A FIRST PEEK
FUZZY BUZZIES and other Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant, are
Copyright (c) BIRNKRANT KISCOM/ The OBB
Sometime in the late summer of 1998, Playmates invited my partners and me to visit their showroom in Manhattan, where we would get a first and highly secret peek at what they were up to, and the progress they had made. Today, my memory of this trip has faded, mercifully. At that moment in time, I was in the throes of Lyme disease. But there was no way that I was going to miss this opportunity to see the Fuzzy Buzzies. So, even though, I had a fever, I got into the car alone, and drove to New York City. By the time I got there, and managed to walk from the parking lot to the designated meeting place, I was already feeling faint and dizzy.
I’m not quite sure where the meeting took place. The somewhat creepy premises I entered were on the ground floor of a building on 23rd street. It might have been Playmate's former showroom. It was not the place that we were to visit at Toy Fair, months later, which was on a high floor of the toy building. But, on this occasion, I recall a enormous darkened room with an exceedingly high ceiling. It resembled a warehouse with large panels, like the scenery of a play, leaning against the walls, with assorted crates and showcases, scattered around, in disarray. My partners Adam, Andy and Noah were there, already, along with a crowd of Playmate executives, all sitting around a long table. And there they were: The Fuzzy Buzzies. Illuminated by the beam of a single spotlight, they glowed dramatically in the gloom of the unlit room around them. The scene was exceedingly surreal. The work in progress that I saw did not look all that different than the group of Fuzzy Buzzies you see below. Would you believe that I bought these on eBay, just a week ago?
The items in this group represented what Playmates considered the Spring Line. It was how the Fuzzy Buzzies would be introduced to the public, in the spring of 1999. Unfortunately, this initial group of products had been produced in total secrecy, without any input or feedback from me, beyond the idea drawings on the preceding pages.
This next page, which was drawn in ink, was the origin of many of the concepts on the preceding pages. Clearly, I was on a run that day. Some of these images became proposed products for the Fall Line.
This page of pencil sketches really had the beginnings of some good ideas that I never pursued. I like the snail, and dragonfly, and the little Buzzy, snoozing in a teacup.
Imagining where the Fuzzy Buzzies might live, I visualized a community called, “Bugs Ear.” The first step was to scribble out a fast impression.
I had an old postcard from Coney Island. The lettering was fascinating, full of tiny pictures. I attempted to parody it for Bugs Ear. I can’t say I really liked the results.
So, I tried a lighter variation, and mounted it on the kind of track side billboard that used to decorate my Lionel train set.
Another rough sketch, rendered in both pen and pencil, suggested a house made from an apple.
This drawing carries the concept one step farther, and cleans up the messiness of the sketch above.
And here is the final version, embellished with a variety furnishings. When I was a little kid, a favorite book was one about Timothy Mouse. He lived in a house made out of a Chinese restaurant take out container. The same square white folded paper buckets were used to transport goldfish from the dime store. Among Timothy’s makeshift furniture, was a chair made of a spool with a back consisting of a hairpin. A corncob pipe served as his chimney. The fond memory of these accessories never left me.
Another sketch in pen and pencil suggested a house made out of a teapot. It featured a windup cradle, and a swing suspended from the spout.
And here’s a variation made from a tree stump, referred to as a “log cabin.” A vintage Uncle Wiggly playset featured a house like this.
And, finally, a flight of fancy referred to as the “Bee-jou Theatre.” Of course I was just kidding. Stuff like this stood no chance of happening.
The back of the beehive opened up to reveal the stage. This reminds me of Mickey Mouse Puppetforme, the first toy I made for Colorforms, twenty-seven years before. I like the firefly footlights.
Now, once more, Mendy reached out to me and requested some sort of carrying case. I managed to convince her that it might be something that could double as a playset. With that in mind, I came up with the group of drawings, below.
Playmates chose variation number seven, the combination bus and snail. And they hired me to make it real. The next page shows many more new items, as well as their mechanicals.
The next and final drawings were an attempt to get serious about drawings one and two, above, and make them more credible. I felt these were the two approaches that showed the most potential.
Overcome by mixed emotions, I was thrilled to see that the Fuzzy Buzzies were actually happening, and, at the same time, I hated them. The colors were every bit as raw and arbitrary as I had feared that they would be. Instead of the magic iridescence that I would have preferred, there were flakes of cheesy looking glitter, embedded in the plastic, and the designs of the butterfly’s wings were dumbed down and preschool simplistic, without any hint of magic. The meeting had no sooner begun than a toy buyer, who was not authorized to see the project, entered the room, and the Fuzzy Buzzies had to be quickly covered up. The fact that I saw them for only a few seconds did not stop me from having a strong opinion.
I don’t know if it was the shock of seeing the Fuzzy Buzzies, or the Lyme disease that made me suddenly begin to sweat profusely, and shake uncontrollably. Most likely, it was the later. Either way, I had no choice but to make a fast escape. I have a vague recollection of Noah helping me to the door, and out onto the street. From there, I, somehow, managed to make it to my car and drive home, trembling all the way. The day had been a nightmare, one that, thankfully, all these years later, I can barely remember.
A few days later, I sent a letter to Mendy, who was not at the meeting, and her boss, Ryan, expressing my opinion, especially about the colors: “While I'm all for fantasy colors, certain colors tell a story, and help to identify which insects are represented. A lady bug should be red with black dots, not dark green and purple, and a bee should have a tail of black and yellow. A rose should be a shade of pink, not lavender, in order to be recognizable as a rose. I ask myself what color would Playmates make an “orange?” Blue? All the other colors can go wild, but certain colors tell a story. Secondly, I was disappointed by the wing treatment - Here was an opportunity to create magic by using iridescent colors - etc. The wings seem flat, and the designs pedestrian, suggesting that the toys are intended for only the very youngest children." Subsequently, they did alter the colors of the ladybug and the bee.
Meanwhile, I continued to do drawings. Mendy contacted me and asked if I could think in terms of playsets. And, so, I did a variety of sketches. Among the the drawings that I discovered the other day, I found these quick thumbnail sketches, all on single pages. The one below is fairly early. Among the tiny drawings, is a rather handsome horsefly.