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Remembering a trio of arts titans that Sarasota lost in 2023

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Sarasota lost a trio of arts titans in 2023. Two of them, Rich Schineller and Peppi Elona, were not household names but made profound contributions to the Cultural Coast. The third, Paul Reubens, honed his persona of Pee-wee Herman in Sarasota.

Peppi Elona 

July 18, 1936 - May 29, 2023

With her wife, Wendy Surkis, artist Peppi Elona was one of the founding members of the contemporary Sarasota Art Museum, which opened in the former Sarasota High School building in 2004.

The creation of a vibrant contemporary arts museum was no small feat and was accomplished through a partnership with Ringling College of Art & Design and by tireless fundraising by the museum's founders.

Born Elona "Peppi" Gruber in Paterson, New Jersey, Gruber was the wife of an IBM executive for 17 years, raised four children and earned a bachelor's and a master's degree in the arts before moving to Sarasota in 2000.

She met Surkis at the University of Louisville in 1973. During their 47-year relationship, Surkis was first Elona's classmate, then her confidante and finally her companion.

During her life, Elona found time to create her own art. The local venues that showcased her artwork included Art Center Sarasota, Towles Court Gallery and the Selby Gallery at Ringling College.

Rich Schineller 

Aug. 5, 1959 - June 21, 2023

Richard J. Schineller Jr. would have been a perfect star of ABC TV's "The Golden Bachelor." 

Schineller, a transplanted New Yorker who followed his parents to Sarasota after they retired here, was a media consultant to Ringling College. But with his piercing blue eyes, infectious smile and dashing good looks, Rich, as he was known, was a poster boy for Sarasota's Black Tie events.

Everyone wanted Schineller as an escort, whether it was his mother, Eileen, or his best friend, Realtor Tim Mitten. Wherever the media maven went, fun was bound to follow. 

In the days that followed Schineller's death, artists, writers and other members of Sarasota's cultural community took to social media to mourn his passing. 

In addition to his formal role as managing director of Perception Management Inc., a strategic communications firm he led for 21 years, Schineller was Sarasota's unofficial ambassador of the arts. 

"He encouraged so many artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers and students, and not just with words," filmmaker KT Curran wrote on Facebook. "He actively looked for ways to help promote local artists to a larger stage. His loss is immeasurable for our community."

Paul Reubens 

Aug. 27, 1952 - July 30, 2023

A biopic of the TV and film star known as Pee-wee Herman could be called "Straight Out of Sarasota." Why? Because the zany personality invented by Paul Reubens was fashioned in a circus town that prizes fun and creativity.

As author Robert Plunket ("My Search for Warren Harding") noted in an essay, some of Reubens' signature schtick was the result of groupthink.

The famous "Tequila" dance used to ward off angry bikers in Tim Burton's 1985 film, "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," was invented by Reubens and his friends in high school, according to Plunket.

To his followers, certain local landmarks act as Stations of the Cross in Reubens' life — the Sparrow Circle house where he grew up, the Asolo Repertory Theatre stage where he found his voice and the former adult theater on the South Trail where he was arrested in 1991.

The charges of indecent exposure were dropped, but the lovable kiddies' pal who starred in "Pee-wee's Playhouse" from 1986-90 suffered a reputational black eye from which he would never fully recover.

Although his popularity waned, Reubens continued to make guest appearances on TV shows. He even staged a comeback in 2016 with the Netflix production, "Pee-wee's Big Holiday." 

In Sarasota, where he moved when he was 9, Reubens will always remain the hometown kid who made good. His iconic alter ego is waiting to be discovered by new fans, thanks to the wonders of streaming.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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