LOS ANGELES—Move over Tiger Woods and Montana Fishburne: Paul Reubens, the actor best known for his long-running portrayal of perpetual child Pee-wee Herman, has had a share of celebrity sex scandal which predates that of any other current Hollywood star or media personality by at least a decade... until the cops came back for more in 2002. And it's all reexamined for your pleasure in Reubens' "Playboy Interview," which appears in the magazine's September, 2010 issue.
But first a little background: July 26, 1991 was a hot Friday night in Reubens' hometown of Sarasota, Florida, but one place to cool off would have been the XXX South Trail Cinema, where one would have the choice of viewing Anthony Spinelli's Catalina Five-O: Tiger Shark with Mercedes Lynn, Raven, Sandra Scream and Zara Whites; F.J. Lincoln's Nurse Nancy with Alicyn Sterling and Cassidy; or Turn Up The Heat with Carla Ferrari, Nina DePonca and Savannah.
It's unclear which movie was playing when Det. William Walker watched a man "masterbate" (according to the police report) in the dimly lit rows of theater seats at 8:25 p.m. and again 10 minutes later—but apparently Walker could see well enough in the dark to be able to collar the perp as he exited the theater several minutes later, charging him and two other men with violation of Florida State Statute 800.03: "Exposure of Sexual Organs."
The evening's big catch was, of course, Paul Reubens, who was spending some time away from Hollywood (Calif., not Fla.) visiting relatives in the area and possibly feeling nostalgic about the fact that he'd been busted "loitering and prowling" near a Sarasota adult theater in 1971, though all charges relating to that adventure were later dropped.
But according to Reubens' Playboy interview, the public masturbation charges were a crock.
"Had we gone to trial, we had ready an expert from the Masters and Johnson Institute who was going to testify that in 30 years of research on masturbation the institute had never found one person who masturbated with his or her nondominant hand," Reubens told interviewer Bill Zehme. "I'm right-handed, and the police report said I was jerking off with my left hand. That would have been the end of the case right there; proof it couldn't have been me."
While that logic is questionable, by Reubens' own account, his scandal nonetheless outplayed that of serial killer/cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer in the press, and led to his being a Hollywood pariah for the better part of a decade, relegated to guest appearances on a couple of sitcoms and a fair amount of voice acting—quite a fall from having a four-year run (1986-1990) as the most popular children's programming host since Buffalo Bob or Capt. Kangaroo.
"I remember my mother saying, 'Honey, just come back to our house. It's not a big deal'," Reubens told Zehme. "And I said, 'Mom, you don't get what's about to happen.' ... At my sister's house I sat with her friend, a complete stranger, and watched my whole story unfold in hourly increments on CNN. The friend was telling me, 'It's going to be all right. Don't worry.' I kept thinking, Who the hell are you? I don't even know you."
Perhaps the biggest revelation about the event, however, was that Reubens, seeking to "disappear" from the national media, turned to a friend who had long since mastered the ability to guard her own privacy, heiress Doris Duke.
"On the Monday after my arrest on Friday, I woke up at Doris Duke's 2,700-acre estate in Somerville, New Jersey," he said. "It was designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted—he also created Central Park. It looked like Central Park except bigger, with deer all over the place. They put me in the cottage Imelda Marcos had just vacated, and the staff did what they would do for any guest—they left the daily newspapers outside my bedroom that morning. I opened the door and saw my mug shot on the covers of the New York Post, the Daily News and The New York Times. I went from feeling safe to Gaaaaah! That night I turned on the TV and saw people I mistakenly and naively thought were my friends making jokes about me. That was really painful. ... Paparazzi staked out my house for months. To get out, I hid on the floor of somebody's car, under a blanket."
The jokemakers included Jay Leno, Arsenio Hall, Patti LaBelle and Luther Vandross, he told Zehme, but there were certainly dozens of others—and all because Reubens had done what arguably tens of thousands of other moviegoers had done before him, either because they didn't own a VCR or lived in situations where they couldn't easily use one for masturbatory purposes.
Although Reubens had offered to perform a free children's concert in Sarasota in exchange for the charges being dropped, the authorities didn't go for it, so he wound up pleading "no contest" to the charges to avoid the further embarrassment of a very public trial, and got sentenced to community service for his trouble.... and Toys 'R' Us removed all its Pee-wee Herman toys from its shelves, retailers removed their lines of Pee-wee wardrobe, and the actor lost a "merchandising bonanza" that, at its peak in 1988, had generated more than $25 million in sales. Perhaps worse from a humiliation point of view, CBS halted its reruns of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," and Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando scratched from its public tours a video in which Pee-wee explains how voice-over tracks are made.
"But as a result I now know everything there is to know about scandal and shock—how you move through the first 12 hours, the first 24 hours, the first six weeks, the first six months, the first six years and so on," Reubens told Zehme. "I know how to navigate all this hideous, shitty, horrible stuff you go through. Which saved my life when scandal number two happened."
"Scandal number two," of course, was the search of his L.A. home by police in late 2001, which turned up thousands and thousands of items that Wikipedia terms "kitsch memorabilia"—and what the L.A. City Attorney's office said was "a collection of child pornography," including a copy of the video depicting actor Rob Lowe having sex with an underage girl which, Zehme noted, "had made the rounds all over the entertainment community."
The cops had acted on a tip from a witness against actor Jeffrey Jones, best known for his portrayal as Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, who was charged with creation and possession of child porn involving a 14-year-old boy. Reubens was also charged in early November, 2002 with possessing child porn, but while the L.A. District Attorney found no grounds to charge Reubens with felony possession, the L.A. City Attorney did bring misdemeanor obscenity possession charges against him on what Reubens' attorney described as "the very last day" the statute would allow.
"If you saw what was taken out of my house, you'd burst out laughing," Reubens told Zehme. "An example of one of the things they confiscated was a crudely done painting I got at a thrift store. It's of a football stadium. In the foreground the football players are out on the field in mid-play, but they don't have pants on. When I found it I thought, Oh my God, that is the greatest painting I've ever seen in my life! It's hilarious. Not one person ever—even a little old lady, even a conservative right-winger, even the pope—would ever look at that painting and call it obscene. I spent a year trying to get my collection back. They destroyed things you wouldn't believe they'd destroy. I had an extensive collection of etched-on-glass 3-D 1940s cheesecake photography of beautiful women. They made it sound as if I had a huge homoerotic collection, which I didn't."
Of course, Reubens adamantly denied the child porn charges, which were later expunged from his record.
"One thing I want to make very, very clear, I don't want anyone for one second to think that I am titillated by images of children," Reubens told NBC's Stone Phillips in 2004. "It's not me. You can say lots of things about me. And you might. The public may think I'm weird. They may think I'm crazy or anything that anyone wants to think about me. That's all fine. As long as one of the things you're not thinking about me is that I'm a pedophile. Because that's not true."
"What's interesting to me—in this very moment right now—is that I don't think I've ever talked about it this much since it happened," he told Zehme. "So to go through and over all that again feels so ironic and fucked and ridiculous and irreparable. I mean, that's the real concern—it's as though you've got some kind of stink on you. You can deodorize the shit out of yourself but still carry a whiff about you. Before now I hadn't dissected it this much—because I can't. If I did, I would get this angry. I'm feeling stuff now I haven't ever felt. I've never let myself feel 'You were wronged.' I will not let anyone turn me into a victim."
It's likely that Reubens speaks for hundreds if not thousands of Americans who also have been wrongly charged with child porn possession.
Reubens will be starring in "The Pee-wee Herman Show" at the Stephen Sondheim Theater on Broadway in New York City beginning on October 26. The show will run through early January, 2011.