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Paul Reubens remembered: San Francisco ‘Free Pee-wee’ protest defended icon in 1991

At an Aug. 3, 1991, protest outside the Roxie Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, David Burke, center, holds a “Free Pee-wee” sign beside friend and future San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey. | Source: | Courtesy of David Burke

After actor Paul Reubens died Monday, several obituaries for the “Pee-wee Herman” comedian referenced an Entertainment Weekly magazine article about the furor that erupted after he was arrested in a Florida adult movie theater in July 1991 on a charge of indecent exposure. The article also noted a San Francisco protest in defense of Reubens.

As it turns out, two organizers of the Aug. 3, 1991, pro-Reubens demonstration outside the Roxie Theater in the Mission District—one of them now a prominent elected official—were happy to share their memories of both the man and the moment.

David Burke, who now works as a public liaison for the San Francisco police, was then a 25-year-old consultant working for a political research company. His career was in a quiet phase between campaigns when Reubens was arrested.

“I had never seen the (Pee-wee’s Playhouse) show, but I was vaguely familiar with him as a pop-culture thing,” Burke said. “If you remember, it was a big deal pre-internet.”

Burke and some friends, including future San Francisco Supervisor Matt Dorsey, talked about what they were seeing in the media after Reubens’ arrest.

“There was a vacuum for somebody to come to his defense,” Dorsey told The Standard. “So we kicked around an idea of, ‘Well, hey, let’s do this sort of stunt and create a Pee-wee Defenders Club.’”

Burke agreed, noting that they created the organization right then and there: “We just decided in an early form of “astroturfing” to just be the defenders, and have some fun with it.”

Dorsey drafted a press release, dubbing himself and Burke as the club officers, and the pair began reaching out to friends, who spread the word to local radio and television stations. Soon, Live 105 announced a midnight showing of Tim Burton’s 1985 cult classic film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure at the Roxie.

They weren’t sure people would show up, but Dorsey remembers the theater was packed.

In an image shared with The Standard, a young Burke holds up a sign that says “Free Pee-wee” while standing beside a beaming Dorsey holding a separate sign.

“It says ‘Agnos, pick one,’” Burke said, referring to Art Agnos, who was San Francisco’s mayor at the time. The sign facetiously asked the mayor to choose between the city as a Pee-wee sanctuary or “weeks of fiery riots.”

Inside the theater, before the movie screened, “a bunch of us went up onstage as the organizers of the Pee-wee Defenders Club,” Dorsey said. “There was a telegram of support sent from [magicians] Penn and Teller.”

Burke remembers a clip from the protest and movie night airing on Entertainment Tonight, as well as having to explain everything to his mother, who was visiting from Massachusetts.

“She had a difficult time understanding,” he said. “She was like, ‘Is this your job?’”

The arrest derailed Reubens’ career for a bit. But Dorsey and Burke marveled at the fervor of fans who came out to support Reubens that night.

“People really loved him, and they were very upset when he got arrested. People felt it was unfair,” Burke said.

Two years later, in 1993, Burke had a near run-in with Reubens while working as a production assistant on another Tim Burton film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. “I did pass him in the hallway and said hi. What am I going to say? Am I going to bring up something embarrassing for the guy, you know? But it was a very Forrest Gump-y, small-world moment.”

Dorsey said Reubens’ death of cancer at age 70 in Los Angeles felt like “the end of an era.” 

“It was a lesson to me about how fun and in-on-the-joke and celebratory San Francisco can be,” he said. “That photo is actually on my desk in city hall.”

George Kelly can be reached at