SETTING UP THE SHOW
All photographs © Mel Birnkrant. Some of the images © the Walt Disney Company
Early on the morning of November 16, 1973, the Great Adventure began. I drove off into the sunrise, having no idea what awaited me, other than the troubling impression, derived from the mass media’s sensational tracking of Newark’s recent race riots that I was embarking on an urban safari, a daring expedition, on which I would encounter the dangers of the asphalt jungle. Could I subject my Mickeys to potential peril, and still later, bring ‘em back alive?
I traveled down the Palisades Parkway, following the River Hudson to Paramus, and beyond. And with every mile my tiny vehicle carried me into the heart of the darkest New Jersey, my apprehension grew. Finally, we reached Newark, where I was expecting to see streets and avenues teeming with restless natives rioting. Instead, it was quite quiet, as if the city were deserted, and I continued, without an incident, all the way to the safe haven of Bamberger's Department Store.
This once imposing building proved to be a welcoming citadel of faded glory, amid a metropolis that I had been led to believe was in a state of uproar. How similar this almost old-fashioned department store seemed to be to the J.L. Hudson Company, the magic castle that cast its spell over the city of my youth, Detroit, and made my lonely only childhood bearable.
I sheltered my vehicle in a nearby parking garage, and scurried to the store. As I rounded the corner, I discovered that Mickey and company had arrived ahead of me. Occupying the corner window, was an elaborate animatronic mechanical orchestra, featuring the most hideously up to date interpretation of Mickey, conducting all the latest Disney Characters, from Robin Hood to Tinkerbelle as they played familiar Disney tunes.
Once inside the revolving door, I traveled to the fifth floor on the escalator, drinking in the comforting ambiance of a real old fashioned department store. Although, I knew it was not possible, it felt like I had been there many times before. As I slowly ascended, from floor to floor, I was thrilled to see that the entire store was decorated with a multitude of images of Mickey dressed like Santa, encircled by a Christmas wreath. These were big and bright, and to my delight, unlike the art on the catalogue cover, whoever designed these got the graphics right. As incredible as it might seem, I still have a few of these. Here is a photograph I took today. It also offers a unique first peek at the hitherto secret basement of Mouse Heaven, my now abandoned workshop.
With each passing floor, my excitement grew. Months of preparation and anticipation had led up to this moment. Now,I looked forward to what I was about to see, with mixed emotions. I had no idea what awaited me. Would it, like most things that one looks forward to too much, be a disappointment when encountered in reality? Or did I dare to hope that what Bamberger’s display department had created would pleasantly surprise me.
I gathered up my courage, and bravely set foot on the final escalator. On the floor above, one of the most exquisite moments of my life awaited me. How can I describe this strange sensation? Could this be really happening, or was it only an illusion. As the escalator continued its assent, it seemed like it was the store around me that was in moving, while I remained stationary, as if I were floating in a dream. Up ahead, I saw only a limitless field of red. Then, over the horizon, formed by the uppermost step, the crescent of a massive black arch peered over the edge, and slowly rose, like a black rainbow, ascending from the sea. As it revealed itself in all its glory, bright yellow letters, became visible, standing out from the curvature of the arch in 3D. They spelled out the words, “MICKEY MOUSE-EUM.”
When I regained my composure, I found myself standing before a majestic archway, and gazing through it, into another world, a world ruled by the color red. This was that color’s domain, as far as a pie-cut eye could see. The top half of every wall was red, the bottom half was yellow, with a black band in the middle. And the floor was covered in radiant red carpeting.
In the midst of that rosy glow, I saw the Mickey and Minnie carousel figures. This was the first time I had seen them, in person, since I briefly encountered them at two antique shows, long ago. Now, they were standing in an amazing setting that had been crafted to display them. And they did look absolutely awesome! With a sudden shiver of delight, I realized that when the show was over, they would be mine!
All the while that this was taking place, I sensed that I was levitating an invisible fraction of an inch above the floor, as I have been known to do on such occasions. And I marveled at the incredible MOUSE-EUM that Bamberger’s had put together. Their display department had managed to please and amaze me, beyond my wildest dreams. Everything was absolutely perfect. Around the walls of the red and yellow room, a single black strip of “movie film” extended. Evenly spaced, within its borders, were eighteen inset showcases. These were all now open at the front, so I could set them up. Eventually, when I was done, a sheet of Plexiglas would be inserted in each one, from behind the wall, to protect its contents.
Scattered all over the area, were a flock of free-standing showcases. These were the ones that I had phoned in. They looked much larger in reality than they seemed when they were just a bunch of arbitrary dimensions on the phone. In the very middle of the room, was an impressive mountain of cardboard cartons. These contained my collection. As per my instructions, they had not been touched or tampered with. As I opened every box, and unwrapped each carefully wrapped piece, it felt like the ultimate Christmas morning. All these wonderful presents; Merry Christmas, Mel! Happy Birthday, Mickey Mouse!
Here and there, were numerous signs with raised white letters, and many well-chosen photographs of Disney and Mickey. These had been enlarged and mounted on boards to be displayed around the room. When I first arrived on the fifth floor, a small army of workers were scurrying about, moving showcases into place, and setting up a generic Christmas tree, in the center of the Mouse-eum. The giant Mickey Furniture I had been eager to see was not there yet. It was still in the workshop, being assembled.
And so, we set to work. Lots of people were helping me in the beginning, but as the day wore on, they disappeared, leaving me alone with the sole responsibility of setting up the show all on my own. It was then that I paused to take a couple of photographs of the work in progress. As the photos show, everything was in disarray, with tall step ladders extending to the ceiling. At this point, I expected my helpers would return after lunch to help some more. They did not! Apparently, once they could see that I knew what I was doing, they left the entire process of setting up the show, completely up to me.
I worked well into the evening, until the store was on the brink of closing, and someone began turning off the lights. Then, I bravely wandered out into the Newark night. Bamberger's had booked a room for me in a motel that was not far away, but far enough that I had to drive. To my relief, I saw no signs of rioting, which is not to say that being alone in Downtown Newark late at night wasn’t frightening. My overactive imagination is not good company in such a situation.
Meanwhile, I had a long overdue dinner on my mind. Up ahead, I saw the friendly beacon of a sign that read, Kentucky Fried Chicken! I pulled up outside, and courageously walked in. Although, the place was teeming with activity, when I stepped through the door, everything came to a standstill, as if somebody had hollered, "Freeze!" And everybody stared at me, in astonishment and disbelief. Mine, was the only white face in the place. Trying hard to look at ease, I took a place in one of the long lines, waiting at the counter. When my turn arrived, with all eyes on me, again, I ordered a three piece chicken dinner, and, not without a certain trepidation, I dared to mumble the line: “White meat, please!” "What'd you say?”, the woman behind the counter asked me. “I said, I wanted white meat, please!”
Minutes later, I arrived at the motel, with a certain sense of relief. And I was soon reclining on the bed, enjoying my carry out bag of KFC. Did I finally feel at ease? Not really! The motel was incredibly noisy. The din in the room next to me went on all night long. Apparently, my neighbors were not merely having a party; judging from the impassioned screams, they were hosting an orgy. Did I dare complain? No Way!
The next day found me back at Bamberger’s, early. Soon, the newly assembled Mickey Mouse furniture arrived. It was utterly fantastic! The Mouse-eum was really taking shape, and later in the day the set up crew returned again to help me.
There were several cards containing white thumb tacks. The Display department had prepared these. Each tack had a number, from 1 to 177, carefully hand lettered. As each showcase was deemed complete, a helper inserted the appropriate numbers, beside the items they referred to in the catalogue. Then, working together, two helpers cleaned the Plexiglas, and inserted a sparkling sheet of it in every finished case
Finally, I looked around me at a job well done, and with the set up crew still vacuuming and cleaning up, I happily gathered up my stuff and headed home.
The following evening was the Grand Opening Party. We spent the morning cleaning ourselves up. Then Eunice, Samantha, Toots, and I headed for Bamberger’s, early. I wanted to take photographs of the entire show, before it opened to the public. And these photographs are what you are about to see on the next two pages. I purposely didn’t include key photos in this chapter, so you could experience the full impact of visiting the MICKEY MOUSE-EUM, when you turn the page.
Outside the archway was a revolving rack, chocked full of catalogues. Atop the rack there was a two-sided sign, inviting each visitor to “TAKE ONE.” I believe it meant: “Take a free catalogue.” When the show was over, I took the sign! For now, please leave the sign alone. Just help yourself to a catalogue, and follow me into the show.