Living with Comic Characters

Snapshots from the Birnkrant Family Album Part I

Antique Toy World October 1995
by Doug and Pat Wengel

FRONT 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!

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Birnkrant Collection Home Page

All photographs Mel Birnkrant
Some of the toys the Walt Disney Company