The eldest of three children, Paul Rubenfeld was born in 1952 in Peekskill, New York, and grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where his parents ran a lamp store. During his freshman year at Boston University, he successfully auditioned for the Disney-endowed California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) in Valencia which provided training in the performing and visual arts.
Somewhere along the line, Paul Rubenfeld became Paul Reubens and was a veteran of comedy clubs (and several Cheech and Chong movies) when he hit upon the persona of Pee-Wee Herman, a frantically bizarre man-child.
He took the character on stage and hit it big. Eventually, he created an entire stage review, modelled after a 1950’s kiddies TV show that was like the real thing but on acid.
He developed a cult following and became a frequent guest on talk shows, always as Pee-Wee, never as Paul Reubens.
His first film was an inexplicable hit and CBS approached him to front a show to compete with Saturday Night Live.
But something got lost in the translation . . . By the time the smoke had cleared, CBS had given this host of a kids show parody his own kids show, smack bang in the middle of Saturday morning.
Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was the wackiest thing to hit kid TV in years. It became an immediate hit and became (according to the Neilsen ratings) the most videotaped show in America.
The show won 22 Emmys and at its peak drew almost a third of its 9.3 million viewers from adults over 18.
The sweet-natured devil Pee-Wee Herman manically presided over a surreal romper room populated by talking objects (Globey! Chairry!) and endearingly off-kilter characters such as Cowboy Curtis.
But things began to wane as the novelty of Pee-Wee started to wear off and his next movie bombed.
Paul eventually left Hollywood and moved back to Florida. He was arrested there in July 1991 for indecent exposure after being caught masturbating in a porn cinema.
The arrest received an abnormal amount of media attention, CBS removed Pee-Wee’s Playhouse from its Saturday morning schedule and Pee-Wee Herman dolls disappeared from toy stores overnight.
The charges were later dropped but the incident tarnished his reputation. Pee-Wee Herman was dead. “Mecko-lecka-hi mecka-heiny-ho” indeed.
Paul Reubens died on Sunday 30 July 2023, aged 70, years after he had been diagnosed with cancer.