On This Day: July 27, 1991
The secret word is… arrested. On July 26, 1991, undercover detectives from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s department raided the South Trail Cinema — an adult movie theater located in Sarasota, Fla. That evening’s lineup included a series of XXX-rated features with titles like Nurse Nancy, Turn Up the Heat and Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark. Infiltrating the theater, the detectives nabbed three men for indecent exposure and then spotted a fourth who was openly masturbating. That last offender was Paul Reubens, better known as the internationally renowned children’s entertainer Pee-wee Herman.
According to the arresting officers, nobody realized that Reubens and Herman were one and the same until the actor mentioned that he happened to be the star of CBS’s recently concluded Saturday morning series Pee-wee’s Playhouse. And that’s not all: Reubens reportedly offered to appear in character as Pee-wee for a children’s benefit if the department conveniently decided to drop the “Exposure of Sexual Organs” charge, which could have resulted in a year’s jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. Not surprisingly, officials declined his offer. Fortunately for Reubens, they also declined to charge him with attempted bribery. News of the arrest subsequently broke on this day 32 years ago.
If Sarasota law enforcement didn’t immediately recognize Reubens, the rest of the world certainly did. On July 27, a Florida reporter spotted him on a department-issued arrests sheet from the previous evening and his mugshot was plastered in newspapers and magazines around the country not long afterwards. Reubens denied the charges in a July 29 statement, while his lawyer, Dan Dannheiser, discussed the impact of the arrest on his career in the press. “He does a lot of things with kids over the world, and his career will be over when the story runs,” Dannheiser told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Other outlets weighed in on the story in equally apocalyptic terms. “Paul Reubens is living out every man’s and every boy’s worst nightmare. He is alleged to have been seen touching himself,” wrote Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. “The simple equation of fame plus alleged sex crime equals news, requiring that the entire clammy story be exposed to the world.”
Following Reubens’s arrest, CBS pulled the remaining reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse from its schedule. Additionally, Pee-wee toys were removed from Toys “R” Us stores nationwide, and a tape featuring the character’s voice was excised from a studio tour at Florida’s Disney-MGM Studios. For a moment, it appeared that Pee-wee had embarked on his last big adventure.
What happened next
But fans didn’t want to see Pee-wee’s playhouse abandoned forever. In the weeks after Reubens’s arrest, “Free Pee-wee” rallies were held in Los Angeles and New York, and Reubens’s celebrity pals — a list that included Cyndi Lauper, Joan Rivers and Robert Klein — publicly spoke up in his defense. (In a statement that has aged badly, Bill Cosby also chimed in, saying the situation was “blown all out of proportion.”) Even members of the Sarasota police wanted to see him vindicated. “I sure hope things work out for old Pee-wee,” one officer reportedly said.
Writing in The Los Angeles Times, Roger Simon said that Reubens deserved to be praised, not vilified. “The guy was practicing safe sex,” Simon wrote. “And ask yourself this: Wouldn’t you rather have these guys touching themselves in X-rated movie houses than have them touching themselves next to you at Dances With Wolves?”
While Reubens initially stayed out of the spotlight, he clearly felt bolstered by the public support. In September, Pee-wee Herman triumphantly took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to the delighted cheers of the audience. “Heard any good jokes lately?” he said slyly. “So funny, I forgot to laugh.”
In November, Reubens returned to Florida and entered a no contest plea to his indecent exposure charges, in exchange for a small fine and a community service commitment. “No experience like this has a positive impact on anyone, but this was an excellent resolution,” said the actor’s lawyer, Richard E. Gerstein. (In 2002, Reubens was charged with possession of child pornography, but maintained that the images were part of a vintage erotica collection. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge.)
Where we are now
While Pee-wee took a timeout following Reubens’s 1991 arrest, the actor continued to pop up regularly in a wide of variety of movies and TV shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mystery Men to Murphy Brown and Everybody Loves Raymond. Reubens officially revived his alter ego at the 2007 Guys Choice Awards hosted by Spike TV and went on to headline a Broadway stage show and the 2016 Netflix movie Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Reflecting on his arrest in a 2004 interview with NBC News, Reubens said that he “wasn’t thinking” about the potential fallout when he entered the South Trail Cinema on July 26, 1991. “I mean that didn’t seem like a crime to me. It didn’t seem like anyone’s business but my own,” the actor recalled, reiterating his claim that he did not expose himself.
“It was kind of like a mortifying kind of situation where I felt like people are laughing at me,” Reubens continued. “I’m a professional comedian. I’ve never claimed to able to take it as good as a dish it out, ever. I mean I’m just sensitive.”