A futuristic-looking video communication system called the Picture Phone was a prominent feature on the show, remaining virtually unchanged throughout the series, except for the phone's ringing, details of the lip-doors, and interior. The interior walls of the Picture Phone are a giraffe print. A large phone booth-like area in the shape of a woman's head was the exterior, with a shower curtain in-between the face where her nose would be. The lips served as saloon doors that could be opened and closed at will. Inside was a cathode ray tube television monitor for viewing the individual on the other end, a tin can handset, several controls for the user to pull, press and twist, and lights to brighten the inside (done so by pulling a lever resembling a red rod with hand-grip indentations). In seasons 2 through 5, on occasion when Pee-wee would turn on these lights a coiled spring sound effect could be heard. The CRT monitor was enclosed in a wood frame, similar to many televisions of the 1950s to the 1980s. Also, a pull-down background was often seen; it parodied a lot of modern-day artwork, such as American Gothic (as seen at the end of Miss Yvonne's Visit). On some occasions, Pee-wee wore a silly hat that matched the background's theme, such as a pirate hat or a beach umbrella. The phone's "ringing" was accompanied by a flash of shapes and patterns on the monitor. The interior only had one seat, but three people could get inside it, as demonstrated in the Store. The "conversations", which implied the existence of other "Picture Phones", were actually live video films of any character that Pee-wee "called". He would usually call "I'll get it! I'll get it!" and answer "Pee-wee's Playhouse. Pee-wee speaking." before the caller's image would appear on the monitor. The phone itself was always an empty tin can of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail (in the Ice Cream Soup episode, Del Monte Sweet Peas), connected to a telephone cord (hence the name Picture Phone). At the beginning of Accidental Playhouse and the start of Pajama Party, the Picture Phone's ringing was also accompanied by horns blaring and buzzer sounds, respectively. The episode Sick, Did Somebody Say Sick? shows us that there is a keypad that is used to dial numbers, but in later shots of the viewing screen and controls for the Picture Phone, the keypad is nonexistent.
In the universe of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, everyone on Earth has a Picture Phone. This is confirmed in the Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special when we see that Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Dinah Shore use them.
In one of the commentaries for the Christmas special, the Picture Phone was described as being "way ahead of its time" for its capability of showing picture with a person's voice when calling them on the phone.
The Picture Phone was designed by Ric Heitzman.
Picture Phone Callers/Recipients
Some of the people called/calling on the Picture Phone:
- Rhonda (operator)
- Daryl (officer who threatens to have Pee Wee arrested and charged with a felony crime for making a prank call, which is against the law)
- Roger and Roger's Mom
- Zyzzybalubah (from his crystalline command center)
- Dr. Jinga Janga
- Miss Yvonne
Conky, Pterri, Globey and Jambi are a few of the characters that haven't called anyone on the Picture Phone in the playhouse, but Jambi called Pee-wee from another phone while on his vacation.
- The Picturephone was presumably inspired by the one from the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey. Both are boothlike videophones with a chair and viewing screen.
- The episode Miss Yvonne's Visit is the only episode where Pee-wee uses the Picturephone four times. Pee-wee even comments that it was ringing off the hook.
- In the fan fiction Wedding at the Playhouse, the Picture Phone is used as a secret place for Herman and Yvonne to enage in sexual intercourse. While not stated outright, it is most likely a bigger version of the original, complete with a larger seat. The phone's ringing from seasons 2 through 5 is used to arouse the two into more sex.
- The Picture Phone was used by the King of Cartoons to view a cartoon in place of the TV in the episode Playhouse in Outer Space.
- In Season 1, the Picture Phone's ringing was a telephone ringing sound effect combined with "radio warbling" sound effects. From Season 2 onwards, the ringing is much different—sounding more like computer warbling. In the Accidental Playhouse episode, blaring horns were also heard in the picture phone's ringing when Mrs. Rene arrived to the playhouse at the time Pee-Wee was in the bathroom and Mrs. Rene was asked to answer the Picture Phone for him.
- The video screen was made from a vintage RCA Victor 21-D-7445U Deluxe television set. The only difference is that the electron guns inside have been switched out for ones that create the video transmissions in color.
- The can used for the receiver was a Del Monte Fruit Cocktail can (with Del Monte logo blanked out), except in the Ice Cream Soup episode. In the Ice Cream Soup episode, the can was Del Monte Sweet Peas, with only "Del" in "Del Monte Quality" blanked out
- The Picturephone reemerged in an auction held at Prop Store Los Angeles scheduled for December 1, 2018. Estimated at $10,000 to $15,000, it sold for $9,375. However, the CRT viewscreen, microphone and seat are missing.
The Picturephone appeared in an auction at Prop Store Los Angeles that ended on December 1. 2018. It sold for $9,375. You can still see the photos at the propstore site.
The picturephone seen at the Keystone Comic Con