Toy World October 1995
by Doug and Pat Wengel
COVER, left: Awesome French Carousel Figure, 52"
tall, polychromed wood and iron.
The term "died and gone to
heaven" was never used in a more appropriate
context for a toy lover than when describing the
incredible experience of a visit to the home of Mel
and Eunice Birnkrant, located on the Hudson River in
New York state.
Because few are privileged to have
the opportunity to visit in person, for the first
time Mel and Eunice are providing these
"snapshots" of their collection for your
enjoyment. As a toy designer, Mel used photography in
his work and often finds himself needing to process
the first few photos on a roll of film to meet a
deadline. When this happens, he scurries around the
house hurriedly photographing the "objects of
his affection" to use up the roll.
This has resulted in a lot of photos
that haphazardly document the growth and development
of the Birnkrant collection over the years. Eunice
recently put 300 of these photos in an overstuffed
"family album." And it is from that album
that the photos in this article were chosen.
Because of the incredible size and
scope of their collection, this article is divided
into two parts. The second part will appear in the
November issue of Antique Toy World.
The Birnkrant Collection of icons and
images reminds one of a huge iceberg. Glimpses of the
tip of the iceberg have appeared over the years, from
a 1968 Life magazine article through our May, 1994
Antique Toy World article on their celluloid toys.
Now, for the first time anywhere, we offer a peek
below the waterline - get ready to hold your breath!
Mel and Eunice "feel at
home" under the constant gaze of a thousand eyes
(most of which are pie cut.) Would you? Now sit back,
relax and enjoy these glorious images from the finest
comic character collection in the world.
In the coming year, Mel plans to
commence photographing the collection "properly
with a large format view camera." He believes
that this medium with its "controllable
distortions" is the only way one can capture and
convey the wonder he sees in these "magic
images." He contends that conventional
photography often tends to bathe an object in the
cold light of "objective" reality and
"make one wonder why it once seemed wonderful at
all." If Mel succeeds in "capturing the
wonder," he plans to share it with us all in
what we feel certain will be the ultimate book on the
art and imagery of comic characters.
Those fortunate enough to visit the
Birnkrant "mansion" might well ask
themselves the following multiple-choice questions:
Is this (A) a museum, (B) a house, (C) a shrine, (D)
heaven, or (E) all of the above? !
"GUS WHITE's PUNCH and COMIC
FAMILY." An amazing 19th-century Punch and Judy
show, complete with 20 exquisitely carved puppets,
stage, scenery, props and a breathtaking wood ticket
booth. Gus White of Goshen, NY created the show in
1878 when he was only 17 years old. He continued to
develop and perfect it over the next 40 years while
traveling and performing throughout the Northeast,
from New York to Boston. This magnificent set is
treasured by Mel and Eunice more than any other piece
in their collection. For the past several years Mel
has been haunting flea markets searching out the
100-year-old fabrics, which he painstakingly uses to
authentically restore the puppets' original costumes.
(P.S. Can you also spot UB Iwerks' original pencil
drawing for the first Mickey Mouse model sheet?)
The toys in this case are typical of
some of the earlier comic characters and illustrate
some of the diversity of these wonderful figures.
Whether they are objects of your dreams or merely put
you to sleep, Mel's dazzling displays are bound to
wake you up!
Living "happily every
after" at the "Mouse Motel." "The
mice check in, but they don't check out!" Check
out the incredible 12-piece tin litho MICKEY MOUSE
orchestra and the surprising FLIP THE FROG Drummer!
Birnkrant Collection Home Page
All photographs © Mel
Some of the toys © the Walt Disney Company