People who can't name the U.S. secretary of state or locate Florida on a map can tell you exactly what they think Pee-wee Herman was doing on the evening of Friday, July 26, 1991, in a porno house in Sarasota, Fla. Some will even remember the name of the theater and what it was showing the day Pee-wee, alias Paul Reubens, was arrested there. (Answers: the South Trail Cinema; "Nancy Nurse," "Turn Up the Heat" and "Tiger Shark.")
When the news hit, the TV and movie star's own lawyer pronounced his career dead -- proof that even Hollywood lawyers don't know everything.
Yes, Pee-wee has taken a sabbatical, but Mr. Reubens is very much on the rebound, just a hair short of an actual comeback. At the moment, he can be seen in two summer releases, the blockbuster "Batman Returns" and the teen comedy "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
In the weeks after his arrest on the indecent-exposure charge -- to which he eventually entered a no-contest plea -- the actor's celebrity friends and fans voiced a chorus of support. At the same time, obscene Pee-wee jokes blanketed the land.
On Sept. 5, 1991, Mr. Reubens got a huge ovation from the hip thousands at the MTV Awards. In a surprise appearance that started the show, he came out as Pee-wee and asked the pointed question: "Heard any good jokes lately?"
That was the last time we saw Pee-wee, a character Mr. Reubens had spoken of retiring even before the Sarasota affair. His Saturday morning TV show, "Pee-wee's Playhouse," was canceled before the incident.
The actor's two subsequent film appearances have been character parts in which he's hardly recognizable. One of the first things you see in the summer's most hyped mega-movie, "Batman Returns," is Mr. Reubens in regal profile as the Penguin's heartless, aristocratic father. It's only a cameo, but a well-placed one in a big-deal movie.
In the mildly amusing but mostly forgettable "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Mr. Reubens gets third billing behind Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland. Playing the blood-thirsty henchman of vampire leader Rutger Hauer, he looks more like Nicolas Cage than the host of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." The wild hair and goatee resemble the Sarasota mug shot that set so many tongues awag.
Mr. Reubens' "Buffy" performance is one of the film's brighter spots, complete with the year's most entertaining death scene.
As his fallen star ascends again, the performer, in terms of press, is the new Garbo. He hasn't done interviews in well over a year.
The "Buffy" press material contains short biographies of the cast. In Mr. Reubens' case, there's only a photo of the character he plays, no bio -- not even the actor's name.
"I think that was Paul Reubens' choice," says a studio spokesman. "He's really press-shy at this point."
The performer may yet gird himself for the inevitable media ordeal, spilling his guts to the usual suspects on TV and newsstands. And you can bet that Pee-wee will resurface somewhere down the line; you can't keep a good bit down.
But asked if Mr. Reubens has more projects in the works, his publicist responds, "None that we are authorized to talk about."
OK, OK, so he vants to be left alone.