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Paul Mann: Pee-Wee Herman’s Playhouse Takes to the Stage

Paul Reubens revives his iconic show, playing at Club Nokia in Los Angeles through Feb. 7

Pee-wee Herman performed his iconic Playhouse show last week at the majestic Club Nokia in downtown Los Angeles for the first time in nearly 20 years. The shows were the first in a monthlong run, scheduled to end Feb. 7.

Pee-wee (aka Paul Reubens) became a part of pop culture in the 1980s with his unique man-boy character, which he invented as a late-night television comedian. The brilliant and imaginative Reubens then created his Playhouse series, which aired on Saturday morning television. The show was a marvelous mix of imaginative characters, cartoons and live actors that was popular with children. With his masterful use of sexual innuendo — much more creative than the visceral adult comedy so prevalent today — Reubens also captivated a cult following of adult fans.

The success of the Pee-wee character culminated in the early 1990s when Reubens wrote, directed and starred in two Pee-wee Herman movies. In 1991, after a relatively minor run-in with the law when Reubens was arrested for an alleged indecent exposure, the inevitable Hollywood burnout hit poor Pee-wee hard. His Playhouse show was canceled, and late-night comedians had a field day with jokes about his predicament.

Burned out from nearly a decade of nonstop work as Pee-wee, Reubens went into an unofficial retirement mode. He surfaced occasionally, playing a wide range of characters, in well-received cameo appearances, such as his androgynous drug-dealer character in the hit movie Blow. But it seemed as though his Pee-wee character was destined to become an obsolete icon of the 1980s.

That was until his cult following discovered a whole new world of Pee-wee preservation from YouTube to Twitter. Suddenly, countless fans were clamoring for a revival of the beloved character. The Playhouse series was reissued on DVD and sold well. Pee-wee paraphernalia, such as his talking doll, became sought-after collectors items.

Fast forward to Jan. 14, 2010, when Pee-wee was set to perform his Playhouse for the third night of his monthlong engagement. As Pee-wee parted the curtains and appeared on stage, a shriek of excitement roared from the adoring crowd, many of whom had been waiting 20 years or more for that moment.

Despite the decades of controversy, the 57-year-old Reubens looked none the worse for wear, appearing in his trademark undersized gray suit and red bow tie, looking much the same as he did decades earlier.

Like children in grade school, the audience stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Pee-wee offered a quick, heartfelt prayer to the earthquake victims in Haiti. Suddenly the curtains parted, and the crowd collectively gasped in amazement. There was the entire Pee-wee Playhouse — bigger and better than ever.

Most of the imaginative animatronic creatures that Reubens had invented in the early years had been reborn. There was Chairy the talking chair, Pteri the pterodactyl, Conky the robot, Magic Screen and Randy, the red-haired bully puppet. There were new creatures as well, such as a talking Sham Wow and an elaborate Pee-wee-style computer. Many of the real-life characters resumed their roles, too. The original Mailman Mike was back, as was the King of Cartoons. Jambi the Genie and Miss Yvonne also returned.

Some characters were played by new actors. Cowboy Curtis, originally played by Laurence Fishburne, was played by MADtv star Phil LaMarr. Sadly, the character played by deceased Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman was absent.

Most of the script for the 90-minute show was adapted verbatim from the original stage show, done at The Roxy Theatre in Hollywood nearly 30 years earlier. The clever and creative dialogue written for all of the characters seemed as fresh and relevant today as the day it was written. Penned almost solely by Reubens, it’s a true testament to his ingenuity that the dialogue has stood the test of time so well. The old jokes and stories also helped endear the audience to Pee-wee’s character more intensely, as the familiar material brought reminiscent memories of happy, youthful times.

There were also some imaginative new twists to the show, such as a sarcastic snare of infomercial material — from the talking Sham Wow to Miss Yvonne’s video for hawking hair-volumizer Bumpits and the Flirty Girl exercise video. Reubens even seemed to poke fun at his past run-ins with law enforcement with his masterful sexual innuendo. He alluded to topics ranging from compulsive behavior in the bathroom to Internet addiction on his computer. He even tried to hold true to the idea behind an abstinence ring he was wearing before tossing it into the crowd in frustration. The crowd laughed or shrieked to nearly every gimmick or joke tossed their way.

Reubens brilliantly used simple props such as a squeaky balloon, old public domain cartoons and an especially hilarious public service film from the 1950s on children’s hygiene habits at school. The show displayed a mastery of mechanical and technical feats with lighting, sound effects and computer graphics. The crowd roared their approval and gave the cast a 10-minute standing ovation.

After the show, instead of a nondescript autograph-signing session, Reubens held an intimate question-and-answer session with the crowd. Fans expressed their love and gratitude to the actor. The audience discussed with him what they liked most about the show and how to improve it. Reubens offered insight into how complicated the show was and how much work was performed behind the scenes by the talented team of technicians and actors. He revealed that the entire cast and crew were on set each morning at 9 to begin practice for the 8 p.m. shows.

He then revealed a “secret” (Pee-wee style) that we aren’t supposed to tell anyone. The main motivation for the live production was to get a major motion-picture contract to produce a Pee-wee’s Playhouse feature film. Based on a script Reubens wrote, the plot centers on a kidnapped King of Cartoons.

But the moment that most humanized Reubens came at the end of the Q&A. He said that in the early days, he was always too busy to feel the connection with his fans. People would tell him that he was loved, but he never felt that way. Now, the mature Pee-wee, holding back tears, told his most trusted fans that he finally, truly feels their love.

Click here for more information about the Pee Wee Herman show at Club Nokia.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.

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