The Scandal That Ruined Paul Reubens's Career

Paul Reubens became famous in the mid-1980s for playing a scrawny, nasally-voiced children's entertainer named Pee-wee Herman who wore a skinny suit and a red tie and was always up to something ridiculously goofy. His celebrity turned to infamy, though, when in 1991, Reubens was arrested by police for public masturbation in an adult theater.

Reubens always maintained his innocence, despite entering a guilty plea and receiving community service and a monetary fine. He also later suggested he had called a masturbation expert to be ready to testify at his trial. But while Reubens's career never seemed to really bounce back, he still carries a cult following. 

  • In 1991, Police Caught Paul Reubens Touching Himself In A Theater

    On July 26, 1991, Paul Reubens, the star of the children's television show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, was arrested when an undercover detective discovered him masturbating in an adult video theater in Sarasota, Florida. The undercover detective was part of a law enforcement raid on the South Trail Cinema in Sarasota. Reubens was 38 at the time and living in Studio City, California. He was one of three people arrested inside of the South Trail Cinema that day. After posting a $219 bail, he was released from the Sarasota Jail the same night.

    Later, a deputy sheriff and friend of Reubens's was suspended for loaning him the $40 he needed to post bail.

  • In 2002, Police Arrested Reubens For Possessing Inappropriate Images Of Minors

    In 2002, police again arrested Reubens. Acting on a tip that he had inappropriate photos of children, police raided his residence. However, they only found adult content and what was described as "vintage erotica." While prosecutors didn't charge Reubens with possession of underage images, he did plea to a lesser obscenity charge and had to register as a sex offender for the entirety of his probation. 

  • The Fallout From His Movie Theater Arrest Was Huge

    After his arrest, the career fallout for Reubens was huge. CBS stopped airing his Saturday morning show, Pee-wee's Playhouse, and merchandisers stopped selling Pee-wee toys and memorabilia. However, Reubens maintained his innocence, even after paying a small fine and performing community service. In fact, in a later interview, Reubens indicated they had an expert prepared to testify that it was not possible for an undercover cop to have witnessed Reubens masturbating on that sordid night in 1991. Reubens stated:

    Had we gone to trial, we had ready an expert from the Masters and Johnson Institute who was going to testify that in 30 years of research on masturbation the institute had never found one person who masturbated with his or her non-dominant hand. I’m right-handed, and the police report said I was [touching myself] with my left hand. That would have been the end of the case right there, proof it couldn’t have been me.

  • Some Thought That The Response To The Arrest Was Unfair, Including Cyndi Lauper

    While the fallout was harsh for Reubens, many of his acting contemporaries believed that the response was unfair. One such supporter and former Pee-wee's Playhouse guest was Cyndi Lauper, who called the charge a "victimless occurrence."

    In 1991, Roger Simon of the LA Times ran a story about Reubens's arrest titled, "So, What's the Big Deal Over Pee-wee?" He points out that theaters like the one where Reubens got arrested catered to lonely men. He added that Reubens was practicing safe sex and should have ended up on a "public service" poster instead of the national news. 

  • Reubens Gave An Interview To 'Playboy' In An Attempt To Prove His Innocence

    Reubens Gave An Interview To 'Playboy' In An Attempt To Prove His Innocence
    Photo: Big Top Pee-wee / Paramount

    In 2010, Reubens gave an interview to Playboy magazine. The subsequent article echoed sentiments that were around the first arrest: that is, many people did not believe Ruebens was actually masturbating. Moreover, the author points out, again, that like real estate sales, location is everything. Still, the impact of the arrest did seem to put a halt to a career that was on a rapid rise. 

  • Reubens's Childhood Neighbors And Inspiration Were The Ringling Bros.

    Paul Reubens is the son of one of the founding pilots of the Israeli Air Force, and the family moved to New York and then Florida when Reubens was a child. Reubens thanks his childhood neighbors, the Ringling Bros. for their inspiration for his perpetual childishness and for giving birth to the idea of Pee-wee Herman. 

    Reubens claimed in a 2004 interview:

    I felt like a total oddball, like, almost every minute of growing up, so it would be hard to kind of isolate that. But I think that sort of was the whole point of the show was that it would be hard to stand out in the Playhouse.  Like, everything stood out in the Playhouse, so you could sort of feel right at home no matter who you are or what you were thinking or anything.