Like a pint-sized version of the search to find Scarlett O’Hara for 1939’s Gone with the Wind, they came by the hundreds—a steady stream of little girls flooding casting calls in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Be elfin, precocious, hit your cues, and you might wind up the star of a new primetime kids’ show on NBC titled Punky Brewster.
The story of an 8-year-old orphan abandoned by her mother and found by a cantankerous old apartment manager, Punky Brewster was not conventional network television fare. Paired with Silver Spoons in the fall of 1984, it was created to help satisfy a Federal Communications Commission mandate that early-evening programming be either news-oriented (60 Minutes) or somewhat educational. As a result, Punky’s adventures often involved the perils of sleeping pill addiction, missing kids on milk cartons, child molestation, or a rampaging serial killer. Barney this was not.
Of Punky’s several run-ins with mortality, it was a second-season episode that aired on January 19, 1986 that stands as her most memorable. Titled “Cherie Lifesaver,” it involved a small child nearly suffocating to death in an abandoned refrigerator.
Laced with the show's surprising morbidity, it stands as a near-perfect example of the producers' ambition to inform their viewers—in this case, the rules of proper CPR technique—while disguising itself as a Grimm's Fairy Tale for a 1980s audience.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Punky’s infamous fridge incident, mental_floss asked some of the show's cast and crew to reminisce about what some fans came to view as a 24-minute mini-horror film about a dangerous antique appliance. Unlike most Internet references-to-be, this one was responsible for saving a life.
I. PUNKY POWER
During the 1980s, NBC President Brandon Tartikoff had assembled a primetime schedule that had taken the network from last place to first: Cheers, Family Ties, Knight Rider, and Miami Vice had all been championed by the executive. Appointed at 32, he was the youngest network head in history.
Realizing that CBS’s long-running 60 Minutes was going to dominate ratings among adults in its 7 p.m. Sunday slot, Tartikoff decided to pursue another demographic: young children who had no interest in Andy Rooney. He approached Silver Spoons executive producer David Duclon and asked him to create a show that could be paired with the Ricky Schroder comedy. Tartikoff’s only suggestion was that the lead character be named after a teacher’s daughter, Peyton “Punky” Brewster, that he once knew in prep school. The rest was up to Duclon.
Rick Hawkins (Producer): It was really one of the first primetime shows geared especially toward children, and revolutionary for its time. This was the Reagan era of glamour, and David was a little like Charles Dickens, trying to show a different side of America from a kid’s point of view. From NBC’s perspective, dealing with the idea of an abandoned child—you know, that’s not a barrel of laughs.
Art Dielhenn (Director): I was an associate director on the pilot, which was directed by Jack Shea. He was busy with Silver Spoons. When it got picked up, David asked me to stay on. You’ve got one adult, a bunch of kids, and a dog. That’s challenging.
Hawkins: I think the premise came out of an actual story David read about a child who had been abandoned and left in the parking lot of a grocery store or mall. I think that kids have a primal fear of being left alone or losing their parents, but at the same time, it’s also what they long for. It’s why so many fairy tales are about being lost in the woods, and it’s why every Disney Channel show has kids missing parents or raising themselves.
Gene Doucette (Costume Designer): Punky, she was supposed to be a ray of sunshine. The main concept I got right off the bat, being as childlike as I was and am, is that grown-ups say “Why?” and kids say “Why not?” Where grown-ups wouldn’t put purple next to gold, kids use all of the colors in a 100-crayon box. A perfect example of that was [in the script] when someone asked her why she was wearing two different shoes, and she said “Why not? I have two different feet.”
Hawkins: Tartikoff said, “I want to do the kind of show I remember from my childhood.”
Cheryl Alu (Staff Writer): I remember early on TV Guide did a cover of Punky Brewster. It showed Punky reaching over Henry's shoulders and putting her fingers at the edges of his mouth, as if to make him smile. David Duclon felt this was, in a nutshell, the essence of the show. A little girl showing an old grouch how to find joy in life.
Dielhenn: When we started the casting process, it was very challenging. The character was written as so vibrant, so spunky, that you started to doubt the notion we could find an 8-year-old to pull it off. When Soleil came in, we realized we had found the impossible.
“Soleil” was Soleil Moon Frye, a 7-year-old neophyte actress who had been spotted by a casting director while visiting her older brother, Meeno Peluce, on the set of his NBC series Voyagers!. Frye was selected out of 1000 girls who auditioned for the title role.
Cherie Johnson (“Cherie Johnson”): Soleil and I actually went in together. I guess it was a chemistry read. I met her in the waiting room for the first audition. Being 6 years old, you meet a girl, and you’re friends already. To me, the show was just playing with my friend.
Dielhenn: Jack Shea and I were in the control booth when Soleil was testing. We both looked at each other and said, “Uh-huh.”
Soleil Moon Frye (via E!, 2000): Coming up in the elevator [to the audition], another little girl gets in and says “Don’t bother, I already got it.” I said, “No way, I’m going up there.”
Hawkins: Soleil was really gifted and had a great parental support system. They weren’t interested in her being a celebrity. They wanted her to have a normal life, and she was really grounded as a result.
Johnson: There was none of the child stigma stuff. Our stage manager would give money to whoever could stay on a Pogo stick the longest. We drove carts over to Johnny Carson’s studio. That was the hottest show. Cyndi Lauper let us on her bus. I think Johnny hated us.
Doucette: Before we shot the pilot, I was shown pictures of Soleil. What I did was go out and shop for some things, had sleeves cut off, dyed different colors, bought pins, came up with how she would wear her jeans, then presented it to producers. “This is where I want to go with Punky,” and they said yes to everything.
Johnson: David Duclon is my uncle. He was a lot like my father growing up. He created the show, but not for me to have a job. He just thought he’d use my name and that I’d be thrilled. I had a different idea. “Cool, my name is in it. When do we go to work?” He said he needed a real actress. After seven auditions, NBC finally said, “Give your niece the job.”
Hawkins: One of the interesting aspects of the series was that Punky’s best friend, Cherie, was African American, and no big deal was made about it. It wasn’t an issue. In the '80s, you had black shows or white shows or Spanish shows. I can’t think of another series where the lead and lead’s best friend were different ethnicities and it wasn’t addressed.
Doucette: We were about to go on camera. I don’t know what caused me to do [the bandana on the knee], I just did it. Or maybe what made me do that was that I think I was listening to the radio, one of Willie Nelson's songs came on ... And I thought, “I have to get a bandana on her.” It was one more little statement, living her life basically on the road.
Dielhenn: We were going to air starting Sunday night after football, which was interesting. For the first six episodes, we did two-part segments, each 12 minutes long. If football ran long, they could start with a shorter episode.
Hawkins: That way, the kids could still see an entire episode and the network could continue the rest of the night’s programming. It was pretty unusual.
Doucette: When we shot the pilot, they were about to trim her bangs. I said, “No, no, you can’t give her perfect little bangs.” The character had to do her hair by herself. She hadn’t been adopted yet.
Hawkins: I remember we got the real Punky Brewster to do a walk-on. I don’t know where her nickname came from. I think our Punky’s first name was Penelope, and if that’s your name, you’d welcome a change. It sounds like an aunt with stockings rolled up to her knees.
Doucette: Each time we got a script, I was there all night at NBC ordering pizza, sitting in the office and hand-painting [mismatched] shoes. Casey [Ellison], the boy [who played Allen Anderson], used to hide in my wardrobe room and play with cars and robots because he was surrounded by girls all the time.
Johnson: We ganged up on Casey. We picked on him.
Punky Brewster premiered on September 16, 1984, with a three-part story that saw the character squatting in an empty apartment with her dog, Brandon, before being discovered by Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes), the building’s superintendent. Eventually, Punky is adopted by the curmudgeonly Henry and proceeds to use her Technicolor charm to navigate some distressing subject matter. Quickly, Punky Brewster became synonymous with “Very Special Episode.”
Hawkins: All of this color and childlike humor was to balance out some of the darker aspects of the storytelling.
Dielhenn: I won the Scott Newman [anti-drug foundation] Award for the “Just Say No” drug episode with Nancy Reagan. A lot of those choices were made in the writing room. In directing, it was about, "How do you play against this intensity so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming?"
Hawkins: We did an episode where she gets lost in a cave, some scary supernatural stuff, and we found early on it didn’t work for the world of the series. It was grounded in reality. She didn’t have superpowers. She talked about Punky Power, but that was the positive energy she had, a belief in herself and her abilities.
Johnson: Soleil and I were watching when the [Space Shuttle Challenger] exploded [in 1986]. Soleil really wanted to be an astronaut. I remember they got Buzz Aldrin to be on the show.
Hawkins: The drug episode, the child molester—there was nothing going on in the world we didn’t address.
Johnson: Shooting it, we were never upset. Even the episode where my [on-screen] mom died, David was like, “I’ll give you $20 and take you to 7-11 if you cry.”
II. A CHILLY RECEPTION
By the end of its freshman season, Punky Brewster had finished in 64th place in the Nielsen ratings. It wasn’t a spectacular debut, but the show still managed to captivate kids ages 2 through 11. If they were tuned into television at 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, they were almost certainly watching Punky. If not, they were busy writing to her: The show received up to 10,000 letters a week.
Hawkins: We would get tons of fan mail, tons of kids writing to Punky asking for her advice or sending pictures.
Johnson: We’d get letters from jail. Those would get confiscated.
Doucette: Every letter was looked at and talked about. Kids came to trust Punky. They learned they could confide in her. Fortunately, but also unfortunately, we had hundreds of letters from kids who had no one else to tell they were being abused, hurt, sexually assaulted. So they wrote to Punky. All of those letters were turned over to the proper authorities, all taken care of by the main production office, so authorities could possibly investigate and find a way to help kids.
Hawkins: A lot of times, kids would talk about what they wanted to see Punky do. I’m pretty sure the idea came from David to have a contest and get kids to submit an idea. We’d pick one and build a story around it.
To engage viewers and promote the second season, the series aired a call for story submissions in September 1985. Kids had until October 20 to submit a premise for an episode, with the winner being flown out with their family on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. It was this appeal to viewers that would eventually lead to the show’s famous encounter with a refrigerator.
Hawkins: That turned out to be one of our most memorable episodes, yes.
Jeremy Reams (Contest Winner): There was an ad on the show. “Hey, send us your ideas!” That kind of thing. I was 7, and my sister was a couple of years older, and we watched the show religiously. She wanted to do it, and I’m the little brother, so I wanted to do it, too. So we sat at the kitchen table and thought about it.
Hawkins: It got kids into the process of finding ways to be creative themselves. It was about child empowerment in a world where, when you’re a kid, you have no control whatsoever.
Reams: My idea was, they learned about CPR in school. Then they’d get off the bus, and they’d see an elderly woman or someone who needed it. The fridge was just how they presented it.
Hawkins: That came out of research we had done where we learned an alarming number of kids had suffocated in an old fridge or freezer. The government had passed laws as early as the late 1950s to ban manufacturing a fridge you couldn’t open from the inside. But in low economic neighborhoods, the old ones were being tossed out in vacant lots. They lasted forever.
Reams: It was a long time before we heard anything, maybe a few months. I remember my dad answered the phone. It was like, “Remember that contest? Well, you won. We’re going to California.”
Dielhenn: I only vaguely recall the refrigerator. I don’t know whose idea it was.
Hawkins: You were just putting two and two together. If you’re going to teach CPR, where’s the story? Who’s going to need CPR? We didn’t want it to be Henry or Brandon.
Johnson: I don’t think there was anyone else. From the time I got the script, it was, “Hop in the fridge.”
Writer Stephanie Mathison is credited for “Cherie Lifesaver,” which involves Punky and friend Margaux (Ami Foster-DeFries) taking a hands-on CPR class from teacher Mr. Fulton (T.K. Carter). It’s a lesson that proves invaluable after Henry throws away his ancient refrigerator, which Cherie climbs into during a potentially deadly game of hide-and-seek.
Hawkins: You want a fun fact? When we were looking to cast the teacher, we wanted someone dynamic and fun, a strong male influence for Punky. Jim Carrey auditioned. But it was almost a comic mania. It wasn’t quite suited for children.
Dielhenn: I remember, from a production standpoint, having to figure out how to make sure she was safe inside the fridge while still making it seem real.
Johnson: The first time we tried it, we were using an oxygen mask and I had only so much time I could stay in there. Everyone was so afraid, but I loved it. It was like doing my own stunt.
Reams: When we went to watch the shoot, I remember seeing the fridge and going, “Wait, that wasn’t my idea. That’s not how I saw it going down."
Johnson: Eventually, David couldn’t take it. I was like, “No, I’m cool, I’m okay.” They wound up taking the back of the fridge off.
Doucette: We did approach major problems throughout the series that kids face, the dangers out in the world.
Johnson: We had rehearsal and then we taped in front of a live audience. Kids were screaming, “Oh, no! Get her out!”
Hawkins: That show aired and the best reward I ever got was a phone call we got the next Monday afternoon. A woman from the Midwest called to say her husband worked for the power company, had been electrocuted on the line, and had fallen to the ground just as some kids were getting off the bus. They had seen the episode, ran over, gave him CPR, and saved his life.
Doucette: The fridge was handled delicately. Instead of kids living in fear, it was more about teaching kids to be careful what you do.
Reams: I had a little part at the beginning of the show. They had me sitting on the couch introducing it. “This is Jeremy Reams, he’s our contest winner.” Then the dog came over for 15 seconds or whatever.
Johnson: That dog was more professional than some veteran actors I’ve worked with.
Dielhenn: The dog was great. The trainers were great. He was named Brandon after Brandon Tartikoff.
Johnson: The dog had one double, a female named Brandy. I thought it was just those two, but later on someone told me there was one who passed away and they didn’t tell us so we wouldn’t get upset. Like how you’d replace a fish.
Reams: My class knew I was going to be on the show, but I moved away later on and no one knew about it until we took a spring break trip. Someone was in another hotel room. I guess they were watching a rerun. They said, “Is that you?” It’s never really come up since. It’s not really how you impress people.
III. PUNKY POWERS DOWN
By the end of its second season, Punky Brewster had failed to improve its standing in the ratings. While it was well-received by its juvenile audience, that wasn’t enough to sustain the expense of a primetime series.
Hawkins: The expectation was never for us to beat 60 Minutes in the ratings. Everyone was really realistic. We had a lot of episodes planned.
Dielhenn: NBC liked us, the audience liked us. It seemed like we were positioned accordingly.
Hawkins: Brandon [Tartikoff] came to speak to David personally. It was a difficult decision for him, but he was running a network. It’s about ad dollars. He had to make a tough decision, and he did. No one took it personally.
What NBC lacked in ad revenue it made up for in merchandising: Punky prompted over 30 separate licensing deals and an animated series.
Hawkins: There was such a demand for merchandise, for mismatched shoes, for the Punky doll.
Doucette: Another reason they wanted to keep the character the same for a while was the doll and everything else. The company they hired to do the shoes totally blew the concept because what they did was, they wanted to sell multi-colored sneakers in pairs, which is not what Punky was doing. My concept, when I was asked, was to sell individual shoes—sell lefts and rights—and let kids pick what ones they want to match up. The apparel company, nobody got it.
Frye: It was a little bizarre going to the Toys"R"Us and right next to the Cabbage Patch doll would be my face looking at me.
After 44 episodes on NBC, Punky Brewster moved to syndication, where it aired for another 44 episodes and two years before signing off in 1988. In the finale, Brandon and his girlfriend celebrate their canine nuptials. In the course of the show’s run, it was never explained why Punky’s mother had chosen to abandon her.
Hawkins: We tried to wrap our brains around what kind of parent can leave their kid. I know we talked about the idea of a mental illness involved with the mother, not being able to take care of herself or her child. I know Punky remembered things her mom told her, a song her mom would sing to her. But I don’t think there was ever any good time to bring her mother back.
Johnson: The last episode came during a writer’s strike. The dog wedding wasn’t intended to be a final episode.
Alu: I think we didn't find out we were canceled until after the final episode was shot. In other words, we didn't know that the final show of the fourth season was the final show of the series. But then, who’s to say a dog wedding isn't a fitting exit?
Hawkins: For a certain age group, Punky was a formative role model. I was at the eye doctor the other day and she was asking what shows I’ve done. Out of Carol Burnett, Welcome Back, Kotter, and everything else, it was, “Oh, my God! Punky Brewster!” She got teary-eyed about it.
Doucette: I’ve never been involved with a bunch of people who tried so hard to look at things from a kid’s point of view, teach them values, try to teach them lessons, and get them to be excited to be kids. There was a lot of care involved.
Dielhenn: She was a little like Annie and kind of an extension of Our Gang. It was great to have a female lead. There was one boy, three girls, and that was a great role model for girls at that time.
Johnson: I’m 40 years old and people are still tweeting me about it all the time. “If Punky Brewster taught me nothing else, it kept me out of a fridge.”