If you’re under the age of 60, you probably don’t know the name Pinky Lee, but trust me, you know who he is.
Today, if a man wears a suit and the sleeves end inches from the wrist, if the pants reveal three inches of shin – if he wears a bow tie and clunky shoes – he’s a disciple of designer Thom Browne. The cropped suit, the checkers, the bow-ties: the look has swept the fashion world from haute couture to suburban mall to First Lady Michelle Obama.
30 years ago, if a man wore a suit and the sleeves end inches from the wrist, if the pants revealed three inches of shin – if he wore a bow tie and clunky, white shoes – he was Pee Wee Herman. He won an Emmy for his show, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which was ahead of the curve: gender bending, racially diverse characters taught children (and adults) good lessons without being preachy.
60 years ago, all of these exact elements appeared on-stage in the form of the Pinky-Lee Show, helping pave the way for children’s programming.
One additional crucial element binds three generations and two industries together: the shrunken suit. Pinky didn’t invent it, but maybe he made it famous.
Pinky Lee was children’s TV before there was such a thing as children’s TV. Contemporaneous with the Howdy Doody show, The Pinky Lee Show was more spastic, had a lower production value, and lacked the clever marionettes of Howdy-Doody. But The Pinky Lee Show had something Howdy Doody never had: Pinky Lee himself.
Born Pincus Leff in 1907, Pinky Lee became a master of slapstick in the 30s and 40s, borrowing from Burlesque comedy foms – and by “Burlesque,” I refer to the genre of variety show that arose out of Victorian cabarets and clubs: jokes, dance, baudiness, mock irritation at various annoyances, pratfalls, the works. It’s the grandmother of modern comedy and show-biz dance. I’ve watched some, including Pinky Lee’s early performances, and while it isn’t necessarily “LOL” by today’s standards, it’s kind of mesmerizing. That man can dance.
After a first attempt at a TV comedy series was cancelled, Pinky Lee started a children’s show: there, he pranced around in a shrunken-suit, directing his nasal lisp to the camera:
Come on, everybody – hug each other!
He sings and dances and plays xylophone, little dogs walk on tight-ropes, odd characters join him on a “playground” stage – it’s Burlesque stripped of the sexuality, cleaned up for an innocent audience, and it’s like watching Pee Wee’s Playhouse thirty years before it dropped. Pinky Lee’s “man-child” persona, the androgyny, the lisp, the tone of the show, it’s all there. And what else?
The one thing they all have in common: Short sleeves, short pants, loud colors: the suit.
Thom Browne, Pee Wee Herman and Pinky Lee: what a weird trifecta.
On May 2 is Pinky Lee’s Birthday, and in honor of that, here are 5 things we can learn from the Pinky-Lee and his later “incarnations.”
1. Serious and silly are not polar opposites.
A google search for “Thom Browne” could cause any skeptic to blurt: he can’t be serious.
Behemoth vintage-varsity football players in Grandma-On-Easter colors. Nantucket-meets-aviator-schoolgirl. Androgynous phylactery sci-fi Chassidic.
It’s silly until you look at it, closer. Again. It’s silly and serious. Male and female, weak and strong, future and past, high and low, and every human proportion possible – all these are mashed up, turned on their heads. He turns the fashion runway into a playground, into Alice down the rabbit-hole: curiouser and curiouser.
And then, there are moments of true elegance. Genius.
All three challenge the audience: when am I serious, and when am I silly?
2. Sometimes, you find your calling after (or even through) setback.
Pinky Lee began his career following a set-back – during a time when Televsion was still forming as a medium, he appeared on a series of show with limited success, and certainly, very little critical success. Said the New York times about one of his projects: “Pinky Lee suffers from a dearth of both material and versatility.”
After his adult show was cut, a TV producer’s children missed him in their lives, and demanded he brought back.
A few years later, he was one of the biggest acts in Children’s TV, and had helped to establish the role of energetic host.
Paul Reuben’s came up with the idea of a children’s show following the disheartening loss of a role on SNL to Gilbert Gottfried.
Long live perfect failures.
3. Often, clean lines are best
Pee-Wee comes off as a man-child, but his show (especially early on) was full of adult innuendo (though most of it pretty juvenile in nature). Likewise, some of Pinky Lee’s work (especially in the 70s) is raunchy, and by todays’ standards, offensive.
That said, Pinky Lee once responded to a criticism: “I was the cleanest comedian in burlesque… No violence. There are no gestures, alluding to the derriere or other parts of the anatomy. Words like ‘lousy’ or ‘stinker’ are absolutely verboten… It’s a happy, wholesome show.”
And I have to say, the times I smile, watching Pinky Lee on stage, are when I’m moved by how uncynical, unprocessed, and clean it is.
Styles of excess come and go, but honest and clean is forever.
4. Whatever your passion, do it fully
Newsweek magazine wrote in 1954: “In his show [Pinky Lee] expends more energy than anyone this side of Jerry Lewis.”
Time magazine called him, “One of the hardest working men in TV.”
Indeed, watching him can be exhausting. Sadly, and on that note, his years of greatest success came to an end when he collapsed on-stage. It appeared that he’d danced himself into a heart-attack, though he was later said to have suffered from an acute sinus-infection.
While I never wish anyone to have a breakdown from doing the thing they love, Pinky Lee inspires us to put our fullest selves into our passions:
“I just want to do the thing I love the best – entertain children.”
5. Everyone needs to play
When I first began working in an office-environment, I was captivated by the clothing; I transitioned from the “whatever” of college sweatshirts and jeans to oxford shirts, leather shoes and a tie.
By the time I’d been working for a decade, dress clothes had become de rigeur. Putting on professional garb had become a restriction, rather than a thrilling form of make-believe, wherein I was a kid, duping everyone into thinking I was an adult.
When I stumbled across Thom Browne (literally ran past – as in, I was jogging past a store where a friend was picking something up), I was shaken, inspired by the idea that clothes could be elegant, powerful, classic, and clean — and also totally fantastic. An outfit could be gentlemanly and boyish at the same time. The timing was good; I had already begun to play with style, and with the roles that nostalgia and Americana (both forms of fantasy) could play in my own appearance.
I find it fitting that my style icon is sometimes made fun off by derogatory comparisons to someone shameless, hilarious, and in some ways, timeless. The irony – the insult is a compliment.
“I know you are but what am I?”
Hats (small and checkered) off to you, Pinky Lee, not only for what you did, but also, for who you inspired.