The tickets to the show were a Christmas gift from my girlfriend. She knew I was a lifelong fan of Pee-wee Herman, as portrayed by Paul Reubens, in all his incarnations dating to the earliest days of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Those include the original adult version of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” that aired on HBO in 1981, five years before “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” made its Saturday morning debut for kids.
I read all the early reviews of the new live theater production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” from its opening run at L.A. Live’s Club Nokia in Los Angeles and heard about the show coming to Broadway. I bookmarked the dates of its run.
For me and other adoring fans of Pee-wee, the “Playhouse” and the “Big Adventure” movies, his return to public performance and revival of his career could be seen as an acknowledgment of the significant contribution of his work and validation of our appreciation.
I look back now, after his death, with an understanding that the loss of heroes or role models from our childhood feels like that youthful part of us is passing with them. In the case of Pee-wee Herman, the feeling is even more poignant because, through him, we were able to exist in a state of suspended animation and stave off what is considered maturity.
Paul Reubens’ incessant mirth-making had the magical properties of a fountain of youth, transporting generations of fans back in time to when possibility stretched to the limits of our imaginations.
When my girlfriend and I had those tickets to the Dec. 23, 2010, performance of “The Pee-wee Herman Show” at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, it was about a week before the end of its run. We’d be traveling to New York for the show and making what was a regular holiday family visit with my sister in New Jersey.
The night before the show, I was tending bar at Grand Cru in Belvedere Square, when one of the biggest blizzards in years blew in. My girlfriend called the bar to see if I wanted to cancel the trip. The snow was coming down hard and piling up quickly. Just driving home to Bolton Hill that night was going to be a challenge.
Weather and driving conditions be damned, I told her there was no way I was going to miss the show unless they announced it would be canceled before we planned to leave. I didn’t think we could make it up again on a different date so close to the end of the run.
The next morning, we braved the blizzard all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike, which had not been plowed and was blanketed in snow. Our average speed must have been somewhere around 45 mph. Most of the exit ramps were inaccessible due to snowdrifts.
Squinting and peering over the steering wheel and through the wiper blades, we were driving into the whiteness and looking for tail lights in motion to follow.
Somehow, we made it to the W Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey, where we had reserved a room. Most of the previous night’s guests were stranded in the lobby or trying to extend their stays. It was somewhere between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. when we arrived and were told our room was not available for check-in and would not be for a few more hours. They gave us drink vouchers and checked our luggage.
Miraculously, the Path trains were still running from Hoboken to New York City. We took the train to the Christopher Street station in Greenwich Village and walked up deserted Seventh Avenue devoid of car traffic for about 40 blocks. We were in New York City, and no cars were on the road. We walked right in the middle of the snow-covered street. We stopped at a French restaurant with just enough time to get dinner before the show.
We made it to the theater on time and found our seats in the back row of the orchestra section on the floor. I had the aisle seat right by the entrance to the theater. The back row was on a one-step riser slightly elevated above the row in front.
The show was funny and sincere and a joyride replete with a happy ending that brought tears to my eyes, with an assist from the flask of bourbon in my coat pocket that I nipped at during the show. As we got up to leave, I forgot about the one-step riser and fell right into the aisle, lying on my back like a capsized turtle. I was laughing deliriously and must have looked silly down there, but I escaped injury.
As we were walking out of the theater to a bar across the street, I heard Paul Reubens’ voice coming through a megaphone at the backstage door. He came outside to thank all of us for trudging through the snow-covered streets to the show and wished us safe travels on our way home. The whole enchanted evening was pure magic, as if all of it was part of the show.
Baltimore-based Charlie Vascellaro is the author of “Hank Aaron: A Biography.” His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, City Paper, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.