PROLOGUE: "SUGAR & SPICE"
Fast forward forty years to 1981. American Greetings had just created a new property, “Strawberry Shortcake.” And it was HOT! Kenner had the toy license, and in their typical selfish way, they prevented any other toy company from obtaining a license, even though, a boxed activity, such as Colorforms, did not conflict with the line of small strawberry scented dolls that Kenner made. They didn't want a single dollar that walked into a toy store to be spent on anything but Kenner products! Kenner was the only major toy company that played that selfish game. Many considered this an obstruction of fair trade.
So, I said to Andy and Adam, who were running Colorforms at the time: "Never mind! We'll make Our Own Strawberry Shortcake!" Therefore, Mike Strouth and I got together and created "SUGAR & SPICE" It was contrived to be exactly like Strawberry Shortcake, only "different." Instead of fruit, we had candy, and as the big feature with Strawberry Shortcake was its strawberry scent, we even added peppermint flavored Scratch and Sniff patches to our play set.
We had a ball working on this toy. I found that my strength was in coming up with the characters, determining who they would be, and how they would look, visually, as well as thinking up their names. Beyond Sugar" and her friend, "Spice," their pup was called "Lolly Pup." I loved that one. And the cat was "Ginger Snap." Mike, on the other hand, was great at doing the lively candy land they lived in, and, as always, he did the finished art. In the process, he drew their faces almost unconsciously, rendering them in the popular cutesy style he had learned to do too well at Hallmark! Although, there was no time to spare, we pulled out all the stops, and actually had real printed samples complete in time for Toy Fair.
Colorforms, unlike most toy companies, did not have a "closed" Showroom. Thus, anyone could walk right in, and did. The first day of the show, we noticed that one group after another from Kenner was coming in to, we thought, "admire" our work. Then, suddenly, a menacing letter from Kenner's lawyers appeared by messenger. It threatened to sue Colorforms for ripping off Strawberry Shortcake!
Well, I had to admit, they had a valid case, because we not only had outrageously parodied their property, but Mike had done the faces in his stereotypical Hallmark style, which just happened to make them identical to the face of Strawberry Shortcake. It really was her and her friends in candy coated clothes. Colorforms contacted Kenner immediately, and promised them (with my assurance) that we would change our toy! And if they didn't agree that we had made it completely different from Strawberry Shortcake, we would drop it, altogether! Kenner said, "Show Us!"
So I pulled the toy off the display, and went home early. That night, I drew the variation you see below, and patched it into the existing cover! Feature by feature, I replaced the eyes, noses, mouths, and every detail with their complete stylistic opposites! The drippy oval eyes now became round; the closed smiley mouths opened up to show teeth; the Strawberry Shortcake like bonnet became a bow, and the yarn hair also had to go! Then, I added a cute little birdie for good measure. And early the next morning, the brand new version was placed before the discerning eyes of Kenner. I knew full well that in spite of all my changes, the essence still added up to exactly the same thing, a rip-off of their property. And Kenner knew it too! But, nonetheless, detail for detail, there was nothing they could do, but grudgingly agree that it was, now, "completely different!"
"Sugar and Spice" managed to succeed beyond our wildest dreams. Not only, did the play set appear a second year, it also generated three more toys in the Colorforms line. While Mike was perfecting the existing Sugar and Spice characters in each successive set he did, I was having fun creating new ones. This was the very thing that, in my youth, I had hoped to, one day, do at Disney. Now, 26 years later, this was my chance to play that game.
Meanwhile, Colorforms hired a licensing company called, I.R.V. to license the property that Mike and I created to other companies that, like Colorforms, couldn’t get the Strawberry Shortcake license, because of Kenner’s tyranny. Sugar and Spice proved to be a good second choice. And soon, over thirty companies were signed up. There was even talk of a Special on TV.
Of course, it never occurred to anyone that Mike and I, who had created this property, ought to share in any of the proceeds of our creation. I might also add that we were neither of us on Colorform's payroll, and were both independent "outside" contractors, so, we had not done this new licensed property, under the umbrella of being "employees."
The tension built, until one day, during the second year that Sugar and Spice appeared at Toy Fair, I witnessed Adam and Andy literally jumping up and down, rejoicing in the success of the Sugar and Spice licensing program, and shouting out: "We're Rich!” That was the final straw! A few turbulent days later, Mike and I consulted a famous lawyer, my Uncle, Joseph Kelner, who really had more important things to do, as he was, not only, president of the American Bar Association, but he was also the attorney who willingly came forward to defend Bernard Goetz, the so-called "Subway Vigilante," pro bono.
Mike and I decided that we had no choice, but to sue and depart Colorforms. It was at this time, wondering what I would do next, and having discovered from working on Sugar and Spice that creating "characters" was not only fun, but that I had a knack for it, that I sat down and began sketching the series of little drawings that were destined to, one day, become Fuzzy Buzzies!
There was little joy in the process of doing these drawings, as, even though, I was doing what I had hoped to do if I had worked at the Disney Studios, a dark cloud of desolation and resentment hung over the effort! Although, my heart was heavy, the little sketches, I created, more out of desperation than inspiration, were light and delicate.
It seemed to me that a main character could be a butterfly. This might even lead to a series of small dolls, each with different multicolored wings.
I tried to carry the rough sketch below a step farther, visualizing wings that would appear to be both beautiful and unique.
This little Lady Bug brings back a fading memory. Noticing the hearts on her and other character’s cheeks, as well as the heart shaped patterns on her apron, and the small hearts on her antennae, I believe that one idea that flickered through my mind when I was drawing these was the possibility of calling them, “Love Bugs.”
And the idea of “Baby Buggies” was a reoccurring theme. Here we see three little ones, swimming in a tea cup.
This character, who I guess, was meant to be a grasshopper, harkens back to Hoppity, the lead personality in the Max Fleischer’s bug movie I saw when I was four. I guess, he had been hiding in the deepest recesses of my memory, for forty years or more.
This mosquito was also not all that original. I believe his distant relative might have appeared in Uncle Max’s movie too.
This chubby spider was decidedly a bad guy. He happend to be one of the few drawings that I really liked. By the time I stumbled through a dozen or so drawings, I was finally achieving a measure of facility, and warming up to taking these drawing in my stride.
This brings us to a pair of drawings that have always been my favorites. I called this character, “Daddy Long Legs.” Of all the drawings in this little series, he was clearly the least likely to ever become a toy. Nonetheless, I fell in love with these two delicate and dynamic drawings.
There were many more of these dainty drawings, even more timid and timorous than the ones above. Clearly, my heart was not fully into these tenuous attempts at proclaiming independence. The ominous prospect of leaving Colorforms, and setting out to meet the world with just eight spidery legs to stand on, weighed heavy on my head.
In the end, presented with the possibility of losing both Mike and me, Colorforms recanted, and threw us a "bone," reluctantly. They never learned how far we’d traveled down the road to legal action. And, so, we stuck with Colorforms. In my case, for five more years. And the delicate, and somewhat insecure little bug drawings, done in a fit of desperation, went into a drawer, where, as can happen here in Rip Van Winkle country, the enchanted hills of the Hudson Valley, they slept for twenty years.
SUGAR AND SPICE Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT MIKE STROUTH
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