Paul Reubens revives Pee-wee Herman for new stage show
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The red bow tie. The form-fitting gray suit. The white loafers. Oh, and that laugh. Pee-wee Herman is back and his creator, Paul Reubens, is overjoyed — and more than a little nervous too.
“I’ve put part of him away for a long time, but part of him has always been here with me,” the soft-spoken actor said from his home in L.A. “I think it will be like riding a bike — which is not a bad analogy for Pee-wee, by the way.”
But he added: “I have some fear that he won’t be funny after all this time. I don’t want to ruin it.”
After a hiatus of close to 20 years, Reubens announced Monday that he would be playing Pee-wee in a new stage show at the Music Box @ Fonda in Hollywood, with tickets going on sale today. The production, titled “The Pee-wee Herman Show” and set to run Nov. 19-29, is a reimagined version of the actor’s original theatrical show of the same name that began at the Groundlings Theatre in 1981. It played at the Roxy in L.A. for five months in the early ’80s and helped bring Pee-wee national recognition, including an HBO special and the 1985 film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” directed by Tim Burton.
The show will feature the same story line as the original: Pee-wee, a nerdy man-child with a colorful menagerie of anthropomorphic friends, is granted a wish to learn to fly but gives the
wish away, much to his eventual regret. Reubens said he has revised parts of the story to include new songs as well as characters from his popular CBS television series, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
In one notable change, a character played on stage by the late comic actor Phil Hartman has been replaced with another character. “I didn’t want to be looking at someone else playing Phil’s part,” Reubens said.
Among the characters familiar from the TV series that will appear on stage will be Pee-wee’s talking chair, Chairry, and his friend Pterri the pterodactyl.
“It has a lot of new material and a lot of old material,” Reubens said. “I felt that doing this show so many years later and having the TV show in between — people are going to ask, ‘Where’s the talking chair?’ So I’ve added characters from the TV series to the show.”
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” aired on CBS in 1986-91 and helped broaden Pee-wee’s appeal among children. (The character also appeared in “Big Top Pee-wee,” the poorly received 1988 follow-up to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”)
Though it’s ambiguous as to whom the new stage show will be geared, Pee-wee’s enduring cult status is part of the reason that producers Jared Geller and David Foster approached Reubens two years ago about resurrecting the character. “Pee-wee appeals to such a great cross-section of ages,” said Geller. “The character is so honest and surreal. It’s one of those things that speaks to individuals who feel they may be different from everyone else.”
Reubens, who is also one of the show’s producers, said he hoped the show would lead to an even bigger resurgence in all things Pee-wee. “Honestly, I have a movie script that’s based on my CBS TV series, and I thought this would be a great way to get that made,” he said.
Since the heyday of the Pee-wee franchise, Reubens’ career has been a roller-coaster ride of legal fiascoes and tentative attempts at a comeback. In 1991, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of indecent exposure after he was arrested in Florida in an adult movie theater. In 2002, he was charged with possessing child pornography because of images in his art collection, ultimately pleading guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge in 2004 in exchange for a lighter sentence.
“I don’t think those events have an appropriate place in discussion of the new show,” Reubens said. “I’m sure people will be discussing it, but I won’t.”
The actor has spent the last 10 years mostly in guest-star roles on television, like his recent stint on NBC’s “30 Rock” as a buffoonish member of a royal European family. He has also acted in a handful of prestigious indie films, including “Blow” and the upcoming “Life During Wartime” and “Nailed.”
Now 56, Reubens said that returning to Pee-wee after such a long sojourn in the showbiz wilderness has given him ample time for reflection.
“It is ironic to be on this end of it all and to be redoing it,” he said. “I’ve never said how old Pee-wee is. People attach their own age to him. I never decided myself.
“I’m glad people will be 20 to 30 feet away from me on stage,” he said. “I’m trying to work out a system where people with bad vision sit in front. I think it will work.”
-- David Ng
Top photo: Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) cavorts with Miss Yvonne (Lynne Marie Stewart) on ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse,’ which ran from 1986 to 1991. Credit: Paul Reubens, Herman World. Bottom photo: Reubens. Credit: Getty Images