With this article in Life Magazine, in October, 1968, my Life as a Mickey Mouse Collector began officially. Up until that time, I had a tendency to find the fact that I collected Mickey Mouse to be a bit embarrassing. And I saw my passion for collecting Disney as evidence that my lame attempts at growing up were failing dismally. But this article changed everything. The change was subtle, at the time, but, in retrospect, I realize that its gentle impact was Life altering. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Life Magazine. With that in mind, I hope what I’m about to write will give you a feeling for the times, introduce you to the collectors featured in this ancient issue of “Life,” and enable you to read between the lines.
In those early days, when mankind first began collecting Mickey, I enjoyed a kind of powerful anonymity, a giddy sense of delight that was derived from believing that I was the only one looking for him. Living in New York City in the 1960s, I could breeze through an antique show and know with certainty that any Mickey Mice or other comic characters, who might be found there, were, more or less, just waiting for me. It was almost like having a cloak of invisibility that enabled me to inconspicuously zoom from booth to booth, and scoop them up with impunity. Therefore, I tried to keep my passion for these underappreciated treasures a secret, lest my excitement might invite emulation, and create unwanted competition. But there was something contagious in the air, and, in spite of my discretion, other Mickey Mouse collectors were beginning to appear. The first I met was Richard Merkin. Richard was a painter, whose creations were heavily seeped in literary allusions and popular iconography. He was a graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design, where he continued to teach, three days a week.
Apart from Richard and myself, the cast of characters in the first days of Mouse collecting was a small one: Richard’s best friend from RISD was Max Fleischer’s grandson, Kenny Kneitel. Kenny had a curious shop, one flight up, in midtown Manhattan, called “Fandango.” He specialized in the sort of unusual merchandise that had been newly identified as “Camp.” Among the cornucopia of offbeat objects Kenny gathered, on excursions into the wilds of New Jersey, were often early Mickeys and other comic characters. Sometimes, he took me with him on those trips to the junk stores and pawn shops, located in seedy neighborhoods, just across the Hudson River. It was amazing, the wonderful things that one could find there.
The only other shop in Manhattan that carried old Mickey “merch,” as Michael called it, was “Michael Malce and Son.” It was located on Third Avenue, a few blocks from me. Michael Malce had an incredible eye for finding fabulous chokies, and among them was a continuing supply of early Mickeys. Any old Mickey that Michael offered, in those delightful days, was always priced at $9. That was Michael’s standard Mickey price. From figurines to celluloid windups, it didn’t matter what the object was; the price was always “nine”.
It was in Michael’s shop that I first met Richard Merkin. And getting these $9. mice, when they popped up, became a game of musical chairs, in which Richard and I were the only players. We both tried to be the one who was there, at the very moment, each new Mickey Mouse appeared. Because Richard lived inconveniently uptown, on the West Side, and also spent three days a week teaching in Rhode Island, I was winning the Mouse Race. Before long, there were two additional players in the game. The first, at first, was not competing, just annoying. His inclusion in Life Magazine did untold damage. One day, when I was hanging out at Fandango, Kenny said to me: “The thing I hate about this store, is having to put up with every asshole, who walks through the door.” While I was wondering if he meant me, he whispered hurriedly: “Listen! Here comes the worst one, now!” Like Captain Hook, who was forewarned of the approaching Crocodile, by the ticking of the alarm clock it had swallowed, we heard the sound of many timepieces, echoing in the narrow hallway, and ticking louder, step by step, as the “Crock” climbed up the stairs.
And, through the door, popped Robert Lesser, a small chubby man, with Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat, who rather resembled Porky Pig. I stepped aside and tried to look disinterested and preoccupied, in a distant corner of the store, while Bob, impervious to me, bombarded Kenny with what I later learned was his standard routine. Out of his pockets, one after another, he pulled, at least, a dozen comic watches, boasting about each variation, as he dramatically showed it off. Finally, when he was out of breath, and Kenny had been suitably unimpressed, Bob stepped into the hall again, and disappeared, with the sound of ticking timepieces still ringing in our ears!
In those early days, Mickey watches were Bob’s main thing. He had visited the jewelry supply stores on Canal Street, and purchased every old Mickey Mouse watch he could find there, for a few dollars each. He then made it his mission to convince anyone, who would lend an ear, how valuable they were. Over the years, as I got to know Bob Lesser better, the very mention of a Mickey Mouse timepiece became an instant turnoff to me. “Lesser ennui” was the sole reason that I never collected character watches, enthusiastically.
There was one other collector in this story, and that was Ernie Trova, a successful artist, living in St. Louis. We never found out how Michael discovered him, but it became clear to Richard and me that everything had suddenly changed at Michael Malce and Son’s. Mickey Mice rarely appeared, there, and if they did, they were no longer $9. each. We learned that Michael was sending all the mice he got to Ernie, by the box load, sight unseen. Ernie would, inevitably, love everything, and send a check to pay the bounty.
One day, a Lionel Mickey Mouse handcar appeared in Michael’s store. Richard and I, both, went nuts. We had never seen one before. We later learned that it was only there because Ernie had sent it back. Michael had asked him $80. (Gasp!) And, although, the price was fine with Ernie, he said that he had one, already. Therefore, Michael offered it to Richard and me for “only” $50. That price seemed outrageous to us at the time. And so a new pecking order was established. There were, now, three toy buyers in the game. Ernie got first crack at everything. Richard and I were offered whatever he didn’t take. Later in the week, I asked one of Eunice’s friends, to visit Michael’s store and ask how much the Mickey handcar would be to her, just a stranger off the street. The price Michael quoted her was $40. I gave her the money, and she went back and bought it for me.
Around this time “Life Magazine” stepped onto the scene. That coming October was going to be Mickey’s 40th birthday. And Life wanted to do a story about collecting Mickey. Somehow, they got the names of the four of us, Ernie Trova, Robert Lesser, Richard Merkin, and yours truly. That article became a turning point for me.
I had been slowly putting together a wall in our small apartment, on which to display my growing toy collection. The box that would be dedicated to Mickey was still empty, but lined with patriotic paper. My modest menagerie of Mickey Mouse was scattered all over the house.
When Life called about the article, I was flattered and Amazed! Who ME? “Moi” in Life Magazine? Although, I didn’t think my collection was newsworthy, like an eager puppy, I gladly said, “OK!” I remember, it was a Friday. They wanted to send a photographer on Monday! Therefore, I spent the weekend digging up anything I had that resembled Mickey, and arranged it in that empty showcase. I frantically faked it out, with every mouse in the house, some of which were nearly new. And when the photographer arrived on Monday, my Mickey Mouse display was ready!
Richard, on the other hand, took a different tack. To begin with, he wouldn’t let Life in his place. Instead, he rather reluctantly loaned them a few things. Then, Richard asked, “How much are you going to pay me?” When they answered, “Nothing!”, he blew his stack and wanted his stuff back. Later, when a small image of Mickey from his collection that Life had photographed, already, appeared in the article, behind a few new Mickey watches, he got really angry, and threatened to sue Life Magazine. As a result of this unpleasant episode, Richard decreed that he “would never collect Mickey Mouse again!” And, cutting off his nose to spite his face, he never did! Therefore, this article, which proved to be a kind of beginning for me, became “The End” for him.
Ernie appeared in the article, from afar, with a photo of a Mickey doll and radio, sent from St. Louis, and the notable quote that “Mickey is the most important visual symbol of the 20th Century, right up there with the Nazi Swastika and Coca Cola!”
Meanwhile, Bob Lesser loaned Life a dozen timepieces that had, most likely, cost him $5. each, and they photographed them on a hunk of cheese. Then, Bob seized the opportunity to do what his collecting was all about: he called it “Building Equity under his collection,” and stated that the group of twelve watches was worth $5,000. So, any idiot who could divide by 12 could do the math and figure out that Mickey Mouse watches must be worth, at least, $400. each. Thanks Bob! Mouse prices began to rise, from that moment on.
Here is the article! The date of the issue was October 25, 1968. It led off with the photograph of my humble collection, with Ernie’s 1926, pre-Mickey “MICKY”, blown up to many times its actual size, (and importance) and dubbed in to look like it was standing on the top of my modest display, which was pitiful, by the way. When I look at the photograph, today, I find it embarrassing and laughable, in spite of the fact that there was little else on Earth quite like it, at the time.
Several months later, driving through New Jersey, I noticed an antique mall and dropped in. One dealer had a small gathering of Mickey items, many of which I’d never seen. And, there, above the showcase, was taped, the first page of the article from Life Magazine. The prices he was asking were obscene! When I made a comment to that effect, he pointed to the picture of my collection, and said, “Do you realize what these things are going for, these days?”
It was because of episodes like the one, above, that I approached future offers of publicity reluctantly, and set a Rule that I adhered to unfailingly: Henceforth, I refused to be a part of any article, in print, or on TV, that mentioned money. This resulted in my turning down many an opportunity. When the author or producer, inevitably, said to me: “But, that’s what our readers find interesting”, or, “That’s what our viewers want to see!” I replied, “That’s fine, but do it with another collector, not me!
As the saying goes, “We grow too soon old, and too late wise.” Thus, in retrospect, I realize that of all the bad decisions I made in my life, one of the stupidest was to shun publicity. Looking back over the years, it’s become clear that every time I succumbed to notoriety, beginning with this mention in Life Magazine, something nice happened to me. Within a week after the Life article appeared, I heard from both John Fawcett and Maurice Sendak. And thus, began, two Life-long friendships that have meant the world to me.