The Secret Word.

Source: Dutch Toast

In high school I was in the Latin club—the Junior Classical League to those in the know. Like other clubs it had conventions, mostly on college campuses, where we took part in Latin and classical-themed competitions, including comedy sketches. Here’s a fun fact I learned in JCL: the famous Roman orator Cicero was nicknamed “Chickpea”, cicer in Latin, by his friends. There was also a kid in JCL named Jonas who could do an absolutely spot-on impersonation of Pee-Wee Herman. This gave his entire Latin class to put on a sketch called Chickpea-Wee’s Big Adventure Or Cicero Goes To Rome.

You might already know where this is going and if you do the story will sound familiar: Cicero’s special sedan-chair, sella in Latin, is stolen. He consults a soothsayer who tells him it’s in the basement of the Coliseum. He sets off for Rome, meeting a lot of weird and funny characters along the way, and although it turns out there is no basement in the Coliseum he still manages to find his sella and everything ends happily.

I’ve never forgotten that—it was one of the highlights of my time in JCL, even better than the time I won a prize for dressing up as Caligula, but that’s another story.

When I heard that Paul Reubens had died and all the tributes started I realized something about that JCL sketch, or, more specifically, about Jonas. He was a small kid for a high schooler—he might have even skipped a grade, or three, and he didn’t just do a Pee-Wee Herman impersonation. He looked a bit like Paul Reubens: same dark hair, which he kept cut short, even the same complexion and dark eyes. Watching him walk around the stage in a tunic—at one point he passed a road sign with markers all labeled “ROME” and he said, “I guess it’s true—all roads do lead to Rome!” and did a classic Pee-Wee laugh—it seemed like he really was Paul Reubens.

As a small, kind of odd kid—admittedly we were all odd in JCL—he might have been picked on but impersonating Pee-Wee Herman was a way he could fit in, even outside of Latin class. It made him cool.

Something I don’t think has been said in all the tributes is how much of an antidote Pee-Wee Herman was to the crass commercialism of children’s entertainment in the ‘80’s. Sure, you could buy Pee-Wee’s Playhouse toys and figures, but unlike He-Man, Transformers, or The Care-Bears, which were created just to sell toys, Pee-Wee Herman started out as a character for adults, appealed to children because he was childlike, and spanned generations because he encouraged everyone to be imaginative. And he gave kids like Jonas and, I’ll just say it, me, too, a way out of a world that at times felt pretty dark and cynical. He’s one of those standouts of what seemed like an oppressive time who didn’t just say, it’s okay to be weird. He made being weird cool.

Hail and farewell, Paul Reubens, and Jonas, wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well too.

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  1. Allison

    I did not study Latin, but I had friends that did, and they were in JCL. The one thing I remember about it was that that had a chant, based on the fact that we were from Georgia.

    Orgy is our middle name!

    I also remember one of them performing a parody for a talent show with JCL to the tune of Losing My Religion – but instead, Serving My Detention:

    That’s me in the corner.
    That’s me in the Dunce. Cap. Serving my detention.

    I had some funny friends. I also loved Pee-wee Herman and his Playhouse. The fact that I have seen so many glowing first person accounts of Paul Reubens sightings and meetings tells me he was a pretty decent guy.

    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      I think we’re close enough to the same age that I’m surprised I don’t remember encountering your school’s JCL group, because I’d sure remember that chant. Also I’m amazed to learn that Paul Reubens had a Nashville connection: his sister lives here and is a lawyer. I just read a remembrance by someone who went to her office and saw a picture of Pee-Wee Herman. They asked about it and she said. “Oh, he’s my brother.”


    I was in the JCL, Chris, and I loved Pee-Wee Herman. I watched “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” every week, “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is one of my favorite movies, and I drove to NYC with my son Aaron and a friend to see his show on Broadway. I DID want to get mixed up with a guy like him — a loner and a rebel.
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    1. Christopher Waldrop (Post author)

      Going back to “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” for the first time in decades I was struck by what an amazing film it is. Something that completely went over my head when I was young is that it’s as though Reubens felt it was his one chance to make a movie so he crammed every genre into it. I’ve heard “Citizen Kane” described that way too, and, yes, I feel they’re both equally fantastic films.


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