“In my mind, he is such a visual icon,” says veteran scenic designer David Korins, who created the updated Playhouse set for The Pee-wee Herman Show’s New York staging. “He is such a juggernaut and definer of visual vocabulary.”
“To me,” says Alex Timbers, director of the Broadway show, “Pee-wee is the meeting of performance art and a mainstream sensibility in the way David Byrne and other artists of the time were bridging the gap between popular culture and the downtown worlds. Growing up, I was a huge Pee-wee Herman fan. Pee-wee was like a combination of Andy Warhol and the Muppets.”
Back in the Town Car, I bring up Warhol’s declaration that “Pop art is liking things,” then ask Reubens whether he had the kind of relationship with his toys that Pee-wee has.
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I was the kid who was always checking that the toys weren’t facedown. I wouldn’t want to be that stuffed bear and be like, My face is mashed down.”
His empathic connection to the physical world around him—his sense of the secret life of things—extended far beyond his stuffed animals. “I’ve been collecting since I was in high school or junior high,” he says. “Old stuff, thrift-store stuff. I wasn’t very discriminating. My whole thing was saving stuff, rescuing stuff. I always felt that in a thrift store, the next person who comes through is going to break this, and then it’s gone forever. My whole thing was just keeping stuff—sort of Fahrenheit 451-like.”
When I ask what the first thing, other than a toy, he remembers really loving as a kid, he answers without hesitation. “I had this jeweled box from my grandmother’s house that I always used to obsess about and covet. And one day she gave it to me.” He was floored; it was the best gift ever. “I was like, ‘You are kidding me.’”
That glorious box connects directly to a key feature of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The genie “Jambi’s box came from that, for sure. But it also came from a job I had early in my career in a real-estate office in L.A. The building was owned by Liberace, and he had his fan club upstairs. The woman who worked there would always trap me—‘You got a minute?’—and she’d show me stacks of Polaroids: ‘Here I am in Palm Springs, here I am in Las Vegas....’ But one day the whole thing paid off, because she had two boxes of handpainted publicity shots of Liberace in his 20s, and in one of them he’s wearing jewel-encrusted hot pants.… Hot pants were a pretty big fashion statement for that time, and jewel-encrusted hot pants were, like, off the charts. And when I say encrusted, it wasn’t like a jewel here and a jewel there—it was solid jewels. When I looked at Jambi’s plain old box in the first season of the show, I flashed back to those Liberace hot pants and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”