Pee-wee and Mr. Rogers, We Hardly Knew Thee.

August 9, 2023

Pee-wee and Mr. Rogers, We Hardly Knew Thee.

May 29, 2023

Okay, I’m not going to be a rumor-monger and suggest that these two icons had a thing going on (Chip, did you really write that?!), but they both captured my heart and, yet, I wish I’d gotten to know them a little more deeply.

In some ways, they couldn’t be more different, although they were both hard to categorize. I grew up with Mr. Rogers, the lifelong Republican who took a stand for public television, the Presbyterian minister who was far from dogmatic, the vegetarian who grew up in beef country, and the speedo-donning swimmer whose only other outfit required a cardigan. He wasn’t the John Wayne version of masculinity my Dad represented for me. He was sort of androgynous and even admitted that on the Kinsey scale, he was right in the middle, while being, seemingly, happily married.

It’s hard to imagine that Pee-wee was married (he was) given the Camp Queerness flavor of his humor (flirtingly teasing “Cowboy Curtis” - Laurence Fishburne - in his Playhouse show about his shoe size). Whereas Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood felt lovingly sanitized, Pee-wee’s Playhouse was like one of those drag queen story hours that are now being banned. My memory of the Playhouse is demented, partly due to the fact I used to watch it on mushrooms in my mid-20s with some of my San Francisco friends right before we’d do a John Waters’ film binge.

These two very different men, who did so much for helping kids (and adults) feel good about themselves in all their uniqueness, did very little to reveal what was going on underneath their surface. They both died of cancer without talking much about it (for Mr. Rogers, it’s partly due to the fact he died two months after his diagnosis). They were about the same age when they died, one at 70, the other at 74.

I love these two men because they both found the beauty in us, even though their design aesthetic - as evidenced by their very different television production sets - was very different (they both had a mid-century look, but Pee-wee’s was on acid and Mr. Rogers’ was on Ambien). They both moralized without judging and, while Pee-wee’s TV show lasted only for a half-dozen years compared to Mr. Rogers’ lasting 33 years, the Playhouse had a profound impact on American culture. Some might say they were both parodies, but - to me - they were almost spiritual leaders teaching us about the religion of love.

In the end, I related more to Pee-wee than I did Mr. Rogers, partly because of his sophomoric jokes and gleeful giggle. Paul Ruebens’, the actor behind Pee-wee, never came out (although he was called-out with an arrest at an adult movie theater) but he lived his character life so out loud that you couldn’t help but feel joy in watching him. He was one of the inspirations for why I called my boutique hotel company Joie de Vivre (joy of life) a year after the Playhouse debuted on TV.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers and Pee-wee Herman. While we didn’t get to know you as well as we would have liked, you’ve helped us be better humans just by witnessing you.

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