‘Let the artists take over the asylum’: Pee-Wee Herman remembered

Written by Celine Mendiola, produced by Giuliana Mayo

Fans left remembrances for Paul Reubens on his Hollywood Walk of Fame star, even a signature platform shoe. Photo by Shutterstock.

After privately fighting cancer for six years, actor Paul Reubens – best known for his whimsical, childlike persona as Pee-Wee Herman – died on July 30. He was 70.

Before the critical acclaim of the 1985 film “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and its spin-off children’s show, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” Pee-Wee Herman was a character that Reuben developed at The Groundlings, a live comedy troupe in Los Angeles.

His journey to joining The Groundlings started with his longtime friend and fellow actress, Laraine Newman. They first met while they were both students at CalArts in 1973. “We were like kindred spirits immediately,” she says. 

More: Paul Reubens (and Pee-wee Herman) on KCRW: The complete archives 

Newman left CalArts after a few months to join a workshop that would eventually be developed into The Groundlings. She suggested to Reubens after he graduated that he should join her. “I said, ‘You really should go to this group. I think it's for you.’”

While at The Groundlings, Reubens collaborated with fellow actors John Paragon and Phil Hartman to fully develop the character Pee-Wee Herman. In 1980, he launched the stage production “The Pee-Wee Herman Show,” which turned Reubens’ character into a relatable cultural icon. 

“It was a very specific and personal vision of his observations as a young person and a child,” Newman says. “He brought his innocence, his personal experience, and then ultimately it was combined with John Paragon’s personal experience of childhood.”

“The Pee-Wee Herman Show'' earned Reubens a special on HBO and often sold out. The actor soon embraced Pee-Wee Herman as his alter ego, appearing as Pee-Wee in interviews and in public.

More: The Pee-wee Herman Radio Hour on KCRW

Then in 1985, Reubens teamed up with first-time feature film director Tim Burton to create “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” the character’s big screen debut. In the film, Pee-Wee Herman embarks on a wacky cross-country adventure after his beloved red bicycle gets stolen. 

The film was the spark, not just for Reubens’ career, but for director Tim Burton, as well as actress E. G. Daily, who played bike shop employee Dottie. Daily says she is grateful to have been part of the movie, and to have worked closely with Reubens.

“I got to be in this amazing pop culture iconic project that will be forever! And the fact that it's all about childlike behavior … who doesn't want to let their little inner child out constantly?” she says. “To me, that speaks bigger than anything, is the fact that Paul really, really embraced that kind of childlike thing … the innocence, the funniness of the kid.”

The joyful success of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” landed Reubens a children’s TV show on CBS in 1986. “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” ran for five years, bringing stunningly colorful sets and fun puppetry to the small screen. Reubens brought a team of up-and-coming artists to design his show’s sets, including puppeteer Wayne White.

Pee Wee Herman and Wayne White appear on the set of “Pee- Wee’s Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Wayne White.

White was just starting out as an artist when he was hired to create bright sets and absurd puppets for the show. He says the show launched his 30-year career in television. “I'm in the art world now making paintings and sculptures, but I still make giant puppets and stuff. And I get to call it art now.”

“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” won Emmys for its fresh new set design, which White says was thanks to the vision of the show’s eclectic crew, and to the freedom Reubens and the producers granted them. “None of us were TV professionals. We were all painters and cartoonists and sculptors. … We weren't playing by any rote television rules or professionalism. We were just having fun and making it up, and not worrying about anything really, except just doing our thing,” he says. “That's really the power of ‘Playhouse’ – the fact that it … let the artists take over the asylum.”

Wayne White appears with Ric Heitzman in his “Conky” costume on the set of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” Photo courtesy of Wayne White.

Outside of his comical, red bow tie-wearing character, Reubens himself was a “kind, thoughtful human being,” Daily says. “In person, he seemed a little more shy. He was a little quieter and a little more subdued … just gentle and calm.” 

Newman remembers how she would receive personalized birthday greetings and Christmas cards from Reubens, and his close-knit friendship with her sister, Tracy. “We would have these three-way texts going about some topic that he initiates,” she says. “I'll miss those terribly.”

Daily says that there is power in the joyful legacy Reubens leaves behind with the character of Pee-Wee Herman. 

“Growing up and dealing with life is like a whole other thing … but holding on to the silliness of a kid and the thinking of a kid and the perspective of a kid, it just makes things lighter and simple and it's all funny,” she says. “That’s why it’s sustaining it with such power. Because we need that.”