Mr. Chatterbox

Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens and Sarasota

The comedian is making a comeback this month with a new movie on Netflix. We're reposting our award-winning story from 1991 about the Sarasota incident that derailed his career.

By Bob Plunket March 1, 2016

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in our October 1991 issue. Pee-wee Herman's new movie, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, premieres on Netflix this month.

You would think that for a gossip columnist like me, being in the middle of a major sex scandal would be a career highlight. And it was. Unfortunately, it was also many other things. An immensely talented artist’s career was ruined, the town’s eye was blackened by the world press and many, many people were hurt. It was the saddest week I’ve ever spent in Sarasota.

When I first heard the news, I was watching TV in a motel near the Miami airport. I remember sitting bolt upright in bed and thinking, “Oh, my God, I was afraid this was going to happen.”

Only two days before I had bumped into Paul Reubens’ mother. Judy Rubenfeld, in Morton’s Market. I had known her for years. At first our relationship was business: I was Mr. Chatterbox, the town’s gossip columnist; she was the mother of our most famous celebrity. She gave me news, I gave her son (or rather, Pee-wee Herman) publicity. But over the years a real friendship had developed, and nowdays we were more likely to discuss her other kids, whom I found at least as interesting as Paul.

There was Abby, an attorney specializing in gay-rights issues. She had been legal director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, but now she was moving from New York to Nashville and Judy was worried that it might not be a good town for a lesbian activist. And Luke, the youngest, was having trouble finding himself. He has recently opened a lawn statuary store on the South Trail, and I had dutifully done a story at Judy’s request. During the interview he told me that he and his famous brother were planning a Pee-wee Herman lawn statue; it would have a special weird feature, something like water dribbling out of Pee-wee’s nose into a large seashell he would be holding.

But today things were a little awkward. I was in a hurry and Pee-wee Herman wasn’t such big news anymore. We chatted for a while, mostly about how busy we had been lately; and after we said our good-byes and I moved away, I realized that was the first conversation we had ever had where Paul’s name hadn’t come up.

If it had, I would have learned that he was right there in Sarasota.

And if I thought he was fading into a relic, his moment of glory over, his family and friends certainly did not. They felt he still had unmined depths of talent. He had never intended to spend his whole life being Pee-wee, they insisted. “Don’t you think he feels a little silly, a grown man dressing up in that suit?” Judy once said to me. For years she had been saying that he felt trapped, that he wanted to move on. “He loved Pee-wee,” said his friend Stephanie Moss. “But he wanted out.”

The time had finally come. Earlier this year, he had declined to sign a new contract for hit TV show. He hadn’t worked since April. He was on an extended vacation – other trips to Nantucket and Europe were in the works – using his time to relax and try to figure out what to do next. He was considering anything and everything – acting, writing, producing. What did he want to do? I asked Judy later. “He really didn’t know,” she said, and seemed to mean it. Once she had told me how, back in the old days, just as he was becoming famous, he would sometimes stop in Sarasota on his way to appear on the David Letterman show. When he left she would find his room littered with little notes he had written to himself, things he might try on the show.

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The success of Pee-wee Herman had astonished everyone, even Paul. It started with the appearances with an underground comedy troupe in L.A. in the late ‘70s, then went on to the night-club act that HBO picked up as “The Pee-wee Herman Show” in 1982. Then came two movies, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee, “Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse” with its 16 Emmys, the cover of Life and Rolling Stone, even the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention, in which Michael Dukakis was compared to him. Football players did the Pee-wee dance after scoring a touchdown. By the end of the ‘80s, an incredible 96 percent of all Americans recognized Pee-wee’s name.

And the children – millions of them idolized and imitated him. It always struck me as one of the more bizarre progressions of modern culture that a strange midnight comedy act full of sexual ambiguity and subversiveness – in the original act Pee-wee had mirrors on his shoes so he could look up girls’ skirts – would have evolved into the most important children’s TV show since “Sesame Street.” Paul was known to be at ease with children, but he never pretended that they were his mission in life. Being a kiddie role model was not a position that he aspired to; he was an actor, an entertainer, an artist. His mother told me how he dreaded those encounters with terminally ill children whose last wish was to meet Pee-wee Herman. He couldn’t say no, but seeing them remained a sad and painful ordeal for him.

It was only natural that he would come to Sarasota to think and relax. It was, after all, his hometown, the place he grew up in and the place his parents still lived. He came here surprisingly often, sometimes for extended stays. Though his parents’ home on Siesta Key is right across an unpaved road from the beach, in a rustic, expensive, and slightly arty neighborhood – their nearest neighbor is painter Syd Solomon – Paul usually stayed at a hotel. He was, after all, a 38-year-old bachelor. This trip he was at the Resort at Longboat Key, still often referred to by its old name, The Inn on the Beach. It’s hard to say whether it or the Colony can claim title to “Sarasota’s fanciest hotel,” but there is no doubt that the Resort is the more secluded of the two, hidden behind the gates of the Longboat Key Club. Paul had a “club suite” for which he was paying $150 a night, the going summer rate. Judy Rubenfeld would show up regularly, carrying a bag of groceries.

Paul and his manager Michael McLean had made a very conscious “creative decision” early on: There was no Paul Reubens, there was only Pee-wee Herman. No interviews with Paul were ever allowed, no photos of him were available, no allusions to him were permitted. The “home-town-boy-makes-good” story I kept wanting to do was always squashed, and with what I considered a very heavy hand. We were even told that if we persisted we would not be allowed to publish any pictures, including ones of Pee-wee. But if McLean’s tactics suggested you were dealing with a paranoid control freak, you also had to admit they were very successful.

And the creative decision turned out to have an unexpected bonus. Out of his Pee-wee garb, with the beard and long hair that he would grow whenever on hiatus, Paul was virtually unrecognizable. He could go anywhere and not be noticed, except as a tall, thin man with a blank passive face. He was probably the only major TV star who enjoyed such anonymity. The entire world knew who Pee-wee Herman was, but virtually no one knew who Paul Reubens was.

No one except Sarasota, that is. It’s impossible to hide from your hometown, and Paul didn’t try very hard. Though I have never met him, I have run into him twice, once in the post office and once at the Short Stop convenience store downtown. Each time there was that double take. “Gee, that man looks familiar – oh, my God, it’s Pee-wee Herman.” In 1990 he had attended his high school reunion at the Hyatt – as Paul – and had made a moving little speech about the importance of old friendships that was the high point of the evening. Occasionally you would hear about an indiscretion on his part. He had been sighted in the town’s gay bars on several occasions, though I should point out that in a town like Sarasota, the gay bars are the only nightspots that can even remotely be described as “hip.” All sorts of people turn up there – Ringling art students, Lucie Arnaz, when she was in town for a performance, even former society columnist Helen Griffith, at the time well into her 80s. Still, for someone in Paul’s position, it seemed like a slightly dangerous thing to do.

What I found much more worrisome was his arrest. Only a handful of people knew about it, but for those of us who did, it was a scary secret. Back in 1983, just as he was starting to become famous, he had been arrested during the Christmas holidays at the adult bookstore on the South Trail. Nobody knew exactly what had happened, but his name and address – actually his parents’ address, as he was by that time living in California – had been printed in the paper. I kept my mouth shut out of loyalty to his mother, but still, it worried me. His manager must be nuts to treat the press the way he did with something like that lurking in the background. What if it got out? It was the sort of thing that could ruin Paul’s career.

Sarasota is not at its best in the summer. Each day is a carbon copy of the last: The temperature hovers in the low ‘90s, in a haze of white heat and wet, muggy air. Lightning is a major public safety problem. Many people, especially the newcomers, hardly ever go outdoors all summer. It’s just too uncomfortable.

And then there’s the red tide. An algae that periodically “blooms” in the Gulf, it poisons fish and causes asthma-like attacks in humans. By Friday, July 26, Sarasota’s worst red tide attack in five years was already fermenting in the lukewarm waters offshore.

But the biggest problem may well be boredom. The snowbirds have fled north and the social season has ground to a halt. There is little going on to keep one amused, although the antics of the vice cops were titillating the town. It wasn’t the first time. In the past year or two, local cops had arrested beachgoers for wearing too-revealing bathing suits. Then they busted a clerk at Specs – he turned out to be a Black honor student, active in church work – for selling a 2 Live Crew tape. Both cases made national headlines.

This time it sounded like they had really gone too far. A cop had actually taken off all his clothes while busting a prostitute, and she had touched him “in an orally sexual manner” – then he pulled his badge. They had it all on videotape, or maybe they didn’t, depending on who you talked to. The whole town was debating both the ethics of the case and what exactly “in an orally sexual manner” meant. As an old '60s liberal, I was delighted to see that when the paper’s “Inquiring Photographer” asked people at the mall what they thought about the case, all six of them said the police had gone too far.

Over at the Asolo Theatre Company, preparations were already underway for the fall season opening of an elaborate new musical called Svengali, based on the famous story about an opera star controlled by her evil manager. There were plans to try and take the show to Broadway. That the Asolo would be routinely involved in such a scheme shows how far it had come. The almost brand-new building was another indication of the Asolo’s success. The enormous structure contains a 503-seat professional repertory theater, and acting conservatory, and a film and television school. It had been dedicated only a year-and-a-half before in an elaborate ceremony attended by Burt Reynolds, only fitting since Reynolds personally donated $1 million of the $15 million needed to complete the project.

Since it was Friday and not much was happening, Vic Meyrich, the theater’s production coordinator, decided to show the staff an old documentary he had recently come across in a store room. It dealt with the “old Asolo” days – the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – so he put out the call that former members of the company were welcome. Among those who showed up was Paul Reubens.

Sarasota is full of people who grew up with Paul Reubens and were his friends. There’s mayor Fredd Atkins, who was a classmate at Sarasota High. There’s the girl who’s always introduced at parties as the real inventor of the Pee-wee dance; there is an Episcopal priest at St. Boniface of Siesta Key; there is Cynthia Porter, who married the town’s leading black minister and now helps run his “Love Campaign.” But the people who worked at the Asolo in the late ‘60s, many of them still involved with the theater, are probably Paul’s closest Sarasota friends. Paul sat in the back; most people in the audience had no idea he was there. 

The film brought back powerful memories. As with most things that have turned into institutions, there is a great deal of nostalgia for the Old Asolo, when the place was less professional, perhaps, but more a part of the community. Afterwards, a group of old-timers hung around for a while to reminisce. Then Paul drove over to Vic’s house; Vic and his wife Stephanie Moss are good friends from the old Asolo days. When he called them a week or so ago to check in and say hello, he had spoken with their son Hart, aged six. The boy had been thrilled to be talking to Pee-wee Herman, his parents’ famous friend but someone he had never met. Paul, who is conscientious about such things, promised he would come over to say hello.

“He was in great spirits,” Stephanie recalls. He was rested and relaxed and tanned. This wasn’t the way she had found him on his last visit, about a year ago, when the TV show was still in production. That time he had been exhausted. The strain of making “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was clearly burning him out. Most TV stars only have to act; Paul controlled every aspect of the show, from its concepts to its writing to its direction and production. His perfectionism and obsession with the smallest details were legendary and had won him enormous respect in the business. He even oversaw every aspect of all the Pee-wee merchandising spin-offs; he had reportedly sent one Pee-wee doll back for revision eight times before he was satisfied. He literally worked from the moment he got up until the moment he went back to sleep. “He didn’t have a life,” Stephanie says. “It was the most exhausting thing.”

They chatted for the rest of the afternoon, mostly about old friends and Paul’s life in California. Then Paul spent some time with Hart, who was a little puzzled by this person with long hair and a goatee who looked and acted so unlike the Pee-wee he knew from television. Never did Paul suddenly break into Pee-wee; and although he quoted a few Pee-wee catchphrases, he was low-key, soft-spoken, low-energy.

Stephanie begged Paul to stay for dinner, but he declined. After an autograph for Hart and a snapshot of the two of them together, Paul drove off in his rented Mazda. He didn’t tell them what his plans were for the evening. Perhaps he didn’t even know himself. But it turned out that he would get his picture taken again that night.

The South Trail Cinema is Sarasota’s only adult movie theatre. It is owned by a friend of mine named David Warner, a 42-year-old writer/videomaker, whom I first met at Liar’s Club, that famous Friday lunch gathering of local writers. David has a rough-hewn Southern edge to him, but after a while I began to suspect there was something unusual about his background.

I found out what it was when I went with David once to visit his family in Tuscaloosa. His father is Jack Warner, an enormously wealthy Alabama paper manufacturer. We flew up on the Warners’ private jet. David had told me his father collected art, but nothing prepared me for the astonishing paintings that covered the walls of the company headquarters, several historic homes downtown, and the Warner mansion at the Northfield Yacht Club. It may well be one of the most important collections of American art still in private hands. There are Sargents, Churches, Bierstadts, Winslow Homers, and a whole roomful of Georgia O’Keeffes. But the thing that impressed me the most was the snapshot I saw framed and hung on the wall of the laundry room. It was Lord Mountbatten, a family friend, taken when he dropped by Tuscaloosa to visit the Warners.

David is one of those enviable young men who can afford expensive toys, and the one thing he has always wanted – other than a redneck bar, which he also bought – was his own movie theater. He started out with the most altruistic of motives: He would show classic and foreign films. But in 1981, when he took over, there wasn’t much of a market for that sort of thing in Sarasota. After several dismal months of trying to make a go of it, he discovered what there was a market for: adult movies. The theatre has been in the black ever since.

There have been some problems over the years. The building was firebombed (case still unsolved by the Sarasota police) forcing it to close for six months. And though it seems almost too good to be true, the theater was actually struck by lightning during one showing, frying the projector and forcing another shutdown. But the biggest problem has been the video revolution. People can now watch adult movies at home, and most of them do. To help offset this, David started a video rental club. He asked me to help him pick out the tapes; we spent hours poring through the catalogs, deciding what to order. Ed Baatz, who manages the theater for David, once invited me to the employees’ Christmas party and I leapt at the invitation. I was a little nonplussed to find several families having hot dogs out by the pool, with a lot of dogs and kids running around.

But if David’s audience was deserting him, a certain hard-core element remained. They included: 1) Older men who had been attending such theaters regularly for years and weren’t going to change now. 2) Those couples one sees now and then in adult theaters and finds impossible to figure out. 3) Homosexuals, some cruising, some not. 4) “Traveling salesmen” – men who are stuck alone in Sarasota and are interested in some action but not quite sure how to find it. And 5) The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department.

That July night there were four deputies inside the theater. They were dressed as usual for a sting operation of this sort, in T-shirts and cut-off jeans. Ed Baatz had always been annoyed at how scruffy they looked; they certainly stood out from the rest of his clientele, who he describes as having more of a “country club” look. The cops had arrived at around five. The would stay 5½ hours. In that time, they would arrest four men. If Paul had arrived a few minutes earlier, he would have seen one of the arrests. The brother of one of Sarasota’s most prominent businessmen had been charged with masturbating while watching the movie. He was a married man in his 50s, with a history of health and alcohol-related problems.

Paul parked his car and entered the theater. The ticket seller did not mention the cops. He had been forbidden to do so by the officers; as they flashed their badges for admittance, they told him that if he warned anyone of their presence, he would be arrested for obstruction of justice.

After Paul paid admission ($8) he entered the theater itself. It’s a rather grand space that appears larger than its 120-seat capacity. Red sound curtains line the walls, and there is a strong smell of disinfectant. Six ceiling fans kick up a breeze; combined with the air-conditioning – which comes on with a roar that makes everybody flinch – it could easily have been the coolest place in town. 

The theater was not full. Although it was Friday, the day the movies change (Catalina Five-O Tiger Shark, Turn up the Heat and Nurse Nancy made up the new triple-bill), if 20 people are there at any given time, it’s a crowd. Paul chose a seat in the third row from the rear, toward the end farthest from the entrance. According to deputies, he masturbated twice, once at 8:25, then again 10 minutes later when a new movie appeared on the screen. The police report gets quite specific; it is this attention to detail that makes you feel when you read it that someone is being spied on in a private act.

How long Paul remained in the theater after being observed by the deputies is unclear; one report says five minutes, another over an hour. At any rate, as he was leaving he was stopped in the lobby by Officers Walters and Tuggle, who identified themselves and told him he was being placed under arrest. They escorted Paul out to the parking lot.

“This is embarrassing,” Paul told the policemen, according to the report. “Can I show you some I.D.?” Though the dialogue sounds awkward, it is not hard to imagine the growing panic he must have been feeling. He explained his wallet was in the trunk of his car, and the two cops escorted him to the Mazda. There was some confusion; he had concealed it under the carpeting and Sgt. Tuggle lifted it up for him. Paul retrieved his wallet, but before the policeman got a good look at the name on the license, he blurted out “I’m Pee-wee Herman.” According to the deputies, he then made a suggestion: Maybe he could do a charity benefit for the Sheriff’s office. The officers didn’t say no, but told him he would have to be arrested anyway. The report says that Paul told them he knew people got in trouble fooling around with each other in the theater, but he thought it was OK if you were “by yourself.”

The police explained Paul’s “court options,” but his mind was elsewhere. “How can I handle this with the least amount of publicity?” he asked. The detectives didn’t have a satisfactory answer to that. They placed Paul in a marked police car and drove to the Sarasota County Jail.

There he was fingerprinted and photographed. He was charged with Exposure of Sexual Organs. The bail was $219; he was $40 short. Police Lt. Joan Verizzo, officially on maternity leave, happened to be at the jail. She had been one of his sister Abby’s closest friends for years and was a member of the women’s rap group in high school in which Abby had first publicly confronted her homosexuality. She lent Paul the extra money.

It is against official Sheriff’s Department policy for an employee to pay the bail of anyone other than a family member. Though Joan – and Judy Rubenfeld – insisted she was like family, Joan was suspended from the force for a day.

Back in the early days it was Judy Rubenfeld who called me, always drumming up publicity for her son’s career. She would call any reporter in town if it meant a story; and she did not hesitate to complain about the lack of coverage he was getting, particularly from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. But as Pee-wee’s fame grew to such astonishing proportions, it was I who started making the begging phone calls. Could I interview Paul? Could I get a picture of the ring Zsa Zsa Gabor had given her the last time she visited Paul in Hollywood? Could she talk Paul into appearing at our AIDS benefit?

She always tried to help out. But after Paul got a new manager, Michael McLean, there was little she could do. The policy that hid Paul Reubens from the public extended to his family. Earlier there had been a half-hearted attempt to turn them into Pee-wee’s parents, a couple named Honey and Herman Herman, but this was wisely abandoned. And while they could on special occasions appear in public – the whole family flew out to Los Angeles for the unveiling of Pee-wee’s star on Hollywood Boulevard – they were expected to keep quiet and not talk to the press. When the New York Times did a story about Abby and her work on gay legal issues, it never once mentioned that she was Pee-wee’s sister. Judy told me once how she would have loved to appear on talk shows when they did “celebrity mothers” (she was asked all the time) but the manager just wouldn’t let her.

Which is a shame, because she would have been great. A funny, outspoken woman who likes to talk, she speaks with a comedian’s timing, jumping from punchline to punchline. Occasionally, a mild profanity – very mild – is used, but always for comedic effect. In a town whose matrons tend to be Midwestern and whitebread, she is a character.

When I heard about Paul’s arrest, I made a decision: I would not write about it. The Rubenfelds had enough troubles at the moment. But human nature being what it is, within 24 hours I had reversed myself. The event was seizing the country’s attention; nobody could “get to the family”; but they might – just might – talk to me.

So I called Judy. I got the answering machine, arranged in such a way that it was impossible to leave a message. So I scribbled a note asking her to get in touch with me, and sent it Federal Express.

She called the next morning. She didn’t identify herself, and it took a couple of seconds to realize who it was. I was dreading having to deal with a weepy, emotional woman; to my relief she seemed in good spirits, if slightly frantic. A long monologue poured out – she was angry, she was fighting mad, in fact – but still, everything was couched in the wisecracks she is famous for. She described the pain of what they were going through – Abby seemed to be taking it the hardest – and the hysteria and paranoia that had taken over Paul’s managers, lawyers and publicists. She stuck up for Paul’s local attorney, Dan Dannheisser, even though he had tried to make a deal with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (again, offering them a benefit if they wouldn’t break the story) and then had told a reporter that Paul’s career was ruined. “He thought he was talking off the record,” Judy insisted. She was upset at the way the Herald-Tribune was handling the story; they jumped on every sordid detail, she said, and had yet to say – or even report – a sympathetic word.

I saw my opening. “That’s what I want to do. Tell Paul’s side.” She paused for a moment. “Does that mean I’ll get my subscription on time?”

An operator broke in. “I have an emergency call from Dale in New Jersey,” she announced.

“I’ll call you back,” Judy said. I stood motionless by the phone until it rang again, three minutes later.

“Well, I’m sure you can guess who that was,” Judy began, sounding drained. I got the feeling Paul had yelled at her when he found out who she was talking to. The jokes stopped; she seemed distracted and uncertain. She told me she would get back to me within 24 hours.

Like everyone else close to Paul, she stuck by him completely. Never for a second did she suggest that he might have an emotional problem or need for professional help. All she knew was that a terrible hurt had been dealt her child.

Judy once told me how fascinated Paul had been when he discovered that he and Mel Gibson had both been born in Peekskill, New York, within six months of each other. The families didn’t know each other, though. The Gibsons moved to Australia shortly thereafter, and eight years later the Rubensfelds were gone, too, off to Florida. Though they had owned a profitable Lincoln-Mercury dealership there, none of them seems to miss the place. Peekskill was the site of the famous ‘50s Peekskill riot, when the police stood by and did nothing as the Klan broke up a Paul Robeson concert. It was perhaps not the best place for a liberal Jewish family.

Their new home, Sarasota, was very much a small town back in those days, but it already sported a reputation as a sophisticated place, conservative but socially concerned and a genuine arts colony. It also had a unique and colorful history – it was the home of the circus. It was also the home of the circus stars, people like Sylvana Zacchini, the first woman shot out of a cannon, and Franz Unus, who can – or could, anyway – stand on one finger. There were former Munchkins galore, and all the great clowns, like Lou Jacobs, the creator of scores of classic gags, including the one where all the clowns pile out of the tiny car. The most famous clown of all, Emmett Kelly, lived only a few blocks from the Rubenfeld home, an eccentric and fondly remembered place near McClellan Park. Judy and Milton bought the Lamplighter Shop (they’ve since sold it); the family’s lifestyle was solidly upper middle class, but with a slightly Bohemian bent.

The most remarkable think about Paul’s childhood was how early his talent showed and how eager he was, even then, for success. Judy remembered his audition for A Thousand Clowns at The Players when he was in sixth grade: “His father didn’t want him to try out. He said, ‘If he gets the part, he’s really going to have the bug,’ ‘cause that was a big part for a kid. I said, ‘I think we should let him try out ‘cause he won’t get the part. There are far better kids, and it will nip it in the bud.’ Of course, he got the part.”

By the time he reached Sarasota High, his life was absorbed by the theater. He acted in the school plays – most memorably as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady – and was voted “Best Actor.” And he was hanging out at the Asolo constantly, an accepted member of the family. He was in awe of the real actors but quickly made friends with them; for their part, they liked this bright young kid enormously and were glad to teach him their craft.

“He was incredibly hard-working,” recalls Isa Thomas, who played his mother in Life With Father. “And bright.” Everyone mentioned his self-discipline, his eagerness to learn, his astonishing self-confidence. “Paul was not a high-school kid,” says Tim McKenna, a fellow apprentice who shared an apartment with Paul in 1970. “He was popular and well-respected at school, but there was no hanging out. Academically, he did very well, but that was like an after-thought. His life revolved around the Asolo. He was driven. He had a strong sense of where he was going.”

He was considered serious and thoughtful, anything but the clown. He was shy unless he knew you well; then his sarcastic wit would bloom. “We used to sit in my dressing room and hoot and howl,” recalls Stephanie Moss, who is nine years his senior. “He was the sharpest and wittiest kid I ever met. He wasn’t loud, but he had a startling satirical edge. These little diamonds were always slipping out of the side of his mouth.”

His goal was to become a serious actor. No one doubted he would make it. “I always thought he would end up a respected actor in rep,” says one friend. Isa Thomas recalls being impressed with the way he took to Shakespeare without any training.

Over at the Herald-Tribune­ they were collecting columns about the incident from papers all over the country, and the word on Sarasota was not good. The police were coming across as very foolish and the city was becoming identified with some appalling images: porno theaters, lewd beachgoers, tough prostitutes – an atmosphere of heavily charged but vaguely comic sexual tension.

But what people found even more disturbing was the behavior of the Sheriff’s Department. Spending hours in an adult theater seemed a poor use of police time. Sheriff Geoff Monge claimed that the South Trail Cinema was targeted only once every three or four months, a remark that startled the employees of the theater. One employee estimates that a more realistic estimate would be twice a month; that the police (in groups of three to six) would spend up to six hours at a stretch in the theater, and that they would sometimes sit in the theater while it was completely empty, for up to an hour waiting for people.

When Pee-wee supporters rallied in New York City, County Commissioner David Mills declared that Sarasota stood behind the police and wouldn’t tolerate behavior like Paul’s. But letters to the local paper told a different story. Writer after writer expressed support for Paul and advised the police to “keep their pants on” and concentrate on serious crimes. Community leaders, such as Ed Foster, assistant principal at Sarasota High and advisor to Paul’s senior class in 1970, spoke out for Paul, describing him as "very talented” and “very humble.” Said Foster, “There’s nobody in that entire class, I’ll bet you, that disowns him for anything."

A small town operates on its own social contract. People are much gentler with each other than in a big city. Certain things that everybody knows are never said in public. And while it’s OK to embarrass someone if a lucrative political office is at stake, you are never allowed to be cruel. And the Sarasota police had become cruel.

At first their sting operations involving victimless crimes were rather funny. The big T-back scandal, in which several beachgoers were arrested for wearing those backless bathing suits, had even ended up on “Donahue.” But when the police began trolling the porno theater and the men’s room out at the beach, the strangest thing happened – instead of uncovering the dregs of society, they were uncovering its pillars. Ministers, bank vice presidents, social leaders – lives and families were being ruined, and people didn’t feel right about it. It’s taken the disaster of Pee-wee Herman to make many realize they don’t want that kind of police force.

Judy and I spoke twice a day, so often that she and my father, who was taking my messages, began what she called a “phone affair.” She was sad and angry, but always on. “I hear Prime Time is in town,” I told her. “Prime Time? Which one is that?” “Diane Sawyer.” “She’s been calling me! Oh, God, how can I lose 20 pounds fast?” But when asked if Paul had any sense of humor about what happened, she was silent. “No,” she said quietly. “He is devastated.” Finally, she called to give me the final decision – Paul was planning to plead innocent; the lawyers and managers and publicists would not allow her to talk to anyone. She was sorry. “I was hoping Hedy Lamarr would knock us off the front pages,” she said, just before she hung up. The day before the 78-year-old former star had been arrested in nearby Altamonte Springs for allegedly shoplifting $20 worth of laxatives. “They’re being much nicer to her,” Judy said. “Not that I have anything against Hedy Lamarr,” she added quickly.

Paul Reubens at the 2011 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

Paul Reubens at the 2011 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

There is something so awful and complete about the Pee-wee disaster. The biggest children’s star in the country arrested for masturbating in a porno theater – it has already entered American myth. People will talk about it for years to come; it will affect public attitudes about sex, the police, privacy, and the media.

For Sarasota it is a profoundly unhappy event. People realize that more than one reputation was shattered that hot Friday night. “Look what happened to Arcadia,” they shudder.

Perhaps the only good thing about a disaster is that it allows the survivors to start over with a clean slate. Pee-wee Herman may be dead, but Paul Reubens isn’t. His friends say it would take more than this to destroy his drive and creative force. “He will turn this around,” they insist.

Sarasota may have a harder time.

Opening photo by Brian Solis via Flickr. 

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