All photographs © Mel Birnkrant. Some of the images © the Walt Disney Company
Bamberger’s MICKEY MOUSE-EUM was the world’s first exhibition of 1930s Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Now, forty-three years later, I am still trying, with limited success, to understand, and fully appreciate the importance of this event. God knows, it had an impact on my life. But it did not seem like that big a deal, at the time. As far as Mickey Mouse exhibits were concerned, I figured that this would be just the first of many more that would, no doubt, follow in the years ahead. None did! Just now, I came across a photograph of Mickey Mouse dolls on display at the new Disney Family Museum. They are pitifully few, and only two are even remotely rare!
Looking back at the slides I took on the Opening day, I realize what an amazing effort Bambergers made to do everything just right. The Mouse-eum that they constructed on the fifth floor of their Newark store must have been a huge expense. The basic structure, its lights, built in showcases, and dazzling red carpeting, surely, cost Bambergers a fortune. And then, there were the freestanding showcases and the Mickey furniture that they generously gave to me. Those items were beyond expensive. And, when the remainders of the exhibition entered my life, they set the tone for the environment of my home that expanded, over the years, to grow into Mouse Heaven.
The day after the show closed, I traveled to Newark again, and hands-on supervised the packing up. When the job was done, a mountain of cartons dominated the now empty Mouse-eum. The impressive array of free standing showcases and frames that were going home to me were all labeled clearly. That included virtually everything except the one huge square Plexiglas barrier that stood in the middle of the room surrounding the Christmas tree. It was open at the top, with no way that I could see to keep its contents clean, without climbing inside, and I would have no place to put it, anyway. I also got only a couple of the velvet covered spacers and pedestals that were used to display the small objects in the wall cases. Bamberger’s display department could make good use of these, so they were among the few things that were not marked to be delivered to me.
A few days later, an enormous moving van pulled up our driveway. As two congenial moving men unloaded its massive contents, I thought of a saying from the bible: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and it will be returned to you tenfold.” Never, did that expression prove more true than in this case!
First and foremost were two gigantic crates, like wild animals in a cage, I could see the Mickey and Minnie carousel figures, peeking through the slats. They were being cared for and protected, as if they might be the crown jewels. The way that they had been packed was beyond impressive. Bamberger's was, indeed, a class act!
The main moving man was enjoying every minute of this spectacular home invasion, as he gleefully set Minnie free. At my request, he took their packing crates away.
When the carrying in was done, the hall and my studio were totally filled up. Could this enormous schoolhouse absorb this sudden onrush of new stuff. The answer was, Yes it could, and this was only the beginning. Looking across the tops of boxes and showcases in my large room, I once more marveled at the enormous amount of money all this had cost Bamberger's. I wonder if they anticipated this at the beginning. With each new suggestion I threw at them in the months before the show, the initial cost had grown.
And then, seeming almost incidental, was the relatively modest price of yours truly. Renting me and my collection cost them very little, compared to the alternative. What the alternative would have been was not revealed to me, until after the show. And that explained a lot, including how I lost a friend. This is a story that has never been told, but seeing that my onetime friend, Ernie Trova has passed away, there is no reason why I can’t tell it now.
As I mentioned several pages ago, when I turned Bamberger's initial offer of $3,500. down, I gave them the names of several collector friends, and suggested that they contact them. Of course, I realized at the time that their collections were even more modest than mine. What I didn’t know was that Bamberger's had wasted no time in contacting Ernie Trova, and was negotiating a deal with him. All I did know was that when I telephoned Bamberger's ad agency, two weeks later, and told them that I changed my mind, and would lend the collection for two wooden mice, they jumped at the opportunity. My friend at the ad agency never revealed to me, the fact they had already been making plans with Ernie.
The artist, Ernest Trova, never collected actively. He had never walked through a Flea market or an antique show in his life, nor had he stalked the fields of St Louis’s equivalent of Brimfield with a flashlight, in the middle of the night. His wealthy wife made it possible for someone else to do all these activities for him. All Ernie had to do was hand out money for whatever Mickey treasures were found by others, and delivered to his door.
Ernie executed sculptures, in much the same fashion. Whenever he thought up a concept that he wanted to become reality, he’d simply call the foundry, and they would do it for him. His Mickey Mouse collection consisted of mostly timepieces, which he’d amassed, in duplicate, by the dozens. The photo on the right, reveals a lot of what he'd collected. Sprinkled through his stash, were many little plastic items that were essentially brand new. At this stage in his collecting history, Ernie thought that they were "cute." When it came to larger items, he didn’t differentiate between Old Mickey Mouse and New. To him, all Mickey Mice, regardless of their age, were, essentially, the same.
Apparently, when Bamberger's contacted Ernie, he already had the concept for what he had previously planned as "a work of art" in mind. He called it a “Time Capsule.” It would consist of six showcases, each fabricated in the shape of one of the six letters that, when arranged in a line, would spell out the name, MICKEY. In these cases, which would all hang on one wall, he would install any objects from his collection that were small enough to fit. This is what he presented to Bamberger’s. Thus, instead of a Mickey Mouse-eum, he would supply them with a large wall decoration. And they, in turn, would finance its fabrication. The price tag he had quoted them for this was $17,000. It seems that Bamberger's was minutes away from saying "OK" to his proposal, when I happened to call them. Here I was, offering them my entire collection, a whole Mouse-eum full of Mickeys, as compared to six wall-hanging cases, for the equivalent of $3,500., instead of $17,000. This, for a variety of reasons, was an offer, too attractive to pass up.
Ernie never said anything to me. In fact, many years passed, before I had occasion to write to him. When I did, his reply was cold and dismissive, stating that he was simply too busy to address himself to my letter. It was then, that I put two and two together.
Although, the Mickey Mouse-eum, lost me one friend, it bought many new ones, instead. Foremost among these, were Bob Heidi and John Gillman. According to their many subsequent books on Mickey Mouse and Disney, it was the Bamberger’s Exhibition that inspired them to pursue a career of writing about Disney. In the years that followed, they authored one compelling volume, after another, chronicling Mickey Mouse’s history. Each of these publications began with a chapter dedicated to the event that began this quest for them, the Exhibition that they deem historic, Bamberger’s Mouse-eum. This memorable event that took place one fateful November in New Jersey, 1973, was the beginning of their career of writing about Mickey. These are four of the many Mickey books that Bob and John have authored:
There is very little of this story left to tell. The overflowing contents of that huge moving van, somehow managed to fit into the schoolhouse, although, few of the showcases fulfilled the purpose for which they were created. The tall tower, designed for three marionettes was immediately put to better use. And it has stood out in the hall for forty years, now, filled with many ancient treasures that I acquired the year I lived in Paris.
And, the two tiered case, intended for two Lionel handcars, soon, became a handy place to store a hundred windup toys.
A couple of large packing cases, stacked up, became Mickey and Minnie's pedestal, and they were soon surrounded by the giant Mickey chairs. Along the wall, which was destined to, one day, be Mouse Heaven, I placed the huge showcase that Bamberger's created for the lineup of Lars dolls. It has remained closed, for the past forty years. Fortunately, the dolls, themselves, were all securely pinned in place, so, they have not budged, nor has their showcase been invaded by a single speck of dust.
Throughout the many months of renovation, the mice stayed where they were placed, overseeing the transformation of an old schoolhouse on the Hudson, as it turned into Mouse Heaven.
Right up to this very day, although, their surroundings have changed, the majestic Mickey and Minnie mascotts of Bamberger’s MICKEY MOUSE-EUM have remained the same. And here, they stand, ruling over the Enchanted Kingdom of Mouse Heaven.
The two mice from a carousel joined me, in what was then my studio. And the Snow White cel found a place, out of the sunlight, on the wall beside the window.
Now, the big room radiated a certain warmth and friendliness, that was soon to be obliterated by the utter awesomeness of the Great Wall. Here we see it as a work in progress. At this point, the carpentry had been completed and spray painted with semi-gloss enamel.
The electricity, including hundreds of hidden light bulbs, had also been installed. That part was accomplished by yours truly, aided by a pamphlet I bought for fifty cents at Sears. Now, all that remained to be done was deciding what was to go where, which was a task that proved to be neverending, throughout the years.
Now, forty-three years later, Thanksgiving 2015 is just a day away, and, looking back over my life, I realize that I have had much more than my share of good fortune to be thankful for. Among the blessings that fate bestowed on me, was the amazing show at Bamberger’s. Although, this small fragment of Mickey History was of little importance to humanity, it had a huge impact on my own journey to eternity. It was a giant step on the road to creating the in home/museum you see below. Whether this great gathering of comic characters survives, is up to destiny to decide. But for the moment, here it resides, a unique repository of stylized imagery, untouched by the hands of time.