All photographs © Mel Birnkrant. Some of the images © the Walt Disney Company
Now turn the clock back farther, to several months before. On two separate occasions, I had encountered an intriguing pair of Mickey and Minnie sculptures at the New York Armory Show, and later at Madison Square Garden. They were figures from the pinnacle of a French carousel. The price of this duo was three thousand dollars. With my income it might, just as well have been three million. Clearly, others agreed with me that they were too expensive, for they had been at two major shows, and they were not going anywhere. I tried to convince myself I didnít like them. After all, they didnít have Pie-cut eyes, which, ordinarily, would have ruled them out for me. And even if I had the money, I couldnít see spending it on these. But as sculptures, I still found them fascinating.
A few weeks after the final call from Bambergers, I happened to be in New York City, when I dropped into a permanent group gallery where antique dealers could rent display space. There, I encountered a woman who I recalled had been sharing the booth with the man who had the two large mice. And I asked if she knew if he still had them. She told me that he did, and as he was not able to sell them, he had raised the price! Now, he would not accept a penny less than $3,500, for the set. She also disclosed a fact I didnít realize, namely that she was his wife! Something compelled me to take down their name and address.
Driving back home, along the Palisades Parkway, a strange idea began to take shape in the deepest recesses of my mind. I asked myself if what I wouldnít do for money, I might do for love of mice? And, by the time I got back to the schoolhouse, I had made up my mind! I pulled up the driveway, rushed into the house, and headed directly for the telephone. I dialed up my buddy at the agency. He sounded overjoyed to hear from me. I asked him if he was still interested in renting my collection. He answered, ďAbsolutely!Ē
And so it was we crafted an arrangement that seemed to me to be the Deal of the Century. We agreed that Bamberger's would procure the two mice for the show, and afterwards give them to me. I explained what had happened to the price, and hoped that Bamberger's had the powers of persuasion to bargain it down, again. This idea had a benefit that was twofold, as the mice would not only trap me, they would also greatly enhance the show. In fact, they became the center piece of the exhibit! So, their addition to the exhibition was a positive step for Bamberger's, and yours truly, both.
On top of that, he agreed that Bamberger's would give me any of the custom showcases that their display department fabricated for the show, as well as any theft proof frames that were made to order for the display. I donít think either of us realized at the time what a huge bonanza this would turn out to be. Last of all, they would throw in one more thing. For some time, I had my eye on a cel painting from Snow White that appeared is a small antique shop, called Lolaís Antiques, across the River in Newburgh. The cel along with its painted background and the original pencil drawing for that background was only $350. Thus, it was really not expensive, but nonetheless, too much for me. Little did I realize, at the time, that this was perhaps the most desirable cel of all time, the one iconic image that came to represent the entire movie. It had belonged to a man who worked in some capacity for Disney. He had retired to the Hudson Valley; and after he passed away, his widow sold the cel to Lola.
So that was it , The deal was made , and thus, began the fun and games. Slowly but surely, I got carried away, and without really realizing it, over the next few weeks I was planning and creating the entire exhibition over the phone. Bambergerís eagerly went along with every idea I came up with. To begin with, I specified at least 18 showcases, built into the walls; each measuring about three feet wide by two feet high, by two feet deep. These would be illuminated from above. Each one would be lined with white velvet. And there would be a variety of stackable white velvet covered risers, on which to place the items. I sketched out many combinations and configurations, to create everything, from free-standing towers to pyramids. The cases would be arranged equally spaced on a black band circling the room to emulate the look of frames on a continuous length of movie film. I didnít say a lot about the room, other than the fact that the colors should be those of Mickey Mouse, himself: red, yellow, black and white.
Meanwhile, I began unpacking all the mice that I had stored away. Ironically, at this very time, I was contacted by a local paper, The Beacon Evening News. Someone had tipped them off that I collected Mickey Mouse, and they asked to do an article. Hoping that it might turn up a mouse or two, but with a certain amount of trepidation, I said, ďOK.Ē It just happened to be the very day that I was in the process of unpacking all the mice for Bambergerís, anyway. And when the Newspaper arrived a multitude of mice, newly liberated from their three year confinement in the closet, were on display. They were camera ready, I, on the other hand; No way!
In the weeks that followed, day by day, Iíd set up mice, and any other Disney objects I could find, and measure them, and then call Bambergers with the dimensions for another case. For instance, there needed to be a tall narrow tower of Plexiglas, with lights in the top to display the Mickey, Minnie and Pluto Marionettes with their original boxes and long strings. I also specified a massive two tiered case to display the two Disney Lionel handcars, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on two levels, each with their full wide circles of tin track. My imagination soared at the thought of what I could use a case like that for, when I got it back! And so, each day, I came up with the dimensions and configurations, for another showcase, or another frame. Needless to say, anything suitable for framing needed a custom made frame. These were expensive, by the way, custom made by Kulicke frames, and soon there was a frame for everything.
Then, I suggested that they might enlarge the amazing photo of a thousand children at a Mickey Mouse Club matinťe, all wearing paper masks. And make it so huge that it would cover an entire wall and the masks of the kids in the front row would be life size. Thus, we could display two of the actual masks, protected under Plexiglas, perfectly sized and mounted in place.
Bambergers loved all these ideas. And so, I sent them the photograph. I also suggested that they could project Mickey cartoons from behind a frosted screen and set the Mickey Mouse keystone projector in front of that, I lent them a couple Mickey Mouse cartoons, and they had copies made on a continuous loop.
Last of all I completely outdid myself and came up with an opportunistic idea that made for two high pressure hellish weeks of frantic last minute work for me. When we were living in New York, Kenny Kneitel got several pieces of Mickey Mouse furniture in his shop, Fandango. They freaked me out, as I recalled when I was very young my parents enrolled me in nursery school for a day. I hated it, but I managed to find one safe place. The school had a Mickey Mouse chair exactly like the one in Kennyís store. Kenny though the furniture was worth a thousand dollars, which was way more than I could afford, but he let me photograph it.
Likewise, I found the matching Mickey Rocking chair that completes the set in Aunt Lenís Doll Museum. And she allowed me to photograph that. Over time, I projected these on huge sheets of white paper to use as patterns for a project that I had in mind, and hoped to someday complete. The goal was to recreate the feeling of sitting in that comforting chair, that one and only day in nursery school. In order for that experience to be achieved, now that I was a man of large proportions, the chairs would need to be enlarged to large proportions too. And so the patterns I traced so carefully were much larger than life in size, in fact they were a little bit too big. Then, I rolled the drawings up and put them away. Now, planning the exhibition at Bambergerís, I taxed my mind to figure out what I could get them to make next, and I suddenly remembered the drawings of the giant chairs.
I was on the phone again in a flash, selling my friend at Bambergers on the idea. If he would have their shop build them for me, that means doing the carpentry, cutting them out and finishing all the pieces, then, painting one side white, to match a swatch that I supplied, and send the panels up to me, I would paint the art on them in time for the show. He enthusiastically agreed.
But, alas, the panels were a long time coming. By the time they were delivered to me, there was only a little over a week left to paint them and have them arrive at Bamberger's in enough time to be assembled for the show. I sure got myself into a fine mess this time. Needless to say, I worked day and night. In the original chairs one side was Mickey and the other was Minnie. I cheated these, so two chairs became four, two with Mickey on both sides, and another pair that were, wholly, Minnie, so there were eight huge sides to paint in all, along with four smaller pieces to make two Pluto foot stools. Somehow, I managed it and the panels were picked up by Bamberger's truck, the day before the show was due to be set up.