What you see: The Picturephone Booth from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Prop Store estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: James Comisar, president of the Comisar collection. He’s also the consigner.
Let’s start by talking about the place in the culture that Pee-Wee’s Playhouse holds. What makes it a good television show, and why does it endure? It continues to resonate because it was loved by schoolkids, college kids, and adults. It was the perfect mix of everything, and it appealed to everybody. Just as Mr. Rogers is getting his due, I think Paul Reubens [creator of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the actor who played the main character, Pee-Wee Herman], in 20 years, will get his due. He created an amazing, organic, joyful world where kids could be kids. He spoke down to nobody, and it was incredibly inclusive. It’s one of the most perfect pieces of television in the last 70 years. I think the secret sauce was its authenticity, and the main character was positive. That never goes out of style.
Why did you want to acquire the Picture Phonebooth? What made it important enough for you to pursue? I should back up. Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is situated in Puppetland. Pee-Wee is sequestered in his own fantasy world. His conduit to the world is this Picturephone Booth. In that way, it’s very special. And in the 80s [the show ran on CBS from 1986 through 1990] the idea of a video phone booth was interesting. Reubens gave it his own spin. He had his own sensibility for everything.
Is the Picturephone Booth well-built? It’s built to look great on camera. As a general rule, pieces look better on camera than they do in person. When a show is in production and a prop is being used, it has an economic value to the production. It’s cared for well. After the show ends production, there’s a mad dash to get it off the stage so a new show can come in and the studio can continue to earn revenue. It’s an indelicate process. When we first received these pieces, they were in studio storage and they had a bit of wear. There was damage to the paint. There were cracks.
Did you have to restore or conserve it? First, we had to stabilize it. It’s a pretty strong and durable piece, but it had been banged around a bit after production [after the show ended]. Once we dealt with the structural issues… No professional archivist wants to take a historic piece and make it look fresh and pretty again. The goal is to get rid of any damaging influences. When pieces live in studio storage, it’s not a climate-controlled facility. It’s on the outskirts of town, 65 cents a foot. It’s 35 degrees in winter and 110 degrees in summer. Bad things happen in studio storage rather quickly. They shove it into a warehouse, and shove stuff around it, and on top of it. [With the Picturephone,] there was nothing catastrophic to be sure, but it still took over a year to accomplish the intake. It required a textile conservator to come in. Then you have wood, and leather, and foam, which is worse than any material, certain to deteriorate. We went slowly and cautiously. Our job was to do the minimum, not the maximum.
I see that only one name is in the provenance, and it’s Paul Reubens. How did you acquire this from him? I believe the initial contact was around 1992, a year after the show had gone off the air. I had numerous conversations with his business manager before I met Paul. The way I found this stuff was I was [in a studio storage warehouse] working for another client, and I found a recognizable puppet for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I thought, “No, could it be?” Once Paul’s team was made aware of what was going on, he wanted the pieces to have a more appropriate configuration than studio dead storage.
Did Reubens take some of the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props back? Absolutely, absolutely. But even if you have a 15,000-square-foot home, you have space limitations. The reality eventually sets in that you cannot keep everything. Paul Rubens kept a lot from the show, and it’s evident that the pieces meant a lot to him. It wasn’t just stuff. It sprung from his brain. It’s still influencing people decades later. It was painful to decide what to save and what to give to another archive.
Well, the Picturephone is furniture, isn’t it? It’s furniture, but it’s an amazing, sculptural piece of artwork. It was created with an almost avant-garde sensibility. It’s almost like folk art in the way it’s put together.
How original is it? It’s two percent restored to 98 percent original. A couple of the dowels that form the eyelashes were broken or missing and had to be replaced. There was paint [the paint required touching up], and surface cleaning. The curtain, which extends across the front for privacy, is original. The textile conservator carefully cleaned it. Even the rings that attach the curtain to the front are original, scrubbed by hand.
Sounds like a lot of work went into it. If this piece sells for $10,000 to $15,000, oh, my dear god in heaven, we spent so much more than that restoring it and caring for it for 25 years. Whoever gets that, if they get it for $10,000, that represents a loss to us. But you can’t keep everything. A piece like that takes up a lot of room on the floor, and you can’t stack anything in it or on it. If you can tell the story of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with three smaller objects [rather] than one that will take up real estate, you’re going to do it.
It’s amazing it survived so well. I believe the universe put me where I needed to be to advocate for these pieces. The puppet head was poking out, I know, so I could see it and advocate for it. This is much more than a job to me. It’s what I do. I don’t question it. I’m grateful I was there at a time when I could rescue it. [I asked him if he remembered which Pee-Wee’s Playhouse puppet caught his eye that day in the early 1990s; he could not say for sure.]
How did you get what you managed to get from the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse props? When I met Paul at the warehouse, he was very passionate, but a very practical man. There was a Paul pile, a Goodwill pile, with appliances from the set and toys that someone else could use, and a Dump pile. A studio truck was hired to take the discarded pieces to the landfill. That was the end of the road for those things. There was no James pile. My job was to convince him to give me what pieces I could get from the Paul pile and the Dump pile. It was difficult for him to part with any of them, which I respected.
What’s the Picturephone like in person? Monumental. This is a big, hulking piece, but it’s got a joyful character. It’s got eyes, and pouty lips that open up like saloon doors. It’s colorful, joyful, and recognizable. It’s a home run in every way.
How many people can fit inside? One, comfortably. I think it’s meant for one person. We don’t normally sit in the pieces. I think it was made just for him.
So you haven’t sat inside it? Absolutely not. It would be sacrilege, treacherous. It’s a piece of history and art. It’s not for me to degrade it by sitting in it.
Ok, I’ve gotta ask. Where is Chairry? Did Paul Reubens claim Chairry? That falls into the area of client privilege. I’m not able to say what he did and didn’t do. Rest assured the iconic pieces from the show are in his collection or an archival collection. Don’t worry. Chairry is cherished.
Comisar is also the president of the Museum of Television.
The Picturephone appears at three or four points in the background in the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. And that’s an uncredited Cyndi Lauper singing the theme song.
Yes, there is a Pee-Wee Wiki. Here’s the entry for the Picturephone.
Also! Google “Technology’s Greatest Visionary,” on Google Images, and take in the top row of images that the search engine spits back at you.
Image is courtesy of Prop Store.
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