Actor John Paragon, Jambi the Genie on ‘Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,’ dies at 66

A closeup of actor John Paragon
“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” actor John Paragon died in April.
(Katy Winn / Invision / Associated Press)

Actor John Paragon, who brought Jambi the Genie to life on the children’s series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” has died at age 66.

The Times confirmed with the Riverside County Coroner that Paragon died April 3 in Palm Springs of unknown causes. News of the actor’s death was not made public until June.

Also a writer, director and close collaborator with Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens and Cassandra “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” Peterson, Paragon greatly shaped the roles of those two comedy cult favorites.

The Alaska native was part of the comedy improv troupe at the Groundlings Theater in Los Angeles. His background at the theater helped connect him with two future friends and collaborators, Reubens and Peterson, who sought Paragon‘s help in developing their characters’ earliest roles.

“Lost someone that meant the world to me and was such a huge part of ‘Elvira’ and my life that it’s impossible to express how sad I feel,” Peterson tweeted Friday. “John Paragon, my writing partner of 27 years…my friend, my brother, my soul-mate. I will miss you and love you forever, Johnny #RIPJohnParagon”

A man in a suit talks to a genie's head in a box
Paul Reubens, left, and John Paragon in the CBS show “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” in 1986.
(John Kisch Archive / Getty Images)

Paragon helped write some of Pee-wee Herman’s first stage performances, back when the character was developed for a midnight show at the Groundlings. The genie Jambi‘s catchy incantation — “Mekka lekka hi, mekka hiney ho!” — riffed off of one of Paragon’s earlier sketch characters, a waiter at a hokey luau-themed restaurant.

“I was trying to speak, like ... tourist-guide Hawaiian,” Paragon recalled in a 2017 interview.

When CBS picked up the show, and “Pee-Wee” shed the winking innuendos of its original incarnation to become the kid-friendly hit “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the kitschy show proved to be a laborious effort that required the ingenuity of all those involved.

Paul Reubens still isn’t sure why it took so long.

March 18, 2016

Paragon played along in the deceptively DIY production, doing things like donning black gloves to covertly push open the spring-loaded doors of Jambi’s genie box. As director, he worked closely with Reubens to find the right camera angles needed to pull off a particular illusion or sketch. Paragon also wrote many of the show’s episodes and voiced Pterri, the talking pterodactyl.

“Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special,” a 1988 production Paragon co-wrote, was nominated for an Emmy for writing in a children’s special.

Paragon also had a long creative partnership with Peterson, playing an integral role in the creation of her signature character, Elvira. He landed a role on Peterson’s first television series, “Movie Macabre,” as an irksome caller named “the Breather.” He later co-wrote her 1988 feature film, “Elvira: Mistress of the Dark,” along with many other projects where she reprised the horror hostess.

A man does the splits, surrounded by people
John Paragon, center, attended the Groundlings Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2014.
(Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty Images for the Groundlings)

Paragon’s other on-screen appearances included a role as “Seinfeld’s” Cedric, one-half of a couple who often gives Kramer (Michael Richards) grief. Yul Vazquez, Paragon’s other half on the show, told AV Club that he was a “huge John Paragon fan” before landing the part.

He was also in the movie “UHF,” where he played Richard Fletcher; 1986’s “The Frog Prince,” where he voiced the title character; and “Eating Raoul,” where he was a sex shop attendant. His directing credits include episodes of the TV series “Silk Stalkings.”

Paragon recently worked with Walt Disney Imagineering for the company’s theme parks, where he helped develop improv routines for park performances.

Paul Reubens’ “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which ran on CBS on Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990 and has been repeated on various networks and home video platforms in the years since, is back again.

Oct. 24, 2014