Comedian Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency

Actor Paul Reubens achieved fame as the comedian Pee-wee Herman and had been ending his run as the popular host of his own children’s television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, when he was arrested for masturbating in an adult-movie theater in Sarasota, Florida. The incident attracted a great deal of media attention and condemnation of Reubens, which continued for more than a decade, but he later continued acting.

Summary of Event

Paul Reubens, born Paul Rubenfeld, grew up in Sarasota, Florida, where at the age of eleven he began acting in local plays. While attending college, he continued to act and eventually joined the Groundlings, an improvisation troupe. Reubens created the Pee-wee Herman character in 1978 as part of his Groundlings night club act. In 1986, he became the host of the CBS Saturday morning children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse[Peewees Playhouse]
Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which subsequently won numerous Emmy Awards. By the summer of 1991, the same time Reubens was arrested, however, the show had run its course, and CBS was airing the last of its reruns. [kw]Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency, Comedian (July 26, 1991)
[kw]Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency, Comedian Pee-wee (July 26, 1991)
Goldman, Judy
Reubens, Paul
Herman, Pee-wee (Paul Reubens)
Pornography;and Paul Reubens[Reubens]
Goldman, Judy
Reubens, Paul
Herman, Pee-wee (Paul Reubens)
Pornography;and Paul Reubens[Reubens]
[g]United States;July 26, 1991: Comedian Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency[02520]
[c]Sex crimes;July 26, 1991: Comedian Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency[02520]
[c]Public morals;July 26, 1991: Comedian Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency[02520]
[c]Radio and television;July 26, 1991: Comedian Pee-wee Herman Is Arrested for Public Indecency[02520]
Dresnick, Ronald
Hartery, Don
Goldman, Larry

Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) in 1984.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the evening of July 26, 1991, Reubens, who was on a summer vacation visiting his parents in Sarasota, Florida, was suffering from boredom and decided to attend the screening of an X-rated movie at Sarasota’s XXX-rated South Trail Cinema. During 1991, the Sarasota police had initiated a crackdown on “adult obscenity” intending to rid Sarasota of morality offenses. Detectives had been periodically visiting local adult movie theaters hoping to catch patrons indulging in indecent acts. While Reubens watched a porno film the Sarasota detectives were working undercover at the theater. As Reubens was exiting the Cinema at the conclusion of the movie the detectives arrested him for exposing his sexual organs in public.

The indecent-exposure law allegedly violated by Reubens prohibited the exposure of sexual organs, except in places set aside for that purpose. Adult-movie theaters had not been designated as locations where sexual organs could be exposed. Local police claimed that Reubens had been caught masturbating during the porno film screening at the South Trail Cinema.

Reubens’s mug shot depicts a scowling, long-haired, goateed figure wearing a tee shirt and shorts, the antithesis of the childlike and “nerdy” Pee-wee Herman character who was always nattily dressed in a too-small gray suit with a red bow tie, white socks, and slicked back hair. Reubens was released on $219 bail. Although local police may not at first have connected Reubens to Pee-wee Herman, Reubens told them who he was. The local media also figured out Reubens’s identity through the police blotter. Soon, the national news media was in a frenzy over the star’s arrest.

Media attention to the Reubens case created a chain reaction. Parents were concerned that their children had been exposed to immoral behavior watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Moreover, adults did not know how to answer children’s questions concerning the arrest of their beloved Pee-wee character. Many in the media and several celebrities supported Reubens and argued that the government had targeted Reubens because of his children’s show. Several citizens in Sarasota publicly questioned whether prosecuting Reubens was the best use of taxpayers’ money.

Despite claims by Reubens’s publicity agent, Larry Goldman, that a Video evidence;and Paul Reubens[Reubens] videotape from a security camera in the theater would prove Reubens’s innocence, no videotape evidence was ever produced. Reubens’s defense attorney, Ronald Dresnick, also argued that the indecent exposure statute should not apply in adult-movie theaters, as exposure of sexual organs should be expected in such venues. Judy Goldman, the judge in the case, rejected the defense and ordered Reubens to face the charges.

Three and half months after Reubens’s arrest, the actor entered a no contest plea on the charge of indecent exposure. (A no contest plea means that the person charged is neither admitting nor denying guilt.) Reubens also entered into a plea agreement with Sarasota County, which Judge Goldman reluctantly approved. Goldman decided that given the national media attention, which would increase with a trial, the wisest choice was to accept the plea and avoid further cost to the county. Had Reubens been found guilty of the misdemeanor charges, he could have been sentenced to one year in jail and received a one thousand dollar fine.

Reubens agreed to pay a $50 fine, $85.75 in court costs, and participate in community service by writing, producing, and paying for public service messages for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Judge Goldman believed that Reubens was receiving minor punishment and vowed to impose much harsher penalties if he failed to comply with the plea agreement. Reubens fulfilled the terms of the plea agreement, retired from the public stage, and maintained a low profile, but only for a time.

Sarasota County prosecutor Don Hartery also agreed to seal the legal documents in the case, which left Reubens with a clean criminal record, despite at least two previous arrests. During his younger years, Reubens had been arrested and charged with loitering near an adult theater and possessing marijuana. The loitering charge was later dropped, and a judge entered no finding of guilt in the marijuana possession case in exchange for two years’ probation.

Reubens’s legal troubles were not over, however. In 2002, he was charged in Los Angeles with a misdemeanor count for possession of material depicting children engaged in sex. Reubens was once again arrested—this time for a crime the prosecution claimed involved sexual exploitation of children. The material at issue included old magazines and photographs, some of Nudity nude persons, seized from Reubens’s home in 2001. Reubens, who was out as gay, claimed the items seized were part of his vintage art collection and that he had legally purchased the nude pictures and magazine depictions that were now being labeled as child pornography.

Reubens’s bail was set at twenty thousand dollars. He once again bargained to avoid a public trial and agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor obscenity charge. In 2004, the child pornography charges were dropped. He paid a fine of one hundred dollars and registered as a sex offender for three years.


The arrest of a children’s show star for indecent exposure was big news in 1991. However, the media helped speed the demise of cult figure Pee-wee Herman, whose popularity had already begun to wane by the time of Reubens’s 1991 arrest. After the arrest, CBS canceled the remaining reruns of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Disney canceled a short video of Pee-wee as part of its studio tours, and merchandisers discontinued the sale of Pee-wee Herman products. Reubens played the Pee-wee Herman character one more time at an MTV MTV Music Video Awards show, and in 1988 he received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

Pee-wee Herman may have become the alter ego of Reubens, and Reubens may have been held to a higher standard because Pee-wee became the host of a children’s show. Pee-wee, however, started out as an unusual, childlike character in a night club act, and Reubens never attempted to disguise Pee-wee’s bad behavior, such as looking up women’s dresses with mirrors glued to his shoes. In addition, as host of a children’s show, Reubens, as Pee-wee, was never shy about poking fun at society’s sexist and racial stereotypes.

Perhaps Reubens was singled out because of what he did—turn a childlike, adult entertainer into a beloved children’s icon and use a children’s show as a political platform. Supporters of Reubens believe that law enforcement targeted him to support its crackdown on adult obscenity through prosecutions and censorship. Reubens, however, may have the last word with the planned Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Movie. Goldman, Judy
Reubens, Paul
Herman, Pee-wee (Paul Reubens)
Pornography;and Paul Reubens[Reubens]

Further Reading

  • Buhle, Paul. From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture. New York: Verso, 2004. Explores the contributions of Jewish entertainers to American film and television, including the work of Paul Reubens.
  • Ingraham, Laura. Power to the People. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2007. Examines Paul Reubens as one of America’s bad boys who has been treated unfairly by law enforcement in its attempt to control obscenity.
  • Jenkins, Henry. The Wow Climax: Tracing the Emotional Impact of Popular Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Considers the impact of vaudevillelike personae such as Pee-wee Herman, despite their deemed-vulgar behavior, on modern pop-culture audiences.
  • Woods, Paul A. Tim Burton: A Child’s Garden of Nightmares, Medford, N.J.: Plexus, 2007. Discusses how the early collaboration between Reubens and director Tim Burton on the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) affected Burton’s career.

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