All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
“The Birnkrant Collection of Mickey Mouse & Comic Characters” was christened “MOUSE HEAVEN” by our good friend Kenneth Anger many years ago, long before he made his film of the same name. Although, the Collection encompasses the vast expanse of Comic Character Imagery, beginning at the Turn of the 20th Century, right up through the early 1940s, and is about much more than merely Mickey. The title “stuck”, and over time, in my own mind, it came to include Everything!
When I was young, I did believe in Everything: God, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny. And I still do, to some degree. I also knew that if I was good, and never naughty, I would, one day, go to Heaven. Although, “Mouse Heaven” was not exactly what I had in mind. Who would have guessed I’d be so Lucky?
A collection, like this, can only happen, once in a lifetime, and by some twist of fate, that lifetime happened to be mine. For better, or for worse, the likes of it could never be amassed again. So this is it, about as good as Comic Character Collecting gets. To duplicate what you are about to see would require just three things: 1. Infinite resources. 2. A Time Machine, you’d have to be there, either living from 1890 to 1945, or be in attendance at all the great flea markets, antique shows, and toy shows on the East Coast, for the past 50 years, and be able to run faster than me. And, finally, 3. You’d have to BE me. All this only looks haphazard, actually, its unified by a single vision. Everything here is related, It all goes together, in a way that few perceive.
I just discovered that the eBay page I wrote in 1999, in my eagerness to do eBay right, is still online. It kind of says it all, so I will “copy and paste” it here.
"Hi, My name is Mel Birnkrant, I Collect Icons and Images from "The Golden Age of Comic Characters", beginning with the origin of the first Comic Characters in the late 1890s, through their development in the first half of the Twentieth Century, leading up to the Great Explosion of Creativity, between the two World Wars that culminated in the birth of "Mickey Mouse"! I am seeking Visually Exciting Objects that represent the many Deities in the Pantheon of Comic Characters, from "The Yellow Kid" to "Mickey Mouse", including "Felix the Cat", "Popeye", "Betty Boop", "Bonzo", "Little Nemo", "Krazy Kat" and All the other "Funny Folks", from the most Famous to the most Obscure!
My main area of interest is not, primarily, "Original Art", or the form in which Comic Characters were originally portrayed by the renowned artists or studios who Created them, but, rather, in the way that these Images were Reinterpreted and Transformed by the hands of unknown "artists", mainly working under the umbrella of the manufacturing industry. Although, these craftsmen might never have thought of themselves as "artists", many of the objects and images they created, especially, when viewed through modern eyes, embody an "Intensity" and "Life", that Transcends the original subject matter, elevating it to the elusive and lofty realms of " ART"! Often, these unselfconscious Works of Art, took the form of children's "TOYS", Mini Masterpieces intended to be played with, enjoyed, and ultimately, destroyed! The fact that almost a century later, many have survived, is something of a Miracle."
I began collecting Iconic Imagery, seventy years ago, when I was five. Growing up in Berkley, Michigan, a tiny suburb of the then mighty Motor City, I was an only child, obsessed with Disney. In a World that seemed, and was, crushingly ordinary, I became a pint-sized connoisseur, seeking and savoring any tiny drop of the “extraordinary” that I managed to discover in my little World of Berkley. I had no idea of where this quest would lead me, but I felt that it was heading someplace, “Someplace Important.” As I grew older, pint-sized became super-sized, and after a short hiatus, in which I mistakenly attempted to grow up, the quest continued, unabated. Along the way, I segued seamlessly from first to second childhood.
Now at seventy-five, I have arrived at “Someplace,” surrounded by a thousand objects, all prime examples of “extraordinary.” And, in all this time, the one thing that I failed to discover, is the part about “Important.” Thus, every day, I wonder what will become of all these treasures? They are the collective residue of over half a century of high adventure, hunting the mouse and other comic characters in a never-ending quest of discovery that led me from the “flea” infested fields of Brimfield, to the spacious grandeur of Atlantic City’s Convention Center. And, throughout all that time, there was not a major toy or antique show on the Northeast Coast of the United States that I did not attend.
For many years, I indulged myself in the illusion that I would, one day, compile a book, one that would do justice to each and every item. That dream ceased to exist, when I realized that a book could never house this collection. It has simply grown too big!
My “Bucket List” is a short one. It’s not a list of things I want to do for fun, but, rather, a compilation of things I must get done. The foremost item on the list was a long overdue effort to document the Amazing carvings of my dear friend Charles Ponstingl. I accomplished that, last month. It was a fitting warm-up for the project now at hand, which is a far more daunting one. I hope to photograph and document my entire collection, and thus, preserve a record of what was in it, and how it was displayed.
The task is proving to be a monumental one, but at the very least, I aim to capture images of all of the many showcases, and how each one was set up. That, alas, will leave a thousand things unseen. There is no longer an inch of empty horizontal space on which to place another object, and not a foot of wall space left, on which to hang another frame. Thus, everything that’s small or flat, books, art, boxed games, and stuff like that, is out of sight and put away. And every bookcase, cabinet, closet, drawer, and storage space under the floor is overflowing with more, much of which I‘ll never live to see again. Those things will escape the camera’s eye, and mine.
Meanwhile, how to organize this vast array? Some aspects of it will be easy. I can filter out a few specific showcases that are dominated primarily by one character, and I suppose I should start there. Mickey Mouse is a different matter; simply put, he’s everywhere! And as large as this building is, I’ve still had to squeeze Mickey in, wherever there was an empty space. So don’t be surprised if you see his face in nearly every showcase. Having said this, I guess I’ll just dive in and begin with elements I can treat as separate entities, and get them out of the way, then, let this Guided Tour begin, and go from there. The task is simply too big to present as a totality, I’ll have to add a little, every day.
I might also point out that I’m not a historian. My interest in the items I collected all my life was always purely Visual. They are simply, flat out, Works of Art to me. So don’t expect a history of the various characters they portray. As interesting as that may be, it was never what interested me. What I learned, along the way, about the various comic characters and their creators was purely secondary. That scant knowledge was only used as clues to help me find more of the same. Thus, my commentary, as we go along, will serve only one purpose, I will strive to help you see these Works of Art as Works of Art. But, be forewarned, you’ll learn little of their stories, and who they were, historically. It’s all about the way they look to me. These Icons are the Graven Images of would-be Gods and Goddesses, in the Comic Character Pantheon. I will present them as Iconic Idols, worthy recipients of Idolatry, and spare you the theology.
Have you ever seen the movie “Son of Kong”? In this sequel to “King Kong”, Carl Denham returns to Skull Island and discovers Baby Kong. Little Kong is not a meanie, like his daddy, but sweet and gentle, a fraction of his father’s size, but big enough. In the final moments of the movie, the sea is rushing in to swallow up Skull Island. Little Kong stands atop the highest point, Skull Mountain, with the ocean rising all around him. In his paw he holds Carl Denim, who was kind to him. As the waters rise and swallow Baby Kong, only his upraised paw remains in view, still holding his friend aloft. Just then, a lifeboat, carrying Carl’s current lady friend, happens by. Denham is saved, as Little Kong, now empty handed, disappears beneath the waves.
That’s what this website is about. I am holding my collection, my life’s passion, in my upraised paw to protect it from the rising waters of old age. I don’t expect a lifeboat to come along and rescue it, but, hopefully, at least a memory of what it looked like in its heyday will be saved.