Movie News & Reviews

Pee-wee Herman, star of Friday's movie in park, is character who stands test of time

Paul Reubens took his Pee-wee Herman character to Broadway in 2010.
Paul Reubens took his Pee-wee Herman character to Broadway in 2010. Associated Press

The mid-1980s: It was a time before widespread use of cellphones and personal computers, and MTV had yet to lose interest in music videos. It was also a time before Paul Reubens had a rap sheet, or at least no one cared.

Back then, Reubens just had Pee-wee Herman, a character he created at the Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings who was in films, including Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (1980); made numerous appearances on Late Night With David Letterman; and had a hit HBO special, The Pee-wee Herman Show.

He was a subversive hit, but he was about to play to a much wider audience.

The mid-1980s also was a time before the Fountain Films on Friday Series at Triangle Park in Lexington, which was just a few years old then. But this year's edition of the outdoor summer film festival downtown will launch with Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the 1985 movie that introduced many to the character in a Glen plaid suit and red bowtie with malleable voice and face.

It also introduced us to Cowboy Curtis, Large Marge and Francis, the meanie who stole Pee-wee's beloved red bike, sending him off on the big adventure.

The mid-1980s also was a time before Tim Burton had filmed a feature-length movie (or worked with Johnny Depp) and Danny Elfman was still known as the frontman for Oingo Boingo.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure was Burton's first feature, giving him a chance to show his whimsical style through Pee-wee's crazy home and many of the people he meets.

"I always wanted to wake up the way Pee Wee did, breakfast machine and all," actor and Red Barn Radio host Adam Luckey wrote in response to a question about Pee-wee Herman memories on Facebook.

Heather Chapman of Lexington said, "That scene with Large Marge scared me to tears until I was 13," referring to the truck driver's transformation during a description of the worst accident she ever saw.

The moment was punctuated with one of the movie's iconic quotes, "Tell 'em Large Marge sent ya!"

The mid-1980s was a time when home video started to appear in most people's homes, and the Pee-wee's Big Adventure tape was right up there with Ghostbusters (1984), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Caddyshack (1980). It played on repeat for many fans, with some lines from the movie gaining memorable status:

"I know you are, but what am I?"

"I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel."

"I remember ... the Alamo."

"I'm trying to use the phone!"

That, last quotation, of course, led to the iconic Tequila dance that saves Pee-wee's life in the biker bar.

The time after Pee Wee's Big Adventure led to, among other projects, a sequel called Big Top Pee-wee (1988) and a Saturday-morning TV show, Pee-wee's Playhouse (1986-91), for which Reubens received four Daytime Emmy nominations for outstanding performer in a children's series.

Pee-wee was a bit of a divisive character; some just didn't go for the zany voices and childish mannerisms. But millions have loved it.

"I definitely fall in the 'love Pee-wee' category," Toni Meriah Kruse of Lexington says, "primarily for the obvious presence of genius innovation and creativity, playfulness, quirkiness. And, of course, there's his dance."

Whenever Reubens appeared without the Pee-wee get-up, in roles such as Penguin's father in Batman Returns (1992) or as an aggravating secretary-turned-network-executive on TV's Murphy Brown, we could never quite escape Pee-wee.

The time after Pee-wee's heyday has not been entirely innocent. Most notably, there was Reubens' 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult theater in Florida that silenced the laugh for more than a decade.

In recent years, Reubens, now 60, has embraced the character again, taking him to Broadway with The Pee-wee Herman Show during the 2010 holiday season and appearing on several late-night talk shows.

Reubens is still working outside Pee-wee, too. He has provided voices for animated shows including Robot Chicken. Early next year, he will play the White Rabbit in ABC's upcoming drama series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.

But like bikers, Francis and Large Marge, Pee-wee has persevered over all of it. And come Friday night, there probably will be people dancing on their tip-toes in Triangle Park when those saxophones start blowing Tequila.


Fountain Films on Friday

What: Starting this week, the Downtown Lexington Corp. and Hilliard-Lyons series features free outdoor screenings of movies

When: Shows start at dusk, about 8:45 to 9 p.m., on select Fridays through Aug. 23. There will be music and activities beforehand. In case of rain, movies will be rescheduled.

Where: Triangle Park, Main St. and Broadway, Lexington.

Learn more:


May 17: Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

May 31: Red Dawn (1984), part of the 2013 Harry Dean Stanton Fest

June 14: Walk the Line (2005)

June 28: The Princess Bride (1987)

July 12: Jumanji (1995)

July 26: Legally Blonde (2001)

Aug. 9: Raising Arizona (1987)

Aug. 23: Young Frankenstein (1974)