No Such Thing as Bad Publicity? Hmmm . . .

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Long before Hugh met Divine and Charlie dallied with Heidi's girls, there was Pee-wee. After the actor best known for his zany Pee-wee Herman persona was charged with indecent exposure in a Florida adult movie theater, the reaction in Hollywood was swift. CBS dumped Paul Reubens' Saturday morning series and, soon after, "Pee-wee's Playhouse" disappeared from video store shelves, out of print.

Five years later, Pee-wee is poised for a comeback. On Tuesday MGM/UA Home Video re-releases its first installment of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" episodes, much to the delight of retailers unable to procure copies for years.

"We're going to have a big display when that comes out," says Yolanda Nogueira, manager ofVideoactive in Silver Lake. "There hasn't been enough Pee-wee."

(Reubens' career has been slowly on the upswing with a recurring role on TV's "Murphy Brown" and a development deal just this week for his own sitcom. Reubens declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Cathy Tauber, co-owner of Vidiots, plans to stock up on copies of "Pee-wee's Playhouse" at her funky Santa Monica store. "We'll definitely bring it in," Tauber says. "When they were discontinued, people wanted them--it was a hot item.

"Pee-wee is like a cult figure here."

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If anything, Tauber says, actor Reubens' tabloid peccadillo prompted more rentals of his videos, not less. And that's not the first time controversy spurred rental activity at her store. "Any kind of scandal about anybody, it's up," she says. Far from being a curse, transgressions--whether involving Hugh Grant, Charlie Sheen or Robert Downey Jr.--tend to have the same felicitous effect on rentals at Los Angeles-area video stores. While some retailers maintain that their customers are unaffected by scandals when it comes to choosing a rental, most admit it helps stir interest in an actor and his movies.

"Any publicity is good--even negative," says Morris Shab, president of 20/20 Video, a Los Angeles chain with 19 metro locations. "It's like a spice to food."

When Grant was arrested with a hooker, for example, "that was huge," Shab says. Not only did Grant's movies rent, but so did a quickly made movie featuring prostitute Divine Brown. Same story at Vidiots.

"People wanted to see her," Tauber says.

Even customers in a conservative bastion like Simi Valley were unperturbed. "With Hugh Grant, there was definitely a bump up with 'Nine Months' and some of his catalog titles," says Mark Tusher, owner of Alamo Video, a three-store Simi Valley chain. There was a similar rental surge after Reubens' arrest, he says. "When he got in his controversy, that really picked up interest in [his movie] 'Big Adventure,' " Tusher says. "Everyone got a kick out of his movies and 'Playhouse.' "

Likewise, Tusher says, his customers haven't been put off by "Powder," a movie that quickly disappeared from theaters after reports that the movie's director, Victor Salva, had once been convicted of child molestation. Months after its street date, all copies of the movie about a ghostly-looking boy with magical powers continue to rent at Tusher's stores.

"A lot of people, maybe rightly so, were boycotting the movie at theaters, but it's one of the best returns on investment of the year [for video dealers]," Tusher says. Indeed, "Powder" has been a sleeper rental hit across the country.

" 'Powder' has been renting very well," Nogueira says. "People are very curious about it."

Charlie Sheen has also proven to be scandal-proof in the wake of revelations he paid handsomely for the services of prostitutes in Heidi Fleiss' stable. Retailers surmise that damage has been minimal for the actor--who has a huge video following in some stores--because the news fits his bad-boy image. "It just adds to the following," Shab says. More damaging, says Tower Video manager Michael Dampier, is his choice in movie projects.

"With Charlie Sheen, [rental frequency depends if] he's in a good movie or one of his bad ones," says Dampier, manager at the Sunset Boulevard location.

Fallout from Woody Allen's relationship with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter is more difficult to gauge, given his small yet devoted following. "If you didn't like him before, you really didn't like him after that," Tusher says.

Allen may have been one case, however, where the scandal had a negative effect on rentals--at least for a while.

"It didn't help," Shab says. "My feeling is it hurt rentals initially," says Jerri Young, buyer for Video Isle, a Seattle chain with two stores. "Morally, people were outraged. But it seems to have blown over; 'Mighty Aphrodite' is one of my most popular rentals right now."

There are some scandals that have unequivocally hurt rentals. Hands down, the biggest backlash has been against O.J. Simpson tapes. "We had 'The O.J. Simpson Story,' which aired on Fox, and people didn't want to rent it," Nogueira says. "It rented once."

A TV movie about the Menendez brothers found similar reaction.

The key, Young says, is to consider the seriousness of the alleged crime. It's one thing to get arrested with a prostitute and another to be put on trial in the slaying of your wife.

"If it involves what people perceive to be a victimless crime, then it doesn't seem to hurt, but if it does, then it hurts," she says.

Nogueira believes people become naturally curious when an actor gets caught in a scandal. "They want to know more about them," she says.

Sometimes, she notes, tabloid activity can renew attention to a neglected talent, such as Margot Kidder. When the actress was discovered disoriented in Glendale, Videoactive quickly pulled together a display in her honor.

"People are falling in love with her all over again," Nogueira says.

A similar display for Robert Downey Jr. was devised after his multiple drug-related run-ins with the law this summer, complete with a picture of the actor and the caption, "Where will he turn up next?"

Others say they've tried similar tactics with little luck. Video West buyer Lyle Palaski says a scandal-themed display stirred little interest at his West Hollywood and Studio City stores. On the other hand, the imbroglios themselves haven't hurt rentals. "I think they tend to look at it more as a film than a scandal," Palaski says.

Whatever the reaction, the good news for most scandal-afflicted is that time heals all wounds. Joe Kaminski, buyer for a five-store chain based in the Bay Area, remembers parents steering their children away from "Pee-wee's Playhouse" when that scandal broke.

Yet he plans to bring the series back into the children's sections at all five Bradley Video stores. Kaminski says he's banking on another human foible: "People have very short attention spans."

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