The Talking Penny Doll

I’ve written before about some of the work I did on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The segments of the first season I worked on the most were the Penny cartoons, I was the head model-maker. This is one of the first episodes I worked on and I sculpted all of the models for the animators to work with.

“The Rat”

Shortly after working on the first series of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse I met Karen Lyons who had created the plush toy versions of Chairy and Pterri the Pterodactyl for Matchbox Toys. They had made a talking Pee-Wee Herman doll and Karen told me they were thinking of making a talking Penny doll. She offered to introduce me and I was given the job of designing the doll and and sculpting the head. I even gave them script suggestions.

The control drawing for the 15″ tall Talking Penny Doll. Penny was very flat as she was animated on a sheet of glass with the camera pointed down from above. I thought that flatness should be designed into the doll.

So I sculpted the head in polymer clay. The claymation Penny had real pennies for her eyes. I found some novelty coins at different sizes to use on some of the smaller versions but sometimes we just used brown clay. To have the doll’s eyes look the same I sculpted one penny, made a mold and cast two of them in resin to make her eyes. I sculpted her ponytails separately I didn’t want them to be perfectly symmetrical, as she was never that way in the animations.

This is a set of the resin castings I kept from when I did the original job.

I made a mold of the clay sculpt and then made a wax casting for finishing. Once the wax version was done I made another mold to make resin versions of the final so Matchbox could have a prototype of the doll. They sent me a few bodies which were created by plush artist Susan White. and I attached the painted head. At the time I was living in Brooklyn and Matchbox was located in Moonachie, NJ so I took a bus out to hand deliver the prototype to them

Here is the original prototype photographed for the 1989 Matchbox catalog. They list her as 18″ tall but that’s the box size.

Sadly, Matchbox decided not to produce the Penny doll. The marketing department said that since she did not interact with the other Playhouse characters not enough kids would want her. Normally when you do a toy job you don’t get the prototype back. A few years after the project the art director found the prototype stuffed in a closet. She asked me if I wanted her back. I had kept a few resin castings and the extra bodies but since I had the original I never did anything with them.

A decade or so later I found myself between jobs and in need of some cash. I decided to auction the prototype and it sold to a very happy collector of Pee-Wee stuff. While it was nice to have the money I needed I always regretted letting her go. I knew I could put together a new one but the pieces stayed in various boxes for another 2 decades. When I started visiting schools I began bringing along some of the toys I’ve designed and sculpted. I never bring prototypes since they are fragile. When we all shut down due to the current Covid 19 Crisis I set up my office as a virtual presentation studio. During my book readings people would ask about the toys behind me and I would show them on camera. One of the items on the shelves was an unpainted Penny head.

I cleaned up the resin castings I had and began painting them.

I found the bodies I had. I knew I would have to make her a new dress and I had forgotten that one of the bodies had a plain white version of it. I worked out the pattern and bought some fabric ( I chose a darker blue than the original toy prototype) but then realized we no longer had an electric sewing machine. Since it’s not an actual article of clothing that needs to be sturdy I used stitch-witchery and hand-sewed the dress.

Both of these were built using the armature and voice box from a talking Pee-Wee doll. They do not sound good when you pull the string.

I finished painting the head, built a stand to support her (she’s very top-heavy) and epoxied her together. I had to be careful as I could not glue her head on until her dress on since it is so big. So now I have her back and she stands on the set of drawers so everyone can see her during my virtual presentations.

I’ll write soon about another restoration project that took some time to get around to. The only thing left to do for Penny is to paint or stain her base. Maybe I’ll get around to it in a decade or so.

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