I’ve been a fan of Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) since I first saw his HBO special with my mother one summer weekend in the early 80s. The humor was perfect for my age, and just raunchy enough at the corners that decades later I’m still finding new bits and nuances from that special as an adult. For the 30 or so years after scoping that special I followed almost every move he made from movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Big Top Pee-wee, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Mystery Men to TV like his brief stint on Murphy Brown and of course, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. I’d hardly say that I’m a superfan or that I know everything there is to know about the actor and his character’s world, but I thought I knew enough about his various productions that there was little left to really surprise me. That was until I picked up a vintage Conky 2000 Matchbox action figure on a whim this past week and was kind of blown away when I received it in the mail.
Fan’s of Pee-wee’s Playhouse will surely know Conky, the ghetto-blaster-chested robot that prints out and presents Pee-wee with the secret word of the day during each episode. The character was designed by Wayne White for the show. I was watching some this past Saturday morning with my daughter when it occurred to me that it’d be fun to have an action figure of Conky to pose with all of my other favorite toys. I really don’t have any Pee-wee related collectibles, so I thought this would be a cool addition to the collection that would flesh out my interests just a tad more. When the action figure arrived this week, I promptly ripped open the toy and began to play around with it. The figure has a neat design with a swiveling head, and a wind up feature that makes Conky move as if he’s beat-boxing like his real-life counterpart on the show. While I was playing with the toy it dawned on me that there are a lot of aspects of the character that I have just never noticed before. Like, surprisingly so, and it made me take a beat and reflect on the fact that there always seems to be a deeper part of this well we call nostalgia.
As for the toy, first, it appeared as if Conky’s literal chrome dome is constructed out of a typewriter with two old-time cameras for eyes. I mean, I’ve been watching him on this show for decades and outside of the general idea that he was comprised of some kit-bashed electronics and home appliances, it never occurred to me that there was anything really of note besides that sweet boom box that makes up his chest/torso. I guess my brain short-circuited after seeing the ghetto blaster and I just assumed the rest of Conky was comprised of miscellaneous hoses, switches and generic parts.
After realizing that the toy appears to show that Conky has a typewriter for a head I started looking closer at the figure, and then pulling up screen-grabs online to see what else I’ve been ignoring all these years. I’m sure there are a lot of you that already know all about Conky’s parts, but for those like me who just never paid close enough attention, here’s a rundown of the more identifiable electronics, components, and appliances that make up this rad robot. Also, as a side note, I don’t want to take the credit for any of this detective work. Although the inspiration to start digging into the design of the character is honest and organic, I relied heavily on the kind citizens of the internet who had already begun deconstructing Conky. In particular I’d like to point to the RPF message board where folks get together to chat about pop culture props and costume making. I don’t really have much of a toe in this world, and it’s crazy passionate, so if that’s a resource you’re interested in, check it out.
Now lets deconstruct Conky-2000!
Let’s start with the basics, and probably Conky’s most recognizable feature, his boom box chest.
The ghetto blaster on that makes up Conky’s chest is a modified CEC OL-7540 from Taiwan. It’s a little rare these days, but it’s a sweet looking boom box. I’m going to assume Wayne White made most of these design decisions, but it looks like chose to slice off the top portion of the boombox (in particular the radio tuner bar) so save some room and make it more manageable.
But, and this was one of the weird revelations to me, did you know that the boom box isn’t Conky’s only piece of musical equipment on the robot? That’s right, his, er, legs (foot?) is comprised of a large box with a record player embedded in it!
I’m not sure what brand or model, though a few folks seem to think that it’s a GE Trimline Stereophonic 400. Honestly, that piece of Conky seems so generic that I’m not sure how folks are identifying the pieces. Maybe I’m just not enough of an audiophile to see it.
Underneath and to the sides of the turntable are a number of electronics including a bunch of two-slice toasters, vintage chrome coffee pots, an old Japanese tin flying saucer with a red plastic dome (can’t find the exact toy to showcase here), a rotary telephone dial, and an Edwards 740 Signaling Doorbell.
The arms seem to be pretty standard outdoor accordion tubing on the outside with some dryer vent hosing on the inside. The right hands is made from bicycle brakes and the left seems to be a custom made piece of aluminum.
So, now that we’ve deconstructed Conky’s torso, lets travel back up to his noggin and take a look at his head. Again, when I opened the Matchbox toy and swiveled the head into the correct position, I was taken aback at how obvious it was that the main structure of his cranium was a vintage typewriter. But after pulling up some images from the show I wasn’t so sure. On the toy it appears as if there is a full keyboard mouth situation, but on the actual series Conky only has 19 key/teeth. Most standard typewriters have 44 keys, so I was at a loss at first. It’s clear that the keys aren’t arranged in the normal order either. Sure, Conky has a keyboard smile, but believe it or not there are some really old typewriters that have a small number of keys arranged in a crescent like this. I thought for a minute that maybe it was based on an old steno machine (the shorthand typewriters that courtroom recorders use with limited number of specialized keys), but the keys just don’t look right for that.
The more I stare at Conky’s head the more that think that the base of the head is actually custom built with a bunch of other things added on. For instance, a couple of parts that I am very sure of are the two Brownie Hawkeye cameras with included flash bulbs as his eyes…
Up on top of his head is the foot of a vintage Eureka vacuum cleaner. There’s a lot of debate on the model (no really, there is A LOT of debate), but it’s probably either a model 2041a or the model 265 pictured below.
There’s also a Sunbeam Vista VT-40-1 toaster logo panel inserted onto the vacuum cleaner foot. This is a fun touch that would be hard to see from the audience’s perspective, but up close it’s right there front and center on the head. Pee-wee is totally about vintage kitch, and is there anything more kitchy, appliance-wise, than Sunbeam, makers of the all-in-one hotdog and bun toasters?!
I’m sure there is more to Conky than what I’ve called out here, but honestly, this is way more detail than I ever paid attention to in the past. I wonder what other wonders Pee-wee’s playhouse holds?