This is a story about the "lost" Pee-wee Herman tapes.

But unlike bootleg Dylan music or Chaplin films that had been missing for several decades before being rediscovered, the early Pee-wee Herman works have been purposely forgotten by the star who made them.Who was Pee-wee Herman before he was Pee-wee Herman?

Well, he was Paul Reubens . . . we think.

Reubens created the Pee-wee Herman character while working with the improvisational comedy group The Groundlings, and ultimately it was his "Pee-wee Herman Show," a spoof of kiddie television, that made him a sensation in Los Angeles.

That led to numerous appearances on David Letterman, an HBO special of his stage show and eventually "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." And the movie was such a surprise hit that CBS gave Pee-wee his own Saturday morning TV series - proving that what goes around does indeed come around. He then went on to do a "guest star" cameo in "Back to the Beach."

Reubens is by now so into his Pee-wee character that he never steps out in public. On the publicity circuit for his current movie, "Big Top Pee-wee," Reubens stays in character between interviews and insists that press types not try to ask him about anything that would cause the illusion to be shattered.


Despite all this, there is a bit of available background to the Pee-wee character, if you look hard enough. You may rightly ask, is "Big Top Pee-wee" only his third movie?

Well, it's his second starring movie, and the third film he admits to.

Reubens played Pee-wee in several films before he hit the big time. Sometimes the character would have another name, but it was unmistakably Pee-wee.

Strangely, none of these pictures are listed in the biographies of Pee-wee received by the press with materials for "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Big Top Pee-wee."

But your intrepid friendly neighborhood film critic knew he had seen Pee-wee in supporting roles somewhere before, so he tracked some of them down.

He knew you'd want to know.

So, if you haven't had enough of the boy-man in the tight gray suit, and want to see early versions of his Butch-Waxed persona, here are some shows on video you can rent to bone up on Pee-wee history:

"Cheech & Chong's Next Movie," in which Pee-wee shows up, with his own name, as a hotel desk clerk. (No, his voice isn't as deep as the desk clerk he played in "Pee-wee's Big Adventure's" movie-within-a-movie.)

"Pandemonium," where Pee-wee is among those at a lakeside summer camp in this spoof of slasher movies, which co-stars Tom Smothers, Carol Kane and Judge Reinhold.

"Meatballs Part II," with Pee-wee playing Albert, a children's summer camp bus driver who also serves as a deejay, boxing referee and Hare Krishna worshipper.

"The Blues Brothers," where Pee-wee is restaurant waiter, briefly serving John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.

"Working Stiffs," episodes of the short-lived TV series that starred Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi, with Pee-wee as a wise-acre delivery boy.

"Faerie Tale Theatre: Pinocchio," an episode of Shelley Duvall's acclaimed Showtime TV series, with Pee-wee as the puppet who yearns to become a real live boy.

And maybe Paul Reubens sometimes yearns for the same thing.

There is also the aforementioned "Pee-wee Herman Show," the HBO special that recorded his stage success, and the main thing to note here is that, despite its superficial resemblance to "Pee-wee's Playhouse," his current hit TV program, this one has elements that are just a bit naughty, reminding us that Reubens initially created Pee-wee for adults.

The kids caught on later.