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Pee-Wee Herman Is A Loner, A Rebel — And Back

Pee-wee Herman, the zany boyish character created by comedian Paul Reubens, is back in a new Broadway show. In 2004, Reubens joined Terry Gross for a discussion about his show Pee-Wee's Playhouse, which ran from 1986 to 1991.

34:14

Other segments from the episode on November 12, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 12, 2010: Interview with Paul Reubens; Commentary on 1960s song writing duo Sloan & Barri; Review of the "The Elia Kazan Collection a box set."

Transcript

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Pee-Wee Herman Is A Loner, A Rebel - And Back

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVworthwatching.com sitting in for
Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) Hey Pee-Wee, do you know what
time it is?

Mr. PAUL REUBENS (Actor): (as Pee-Wee) It's fun time! It's fun time!

BIANCULLI: That's Paul Reubens, who rose to fame as his antic alter-ego, Pee-
Wee Herman. His CBS children's show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," ran from 1986 to
1991. Now, almost 25 years after bringing Pee-Wee to television, Paul Reubens
has revived Pee-Wee and his playhouse in a whole new venue, on Broadway, as the
opening production of the newly christened Stephen Sondheim Theater. The
Broadway show runs through January 2nd and essentially is an extended live
version of the CBS series.

"Pee-Wee's Playhouse," both the TV show and its new Broadway incarnation,
features a great cast of characters. Even the inanimate objects are alive. The
chair, the window and the daisy on the windowsill can all talk. On the TV show
a puppet band of beatnik-style hipsters played jazz, sang, and talked in
rhymes. The food in the refrigerator was alive. And in each episode a robot-
like boom box named Conky printed out a secret word.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

Unidentified Person #1 (Actor): (as Conky): Ready to assist you, Pee-Wee.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Morning, Conky. What's today's secret word?

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Today's secret word is good! Ha-ha. Now, you all know
what to do whenever anybody says the secret word, right?

Unidentified Group: (unintelligible)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) That's right. For the rest of the day, if anybody
says the secret word, scream it aloud. Ready? Let's try it, ha, ha.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hi, guys, what are you doing?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) Cool Cat's(ph) pounding out the
beat.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as character) And (unintelligible) with our
feet.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) Like they're dancing, man.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I can dig it. Hey, make me try rhyming.

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) Cool.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I'd talk like you do if I could.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (as character) Go on, Pee-Wee, you're doing
good.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) A great big scream is what we
heard.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Actor): (as character) I must have said the secret word.

Unidentified Person #2 (Actor): (as character) It's rhyming fun, I agree, but
now it's time to play with me.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hey, Magic Screen, that was really good.

(Soundbite of bell and cheering)

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens spoke to Terry Gross in 2004. I think the interview is
pretty good.

(Soundbite of bell and screaming)

TERRY GROSS: Let's get – let's start at the very beginning of the birth of Pee-
Wee Herman. How did you first create the character? I think this was back in
the Groundlings era, when you were working with that improv comedy group.

Mr. REUBENS (Comedian): Yeah, it was, I believe, 1977. I was three and we were
doing a night where we were kind of doing an extended scene, what we called an
extended scene and we were trying to something where it was like a comedy club,
like - like The Comedy Store or the The Improv. And we were all supposed to be
different characters that you might see in a comedy club. So I decided to be
the guy at the comedy club that everybody would like immediately know this guy
was never going to make it as a comic.

And part of it was because I couldn't remember jokes in real life. I couldn't
remember the punch line or I'd get halfway through the joke and I was always
the guy who'd be like, oh, oh, wait, no, I forgot to tell you this part, you
know.

So that – and that character just sort of came out that night. I mean I
borrowed a suit from the director of the Groundlings, Gary Austin. I borrowed
his suit, which had been made for him by a guy named Mr. J, if he's out there
listening. And somebody else gave me a little tiny bowtie. I had a little one-
inch long harmonica that said Pee-Wee on it. And I knew a kid whose last name
was Herman, and Pee-Wee Herman sounded like the kind of name you would never
make up. It sounded like, you know, a totally real name like made by somebody
whose parents were, you know, didn't really care about them.

GROSS: So did you make up intentionally bad jokes?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't think I even had jokes at the time. I think like
basically I had a paper bag full of toys and I would bring them out and just to
like ah, hmm, hah, and it was really sort of kind of a pathetic kind of act. I
didn't do jokes for many, many years and then I finally - I think the first
time I ever told a joke as Pee-Wee was the David Letterman's show, and I used
to have - I loved really long jokes, so it was like a story that was a joke and
then I would halfway through go like, oh, I forgot this part and I'd have to go
back and it was just a big long, long, long joke where fortunately for me it
was a really funny punch line, so just when you were listening to it going oh
my God if this doesn't like - if this isn't over in 30 seconds I'm going to
shoot myself, there would be a really funny punch line and it would all be
okay.

GROSS: So how did this really bad comic, Pee-Wee Herman, develop into the kid
show host, Pee-Wee Herman?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I'm not sure there was much development involved. I mean
I, I - that character got such a great response on the first night that it ever
appeared that I very quickly realized like this is something to pursue, so I
did pursue that character, and in the Groundlings Review I had about maybe a
ten-minute slot as Pee-Wee Herman, so I had about 10 minutes' worth of here's
my toys and I threw Tootsie Rolls at people in the audience.

And about - I don't know a year after I was doing it in the Groundlings Review
I was flown to New York to be one of the finalists for "Saturday Night Live,"
the year that the original, the last original cast member was gone. It was the
first year of an all-new cast. It was the Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo year and it
was the first and only year that Lorne Michaels didn't produce. And I was one
of 22 finalists all across the country, Chicago, San Francisco, New York and
L.A., and I few to New York and with all my characters I had like my fat suit,
I had a fat guy character and all my props and wigs, and I walked in and I
realized almost immediately I wasn't going to get it.

Somebody pulled me aside and said that guy over there is the producer's best
friend, and it was somebody who did get on the show, whose name I won't
mention, who was very similar. I mean we were both kind of like nerdy, dorky
guys, so I knew it wasn't going to be both of us. And "The Pee-Wee Herman Show"
actually developed completely out of spite that I didn't get "Saturday Night
Live." I was so upset, and people - I literally was thinking to myself I'm
going to go from this like up-and-comer guy to like, you know, the guy sitting
out in front of Rite-Aid like, you know, tucking on your pant leg going like,
you know, can you help me out, without ever having, you know, anything going.
So before I even went home I landed in Los Angeles and called my parents and
borrowed some money from them and probably within two weeks I had 60 people
working for me for free and we produced that show.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about the creation of the Saturday morning version of
"Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Mr. REUBENS: Okay.

GROSS: Let's start with your voice, since you're speaking to us on the radio.
Obviously you didn't use your regular voice for the character of Pee-Wee. How
did you arrive at that – that kind of high and laugh-y voice that you created?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I had been doing - years before the creation of Pee-Wee
Herman I was - I worked at a theater that was the state theater of Florida
called the Oslo Theater, which is still in existence, still a fantastic place,
which was in my hometown, Sarasota, Florida, and was based at the John and
Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, which Sarasota, as you may or may not know, was
the former headquarters of the - winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers
Circus, so there's a lot of Ringling influence there.

And I had been doing "Life with Father" in repertory with a bunch of other
shows. And my character, I was the second-oldest son, not the star son but the
second-banana son, and over a three-month period - and I'm not bragging about
this. This probably wasn't a good thing, but my character developed into this
total cartoon character, and I didn't really even realize it, but, you know,
three months down the line somebody said, wow. Do you remember what you were
originally doing and what you're doing now?

And I was like, wow, that's, it is really different. So the voice came from
that. That is Pee-Wee's voice. It was from, you know, good morning, mother, you
know, blah, blah, blah. And that became Pee-Wee's voice. I love that story.

GROSS: So from doing - so from doing theater you developed the voice for Pee-
Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: Yup. You sound incredulous.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like it must have been pretty cartoony by the time it
was done.

Mr. REUBENS: It was. It was pretty cartoony.

GROSS: How did it happen? Did you not like the play?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I don't know. No, I loved the play. I thought it was a
really great play. I think I just wasn't very professional. I was an idiot. I
really didn't, I didn't know, you know, I didn't know you weren't supposed to
like change it completely into a cartoon. It was unwitting. Unwittingly? I did
it unwittingly, Terry.

GROSS: No, the way you look as Pee-Wee Herman, with your hair slicked back and
the face makeup with the rouge and a little bit of lipstick, reminded me almost
of like a silent film star, like a really nerdy version of a silent film star.
There was something almost, you know, like Valentino with the slicked-back
hair, and I always assumed that those guys wore like a little (unintelligible)
and rouge too, you know, in the black and white movies. Were you thinking about
that as well, visually?

Mr. REUBENS: I didn't feel like I was back – I was around back then. You know,
I was a big fan of a bunch of people, but not really. Whatever happened I think
must have been kind of subliminal with me because I never really - once Pee-Wee
Herman was successful and people knew Pee-Wee Herman, then people wrote quite
often, you know, Eddy Cantor or...

GROSS: Right, right...

Mr. REUBENS: Who's the other person? Like some of the - like Harold Lloyd. Some
of the silent people you're talking about. Even Pinky Lee, who I had seen as a
kid but I, I mean, and Jerry Lewis, who if you're listening, Jerry, I know
you're not a silent star. But I don't - I'm sure that all those elements had
some sort of play on it, but I never really tried to like look like anybody in
particular, and the makeup really was kind of like I just didn't - I didn't
have a makeup artist. I mean I did it myself, so I wasn't really trying to look
like I had lipstick or rouge on. I was just like, I didn't know how to do it.

GROSS: Now, your body...

Mr. REUBENS: I love that story too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: As Pee-Wee Herman, your body was just like really kind of tight and a
little jerky and you'd always be like leaning to one side or your head would
be, you know, angled at one side. You'd often like stick your tongue out if you
were concentrating in the way that kids often do. Was there a particular like
kid you modeled yourself on as Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: No, there really wasn't. I think it was just a blend of lots of
people I knew and kind of like a lot of who I really was down deep somewhere, I
think.

GROSS: How deep?

Mr. REUBENS: Not that deep.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman, speaking to Terry Gross in
2004. More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2004 interview with Paul Reubens. His new
stage comedy, "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened on Broadway last night as the
inaugural production of the Stephen Sondheim Theater. The stage show is based
on "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," the wildly fanciful CBS children's show in which
Reubens starred from 1986 to 1991. Here's another taste of that show, this time
a musical number.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People (Actors): (Singing) Home, home on the range, where things
are a little bit strange (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Can we talk a little bit about the look of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse"? It's
just such a fantastic set of images - you know, bright colors, all kinds of
like shapes and everything was alive in it. You know, like the chair had arms
that could embrace the person sitting in it and the chair talked and the window
talked. How was the look designed and were you a part of that?

Mr. REUBENS: The look of the show really had a lot to do with an artist named
Gary Panter, who designed the original stage version of it and designed much of
the - was really the overall production designer and created the look of the
show, the television version of it. He was somebody who, when I was really
creating that character in the early days of Pee-Wee Herman, was kind of like
the punk scene in Los Angeles and he was kind of one of the premier like punk
artists, and I had seen a lot of his work. He was in a publication called the
L.A. Weekly.

GROSS: And then Raw magazine, that Art Spiegelman edited.

Mr. REUBENS: Exactly. And I'd seen a lot of his work and I loved his work, and
I contacted him and asked him if he would do a poster for a show that I hadn't
created yet. And he said, well, why don't I do the poster and – well, actually,
he said let me come down and see what it is. So he came down and saw me in the
Groundlings show, where I had my little 10-minute Pee-Wee thing, and came
backstage and said I'd love to do it but why don't I do the whole thing, why
don't I design the sets and the puppets and everything?

Mr. REUBENS: And I said, yeah, great. So he designed that and then when we got
the deal with CBS a few years later to do it as a real television series, he
came onboard. He was the first person I hired and said, you know, you've got to
do this set, so it was - I mean the rest is history, I guess. But you know, I
think it's – it's probably the most amazing aspect of the show, in my opinion,
is the design of it. It was just so, so startlingly incredible, in my opinion.

GROSS: Now, you've said that one of the things that you really loved about the
character of Pee-Wee Herman was that he showed that it was okay to be
different. What did you feel was most different about you when you were growing
up?

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

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what your childhood was like, where you grew
up and what your school years were like. Were you uncomfortable in school? Did
you do well in school? Were you picked on?

Mr. REUBENS: Well, I grew up in an orphanage and...

GROSS: Oh, stop.

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, okay.

GROSS: No, you didn't...

Mr. REUBENS: No, I didn't. Oh, no, that was my fantasy character, sorry. I grew
up in upstate New York - Oneonta, New York - until we moved in fourth - when I
was in fourth - in between third and fourth grade we moved, which was like a
huge relief to me because Mrs. Lake that I had in third grade was really mean
to me and scared - scared the hell out of me as far as math goes.

Like I still to this day, if I've got to add or subtract anything, I almost go
into a coma. So I had an incredible upbringing in upstate New York, which
included the New York State Teacher's College, is in Oneonta, and there was a
laboratory school that my sister and I went to, and we had junior kindergarten
and senior kindergarten, which I think was an incredible confidence booster for
like a little kid. You started at four in junior kindergarten and by the time
you were five you were already a senior at something, so you could always be -
those little junior kids and, you know, junior kindergarten - which was very
cool, to not have to wait till like, you know, going from, you know, eighth
grade to - you didn't have to wait to get to sixth grade to be like the big,
you know, big cheese. You got to do that at five.

And we lived in a really small town where there was lots of nature and animals
and we had a little creek with a, with a crab apple tree across the street. I'm
going to burst into tears in a second. It was really like a very storybook kind
of upbringing.

And then we moved to Florida, and moving to Florida was like incredible. I
thought we moved to Hawaii. I thought we were in the tropics or something, and
my mother took us to go get back to school clothes and I – I bought all these
beachcomber outfits. So I show up for - I showed up for the first day of school
in fourth grade in Florida with like clam-digger pants on and these nautical
shirts, and like a total freak.

And the kids at school were like, what are you supposed to be? And the thing
that was funny about it in hindsight is like normally in that kind of situation
I think kids would probably - you would probably go like, oh, oh, sorry, you
know, I didn't know what it was - but me, I was sort of like, don't you get it?
You know, I'm a beachcomber. What's wrong with you guys? And instead, like the
next day I like put out another variation of the same outfit and put it on and
got back to school and was like, you know, these kids are going to come around
or they're not, whatever, but I'm not changing.

GROSS: Was this your theatrical impulse expressing itself?

Mr. REUBENS: I think it was, yeah, at a very early, early stage.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. His new Broadway
showcase, "The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened last night. We'll hear more about
Pee-Wee in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
We're continuing Terry's conversation from 2004 with Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-
Wee Herman. But first, a quick detour.

It's a safe bet that if you're an actor being interviewed by Terry and you've
ever appeared on the CBS children's show "Pee-Wee's Playhouse," she'll ask you
a question about it. And in 2006, when S. Epatha Merkerson was our guest - for
many years she played Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC's "Law and Order" -
Terry did just that.

GROSS: Now, on "Pee-Wee," you played Reba the Mail Lady.

Ms. S. EPATHA MERKERSON (Actor): Yeah.

GROSS: And, in fact, why don't we hear a short clip of you on "Pee-Wee's
Playhouse"?

Ms. MERKERSON: Oh, you're kidding.

GROSS: Yes. And Pee-Wee has made a wish, and the wish is that Reba the Mail
Lady will come to the playhouse and mail his letter. And Jambi the Genie has
granted Pee-Wee's wish, and you show up at the playhouse a little baffled, and
you're in your nightgown. And here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Hi, Reba.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Pee-Wee?

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) How's it going?

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) What are you doing in my house?

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) I'm not in your house. You're in the playhouse.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) The playhouse? How did I get here?

Mr. JOHN PARAGON (Actor): (as Jambi) Oh-oh.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Jambi, did you put a wish on me?

Mr. PARAGON: (as Jambi) He made me do it.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) You see, I have this letter, and I wished that you
were here to mail it for me.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Why didn't you just take it down to the corner and put
it in the mailbox?

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Well, as long as you're here, would you mind mailing
this letter for me, please, Reba?

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Pee-Wee, I would do just about anything for you, but
today is my only day off.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) All right. I'll mail the letter myself.

Ms. MERKERSON: (as Reba) Thank you.

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Wait. Reba.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. REUBENS: (as Pee-Wee) Reba, wait. Wait. Wait.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You seem to be the only person on Pee-Wee's show who is from, like, the
real world, as opposed to the playhouse world. And you're a...

Ms. MERKERSON: Yeah. Yeah. And I think it was like that in real life, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Ms. MERKERSON: What a fun - that was fun to do.

GROSS: So did you see yourself in that series is, like, the rational person in
this wacky world?

Ms. MERKERSON: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERKERSON: Absolutely. And I think every now and then, she became a part is
it, as well. But, you know, that was the whole point, is that Reba was sort of,
you know, the real person, the person that actually had, like, a real job and
took care of, like, real things, and everyone else was a little kooky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: S. Epatha Merkerson, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006 about her
time on the CBS children's show, "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

And now, back to Terry's 2004 interview with the star of that show, Pee-Wee
himself, actor Paul Reubens. When we left off, he was talking about moving with
his family to Sarasota, Florida when he was in fourth grade.

GROSS: So when you moved to Sarasota, which you said was the winter
headquarters for Ringling Brothers Circus, did you meet any circus people?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, I met lots of circus people. I mean, for one thing, you could
see the circus people coming down the street. You know, like the lady with the
bright red hair and the wooden shoes, you know, would be, obviously, a circus
person. I mean you could just tell they were very show business in a very small
town, a conservative, small town, so you could tell they were.

We rented a little house the first year we moved to Sarasota, and we used to
hear these explosions all the time. And we never could hear - figure out what
they were. And one day, a couple of weeks after we moved, our whole family was
walking - we took a walk one night after dinner, and we heard this explosion
and we looked in between these two homes, we saw somebody flying through the
air in between these two homes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: And it turned out that it was the Zakini(ph) family, and they were
the family with the giant, silver cannon. And they were shooting each other out
of the cannon in the backyard.

GROSS: That's so bizarre.

Mr. REUBENS: And, in fact, years later, when I made my circus movie, we went
back to Sarasota and recreated that cannon.

GROSS: For "Big Top Pee-Wee"?

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Don't you love that story?

GROSS: Did you want to be in the circus after seeing this?

Mr. REUBENS: I did. You know, I actually thought that if - I've been ask, like,
what would've happened if you weren't as successful as Pee-Wee Herman, what
would you have done? And I really thought I was headed for a career in the
circus.

GROSS: As?

Mr. REUBENS: As the pin-headed guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: No. The...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...the unfunny guy. The guy who - I don't know. I knew how to walk
a tightrope. I could do trapeze.

GROSS: Could you really walk a tightrope?

Mr. REUBENS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: How'd you learn that?

Mr. REUBENS: Why would I make that up, Terry?

GROSS: I don't know.

Mr. REUBENS: I went to circus camp when I was young.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm. I swear.

GROSS: And did you ever do the circus barker rap?

Mr. REUBENS: No. I never did that. I considered briefly covering my body with
tattoos, but I didn't do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Which is good thing now, 'cause, you know, everybody has a tattoo
now.

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. REUBENS: So it wouldn't really be like - you know, it'd be sad if I did
that. I did, like I started out, I had a balance beam act. My parents showed up
to circus camp when we were putting on the show, and I had on, like, a little
Speedo bathing suit. And I'd get up on the balance beam with a blindfold on
and, like, set these like rings on fire...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...and do this insane, completely insane act. I looked - I pulled
the blindfold off and looked at my parents, because they were both sitting up
in the bleachers with their mouths open, like, what have we created?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: You know, like totally - I think that was probably an early tipoff
to them that I wasn't going to be an architect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So were you inhibited or extroverted as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: One or the other?

GROSS: Or something in between.

Mr. REUBENS: You know, honestly, I think I was probably a little of each. I was
sort of schitzy when I was, like, a kid. I would be, like, very introverted and
then, you know, up in my room by myself. And then I would be like the life of
the party, you know, like, gathering all the kids around to like - we had a
little stage in our basement that my dad built me once he realized he was
raising a little...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...monster actor. So the kids in the neighborhood would come over
and try to figure out, like, what was the teeniest part they could give me so
they could use the stage. So we would do like these murder mysteries where like
the opening of the show would be me getting pushed offstage into a vat of acid,
and then it would be like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: ...you know, my part would be over. And then all the older kids
would like do the show. It wasn't till later in life I realized, you know, I'd
come in and go like, you've met my attorney, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: We'll see. You know, talk to them.

GROSS: What TV shows did you watch as a kid?

Mr. REUBENS: You know, I was part of an early study on the effects of
television on children when I was going to that school in Upstate New York I
mentioned. I remember being in first or second grade and having some scientists
come into our class to ask us questions about, like, what shows we liked. And
my - all the rest of the kids were like "Mickey Mouse Club" and "Howdy Doody."
And my favorite show was "I Love Lucy." And so I got, like, selected out of the
whole class - I had to go into an office and listen to a bunch of scientists,
like, go like, well, why? What was it about the "I Love Lucy" show that
attracts you? And who do you like better? Lucy or Desi or Ethel or Fred? And,
yeah, I was, like, in second grade. I didn't know any - I just thought like,
well, I liked the show just because I like the show.

That's a long way to answer. I didn't even answer your question. I watched, in
addition to "I Love Lucy," I, when I was really young, I watched - I loved the
"Mickey Mouse Club." I loved "Captain Kangaroo" and I loved "Howdy Doody." I
was even on the "Howdy Doody Show." My mother drove me and my sister to New
York, and we were on the "Howdy Doody Show."

GROSS: In the peanut gallery?

Mr. REUBENS: Mm-hmm. Somebody knows "The Howdy Doody Show."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: Good. Expressive.

GROSS: What was it like to be inside, rather than watching it on TV?

Mr. REUBENS: Very confusing. I remember - my sister was so freaked out, she
burst into tears right before the show and she had to be, like, put in an
isolation booth. She didn't make it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: She didn't make it on the air. But I did. I was like, huh, after
this drive? You've got to be kidding. Try to axe me from the show. Forget it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REUBENS: I was right up in there. But the thing that was weird about it
was, like, you couldn't see Howdy Doody. You couldn't see anything, except like
all the lights and cameras. And, I mean, it was just - it was really weird and
kind of semi-disappointing.

GROSS: Why was it disappointing? Oh, because you couldn't see.

Mr. REUBENS: Yeah. Just because I didn't realize that there were lights and
cameras and, you know, it's something interesting. Like, from that experience,
I now kind of - when I meet little kids, you know, out and about, like, for -
like we did the DVD signing the other day here in Manhattan, and a thousand
fans showed up, and I spoke to lots and lots of people, including some kids who
would, you know, be just sort of staring at me. And I know enough now to say,
like, I don't look like myself, do I? You know, and I look bigger, don't I? And
that kind of stuff because, you know, when you're a kid, like, it didn't occur
to me that everything was real life-size. You know, I thought Buffalo Bob was,
like, you know, the size of somebody who could fit inside the TV.

GROSS: Paul Reubens, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. REUBENS: Terry, thank you so much. I really appreciate it, and I had a lot
of fun.

BIANCULLI: Paul Reubens, speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. His new stage show,
"The Pee-Wee Herman Show," opened last night on Broadway.

Coming up: rock historian Ed Ward on a West Coast songwriting duo from the
1960s, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri.

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Praise For Songwriters P.F. Sloan And Steve Barri

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

By the mid-1960s, the era of the contract songwriter on New York's Tin Pan
Alley was coming to a close. It lived on, however, on the West Coast, where
music publishers still hired teenage songwriters to make hits. P.F. Sloan and
Steve Barri were the stars of that scene, and today, rock historian Ed Ward has
a story of their many hits.

(Soundbite of song, "Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'")

THE FANTASTIC BAGGYS (Rock Band): (Singing) Hey, mom, if any of the guys from
my baseball team ever call me on the phone to ask me to play in an important
game, just say their captain ain't at home.

Tell 'em I'm surfin'. Don't care about hitting home runs now. Tell 'em I'm
surfin'. Gonna have me some fun, fun, fun, now. I'm trading in my bat and balls
and I'll see 'em in the fall. I'm going surfin'.

And if that pretty little...

ED WARD: The Fantastic Baggys had their brief moment in surf music history with
"Tell 'Em I'm Surfin'," being a very well-made, if unsuccessful song. If it
sounds familiar, it should: The song was re-cut by Jan and Dean, and the
singers had already done local arrangements and performances on other records.
In fact, the Baggys didn't exist. They were just another manifestation of the
songwriting team of Phil Sloan and Steve Barri, who'd been thrown together by
the West Coast office of Screen Gems Music to write follow-ups to hits. They'd
already made records as the Lifeguards, Willie and The Wheels, Themes
Incorporated, and several other groups, and Lou Adler, their boss, had faith in
them.

Sloan was born Phil Schlein in 1945, and Steve Barri was born Steve Lipkin in
1942. But although they were both New Yorkers, their parents moved the families
to Los Angeles, where Sloan started writing and recording songs for some small
labels and Barri got a job in a music store, where he heard lots of records and
learned some guitar chords. Sloan was Screen Gems' token teenager, and as well
as writing songs, he was supposed to listen to records. In 1963, a British guy
named Brian Epstein sent him some records by a group called The Beatles, and he
was floored. Adler tossed them, at which point Sloan offered to buy them from
him. Adler was impressed enough to get on the phone with Vee-Jay Records, who
wound up buying the rights.

In 1965, Sloan had another revelation: Bob Dylan. The kind of formulaic
songwriting shops like Screen Gems produced was definitely over, and a new day
had arrived. Sloan sat down and wrote a bunch of new songs, one of which was
immediately recorded by a band from Liverpool, The Searchers.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me for What I'm Worth")

THE SEARCHERS (Rock Band): (Singing) Don't try and understand me. You never
could do that. Ah, and in the end you'd wind up being hurt. I'm a man with too
many problems that keep pounding on my brain.

So if you want me, then take me for what I'm worth. If you want me, you'll take
me for what I'm worth.

WARD: At this point, Lou Adler saw what was happening and left Screen Gems to
set up the Dunhill label and music publishing firm, offering Sloan and Barri
double their present salaries to come work for him. Sure enough, one of their
first efforts was another fake band, The Grass Roots, who had a big West Coast
hit with its first record.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Were You When I Needed You?")

THE GRASS ROOTS (Rock band): (Singing) Don't bother cryin', don't bother
crawlin'. It's all over now, no use in stallin'. The love I once felt, I don't
feel anymore for you. This time I'll even open the door for you. You walked out
when I was down. Well, now I'm well off, and look, look who's comin' round.

Where were you when I needed you? Where were you when I wanted you? Where were
you when I needed you? Where?

WARD: But another artist on Dunhill didn't need a fake name. Sloan's discovery
of Dylan was pushing him further from pop and closer to what he called people's
music. In 1965, Dunhill released the first album by P.F. Sloan, "Songs of Our
Times," which included a track he'd written for a former member of the New
Christy Minstrels.

(Soundbite of song, "Eve of Destruction")

Mr. P.F. SLOAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) The eastern world, it is
exploding, violence flarin' and bullets loadin'. You're old enough to kill, but
not for votin'. You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'.

But you tell me over and over and over again, my friend. Ah, you don't believe
we're on the eve of destruction. Don't you understand...

WARD: "Eve of Destruction" was a number-one hit for Barry McGuire, while
Sloan's version stayed on his album. And while the McGuire record was banned by
many radio stations, the single Sloan released was banned by almost all of
them.

(Soundbite of song, "Sins of a Family,")

Mr. SLOAN: (Singing) She had a bad childhood while she was very young, so don't
judge her too badly. She had a schizophrenic mother who worked in the gutter,
would have sold herself to the devil gladly. What a sad environment, a bug-
ridden tenement. And when they couldn't pay the rent, it's 'cause her father
was out getting sicker.

Oh, the stone's been cast and blood's thicker than water. And the sins of the
family fall on the daughter. All the sins of the family fall on the daughter.

WARD: Dunhill packed Sloan and McGuire off to tour England, where both records
had taken off, and when Sloan returned, he saw things very differently. The
kids wanted protest music, he'd decided, but in America, the man was keeping it
from them.

In retrospect, though, it looks a little different. "Eve of Destruction" didn't
really have a viewpoint, and "Sins of a Family" clubs you over the head with
one. What Phil Sloan and Steve Barri did best was pop, and throughout 1966,
they wrote hits for Herman's Hermits, The Mamas and Papas and The Turtles. But
eventually, Sloan simply walked out and disappeared. For years, all people knew
of him was his name, thanks to a song by Jimmy Webb, whom he'd helped get
started in the songwriting business. Steve Barri kept producing for Warner
Brothers and Motown, and Sloan reappeared with an album in 2006 and has done
some touring. But the last great song factory in L.A. was closed.

BIANCULLI: Rock historian Ed Ward played music from two Sloan and Barri
collections, "You Baby: Words & Music By P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri" and P.F.
Sloan, "Here's Where I Belong: The Very Best Of The Dunhill Years 1965-1967."
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'Elia Kazan Collection' A Must-Have For Film Fans

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The late theater and film director Elia Kazan had a profound influence on
America in the decades after World War II. One of those he touched was
filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who says that Kazan inspired him to make movies.
Scorsese has selected the Kazan films that are included in a new DVD set called
the "Elia Kazan Collection." In addition to familiar classics, like "On The
Waterfront," the collection includes Scorsese's cinema essay "Letter to Elia,"
and five Kazan films never before available on DVD, such significant titles as
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Viva Zapata!" and "America, America."

Our critic-at-large John Powers says this is one collection that's as exciting
for the films you don't know as for the ones you do.

JOHN POWERS: It's one of life's teasing truisms that artists' landmark works
aren't necessarily their best ones. A good example of this is Elia Kazan, one
of the defining - and polarizing - figures in post-war American culture. Not
only did Kazan help revolutionize the theater, he forever changed the movies,
ushering in a whole new era of screen acting. He worked with the holy trinity
of Method dreamboats - Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean - and he
launched the likes of Warren Beatty, Lee Remick and Eva Marie Saint.

The trajectory of Kazan's career has now been charted in "The Elia Kazan
Collection," a box set featuring 15 of his key films. It's a terrific
collection anchored by some of the most mythic performances in film history:
Brando and Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Brando again in "On the
Waterfront" - he could've been a contender - and, of course, Dean in "East of
Eden," a groundbreaking performance so quirkily histrionic in its vulnerability
that, seen through today's wised-up eyes, Dean appears to be acting in a story
by Kafka, not Steinbeck.

These are films that everyone should see. But for me, the true pleasure of this
set lies in other, lesser-known films that I actually like better. The finest
is "Wild River," a 1960 film set in the Tennessee Valley during the 1930s.
Clift plays Chuck Glover, a young federal administrator who's been sent to get
an ornery old matriarch - that's Jo Van Fleet - to leave her plantation before
it's flooded. He winds up getting romantically involved with her widowed
granddaughter, who's played by Remick with such intense purity of emotion - and
such blueness of eye - that she takes your breath away.

Here, Glover tells the old lady that the TVA dams will give everyone
electricity, but she's not buying it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wild River")

Ms. JO VAN FLEET (Actor): (as Ella Garth) I expect that's what you call
progress, isn't it?

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFF (Actor): (as Chuck Glover) And you don't.

Ms. VAN FLEET: (as Ella Garth) No, sir. I don't. Taking away people's souls,
putting electricity in place of them - ain't progress, not the way I see it.

Mr. CLIFF: (as Chuck Glover) It - we're not taking away people's souls, just
the opposite. We're giving them a chance to have a soul. And it isn't just this
dam. It's dam after dam after dam. We aim to tame this whole river.

Ms. VAN FLEET: (as Ella Garth) You do? Well, I like things running wild, like
nature meant. There's already enough dams locking things up, taming them,
making them go against their natural wants and needs. I'm against dams of any
kind.

POWERS: Kazan always had a fondness for cussed characters like that, no doubt
because he was one himself. He was born of Anatolian Greek parents who
emigrated to the U.S. when he was four. It was a difficult life that made him a
difficult man. In his great autobiography, "A Life," he wrote that he woke up
mad every single day. But his experience gave him an immigrant's sense of
America - its possibilities and its harsh realities - and this lead him to big,
juicy American stories, usually with serious social themes.

Kazan tackled everything from anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement" to
public health in "Panic in the Streets," a terrific New Orleans noir starring
Richard Widmark as a military doctor who's trying to run down a gang of crooks
infected with plague. My favorite of these social pictures is "A Face in the
Crowd," a riveting, nasty 1957 movie about a demagogic TV star played with
sinister brilliance by an Andy Griffith you'd never let around Opie. You can
foresee today's media culture in every frame.

Although Kazan could be a clunky director, he made great use of locations,
boasted a gritty sense of reality and guided actors into unfamiliar
psychological depths. He was superb at exploring personal relationships, be it
the love between father and daughter in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," exquisitely
acted by James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner, or the immigrant ruthlessness of the
hero in "America, America." Based on his own uncle's story, this fiercely
unsentimental movie follows a young man who does what it takes - and it takes
cruel things - to make it from Anatolia to American soil.

Bursting with chutzpah, Kazan himself did whatever it took to make it big in
America. Even as he enjoyed the fruits of success - he was a man who bragged
about his sexual conquests - he joined in the Red Scare of the '50s, naming
names in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Although this tainted his own name in Hollywood to this day, it also made his
subsequent movies far more interesting. Not coincidentally, his most powerful
work is "On the Waterfront," the story of an ex-boxer turned longshoreman -
Brando's Terry Malloy - who informs on corrupt union bosses.

In one of that film's most beautiful scenes, Terry and his girl - played by Eva
Marie Saint - are up on a rooftop where Terry keeps pigeons. He tells her the
city is full of hawks. They hang around on the top the big hotels, he says, and
when they spot a pigeon in the park, they pounce.

It's one measure of what made Kazan such a dominating figure that, more than
half a century later, it's hard to be sure who he identified with more: the
victimized pigeons or the predatory hawks.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "The
Elia Kazan Collection," now out on DVD.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair, and you can
download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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