This Week at PCA: Cynthia Pepper

How I first fell in love with Cynthia Pepper – as “Margie” on the lid of a board game box.

I first noticed Cynthia Pepper in an antique store when I caught her gaze from the lid of a dusty old board game box. Margie: The Game of Whoopee was one of those games based on television shows, which were popular for decades before the advent of video games. Despite being over 50 years old it still had all its pieces, and was in virtually brand new condition. Thing was, while I have an encyclopedic mind for vintage television, I had never heard of a TV show called Margie. But, man, those eyes captivated me, and the braids were adorable. Something about the girl on the box just made me want it, and despite the fact that I don’t even play board games, I couldn’t resist: I laid down my $20 for the game. After a few Google searches and a visit each to IMDB and YouTube, I discovered one of the most charming television shows I had never heard of.  Now, with my claws hooked into something that I never knew about before, I was already on the internet tracking down all the episodes and information I could on Margie.  It wouldn’t be long before my paths crossed with the real life Cynthia Pepper.

Actress Cynthia Pepper hit the pop culture radar in the early 60′s in “girl next door” roles on “My Three Sons” and “Margie.”

Although Margie may have been the series that drew me to notice Cynthia Pepper, I had already seen her before without even realizing it. A true Hollywood kid, Cynthia Pepper was the daughter of entertainer Jack Pepper.  Studying acting, dance, and voice as a child, Cynthia didn’t go the route of most child actors, but started to gravitate toward show business at age 19, when she graduated from the infamous Hollywood High. She made early appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, 77 Sunset Strip, and Thriller, but it was being cast in a semi-regular role as Mike Douglas’ first girlfriend, Jean Pearson, on My Three Sons which got her noticed on the pop culture radar.  With wholesome good looks and a fresh face, the 20 year old actress could easily pass for 16, and she was perfect for “the girl next door.” Her performances won over audiences and television executives alike, and the following year ABC developed Margie just for her, to be aired right after My Three Sons.  Airing for a single season, 1961-62, Cynthia Pepper starred in Margie, a situation comedy about teenagers living in the 1920s.  It was what to the early 60s what Happy Days was to the 70s and That 70s Show was to the 90s: a light-hearted celebration of a previous generation through laughter and a charming cast.  But at the center of it was Cynthia Pepper, who was equally adorable and delicious.  Yet, despite the network giving Margie a prime time slot and putting effort into marketing (including producing paper dolls, comic book and, of course, a board game), Margie just didn’t take off. Despite being a terrific show, it faded into the abyss of cancelled shows of television past.

The role of army secretary Midge Riley opposite a blonde Elvis Presely in “Kissin’ Cousins” would seal Cynthia Pepper’s place in pop culture, and especially Elvis fandom.

But, after Margie’s cancellation, Cynthia Pepper remained a favorite of casting directors.  Besides making appearances on shows such as The Addams Family, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, and The Flying Nun, Cynthia graduated to film, beginning with a small role in the Jimmy Stewart/Tuesday Weld comedy Take Her, She’s Mine, where she played Weld’s roommate, Adele.  But it was her next film, Kissin’ Cousins, which would forever change her life.  After her role in this Appalachian musical comedy starring Elvis Presley, Cynthia Pepper would become immortalized in pop culture as an Elvis girl.  One of Elvis’ strangest films, the King played dual roles: as military officer Josh Morgan, and his own look-alike hillbilly cousin, Jodie Tatum. Elvis even had to undergo a blonde dye job so that the audience could decipher between the two Elvises.  While dark-haired military Elvis romanced hillbilly bumpkin Yvonne Craig, hillbilly blonde Elvis wooed army secretary Cynthia Pepper.  Although it was one of Elvis’ silliest films, Kissin’ Cousins has become one of his most popular movies amongst his legion of fans, securing Cynthia Pepper’s spot as part of Elvis fan culture.

After a few failed pilots and a scattering of television credits, Cynthia Pepper disappeared from the pop culture radar by the early 70s, but the continuing interest in everything Elvis has made her a fixture at Elvis festivals and fan gatherings, and her pop culture appeal has made her a popular guest at autograph shows.  Within a matter of weeks after finding her in that antique store, I was easily able to track down the real Cynthia Pepper, who graciously talked to me about Elvis, Margie, and her short, yet eventful career as one of pop culture’s “girls next door.”




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