The most famous Sarasotan? I’d say Pee-wee Herman, hands down.
His scandal back in 1991 is one of the classic examples of the American media circus—perhaps the classic. It had everything: comedy, tragedy, sex, stardom, hubris, not to mention a horde of people trying to cash in on it. I should know. I was one of them. I made $10,000 out of it.
Pee-wee, or more properly Paul Reubens, aka Paul Rubenfeld, has a new movie coming out on Netflix. It’s called Pee-wee’s Big Holiday and it’s his first movie in 28 years. It’s been a long, hard comeback.
I’ll never forget the moment I heard about Pee-wee’s arrest in an adult theater on the South Trail. I knew something astonishing had happened. I paced around the room trying to put all the pieces together, to sort all the ramifications, when it suddenly hit me: I, Mr. Chatterbox, Sarasota’s foremost gossip, was the perfect person to tell the story.
The next morning, using every connection I had, I managed to get Tina Brown on the phone. She was then the editor of Vanity Fair, which seemed to me the perfect venue for the piece I had in mind, not to mention a wonderful showcase for my talents as an investigative reporter.
“I know everybody involved,” I told Tina. “Everybody!”
“Do you know Pee-wee?”
“Well, not him. But I’ve seen him in the post office. And at the Short Stop. It’s the mother I know. I just saw her two days ago. She adores me. But listen to this: The guy who owns the adult theater is my best friend!”
“I even get invited to his employees’ Christmas party!”
All this was too tempting even for Tina. “Can you get it done in a week?”
“And you can talk to Pee-wee? A real interview?”
She laid out her terms: $10,000 plus expenses. It was more money than I’d ever been paid for anything, including book advances. But it also meant something even more important—a shot at the big time. My moment had finally come. Things went fuzzy for a moment, then my hearing came back into focus. Tina was finishing up. “Get that interview,” she barked.
I started with “the mother.” Actually, Judy Rubenfeld and I were friends, and had been so for years. She’d call when she had some Pee-wee news she wanted me to make known (hometown publicity is always the sweetest), and after a while I had learned all about the Rubenfeld family. I did a story to help publicize the lawn statuary store they’d just bought along with their other son, Luke. And Judy was particularly proud of daughter Abby, who was a prominent gay rights lawyer in Philadelphia.
I called Judy constantly for a day, to no avail. The phone just rang. I’m sure every reporter in the world was calling. So I wrote her a clever note and sent it overnight via FedEx. The ploy worked. She called me as soon as she got it.
I presented my case, stressing that an interview with me for Vanity Fair would be the perfect way for Paul to tell his side of the story. Judy told me that everybody else was using exactly the same tactic, including Diane Sawyer. “But it’s me, Judy. You know you can trust me.” She said she would talk to Pee-wee and see what she could do.
By now a day and a half of my allotted week had vanished. So I went into overdrive, piecing the story together. I called all of Paul’s old friends I could come up with, getting insights into his character, his personality, his other Sarasota arrests—one for marijuana and one for loitering. I went over to the adult theater where he was arrested and grilled my friend, David Warner, who owned the place. David was a story in himself, the ne’er-do-well son of an immensely wealthy family from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He’d bought the theater as a sort of lark, to show art movies in. When it turned that no one on the South Trail wanted to see art movies, he and his friend, Ed Baatz, who managed the place, began to show porn movies, which, it turned out, people did want to see.
Meanwhile, the entire country was devouring scandal. The jokes began immediately (“What’s Pee-wee’s favorite baseball team?” “The Montreal Expos.”) Then came the essays and think pieces about how to explain it to your kids.
As for Paul, he seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. But I knew where he was. During a phone call with Judy, the operator came on the line and said she had an emergency call from “Dale in New Jersey.” It turned out he was being sheltered by heiress Doris Duke at her country estate near Hillsborough, N.J.
The rest of the week went by in a blaze of work, all-nighters, coffee and anxiety. Tina Brown was breathing down my neck, becoming more and more skeptical that I could “get that interview.” Judy Rubenfeld kept dangling hope before my eyes, never saying no, just telling me it was being seriously discussed. Until one day, that is, when she called and said a final decision had been made. Paul would talk to nobody.
I finished what I had and sent it off to Tina. She rather liked it, she said. But without the interview it was worthless. Still, in a gesture I have always appreciated, she sent me the $10,000 anyway.
The story was eventually published right here in Sarasota Magazine. I guess it was good. It won first prize for investigative reporting from the Florida Magazine Association and has since been reprinted in a journalism textbook, along with a study guide and questions for discussion. You can read it here.
And after all these years, Pee-wee seems to be having second thoughts. In doing interviews for his new movie he has been talking, rather guardedly, about the scandal. He told The New York Times, “The only thing I’ll say is that it was stupid not to do anything. I never spoke out. I just went and hid, and in hindsight—I mean that was my true response but I don’t think it was smart—if I had to do it again, I would figure out a way to get out there, talk about it, take control of it.”
Yes. Exactly. But he didn’t. And two careers were derailed. He went on to decades of planning a comeback and I went on to decades of writing for Sarasota Magazine.
There is a P.S. to all this. Years later, when the scandal was old news and no one was interested any more, I was having a beer with Ed Baatz, the manager of the adult theater. We were at a bar in Cortez and talking over old times. That’s when he happened to mention the tapes.
“Tapes?” I said. “What tapes?”
Ed explained that he had the theater surveillance tapes from that night. There were shots of Paul entering, wandering around, buying a Coke, wandering around more, and finally being escorted out by the police.
“You had tapes?” I screamed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ed shrugged. “You never asked.”
Some investigative reporter I am. Please do not tell the Florida Magazine Association. They’ll want their prize back.