Review: “Playmates” (Pepsi-Cola Playhouse)

I’ve wanted for some time to start reviewing episodes of more obscure television shows available commercially on DVD. In December 2008 I wrote about Summer of Decision, included on Passport Video’s The Golden Age of TV Drama. However, despite being listed in the set’s booklet as an unsold pilot, it was in fact a promotional film produced by The Council on Social Work Education.

One of the first episodes I watched after getting my copy of The Golden Age of TV Drama was “Playmates,” an installment of ABC’s Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, starring Alan Napier and Natalie Wood. It originally aired on Sunday, August 29th, 1954 from 7:30-8PM. Wood, who at the time would have been 16, played a slightly younger girl named Monica while Napier played her Uncle Everton.

The print used in The Golden Age of TV Drama doesn’t include any opening credits, beginning with a simple title card. According to The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present, Anita Colby was serving as hostess for the series in August 1954 (having replaced Arlene Dahl in April of that year; she herself was replaced in October 1954 by Polly Bergen). What exactly her hostessing duties were I don’t know. I assume she introduced each week’s episode. But she doesn’t make an appearance here.

Pepsi-Cola Playhouse - Playmates
Pepsi-Cola Playhouse – “Playmates”

The story is simple: the local vicar drops by to inquire after Monica, who has been looking a little morose. Everton insists she’s different and doesn’t want her growing up like other children. But there’s something a little off about Monica. She plays all alone upstairs in a room she calls the “school room” with her “playmates.” Everton decides she’s just imaginative; the maid thinks she spends too much time alone. According to Monica her seven playmates — among them Mary and Elsie — are scared by Everton.

After talking with Monica, Everton leaves. When he shuts the door her hears his niece calling for her friends. And then he hears a group of girls laughing. He tells the maid that it was nothing more than telepathic transfer of thought. He’s not concerned about himself, having analyzed the situation, but he is worried about Monica. Ultimately, after the vicar drops by with his daughter, Gladys, who is frightened by Monica’s playmates, it is revealed that Everton’s house used to be a school for girls.

Pepsi-Cola Playhouse - Playmates
Pepsi-Cola Playhouse – “Playmates”

One of the pupils at the school was the vicar’s aunt: Mary Hewitt. She, and six other girls, died of diphtheria. Monica isn’t imagining things. She does have seven playmates in the school room. The vicar tells Everton he’ll figure out what to do and Everton does. He sits down with Monica and has a long chat. He’s going to send her to school where she’ll never be lonely again.

Everton: “If you were to keep on living in a little world of you own, one day you might find other friends not as kind or as helpful as Mary and Elsie.”
Monica: “Oh but they’ve been wonderful to me, Uncle Steven.”
Everton: “Of course they have. But conversing with beings invisible and inaudible to others is not to be recommended. And if you don’t understand all this now you must try to believe that what I’m doing is for your own good and happiness.”

He sends her to wash up for dinner. Sitting alone in the school room, he hears girls singing. He asks them not to go and thanks them for everything they’ve done.

Pepsi-Cola Playhouse - Playmates
Pepsi-Cola Playhouse – “Playmates”

I had hoped that “Playmates” would have something of a Twilight Zone feel to it. It didn’t. The “twist” that Monica’s playmates were the spirits of seven dead girls wasn’t shocking. Perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be. The point of the episode, I’m sure, was that children need real playmates (or else the ghosts of long-dead girls will show up and play with them instead). Everton certainly didn’t understand that. The vicar suggests that “those strange visitations were heaven sent. Perhaps not so much for Monica but for you.”

What I found it a little unsettling was the ending when Everton seems to want the playmates to stay. Does he want the company, not having any friends of his own and now far too old to make any? Will the little playmates keep the house from feeling too cold and empty? Natalie Wood was fine in this light role and Alan Napier was as stiff as his character called for. I haven’t seen any other episodes of Pepsi-Cola Playhouse so I can’t comment on how this episode compares. As an overall production “Playmates” was stilted and the story far too weak to maintain interest.

Rounding out the cast were Moyna Macgill, Nelson Welch and Linda Green. The episode runs 25:11.


3 Comments

  • Barry I. Grauman says:

    Whoever hosted “PEPSI-COLA PLAYHOUSE” usually endorsed the sponsor’s product during, or at the end of the show [I’ve seen one of Polly’s 60 second spots, circa 1955, outside of the series: “Hi! I’m Polly Bergen, your Pepsi-Cola girl..”]. The “hostess” segments were produced independently from the actual episodes, which were “packaged” by MCA {Natalie Wood had recently finished appearing as a regular on their filmed ABC situation comedy, Paul Hartman’s “PRIDE OF THE FAMILY” (1953-’54)} and later “repackaged” into various anthology series in the late ’50s and early ’60s (mostly as summer repeats), and eventually into a syndicated “package” of its own {“HOLLYWOOD PIG-IN-A-POKE THEATER”, perhaps?}. This would account for just the “body” of the episode, without the original “Pepsi-Cola” wraparounds.

  • MIKE says:

    i am interested in trading for any of the old anthology tv shows of the 1950s. i have a few; schlitz playhouse, rheingold theatre, chevron theatre, conrad nagle theatre, lux playhouse, ge theatre, ge true, damon runyan,robert montgomery presents to name a few. if anyone is interested, e-mail me. mike4

  • Jim Bigwood says:

    Natalie Wood was actually 14 when she made Playmates. It was produced by Revue (Universal’s television arm) and was originally aired on Chevron Theatre in June 1952. It was rebroadcast ten weeks later as an episode of Schaefer Century Theatre and finally, in 1954, was seen as an episode of Pepsi Cola Playhouse.

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