Did Somebody Say “Wish”?

June 22nd, 2021 by Max Allan Collins
“Sometimes people leave you
Halfway through the wood.”
Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods

It’s odd, I think, how hard the death of someone you never met can hit you. If you’re into sports, an athlete’s passing; a movie fan, an actor…think of the impact James Dean’s automobile crash had on many of his generation. I remember how stunned I was when I heard Marilyn Monroe had died – it didn’t seem real. And the memory is vivid – I remember being behind the wheel of my car and even the specific intersection I was moving through in my home town when it came on the news. I heard about Bobby Darin over a car radio and had to pull over and get a grip. Belushi’s death came over my car radio, too, but that rated mostly a knowing sigh and shake of the head and a “Shit.”

Some are inevitable. Well, all death is inevitable, it’s the major thing we all have in common; that and birth.

John Paragon is someone I never met. I am pleased to have spent time, both in person and on the phone, with Paul Reubens and am brazen enough to consider him a friend. If you follow these updates, you may recall that Christmas is not officially Christmas for this household until (a) I’ve seen the original Miracle on 34th Street and the Alastair Sim Scrooge, and (b) the Collins family gets its Christmas card from Paul with another of a seemingly endless supply of Yuletide-themed images of Pee-Wee Herman.

I got on the Pee Wee Herman bandwagon early. The HBO special of the adult-oriented The Pee-Wee Herman Show captivated me as few things have in a life frequently captivated. Barb loved Pee-Wee, too. Terry Beatty, with whom I was collaborating on many things at the time, was similarly in the Pee-Wee thrall.

When I put Pee-Wee in the Dick Tracy comic strip (a cameo appearance but significant), the character wasn’t even a cult favorite yet…it was just beginning. But when Paul called me on the phone, I was thrilled to hear from him (and maybe relieved I wasn’t being sued). He said we should get together next time I was in Los Angeles. As it happened, San Diego Comic Con was coming up, and as Barb wasn’t going with me that year (she was expecting Nathan Collins’ arrival), Terry filled in and we drove to LA where we were welcomed into Paul’s home.

I’ve told this before, but I can’t resist repeating it. The Pee-Wee Herman suit was on a hangar and Paul was looking it over, because he had a gig the next night. I asked, “How many of these do you have?” And Paul, in that dry manner that is so un-Pee Wee but absolutely Paul, said, “Sometimes Pee-Wee doesn’t smell so good up close.”

Barb and I saw several live performances of Paul as Pee-Wee, in both New York and Chicago and perhaps elsewhere (it was a while ago). But he always welcomed us backstage and had time to chat. Our phone conversations were about the movie that Warner Bros was exploring making with him, and I am complimented that he ran some things by me. I don’t recall whether I offered or he asked, but I ended up sending him some movies on video tape that I thought might be helpful – these included Eddie Cantor in Roman Scandals and Russ Meyer’s Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill (I am perhaps the only person on the planet who would assemble that double feature).

How many times Barb and I watched the HBO Pee-Wee Herman Show – again, his live stage show with the Groundlings – I can’t even hazard a guess. We showed it to friends and relatives like Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on doors, and I bet we made a higher percentage of converts. The point I am drifting toward is how deeply that original version of Pee-Wee got into the collective bloodstream of our family. And as our son grew up, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse began its wonderfully subversive kid’s show run, Nathan shared our enthusiasm – the first movie he and I saw together in a theater was Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. (I have already shared the film with my grandson Sam, as well as many Playhouse episodes.) But did he have to play with all my Pee-Wee toys and make them uncollectible? (Sam, too.)

Over the years I met and chatted with Edie McClurg (Hermit Hattie in the original Groundlings stage show) and Cassandra Peterson, who is of course Elvira. I’ve met and talked to probably at least half a dozen other Groundlings, but I never got a chance to meet John Paragon.

Jambi the Genie with text: Long Live Jambi

Paragon was – as his obits point out – Jambi the genie in the original cast of the Groundlings show, and on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and in the Broadway revised revival of that original show, just a few years ago. He appeared (not as Jambi) in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016). His writing credits were extensive, including eight episodes of the Playhouse (he also directed seven episodes).

I think it’s fair to say that of the original Groundlings collaborators, John Paragon was the one whose contribution to the world of Pee-Wee Herman was the most significant. His collaborations with Paul extended well past Pee-Wee, including Paragon of Comedy, a one-hour Showtime special in 1983. He was Elvira’s right-hand man, co-writing with Cassandra Peterson both Elvira feature films and writing (and appearing) on 13 Nights of Elvira.

He was a movie director, as well, and had a recurring role on Seinfeld (“Cedric”). I am not doing him justice, either. But the obits all focus on Jambi. Okay, fine. I’ll be the Road to Perdition guy in mine. I get that. But while on the one hand it’s not fair to make it just Jambi who died, I have to admit Jambi was a very special creation. He was at once something mystical to amaze kids and yet he also slipped in the sly double entendres that helped make Pee-Wee’s world big enough for kids of all ages.

And that smile. That wasn’t just Jambi’s smile – it was John Paragon’s smile, too. He radiated a sweetness that brought a warmth to the Playhouse – I mean, Pee-Wee’s kind of a brat, if a glorious brat. But it’s Jambi who gently nudges him toward sharing a wish with somebody who needs it more.

Meka Leka Hi Meka Hiney Ho indeed.



2 Responses to “Did Somebody Say “Wish”?”

  1. stephen borer says:

    Thank you for the detailed report on the career of Mr. P.

  2. Peg Meyenburg says:

    Thank you for giving this wonderful man a sweet send off. I was a Jambi fan from the minute that box opened. His quips and adult humor while under a pound of make up and a turban no self respecting genie could do without were legend. Thank you Jambi, you are missed.