Who Killed Pee-Wee

The story behind how one of America's beloved entertainers lost his career one fateful day

Pee Wee Herman In 'Pee Wee's Playhouse' in 1986. Credit: CBS Photo Archive/Getty

"I JUST GOT ARRESTED," Paul said over the telephone to his sister, Abby. "I'm gonna disappear now."

A reluctant fugitive since the fateful night of July 26th, Paul Reubens has kept in touch with only three friends. He won't tell them where he is. In his house in the Hollywood Hills, an answering machine takes calls from well-wishers. Paul's secretary calls back to say thanks.

The day after he was arrested for indecent exposure in a Florida pornographic theater, the bright red door of Pee-wee's Playhouse — a Saturday-morning kids' show that even parents loved — was boarded up. Unsold Pee-wee Herman dolls became orphans. Disney-MGM Studios dropped him from its two-minute tour video. Executives at Disney, CBS and Toys 'R' Us had acted swiftly to protect the interests of American children.

Bad boy, Pee-wee. Rest in peace, Pee-wee Herman. Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah. An adult playing a child, he needed to be punished like a child for acting like an adult. Paul's own lawyer provided an epitaph: "His career is over." It was as if redheaded Randy, the Playhouse bully, had poisoned the gestalt: no more gentle dinosaurs or anthropomorphic furniture, no more secret word.

As Paul Reubens's mug shot surpassed Demi Moore's pregnant tummy as the image of the year (at least on these shores), as talk-show sympathy and outrage roared in the background, the controversy moved on to stage 2: assigning responsibility.

It was the grown-up version of what happens when a child picks himself up, wailing, from a puddle on the playground. Somebody would have to pay. Somebody was at fault. Somebody did this. The secret word was blame.

Assuming Paul committed a crime, it seemed the blame belonged to him. Stars have to be careful. Then, to just clam up like that. You could practically hear his advisers: Not smart at all, Paul. Go get back in that skinny suit and beg 'em for forgiveness.

Though it hadn't yet died, the Playhouse was on its way to becoming a nursing home. Exhausted after five years of Saturday mornings, Paul walked away from his contract at CBS in 1990, taping the final two years' worth of shows in one year. His Sarasota visit came near the end of a months-long vacation: a sabbatical during which the thirty-eight-year-old actor pondered life after Pee-wee, thought about other characters, about producing or appearing in other people's movies.

"Pee-wee was just one little thing that worked," a friend says. "Paul has aspirations to branch out."

Greedily greeting this revelation, many people theorized that Paul got himself arrested to speed up the process, to accelerate Pee-wee's suicide. Maybe even subconsciously! These were the same people who guided their children through the trauma of a Peewee-less Saturday morning by following the advice of newspaper psychologists.

Assuming Paul was innocent — a logical assumption to make before a trial, and he had pleaded innocent — the blame fell on the usual suspects: the press and the cops. An able young reporter named Karen Dillon, working the three-to-midnight shift at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, recognized Paul Reubens's name on the police blotter and broke the story. The New York tabloids put Pee-wee's mug shot on page 1. OH, PEE-WEE! said the New York Post. Shuffling onto Entertainment Tonight, Soupy Sales, a former kids'-show host who was banished for telling kids to steal, announced with glee: "It's over, it's over. He signed his own death warrant. Where else is he gonna work? Television will never give him another chance." Blame Entertainment Tonight. Blame the tabs. Blame Karen Dillon.

The logic in all of this was faulty. For one thing, it assumed that Karen Dillon, whose paper is owned by the New York Times Company, should have suppressed news of Paul's arrest. Imagine the indignant holler that would have gone up when that got out. In fact, Paul's lawyer, Dan Dannheisser, tried to persuade the Herald-Tribune to put a lid on it in return for a Pee-wee benefit for the newspaper. The Herald ran its story.

So blame the Florida cops, for sending four undercover officers to the South Trail Adult Theater. The Special Investigations Bureau (SIB) of the Sarasota Sheriff's Department immediately took the heat for misplaced priorities. On the night of July 26th, Detectives William Walters, David Tuggle, Steve Boone and Frank Alessio left headquarters in downtown Sarasota and drove the six miles out to South Trail, where three second-run porn films played to a nearly empty house. "You have a squad of folks sitting around with nothing to do," Sarasota County sheriff Geoff Monge said before he stopped talking to reporters. "Instead of having them sit around for the rest of the evening, that's when they go to the adult theaters." Each man arrived in plain clothes, carrying a standard-issue SIG-Sauer P-226 9-mm autoloader pistol.

South Trail XXX is a porn house languishing in permanent obsolescence. You see one of these at the ass end of every main drag in the South, its billboard-size sign glowing unevenly, a totem to American sexual prudery. In the lobby some dusty dildos and ben-wa balls are for sale, along with a lonely blowup doll. A few dozen men, most on Social Security, pay $8 to watch a fuzzy screen that comes to life at 10:45 every morning. Most of South Trail's business, in the VCR age, is $3.99 tape rentals. When the rental trade slows, employees play a SPRING BREAK pinball machine in the lobby or computer games they carry to work with them. One ticket taker invites his girlfriend in. They make out at the front desk, undisturbed, while the porn plays.

The detectives fanned out in the dark. The few patrons sat in the last couple of rows. Among the members of the squad, Walters, Boone and Tuggle had kept their noses clean during their years with the Sheriff's Department. Detective Frank Alessio had been commended for some crack stings and had once helped rescue two stranded swimmers. But Alessio was not exactly a model officer. Although he was a nine-year veteran, he had a spotty driving record, and some might say Alessio had a big mouth. In 1985 a local lawyer Alessio had stopped for driving on a closed road wrote to Sheriff Monge about the officer's "bad attitude," his "pushiness" and "his dealing with me as if I were a major criminal."

Alessio and his team claim that Paul took his penis out, stroked it until a movie ended, then shifted in his seat, hid his penis for a while, and when another movie started, spit into his left hand and stroked his penis again. Later, in the lobby, after he'd used the bathroom, Paul was placed under arrest.

"This is embarrassing," Paul supposedly said, in his off-duty look, with eyeglasses, hair past his shoulders and a goatee. "Every time he had a hiatus, that disguise worked perfectly well for him as a functioning human being," Paul's friend Allee Willis said later. "How many times can you listen to [fans on the street saying] 'I know you are, but what am I?' So it was either grow a beard and mustache and don't look like Pee-wee Herman or stay home."

"Can I show you some ID?" Paul asked out in the parking lot, reaching under the carpeting in the trunk of his Mazda and taking out his wallet. People fooled around with each other in there, he knew, but he thought it was okay to be by himself. The detectives scanned Paul's license, unimpressed. Glumly he said, "I'm Pee-wee Herman."

The point was this: Celebrity didn't matter to SIB detectives. They cuffed Paul and took him downtown. Florida has never been a place where cops strain their necks looking the other way. So those who blamed the cops needed to answer the question: Should SIB have let Paul walk because he was Pee-wee?

THE NOT-SO-GREAT IRONY UNDERLYING EVERYTHING was that the Playhouse had hummed with sexuality since the day, more than a decade ago, when Pee-wee Herman and his sidekicks gamboled onto a small stage in a theater in Los Angeles. There was polymorphous sexuality afoot, primarily in the form of Pee-wee. And straight and gay sexuality, in the persons of the Playhouse guests.

Prancing and posing with Tito, the buff young lifeguard, Pee-wee still enjoyed looking up women's dresses. "Take it off, take it all off," Pee-wee leered after he hypnotized a female guest. "You'll be more comfortable without those garments." Playing a smart-mouthed nerdy kid, Pee-wee got away with saying things an adult never could. But was Pee-wee straight, or was he gay? Was he a man — he was five feet eleven inches tall — or was he a boy?

Pee-wee's playmates also had libidos. The buxom, long-lashed Miss Yvonne wanted Captain Carl to "really" like her. Her date with Cowboy Curtis introduced countless American kids to an interracial couple. Jambi the Genie was a magic lamp of innuendo. "Now I get to do something I've wanted to do for a long time," Jambi said when he got a brand-new pair of hands.

Like all truly original characters, Pee-wee inhabited a world of his own, with Chairy the talking chair, Globey the French-accented globe, Conky the robot and Pterri the pterodactyl all competing for Pee-wee's attention. Pee-wee issued his own bio: He was the son of Herman and Honey Herman, owners of a curio shop in Hollywood. Miss Marvel Ranell, his fourth-grade teacher, had been a stripper. His career paralleled Sylvester Stallone's. "We can be macho, and we can be sensitive, too," Pee-wee said. "We are both kind of hero guys." If Pee-wee ever did a nude scene, he said, John Holmes would be his stand-in.

Pee-wee's world had verbal as well as visual wit — rare on Saturday mornings — and so enchanted kids of all ages. "Umm — salady!" Pee-wee exclaimed with Lettermanesque mockery while eating salad. "Ummm … chocolatey!" he said, eating chocolate cake. "I'm the luckiest boy in the world," he sang, like a pipsqueak Elvis Costello. "I'm so much luckier than you." Pee-wee was never famous for his patience. He was as petulant as a prodigy. A trippy mix of innocence, wisdom and mischief, Pee-wee, in the end, was a part of all of us – pure, childish id.

After a sellout show at Carnegie Hall in 1984 and a series of triumphant appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, Pee-wee got his first starring role in the movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure. The visionary Tim Burton directed the story of the desperate search for a stolen bicycle. Big Adventure cost $6 million to make and earned Warner Bros. nearly $50 million — it was the surprise hit of the summer of 1985. And in it, we get a few more hints about another side of Pee-wee. "Dottie, there's a lot of things about me you don't know anything about," Pee-wee said, scolding the bike-store clerk who had a crush on him. "Things you wouldn't understand, you couldn't understand, you shouldn't understand. I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel." Pee-wee was a parodist who told the truth.

A year after Big Adventure, CBS gave Pee-wee its 11:30 Saturday-morning slot. The only live-action show in the time period, Pee-wee's Playhouse was a postmodern half-hour inspired by Fifties kitsch and Fifties kids' shows, toned down only a bit from the original stage version. Cyndi Lauper and Todd Rund-gren worked on the music. "Onstage, the show was an ode to kids' shows," says Gary Panter, who was the production designer. "With a real kids' show, we had a responsibility to make it for kids."

As host and MC, Pee-wee danced viewers through a kaleidoscope of Claymation, vintage cartoons and educational features like the secret word. Playhouse won six Emmys in its first season. Now, everybody knew who he was. "That's my name, don't wear it out," Pee-wee whined. (He also resurrected another Fifties tag line, this one for deflecting bullies: "I know you are, but what am I?")

Toning down the show didn't tame it. "That was his point," says Panter. "It's okay to be different. When you set yourself up as something different, it scares a lot of people."

At the beginning of the century, Freud embraced the idea that kids are sexual beings — not in the same way adults are, but with their own childish versions of sex, like thumb-sucking and sibling rivalry. It was a scandalous notion that never went down very well in America and still doesn't. And Pee-wee was no Mister Rogers. "Pee-wee was not unaffected by culture," says Sandra Bernhard. "He was the perfect example of the perversities and craziness that drives everybody."

CBS didn't mind, as long as the ratings were good. The critically acclaimed Playhouse made money for its advertisers and made CBS look innovative. Fundamentalist hyenas like the Reverend Donald Wildmon also stayed strangely silent, allowing 6 million kids each week a chance to witness pure visual magic.

"Anything around you could turn into something," a friend of Paul's says. "The vacuum cleaner could turn into a new friend. Everything was as alive as you were, even a doorknob, and it could be a friend, as long as you treated it right."

The Playhouse was also moral. Even as it sent up adult ways and old adult TV shows, it taught kids manners — taught them not to be selfish. (In one episode, Pee-wee gave his wish to fly to Miss Yvonne.) And it engendered tolerance — the Playhouse was the most gloriously integrated show on television.

Chugging into his third season, Pee-wee's ratings stayed high. By then nearly 3 million adults were watching. There was no reason to believe this boy might ever have to grow up — except that the man behind Pee-wee was tired of it all. It was obvious how much energy and concentration doing the character required. So Paul Reubens made a decision to double his efforts, to film those last two seasons' worth of shows and walk away.

Pee-wee stayed mute about the reasons why. As for Paul, years ago he had disappeared behind the makeup and the too-small suit, granting interviews only in character. The truth was, nobody had heard from Paul Reubens in years.

MOVING FROM ONEONTA, NEW YORK, in 1961, the Rubenfelds and their three children — Paul, Abby and Luke — moved into a comfortable one-story house overlooking Roberts Bay, in Sarasota, Florida. Paul's mother, Judy, taught school. Milton Rubenfeld's lamp store was successful enough to provide Paul's sister, Abby, with a Rambler when she was old enough to drive and to send the whole family to Mexico for two weeks one summer. The Rubenfeld children were bright and popular. Paul spent countless hours glued to the TV, watching I Love Lucy and Howdy Doody. He once met Emmett Kelley, the dean of American clowns (Sarasota was for years the winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus). It was a meeting that must have thrilled Paul, who was himself a budding performer. In the family basement, he used a crate from Milton Rubenfeld's store to build a stage and entertain the neighborhood kids. A brown-eyed girl named Joan Verizzo became a family friend.

During the Seventies, the Rubenfeld kids hit their stride. Abby attended Princeton, where she was elected freshman-class president, before going on to law school and a career as an activist lawyer in New York and Nashville. Paul appeared in community theater and was voted Sarasota High's Most Talented Senior in 1970. Never crazy about their son's career choice, Milton and Judy kept hoping Paul wouldn't get big parts. He kept getting them.

In March of 1971, when he was eighteen, Paul had his first run-in with the Sarasota Sheriff's Department. He was busted for pot possession and held for a brief time on a $1000 bond. That may sound like an outrageous amount of money, but it wasn't unusual in the drug-hysterical Seventies. Wearing greasy hair and glasses, Paul looked as sullen as any kid booked on a weed misdemeanor. He got two years' probation.

After a rough year at Boston University and rejection letters from Juilliard and Carnegie-Mellon, Paul enrolled at Cal Arts, in Valencia, California, and found his groove. He changed his name to Reubens, appeared in cameos in a couple of Cheech and Chong movies and developed a character called Jay Longtoe, a lounge-singing Indian, for his frequent appearances on The Gong Show. Paul was a man of a thousand characters then. Developing his skills at the Groundlings Theater, the improvisational troupe in Hollywood where Phil Hartman and Laraine Newman of Saturday Night Live got their start, he came up with Pee-wee Herman. A contorted, overgrown kid with Dippity Done hair, white shoes and a red bow tie, Pee-wee began life in a five-minute skit poking fun at Captain Kangaroo. Rather unexpectedly, Pee-wee was a local hit, playing to packed midnight shows at Groundlings. The Pee-wee Herman Show moved on to the Roxy on Sunset Strip, where it sold out for five months and was filmed for a Home Box Office special. Pee-wee had broken into the medium he would soon change: television.

Even on the cusp of stardom, Paul made frequent trips home to visit his parents. By then, Milton and Judy had moved into a fine home at the end of a private road on exclusive Siesta Key. It had a classy glassed-in deck overlooking the gulf, palm trees, a bird feeder and plenty of space for cars. Sarasota was a place for Paul to kick back and see his old friends, like Joan Verizzo, who had gone to work as an intern in the State Attorney's office.

Known for its balmy weather, dramatic lightning storms, a good ballet company and state theater, Sarasota enjoys the kind of serenity that money can buy. Donald Regan, the White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan, lives there. Audrey Hepburn has a place on Longboat Key. It is a town of guarded residential developments striped with speed bumps, where old-timers wave to each other from their motor launches and carefully pilot their Mercedes to shop at Target discount stores.

It comes as little surprise that Sarasota is not a city that plays by Playhouse rules. The Gulf Coast of Florida likes to keep its sex behind closed doors. In the last several years, cops have busted topless sunbathers and men and women wearing skimpy thong bathing suits. A Sarasota record-store clerk became the first person in the state to be charged with the sale of sexually explicit material to a minor — a felony — for selling a 2 Live Crew tape to an eleven-year-old girl.

Sarasotans are often confounded by Sheriff Monge's department. It makes half as many drug arrests as the city police, who cover a smaller area. It lets deputies get naked busting hotel call girls. Monge wants a twenty-percent budget increase. Murders are up. Sexual assaults are up. Violent crime is up eleven percent overall. So why is Monge sending detectives — four at a time, in this case — to a porn theater?

"A lot of those people in vice are born-again types," says Elliott Metcalfe, the Sarasota County public defender. "A part of them is kind of nasty; they've got their own agenda. I've never heard one complaint about that theater. Law enforcement has gotten the message that they can engage in any type of behavior as long as they capture the criminal. People are frustrated and angry."

Home visiting his parents in 1983, a few years before Pee-wee mania hit, Paul drove off in his Ford Tempo toward the Adult Entertainment Center in Coral Cove Mall and his second encounter with local law enforcement. The Adult Entertainment Center is called the South Trail Bookstore today, a rat-hole peep-show joint selling vintage porn magazines and attracting men of all ages looking for action.

Undercover cops followed Paul to the back of the mall that night, where they said he tried to open the door of a Pontiac that wasn't his. At 3:15 a.m. he was arrested for loitering and prowling. Over a T-shirt, he wore a plaid shirt that was untucked. He had a mustache, a goatee and sideburns and a stray lock of hair curled over his forehead, which gave Paul the look of a mall-rat Mephistopheles.

A month later the charge was dropped. Paul's old friend Joan Verizzo, on her way to becoming a sheriff's deputy, worked on the case for the State Attorney's office.

"Dear Sheriff Joan," Pee-wee Herman wrote on a photograph for her. "Be my friend forever."

FOR PAUL REUBENS THE ACTOR, THE PEE-WEE YEARS had been everything he wanted and everything he didn't want. There was money, enough for the house in the Hollywood Hills with an elaborate garden of cactuses and succulents, enough to fill the house with a massage chair and rare toys from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, Elvis statues, spring-equipped shoes and a Police Woman doll. "He was a voracious shopper," says Phil Retzky, who owns Little Rickie, the Manhattan temple of kitsch where Paul bought many items for the Playhouse and for himself. "We constantly shipped him the best stuff we had."

But uncertainty had dogged Paul almost from the moment Pee-wee was born. "What am I going to do with this character?" he asked fellow Groundling Phil Hartman. "Should I really commit myself to this, or should I just kind of let it end?"

Of course, he committed. But offscreen, Paul worried about doing Pee-wee too long, about being a middle-aged man in a toupee playing a kid. Pee-wee was only temporary, he warned reporters. Paul Reubens wanted other roles, had "longed for quite a while to do something else." But icons don't just retire. Not icons whose Saturday-morning programs touch kids' lives.

"I do consider myself a role model for kids," Paul told an interviewer during the height of the Pee-wee craze. "My responsibility is to be moral more than anything else, really. I'm not sure how much of a difference I can make. For me, it's more a question of not messing kids up — not doing the wrong thing."

Biting the bullet, Paul continued to fret. "There are so many things I would like to do," he told ROLLING STONE in 1987, "so many people I probably am."

But he did his best to protect Pee-wee — and Paul — by still conducting most interviews in character. Pee-wee dropped names: Prince, Bob Dylan, Eddie Murphy, James Caan and Joan Rivers were friends, he said. He dated "famous celebrities.'' He complained about his limo, mocking them all. At least Pee-wee was having a good time.

By the time he arrived at his parents' house in Sarasota last summer, Paul Reubens's dissatisfaction had reached a peak. Nearly thirty-nine, he clearly was a middle-aged man. He had been doing Pee-wee for more than a decade. Now it felt like a trap. "He was a guy in a Pee-wee suit," Gary Panter says. "Paul Reubens is an adult human being. People confused him with the character." Even some of Paul's friends called him Pee-wee.

To make matters worse, the second movie, Big Top Pee-wee, had not done well. Shorn of some truly weird, old-time Pee-wee scenes in favor of kissy scenes with Gina Piccolapupula, the sultry trapeze artist, Big Top earned only a disappointing $15 million. That only added to — and perhaps verified — Paul's disillusionment with the character. After Big Top, "nothing really moved ahead," says Joey Arias, another Groundling, who appeared in the movie as Shim, a half-man, half-woman.

One day Paul walked into Abracadabra, a toy store in New York City, wearing his long-hair Paul "disguise." He asked for some Pee-wee Herman dolls and masks and identified himself. The clerk wasn't convinced. " 'Maybe I don't even look like Pee-wee anymore,' " a friend who was there says Reubens told him. "Paul started freaking out."

So Paul canceled the Playhouse's sixth season and virtually disappeared from the Hollywood columns. As he had during infrequent breaks before, he traveled — to Italy, to Hawaii, across the United States and to Sarasota — to relax and to sit in the sun. "All we do is just get in the van and drive," says his friend Allee Willis. "This year was about taking off and figuring out what the next move was. It was a great year, and it was pretty much coming to an end. He had some ideas, but not a concrete plan."

And then the ideas went to pieces.

According to what the cops say, Paul told the arresting officers that he would perform a benefit for the Sheriff's Department, "to take care of this." No deal was made, and Paul was never charged with attempted bribery. Before he'd been driven to jail that night, though, the cops had allowed him to call his old friend Joan Verizzo from the XXX theater. "I went right down," Verizzo told me a few days later under a clutch of balloons at the Hyatt Sarasota, where her twenty-year high-school reunion was in full swing. Verizzo is now Corporal Verizzo, the ranking woman in the Sarasota Sheriff's Department. Yes, she'd given Paul two $20 bills. Sure, department regulations prohibit deputies from helping anybody but immediate family make bail. Verizzo said she considered Paul family. "Joan Verizzo has been a part of our family for over twenty years," Judy Rubenfeld wrote Sheriff Monge in explanation. "My daughter went through school with her, and my sons call on her often. If she had not responded to Paul, it would have been a family crisis."

The letter didn't help. Joan Verizzo received a one-day suspension. "I made a small loan to him out of loyalty to someone I consider to be family," she says. "They chose to suspend me anyway. I like working for the Sheriff's Department, so I'm not planning to fight it."

Things were sad all around. "I didn't know it was a crime," one of the three other men arrested on July 26th said. "I didn't think I was bothering anyone."
"Yeah, I was playing with myself," said another. "I'm sorry." They all made bail and went home to await arraignment a few days hence, alongside other men who were charged with writing bad checks and fishing off the wrong Sarasota bridge. Reading the headlines and seeing Paul's arrest on local and national television, a local lawyer shook his head and hinted of entrapment, at least of an emotional variety: "It was like the vice squad going into an alcohol-rehabilitation center with a pitcher of martinis and saying, 'Who wants a drink?' "

Talking about what happened in Sarasota, people kept coming back to the mug shots. The face was so foreign. And it was supposed to be. "He never wanted to be photographed like that," a friend says, "because then that cover would be blown." It was Paul's way of preserving his life. But in the court of public opinion, it might have been easier if Paul had been arrested in the theater wearing his Pee-wee suit.

After the arrest, Paul, always something of a recluse, slipped further underground. "He's still incredibly upset," says Allee Willis. "It affected him in an extremely devastating way that hasn't seemed to diminish much over time. He's very stunned by the unfair reaction — the completely disproportionate reaction. But what he's most concerned about is kids' reaction, in terms of why their favorite TV show was pulled off the air, why the video was pulled out of the Disney-MGM tour. People are treating him like he's a child molester.

"None of us really knows where he is," Willis says. "We wait for him to call us. As the days go by, we talk more often. The first few days it was horrible. But he's definitely sounding like Paul now.... Some of the humor is there."

Rumors started that Pee-wee might reappear, in late-night syndication, which Paul had hoped for, to keep him in money. The lewdness arrest reached no resolution. An early attempt at a plea bargain failed. The defense team drafted Richard Gerstein, a former Florida State Attorney whose office began the investigation that tied the Nixon White House to the Watergate burglars. Seventies kids would love it. A Watergate white hat defending Pee-wee!

Phil Hartman spoke to Paul before the bust. He was planning an around-the-world trip. "He was going to go through Asia and sweep west and end up in Barcelona for the Olympics," Hartman says. "He was kind of a solitary guy, but he has friends in a lot of places, and he likes to touch down here and there."

Paul had even considered leaving show business altogether. "He had a lot of bad experiences, what he would term bitter experiences," Hartman says. "There were lawsuits; he fired managers; he had relationships torn asunder throughout these last several years.

"I heard he actually is starting to think about future gigs," continues Hartman. "The one thing all of us who have known Paul since the Groundlings know is that he's capable of any number of fully realized characters. He's a professional actor, and he has thought of himself as an actor since he was a child. He is no one-trick pony."

"Paul will be okay," Joan Verizzo says. "He's a survivor."

It was heartening to picture Paul staring with wonder at the towers of Florence, walking past the cages of calling birds along Las Ramblas in Barcelona and among the terraced gardens of Bali. Back from the big world, he would return to his garden, flip on the TV and find only cartoons. At 11:30 on Saturday mornings, instead of Pee-wee's Playhouse, The Adventures of Raggedy Ann and Andy would be playing.

But what about Pee-wee? Other men who are role models for kids have been allowed their failures of the flesh. New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden did a stint at the Smithers Center for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and went on to reclaim his career. Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors is now back after a serious bout with booze. Wrestlers like Rowdy Roddy Piper have admitted to using illegal steroids. Dozens of rock stars, who have ingested every substance known to the DEA, have cleaned up — and then preached about it. Los Angeles Laker James Worthy survived a soliciting-for-prostitution arrest. But is redemption of this sort possible for a Saturday-morning-children's-show host?

"I wish Paul's arrest could be part of an epic moment in American life, when we finally face sexuality in adulthood and childhood," says Gary Panter. "But that won't happen. The country is still based on titillation and denial." A country where police arrest women for wearing provocative bathing suits and men for masturbating and where unspoken rules understood by corporate men in New York and Hollywood have the most ruinous power of all.

Who sent Paul Reubens on the run?

Who killed Pee-wee Herman?

The secret word is us.