on his predicament and Reubens retreated from the public.

The upshot: Pee-wee went into unofficial retirement for nearly two decades. But a funny thing happened on the way to cultural oblivion. Thanks, in part, to YouTube, goodwill toward the character never faded away. And if the high volume of Twitter chatter and blogosphere interest are any indication, Reubens' perceived sins have been forgiven.

On Tuesday, Pee-wee will re-emerge into the spotlight with a limited engagement of "The Pee-wee Herman Show" at downtown Los Angeles' Club Nokia. A newly rewritten update of his 1981 production of the same name that played for five sold-out months at West Hollywood's Roxy nightclub, the Reubens-co-scripted comedic musical he first envisioned as "a kids' show for adults," will run until Feb. 7.

It relocated to the Nokia after a combination of popular demand and greater technical specifications required for the show's animatronic puppets compelled a date change and a move from the Music Box @ Fonda -- causing no small amount of consternation for fervent Pee-wee fans who bought tickets and booked travel from across the country to see him perform there in November.

The 90-minute production features "Pee-wee's Playhouse" characters -- Mailman Mike, Miss Yvonne, Pterri the pterodactyl and Pee-wee's talking armchair Chairry among them -- as well as many of the cast members who inhabited the TV show's kid-friendly yet trippy universe.

On an evening before the holidays, Reubens settled into the booth of a Hollywood delicatessen after a long day of rehearsals, seeming more than a bit fatigued by writing, producing and starring in the show. He was initially reluctant to seriously examine the choice to dust off his beloved comedic creation.

"People ask, 'Why now?' " said Reubens, 57. "Why not? The answer is, I didn't do it yet! I'm super lazy. I kind of waited until the last minute. If I wait too much longer, I'm not going to be able to do it."

But near the conclusion of the conversation Reubens finally came clean about his motive. He's been working on a screenplay for a movie based on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and, unable to secure the budget to make the film he has in mind, "The Pee-wee Herman Show" is really a means to an end.

"The answer to 'Why are you doing this?' is: the movie," said Reubens. "I want to put enough heat back on Pee-wee Herman where, if one studio executive in Hollywood goes, 'I get it, I see it,' it's a no-brainer. I'll get the movie made."

The character, the man

Since Pee-wee's 1978 inception -- while Reubens was part of the Los Angeles improv comedy group the Groundlings -- the performer has seldom done interviews out of character. In all but a few instances, Reubens has allowed Pee-wee's churlish yet lovable -- but also often quick-to-snark -- laughing nerd demeanor to stand in for his own. At a press event announcing the Club Nokia engagement in December, Pee-wee reintroduced himself in full faux '50s nostalgic regalia: the heavily rouged cheeks, the chunky white shoes and putty-molded flat-top haircut were largely intact from their '80s heyday.

In person, however, Reubens is neither shrill nor dandified. Wearing a loose-fitting black cowboy shirt and jeans, and marked by deep facial creases, he came off as subdued yet guarded -- still keenly self-aware after nearly 20 years of attention from the news media.

"I've seen a lot of sides of fame," said Reubens. "I've seen the dark side and the light side, lots of the in-between stuff to it. This [return as Pee-wee] isn't about how I get to reexperience some fame."

Unlike the boilerplate comeback narrative in Hollywood -- entertainer suffers professional setback, entertainer retires beloved persona, entertainer learns to stop worrying and love the persona for a windfall of cash -- Reubens' reembrace of Pee-wee did not involve a cathartic realization or personal breakthrough.

He says one of the show's producers, Jared Geller, systematically called Reubens about mounting a live show. "People don't tend to believe me that I got up one morning and said, 'OK, now if he calls this morning, I'll say yes,' " Reubens said. "But that's what it was."

Pee-wee's years off

Stumbling block A: the still-baffling circumstances that led to Pee-wee's 19-year disappearing act.

In 1991, coming off a successful five-year run of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," the comedian was arrested during a routine undercover operation at an adult movie theater in Sarasota, Fla., and booked for "exposure of sexual organs." Reubens maintained his innocence. In the end, though, he pleaded guilty and paid a $100 fine in exchange for probation.

The actor's publicist at the time described Reubens as "emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation." Professionally, the damage was done: The arrest made international news. Even though stars such as Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers and Cyndi Lauper publicly supported Reubens, Toys R Us pulled his dolls from stores and CBS moved quickly to take reruns of "Pee-wee's Playhouse's" final season off the air.

Reubens points out that he had already declined the network's offer of a two-year contract renewal. Moreover, he says he was burned out.

"I wrote it, directed it, produced it and starred in it," Reubens said of "Playhouse." "It was so much work. I was like a shell of a person.

"I took a year off," he continued. "And at the end of it, I went, 'Wow.' And I took another year off."

In the intervening years, he remained in Hollywood, staying afloat with numerous appearances in television shows including " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Reno 911!" and " 30 Rock," voice-over work for various animated series and movies, and character parts in such films as "Batman Returns," "Mystery Men" and "Blow."

But no more Pee-wee. "I took time to decompress," Reubens said.

At the playhouse

During a recent afternoon rehearsal, cast members ran lines inside a soundstage on Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios lot with Reubens quietly yet forcefully multitasking as co-writer, producer and star. (Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon, one of the show's costars, helped adapt the "Pee-wee Herman Show" from Reubens' original 1981 production.)

He politely questioned the way an understudy was billed on the program's title page, second-guessed the "watery" nature of a below-the-belt sound effect and probed director Alex Timbers about the timing on the "beat" of a joke. Pee-wee-esque props lay strewn about the space: tighty-whitey underwear, inflatable beach balls, a foam puppet version of North America with an expressive face.

Reubens mitigated his authority with a self-deprecating aside. "Don't listen to me," he told Timbers. "I'm completely stupid."

"But when you get that laugh, the cockles of your heart will be warmed," Timbers demurred.

The inevitable one-liner came right back at the director. "I don't feel comfortable with you talking about my cockles," said actor Drew Powell, who portrays a character named Bear.

Off-set, Reubens acknowledged that the show's producers and his cast had been prodding him about any plans for the production. But the performer said he has no plans to extend its run beyond Los Angeles, despite tantalizing offers.

"The big question now is, 'Why don't you commit to doing it for a year? Do it all over the world,' " Reubens said. "The day we announced it, we had an offer to do it at the Sydney Opera House for five weeks, sight unseen. How do you say no? Easy!"

Conversation turned to his despair that art nowadays is "bleak." He feels that content is largely created by committee and real individualism -- at least, the norm-challenging kind he staked out -- is increasingly rare.

"I'm not someone who would be anyone's first guess to cross over," Reubens said. "One appeal that I have to people is that I had a very artistic career that got to be very commercial."

Fearing the inevitability that actors will be replaced by computer-generated imagery, Reubens said he has begun exploring the possibility of replacing himself with another actor or in animated form to get his long-gestating movie off the ground. (A substitute he has discussed the matter with: Johnny Depp. He says the actor told him, "Let me think about it.")

"People want to think they're irreplaceable. There is not one person who is irreplaceable, including every icon you can think of. And I don't have to be Pee-wee," Reubens said. "I'm sure it would be difficult to be on a set and watch someone else do it. But I could direct it, which would be exciting to me."

Thinking big

Independent production companies have offered to fund a $5-million movie version of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," but Reubens holds out hope that the stage production will lead to the money he needs for a grander vision for the film, which he imagines taking place amid a "fantasy land" that's "like a 'Wizard of Oz,' H.R. Pufnstuf epic adventure story."

"I'm not going to get a studio all excited about a character that's been out of the public eye for 25 years, even though they've remade everything from my era except me," he said. "And it makes way more sense to remake me than half the other stuff that was remade!"

And in the current cultural climate, the performer said he hopes to inspire young strivers to find their own unique voices.

"This isn't a nurturing time," said Reubens, staring out into the Hollywood night. "But the message of 'The Playhouse' has always been: 'Dare to be different. Here are some options you might not have thought of.'

"I feel like I have a mission," he continued, sounding more like Pee-wee than at any other point in the evening. "I'd love to help!"

chris.lee@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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