Tinderbox Trio: Three of Radio/TV’s Creepiest Dolls
Updated: Feb 3
By John C. Alsedek:
For as long as I can remember, my stepmom has had a Kewpie doll in her sewing room. In daylight, it’s as innocuous and innocent a little thing as you can imagine. But in the dark, with just a bit of light from the hallway on it, . . . it was something else altogether. You’d swear the eyes were following you—and that’s not just me, as both my stepbrothers have stated the same thing. There’s something about how they’re just a little too close to simulating us that can be disturbing, even terrifying, as if they’re just waiting for an opportunity to spring upon us in the dark.
From the earliest days of radio, a favorite trope has been the doll or ventriloquist dummy coming to life. Some classic examples are "Riabouchinska" from Suspense (the original radio series, not the TV version), "Deadly Dummy" from Inner Sanctum, "Dead of Night" from Escape, and "Dance of the Devil Dolls" from The Hall of Fantasy.
This week, we’re going to look at three examples: one from radio, then two more from television.
First up is an episode from Suspense called "Flesh Peddler," which originally aired on August 4th, 1957. It concerns a talent-booking agent—the "flesh peddler" of the title—named Pete who stumbles across the ventriloquist team of Wilson & Oliver at a local carnival and becomes dead-set on getting them signed. But Pete is warned off by the carnival’s owner; at first he assumes it’s because she doesn’t want to lose a popular act, but as time passes he finds out the awful truth. . . .
"Flesh Peddler" comes up frequently in lists of the spookiest old-time radio episodes, and it is pretty atmospheric—even if the "twist" ending isn’t a surprise at all to anyone who’d been listening to radio anthologies over the prior decade. But for me, the real interest is in the casting. The "flesh peddler" of the title is played by DeForest Kelley, known to tens of millions as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on Star Trek. In 1957, Kelley was still an up-and-comer who’d first jumped to prominence with a bravura performance in 1947’s Fear in the Night and who had been skirting the edges of stardom for the decade since. I don’t think Kelley did any other radio dramas, and it’s a shame because he’s got such an expressive voice. And speaking of expressive voices, one of his co-stars in "Flesh Peddler" is Daws Butler. The name may not be familiar to you, but if you grew up during the Sixties or Seventies, you heard his voice everywhere in cartoons; Butler was Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quick Draw McGraw, and literally dozens of other animated characters, both for Hanna-Barbera and other studios. He’s actually really underutilized here as Arthur, a slow-witted carnival performer, but still fun to listen to regardless.
From an episode with a mediocre script but good casting, we change mediums and go to a television show that marries a killer cast with an equally strong script. I’m talking about "The Dummy," a season 3 episode of The Twilight Zone that first aired on May 4th, 1962. "The Dummy" tells the tale of down-and-out ventriloquist Jerry Etherson and his little wooden buddy, Willie. Working a small club in New York City, Jerry has gone back to the bottle because he’s convinced that Willie is, in fact, alive. Jerry’s agent, Frank, tries to convince the hapless ventriloquist to get psychiatric help, but Jerry instead tries a different move; he switches acts and begins using a brand-new dummy. But the problem still remains, and Jerry hears Willie’s voice everywhere. . . .
Based on an unpublished story by Lee Polk, Rod Serling’s script for "The Dummy" is a suspenseful ride with a twist ending vastly superior to the one in "Flesh Peddler"—it’s truly one of the very best endings that The Twilight Zone ever had. The lead role of Jerry is played by future Oscar winner Cliff Robertson, one of those rare actors who was good in virtually anything. And he’s got a solid supporting cast to play against, led by Frank Sutton as Frank (if you only know Sutton from his role as Sgt. Carter on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how good he is here in a dramatic role). But the real co-star here is the dummy, Willie; originally made by Revello Petee in the 1940’s, he turns up in another but inferior "dummy come to life" episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964’s "Caesar and Me."
Rod Serling also penned the third of our stories, only this time for his later TV anthology Night Gallery. "The Doll," which first aired on January 13th, 1971, was adapted from a story by weird fiction legend Algernon Blackwood, "The Doll" is a more straightforward tale than "The Dummy;" it takes place right at the end of the 19th Century and concerns a British military officer, Colonel Masters. Having returned to his aging estate after serving in India, Colonel Masters discovers a bit of India waiting for him: his young niece/ward Monica has received a dirty, disheveled doll in the mail that she assumed had been sent to her by the Colonel. The Colonel didn’t send it, but he does recognize it, and a late-night visitor explains its sinister purpose. . . .
For me, "The Doll" suffers a little in comparison with "The Dummy"—but only a little. For instance, the way that Pandit Chola (the Colonel’s arch-enemy) shows up in his study to explain everything doesn’t quite work for me; I mean, if you’re going to go there anyway, why send the doll in the first place? But it’s still a chilling tale, well-acted by stalwart John Williams (as Colonel Masters), Shani Wallis (as Miss Danton, Monica’s governess), and the always-fun Henry Silva as Pandit Chola. And that ending—it may not quite hang together from a logical standpoint, but it’s a doozy!
And speaking of doozies . . . there’s a 1970’s killer doll that remains so iconic today that I decided to give it a column of its own. We’ll be talking Trilogy of Terror next time . . . until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.