Unlike so much garbage manufactured for children by sanctimonious adults, Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse was a no-holds-barred celebration of the beautiful chaos of childhood. Pee-wee continually encouraged kids to let loose and enjoy themselves, even if this meant jumping or running around the house, screaming the “secret word,” or just being plain silly. And yet underneath it all, Pee-wee was teaching kids to cook, to read, and to learn about different cultures; in short, Pee-wee taught kids to embrace every crumb of life and to get off their asses and be imaginative, inquisitive, naughty, hyper, and curious, like real kids are supposed to be.

Critics and adults loved and hated the show for its subtle play on sexuality (and not-so-subtle—as when Miss Yvonne gets off on the rocking horse) and its multi-cultural characters. In the white-as-snow world of Reagan’s America, Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse was a defiant “scream real loud” against an increasingly stifling and politically correct society.

Prudence Fenton: Animating Pee Wee

The person who brought these bits together was the show’s Animation Producer, Prudence Fenton. In fact, Fenton was the first person hired by Broadcast Arts to work on the show. “I had worked with Broadcast Arts when they were in Washington D.C. I had made a ton of MTV ID’s with them and numerous commercials. I moved to NYC before they did and was working with Peter Wallach when they offered Pee-wee to me. I saw the Pee-wee HBO special and I was hooked as soon as I saw him with naked Gumby. I loved this sensibility design wise and humor.” Fenton spent the month of April 1986 interviewing all the artistic and production talent she could find in New York at that time. “I found the live-action producer, as well as all the artists and directors who worked on the show.” Fenton’s primary responsibility was to oversee all the animation and mixed-media portions of the show (eg. shooting Reubens against the blue screen and keying him into stockfootage of surfing, dancing girls, ice skating etc.) “During the first year I didn't have that much to do with Magic Screen elements- that was delegated to Twin Art- Lynda and Ellen Kahn. The following years I also covered that. I supervised ALL the compositing- all the effects everything as well as the animation.”

Fenton worked very closely with Reubens, who had his hand on every component of the show. “I always consulted with Paul,” says Fenton. “He was one of the few people I had worked with whose suggestions actually made it better. He has a fantastic eye. I absolutely showed him everything. One time an animator had written his name in JUST ONE FRAME of clay in the PENNY cartoon, and Paul caught it. We cut it out. Paul also welcomed ideas from anybody. He was a great collaborator and was very clear about his vision.”

Finding animators in the 1980s was no easy task for Fenton. “You have to remember that this was made in 1986-90 and there were not nearly as many animators- really- as there are now- and especially stop motion animators. And the first season was being done out of NYC so there was a way smaller talent pool. Broadcast Arts had a good staff of animators. For example- staff animator Kent Burton animated the dinosaurs, and he was amazing. He was one of the best. Steve Oakes had been dying to work with the Aardmans so they were one of the first calls. They helped create Penny and we used their technique of recording little girls, editing the bits and animating to them. They had done a show like that. When we were making the show in California, I viewed lots of reels and tried to get the best out there. That is how we wound up with Will Vinton animators for Penny- Craig Bartlett and Tom Gasek.”

With few exceptions, all the animation scenes used clay. “At that time,” says Fenton, “Clay was simpler and easier than doing 2D. Once you set up one tabletop, you might as well set up 10 of them. The key person other than the obvious- directors, animators and artists- was the camera maintenance.

The animators were usually given a sentence in the script describing what was going on in a scene. For the ants scenes, animators were essentially given free reign. “Tom McLaughlin was our best animator,” says Fenton, “and he just ran with it.

Aside from the Misfit Toys, which only appeared in season one, animation segments like the Fridge, Dinos, and Penny remained throughout the series. During the last two seasons, a new short was added called El Hombre. With dialogue in Spanish, El Hombre was a sort of Spanish street hero who saved children from various urban thugs. “There was a black velvet painting in the Playhouse bedroom,” remembers Fenton. “The guy looked so noble. Paul and I discussed the idea of having a Spanish superhero cartoon in Spanish based on that painting. It would be unexpected and we could animate it on black velvet.”

Almost twenty years later, Fenton remains proud of Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse. “The experience was fantastic. This is one of the best projects I have ever worked on. We never thought about going home before 10 pm. It was too much fun at work.”


Saturday, September 24, 7:00 pm
(NAC Southam Hall)
Sunday, September 25, 1:00 pm
Running time: 73:05 mins.

A compilation of animated segements from Pee-wee Herman's Playhouse's five seasons.

King of Cartoons opening / 0:54
Show Opening #1 Season 5 Opening / 0:56
Show Opening #2 & “Time for a visit with Dr. Pee-wee” / 6:17.
Cowntess’ Home Movies/Globey teaches Pee-wee greetings in different languages Fridge Fashion Show (15) / 3:54
Penny / 1:06
Magic Screen – Jack in the Box / 0:42
Penny – Fireman / 0:58
Fridge – Party / 0:21
Fridge – Rock and Roll Band in Freezer / 0:45
“Ya Know Pee-wee there’s a real twisted side to you.” / 0:29
Inside Pee-wee’s Brain / 1:09
Penny – Visit to Cousin / 1:04
Mutant Toys / 0:23
Pee-wee in Space / 1:26
Fridge – Pizza Singing / 0:32
Playhouse on The Range song / 0:34
Dinosaur Family Vacation & Penny – Bunch of Boys / 2:35
Fridge – Romeo / 0:26
Captain Carl wants to eat poo poo / 0:13
Ants – Rock and Roll / 0:24
Dinosaurs – Gifts / 0:54
Penny – Manners / 1:15
Penny – So Mad / 1:02
Dinos – Acrobat / 0:30
PEE-WEE DANCE SEGMENT & Giant Underpants / 1:18
Fridge – Essential Food Groups / 1:19
Billy Baloney/Pee-wee into the Dino’s cave / 1:41
Penny – Ducks into Fridge/Ham’s Birthday Party 1:59
Pee-wee Lipsynching / 2:15
Penny – Strong Games / 0:54
Ants – Weddings / 0:36
Dinos – Pipecleaner Pee-wee / 0:37
American History – Mayflower & Declaration of Independence / 2:41
Fridge – Volleyball / 0:40
Pee-wee and Ms. Yvonne’s Puppet Dance / 0:39
Fridge – Groovy Sixties / 0:30
Magic Screen & Pee-wee Goes to Space / 1:56
Fridge – Wedding / 0:40
Penny – Aunt Nancy & Miss Yvonne’s Interpretive Beatnik Dance / 2: 49
Making Your Own Books & El Hombre / 2:10
Dinos – Packing For Vacation / 0:45
Penny – Mom on Phone / 0:57
Pee-wee’s Painting / 1:02
Fridge – Rodeo / 0:31
El Hombre / 1:30
Fridge – Newspaper Office / 0:42
Pee-wee and Miss Yvonne ‘singing’ to Ms. Yvonne Rides the Horse / 1:38
Pee-wee Singing Old Song as He leaves Playhouse through to end of credits / 1:32