THE SKINNY MAN WITH SHAGGY, SHOULDER-length hair, puffy eyes and a goatee could have crept quietly into the night as just another alleged public-morals offender. Instead he set off a chain reaction of national media attention and sent his highflying career plummeting into a tail-spin while parents across the nation wondered just what questions their children might ask.

On July 26, at 9:50 P.M., Paul Reubens, 38, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, was arrested by undercover detectives on his way out of Sarasota, Fla.'s XXX-rated South Trail Cinema, an "adult" movie theater where management prides itself on mopping the floor twice a week. Police, carrying out a routine undercover operation for morals offenses to keep the community on the straight and narrow, charged that Reubens exposed himself and masturbated twice during a showing of a heterosexual porno flick called Catalina Tiger Shark. (The sting also yielded three other arrests.)

An hour later the defendant was booked at the Sarasota County detention facility on the charge of "exposure of sexual organs." He might have walked away after posting $219 bond without the police knowing who he really was. But before that, Reubens made what may have been his second mistake of the evening: He voluntarily told detectives that he was Pee-wee Herman, the celebrated star of the five-year-running Saturday morning children's series Pee-wee's Playhouse. Even if he hadn't identified himself, he wouldn't have remained incognito for long. An alert reporter for the Sarasota Herald Tribune recognized his real name on the police blotter the following day and, 48 hours later, the mortifying incident made national news. Reubens proclaimed his innocence last Monday, admitting in a statement that he was in the theater but "never exposed himself or engaged in any other improper activities."

Despite the denial, Reubens's career seemed shattered. Last April, CBS canceled Pee-wee's Playhouse after the network and star had mutually agreed not to proceed with a sixth season. But following his arrest, the five reruns that were to have aired through August were yanked from the schedule. Disney—MGM Studios in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., suspended a two-minute video that Reubens had narrated for its backstage tour, and toy stores removed Pee-wee dolls from their shelves. Pee-wee Herman was history.

It was a painful way to sign off, though Reubens had already let go of his alter ego. In June the star's manager, Michael McClean, said that his client had burned out and sent Pee-wee "on an extended vacation." But Reubens, whose arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 9, certainly could not have expected this kind of hiatus. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. "Paul, who is emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation, is currently in seclusion with friends and eagerly anticipating his complete vindication," said his publicist, Richard Grant, in a statement.

Newspaper columnists rallied to Reubens's defense, accusing CBS of overreacting, and celebrity pals such as Joan Rivers and Cyndi Lauper offered their support. "Whatever he may have done," said Bill Cosby, "he hasn't done that to children."

Still, some who know Reubens are not shocked by the allegations. "It's a pity, but it doesn't sound out of character," says an acquaintance. "I've never seen him go in to see dirty movies, but he's a wild child. When people heard about it, it was more like, 'Gee, what a dumb thing to do.' "

This wasn't Reubens's first brush with the law. In 1983 he was arrested for loitering and prowling near another Sarasota adult theater. The charge was later dropped. (He was also arrested in 1971 for marijuana possession, but a judge withheld a finding of guilt and placed him on two years' probation.)

Last week's arrest came during a vacation at the rustic Gulf Coast beach house of his parents, retired lamp-store owners Milton and Judy Rubenfeld, who live on Sarasota's Siesta Key. Not far away, Reubens had grown up with younger siblings Abby and Luke and graduated from Sarasota High School.

A good student with a mischievous streak, Reubens was so obsessed with show business that by age 6, he has recalled, he was sent to a school psychologist to talk about his "abnormal" interest in watching television, specifically I Love Lucy. As a youth he spent six seasons at Sarasota's Asolo Theater, where he said he "played all the kids' roles."

When he later moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, comedy wasn't foremost in his thoughts. "I was a serious actor for a long lime," Reubens has said, "until I realized that I was knocking my head against the wall to gel people to accept me in that context...everyone seemed to want comedy." And though he has said that comedians "are all kind of crazy and neurotic and maybe display absurd behavior in some people's eyes," he bit the bullet in 1977 and joined the Groundlings, an improvisational troupe that also launched Saturday Night Live alumni Laraine Newman and Jon Lovilz, as well as good friend Cassandra Peterson, aka TV's Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. It was as a Groundling that he developed a repertoire of characters including Indian chief Jay Longtoe, unfaithful Jewish husband Moses Feldman, and Pee-wee.

By the early 1980s, the nerdy Pee-wee, who wore a crew cut, too-small plaid suit, bow tie and white socks and shoes, had become a giggly cult figure. He glued mirrors on his shoes to look up ladies' dresses and sold size-60 Jockey shorts through the mail. In a 1981 HBO special, he even included an indecent exposure gag, asking a character with his pants unzipped if he had a license to sell hot dogs.

When Pee-wee graduated to guest spots on Late Night with David Letterman, he got laughs for antics such as wrapping Scotch tape around his face and captivated a wide audience. Speaking in character as Pee-wee. as he usually did during interviews, Reubens told the New York Daily News in 1984 his simple goals: "Making a living, having good personal hygiene, and staying out of jail."

At his peak, he managed to more than accomplish them. After he scored a cinematic hit with the 1985 film Pee-wee's Big Adventure, CBS handed him a children's show in 1986 with carte blanche in the creative-control department. Another movie, Big Top Pee-wee, followed in 1988. Even as he grew tired of the character, Reubens maintained a sense of responsibility to his young fans, allegedly turning down a role of an "art photographer" in John Waters's 1990 movie, Cry-Baby, because it did not jibe with Pee-wee.

Since abandoning the squirmy guy in the silly suit, Reubens has maintained a low profile. "He did nothing but work for practically six, seven years," says Cassandra Peterson. "Everybody told him, 'You've got to lake some time off.' So he's been flying around, visiting friends and relatives."

Whatever happens next, Peterson, for one, is sure that the never-married Reubens, who lives alone in a modest Hollywood Hills house, will not starve. "He has so much money," she says, "he does not have to work again." That is fortunate, since thanks to the guardians of public morality, he may not be able to.

ELIZABETH SPORKIN
ANDREW ABRAHAMS in Los Angeles, DON SIDER in Sarasota

  • Contributors:
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Don Sider.