Persecuting Pee-wee

A Child-Porn Case That Threatens Us All

Paul Reubens is no stranger to the sex police. In 1991, he was busted in a Sarasota porn theater and charged with the ultimate victimless crime: whacking off during a showing of Nancy Nurse. Reubens pleaded no contest, and the case became a tabloid sensation. "I was leading the news," he later told Vanity Fair, "followed by Dahmer eating people, boring holes into their heads, and turning them into zombies."

Jack-off jokes were only part of the penalty Reubens paid. To a generation raised in the Reagan years, he was Pee-wee Herman, presiding over the fabled playhouse that ruled children's TV. But with a "sex crime" on his rap sheet, the name he had borrowed from a favorite harmonica was mud. Pee-wee dolls were yanked from toy stores all over America, and Reubens retreated to the limbo of scandalized clowns.

He made a comeback as a weed-fiending hairdresser in the 2001 film Blow. But his career is still haunted by the world he created as Pee-wee, where all sorts of deviations from the macho norm were on display. To millions of adult fans, Pee-wee was one of the most subversive comic creations of the '80s, Howdy Doody with a sense of camp—and a libido. Lately Reubens has been talking up a movie that would darkly deconstruct his childlike persona. It could be quite a saga now that the once and future Pee-wee has been charged with possessing child porn.

photo: Sylvia Plachy

This is no ordinary tale of celebrity justice. It raises major questions about censorship and criminal intent. Because the Reubens case dramatically expands the parameters of what is considered child pornography, it should trouble us all.


Pee-wee's latest adventure began in 2001 when Los Angeles police received a complaint from a teenager about Reubens and a friend, the actor Jeffrey Jones. The complaint was dismissed, but not before detectives searched the homes of both men. Jones now stands accused of taking pornographic pictures of a juvenile, a felony. Reubens faces a lesser charge: possession. Both have pleaded not guilty.

According to friends, Reubens's house is a kitsch-crammed Shangri-la, featuring collections of "classic food," E.T. memorabilia, and of course the world's largest Pee-wee reliquary. True to his puckish persona, Reubens also collects vintage erotica, most of it gay. He's especially drawn to the pre-XXX physique magazines that flourished in the post-war decades. Detectives carted off 30,000 items, leaving some 70,000 behind. They spent a year scrutinizing every image in this vast archive, and in the end the district attorney concluded that there was no case.

Enter Rocky Delgadillo, the L.A. city attorney. Since his election last year, he's focused on child abuse, creating a special unit to deal with it. As useful as that may be, in the hands of an unscrupulous prosecutor it can become an instrument of persecution—especially when aimed at a star with a prior sex rap. Sources say that when the D.A. rejected the Reubens case, officers involved in the investigation brought it to Delgadillo. (The D.A.'s office says the case was transferred because it involved a misdemeanor.) With just a day to spare before the one-year statute of limitations expired, Delgadillo issued a warrant for Reubens's arrest. If convicted, he could spend a year in prison, but even if acquitted he will probably suffer professionally. For an androgynous former star of children's TV, two strokes and you're out.

If only Reubens had been caught boffing girls, as Rob Lowe was, it might have added to his mystique. But the closest he came to that manly transgression was owning a copy of the infamous home movie made from Lowe's one-night stand. Police reportedly first planned to charge Reubens for possessing that tape, since one of Lowe's lovelies was underage. Still, this footage is in wide circulation, and Lowe never faced child-porn charges even though he made the tape. A prosecutor who based his case against Reubens on that piece of evidence might get run off the freeway.

There was no smoking image like the one that got rocker Pete Townsend arrested last Monday "on suspicion" of possessing, making, and "incit[ing] to distribute" indecent images of children. (Townsend says he merely visited a child-porn site to research a book about his experience as an abused boy.) Reubens has no such problem; his computer was squeaky clean.

Still, there were other images for Delgadillo to choose from. Most of Reubens's collection would be considered softcore by current standards, but nestled among the many portraits of naked bronco busters and javelin throwers in posing straps—typical of the types that graced the pages of physique magazines—were a few dozen photos that could be contraband today, though they were quite legal when they first appeared.

During the '50s and '60s, no one was concerned that some models were underage, since they weren't shown having sex or even engaging in what tea-room graffiti of that era called "showing hard." Today these same images would qualify as child porn under a standard that has expanded so that it now includes not just hardcore images but photos of anyone under 18 displaying "sexual coyness" or a "lascivious" intent. As a collector of physique pictorials, Reubens could well possess such photos, because they were part of the mix. Boys with big smiles and pert buns began appearing in muscle mags with increasing frequency during the early '60s, when things were just beginning to loosen up—and as the editors of such publications surely knew, one man's nature boy is another's free-range chicken.

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