25 Big Facts About Pee-wee Herman

Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

In the summer of 1985, Paul Reubens introduced America’s youth—and millions of young-at-heart adults—to a new brand of comedy when his slim suit-loving, bow-tied alter ego Pee-wee Herman stormed the box office with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Two sequels, one Saturday morning television series, and one Broadway show later, Pee-wee is still very much a part of the pop culture consciousness. Reubens—who is celebrating his 65th birthday today—helped us uncover 25 things you might not know about Pee-wee Herman. 

1. PEE-WEE HERMAN BEGAN LIFE AS A GROUNDLING.

Pee-wee Herman “came about from an extended improv at The Groundlings,” Reubens says of the character’s origin. “We were just given an assignment to come up with a character that one might encounter in a comedy club and I came up with Pee-wee Herman.” Pee-wee’s first stage appearance was in 1977. 

2. “PEE-WEE” WAS A HARMONICA.

Reubens says the character’s many distinctive traits were "a bunch of stuff all mixed in together. The voice came from a stage production that I was involved in. And then the name came from a kid I knew who was kind of off-the-wall. The name 'Pee-wee' came from a little harmonica I had that said ‘Pee-wee’ on it. I loved the idea of a nickname, because it sounded so real to me. ‘Pee-wee Herman’ sounds like a name that is so odd, how would you make that up? If you were going to make up a name, you’d make up a better name. It seemed real to me; it was a nickname with a last name that’s also a first name … And it went hand-in-hand with what I wanted to do, which was to make people think this was a real person, not an actor.” 

3. PAUL REUBENS IS ALWAYS CREDITED AS “PEE-WEE HERMAN.”


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To further enforce the idea that Pee-wee Herman is indeed a real person, when Paul Reubens is appearing as Pee-wee Herman, the credits simply list “Pee-wee Herman as Himself.” 

4. PEE-WEE’S SUIT WAS A LOANER. (BUT NOT A REBEL.)

“The director and co-founder of The Groundlings, a man named Gary Austin, loaned me his suit, which I never gave back,” Reubens says of Pee-wee’s now-iconic gray suit. “Someone else gave me a kid’s black bow tie, which I later changed out for a kid’s red bow tie. And the white shoes were mine. That’s just sort of what I put on and I had success with it so I thought, why mess with it? If it ain’t broke ..."

5. PEE-WEE GOT THE GIRL ON THE DATING GAME.

Two years after making his stage debut with The Groundlings, Pee-wee made his first of three appearances on The Dating Game (totally in character) in 1979. “That was a little test experiment I was doing early on,” Reubens recalled to Interview magazine. “I went to a cattle call audition for The Dating Game, and before I even got home they called me back.” On one occasion, he even won the date! 

6. PEE-WEE WAS AN ANGRY HOTEL CLERK IN CHEECH & CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE.

In 1980, Pee-wee made his first big-screen appearance as a not-so-sweet hotel employee in Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie. 

7. THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW WAS A FIRST FOR THE GROUNDLINGS.

On February 7, 1981, Reubens helped to take The Groundlings in a new direction when he premiered The Pee-wee Herman Show at midnight, a stage show that became the group’s first piece of alternative format programming. Shortly thereafter, it moved to The Roxy, where it ran for five months. But it wasn’t an adults-only kind of thing; matinee performances proved to be fun for the whole family. Miss Yvonne, Captain Carl, Jambi, Pterri, and Clocky are some of the characters that were there from the beginning. 

8. HBO WAS THE FIRST NETWORK TO COME CALLING.

Pee-wee gained national attention courtesy of HBO, which aired a taping of one of The Pee-wee Herman Show's performances in 1981.

9. PEE-WEE KICKSTARTED TIM BURTON’S CAREER.


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Following the success of The Pee-wee Herman Show, Warner Bros. approached Reubens about turning Pee-wee into a movie star. Though the studio originally had another director in mind, several people mentioned Tim Burton’s name to Reubens one night at a party. “I screened Frankenweenie and I spoke to Shelley Duvall, who was a friend of mine who was in Frankenweenie,” Reubens recalled to Ain’t It Cool News. “I knew Tim was the director about 15 seconds into Frankenweenie, like the second or third shot of it. I was looking at the wallpaper in this bedroom and the lighting and just going, ‘This is the guy who has style and understands art direction.’ Those were two really important things for me and my baby, I guess, and you know it just happened to luckily all work out." 

10. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A REMAKE OF POLLYANNA.

The original concept for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure took much of its storyline from Disney’s classic Pollyanna, with Pee-wee as Pollyanna. Ultimately, this idea was scrapped in favor of the stolen bike road trip idea, though Reubens was able to recycle many of the original ideas for Big Top Pee-wee.

11. PEE-WEE’S BIKE SOLD FOR $36,600 ON EBAY.

In 2014, an original bike that was used in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure went up for auction on eBay. The seller was hoping to get $15,000 for the iconic prop; he ended up selling it for $36,600. Which isn’t quite "a hundred million, trillion, billion dollars,” but it’s still impressive.

12. PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE CLEANED UP AT THE BOX OFFICE.


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Shot on a budget of approximately $7 million, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure earned nearly $41 million at the box office. Which, not surprisingly, led to a sequel—1988’s Big Top Pee-wee

13. THE ORIGINAL CONCEPT FOR PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE WAS AN ANIMATED SERIES. 

Following the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, CBS came to Reubens about creating a children’s series around the character—only they wanted it to be animated. “I'd had the stage show originally, so I was much more interested in doing something closer to that, something live-action,” Reubens told Rolling Stone. “So when they suggested doing a cartoon, I said ‘I'm not really interested in that; let's do a real kids' show.’ I was a big Howdy-Doody freak growing up—I was actually on one show when I was a kid, in the audience—and was more interested in doing something like that. Howdy-Doody, Captain Kangaroo, a lot of the local kids' shows that were on a long time ago—those were the influences.” 

14. CYNDI LAUPER SANG THE PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE THEME SONG.

Though the series’ theme song is credited to Ellen Shaw, Cyndi Lauper admitted in her autobiography that she is the voice behind it.

15. THE PLAYHOUSE WELCOMED A NUMBER OF SOON-TO-BE STARS.

A number of burgeoning stars got their starts on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Among them: Phil Hartman, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Natasha Lyonne. Both Laurence Fishburne and Jimmy Smits also made early-career appearances.

16. ROB ZOMBIE AND JOHN SINGLETON WERE PEE-WEE’S PRODUCTION ASSISTANTS.


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Pee-wee’s Playhouse had plenty of talent behind the camera, too. Five years before he wrote and directed Boyz n the Hood—for which he earned two Oscar nominations—John Singleton was a P.A. on the Playhouse set. Around the same time he formed White Zombie—and 17 years before he moved into the director’s chair with House of 1000 Corpses—Rob Zombie held the same title. 

17. PHIL HARTMAN LEFT AFTER ONE SEASON TO JOIN THE CAST OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Phil Hartman, Reubens’ longtime friend and collaborator (they co-wrote Pee-wee’s Big Adventure together), left the Playhouse—where he played Captain Carl—after the first season to join Saturday Night Live.

18. MISS YVONNE’S HAIR WON AN EMMY.


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Two Emmys, actually. One in 1987 and another in 1989. The show won a total of 15 Emmys throughout its five-season run. 

19. JAMBI SPOKE GIBBERISH.

On Shout! Factory’s Pee-wee’s Playhouse Blu-ray collection, writer John Paragon describes Jambi’s famous “Mekka lekka hi mekka hiney ho. Mekka lekka hi mekka chahny ho” chant as gibberish. “So I’m in The Groundlings and we’re doing a sketch and it’s customers in a Hawaiian restaurant and I’m wearing a Hawaiian shirt and doing Hawaiian gibberish. So that’s where that line came from. It was supposed to be bad Hawaiian.” 

20. LAURENCE FISHBURNE HAD A DARK TAKE ON COWBOY CURTIS.


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During his original audition for Cowboy Curtis, Laurence Fishburne didn’t get the note that the tone of the show was rather silly. “I was in the D.C. area making Gardens of Stone, and I got this call that Paul wanted to see me,” Fishburne recalled to Entertainment Weekly. “I had almost no hair on my head because I had been doing this military picture. I [auditioned as] a Yul Brynner-esque kind of cowboy—very dark and serious. [Reubens and Paragon] both looked at me like, 'Could you lighten it up?'"

21. SEASON THREE HAD JUST THREE EPISODES.

Because of a 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America, the third season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is comprised of just three episodes—two regular episodes and one primetime special, Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special.

22. BIG TOP PEE-WEE MARKED THE BIG-SCREEN DEBUT OF BENICIO DEL TORO.

After a couple of small television roles, Benicio Del Toro landed his first feature film playing “Duke the Dog-Faced Boy” in Big Top Pee-wee. The film also marked the big-screen debut of Dustin Diamond, who would make his first appearance as Saved by the Bell’s “Screech Powers” just a few months after Big Top Pee-wee’s release.

23. DANNY ELFMAN HAD TO COMPOSE AN ALL-NEW SCORE FOR BIG TOP PEE-WEE.


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Like Tim Burton, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure marked the first feature film gig for Danny Elfman. Though the music he created for the first film is iconic, because Big Top Pee-wee was produced by a different studio, he was not allowed to use any of the elements from the original score and had to create a new one.

24. PEE-WEE CAME TO BROADWAY IN 2010.


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On October 26, 2010, Pee-wee was back—this time on Broadway—for a limited-run stage show.

25. PEE-WEE’S BIG HOLIDAY WAS PEE-WEE’S FIRST FILM IN 28 YEARS.

In 2016, Netflix released Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, Pee-wee Herman’s first film in 28 years. Officially, Netflix summarized the plot as follows: “A chance encounter with a mysterious stranger (Joe Manganiello) points Pee-wee toward his destiny—and his first-ever holiday!” For his part, Reubens told Mental Floss, “It’s a road picture and it’s an adventure story. It’s similar in tone and structure to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in that it is a road picture—I’m trying to get somewhere. I live in a real little small town and I don’t get much excitement.”

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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