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
If the average old time toy collector tells you that he collects Comic Characters, or happens to have a few in his collection, chances are he is referring to Comic Windups, good old-fashioned windup toys made out of tin. The vast majority of the icons, idols, dolls, and imagery that I collected wouldn’t interest him. These good old boys were collecting toys as toys, not as works of art, as I did. My choices were based on how an object looked. The fact that it happened to wind up was secondary. But for many toy collectors, aesthetics play no role in their choice of acquisitions. Their choices are inspired by such matters as rarity and condition, and, for more than a few, the potential of reselling it, one day, to make a buck or two.
When I began collecting, 50 years ago, there was an enthusiastic breed of toy collectors, usually older than me. They had been collecting toys for a long time and even formed clubs and societies to share their enthusiasm with others. And basic comic windup classics, like the Toonerville Trolley, and The Amos and Andy Fresh Air Taxi, had already found securely established homes in their collections. I might also add that Comic toys, the sort seen in the photo below, were considered second class citizens by many of them. They were into bigger heaver things, like mechanical banks and massive vehicles made of cast iron. A tin windup to garner any respect from them had to be hand painted tin, and made close to the Turn of the Century, in France or Germany.
Thus, there was not a lot of room left for discovery, finding known tin toys became more of a challenge in terms of affordability, and being lucky enough to find your own example, cheap. That’s a fun game to play, and I did it with enthusiasm, but it wasn’t like the thrill that comes from seeing something utterly fantastic that, up until that very minute, you had no idea existed. I experienced that with tin toys a few times, as well, but more because of my ignorance and inexperience. Later, I was apt to learn that, out there, somewhere, some old time collector had already written an article about that toy, years before.
Nonetheless, I did stumble onto a few major tin toy discoveries. The Felix Frolic was one. You will see that, later on. When I found it at the Salisbury Flea Market for 50 dollars, it was the first one anyone had ever seen. Even today, 40 years later, it remains one of only three, one of which is a simpler model, not fully animated. To make that moment of discovery even more dramatic, the toy was sitting, right out in the open, at a booth next to that of the dynamic toy dealer auctioneer, Lloyd Ralston. Mercifully, Lloyd was doing two shows, that day, and had sent his wife, Ruth, to man the booth at this one. If Lloyd had been there, the Felix Frolic would have disappeared, before it ever saw the light of day.
Having talked too much, already, let’s get to the toys in the showcase. This is the parking place of my classier classic tin toys. There is another case, as well, that must hold, easily, half a hundred toys. Alas, I never look at those, these days, but I’ll try to figure out how to represent the contents of that case. There are some wonderful things in there, too big to fit in this showcase, which filled up all too quickly.
Looking at this now, I find myself wondering how Andy Gump, who never appeared in any tin toy, managed to dominate the case, with sheet music, an Einson Freeman mask, a plaster statue, and the interior of the “Oh Min Game. Here, too, is the wooden dancing Andy; this time with his huge original box that has become the structure, on which many of these toys are displayed. I guess, originally, Comic Characters in general, not windups in particular, were intended to be the theme of this showcase.
Too well lit, in the center, is Orphan Annie, who if you’re lucky, jumps a “rope,” passing it beneath her feet, without falling on her face. Standing beside her, is Sandy, carrying her first aid case. Behind her, are Jiggs and Maggie, who do battle with a rolling pin and cane. In front of Annie, are Mutt and Jeff, the toy I found the most difficult to obtain.
On the back shelf to the left, is the Amos and Andy Taxi, another toy with a unique mechanism. Above it, is the Superman Airplane. And on the right, a rarity called Skidoodle. Whether or not, this was based on a comic strip is a mystery. Like most of the great Comic windup toys, it bears the trademark, “Nifty”. Above it, is a relative rarity, the Mickey McGuire clicker toy. Further along, are the Amos and Andy walkers, the deluxe version with animated faces. In front of these, practically hidden, is the glowingly iridescent Barney Google and Sunshine Racers. Moving to the left, we come to the Powerful Katrinka, who lifts Jimmy in a wheelbarrow. There is a variation, without the wheelbarrow, that I never felt the need to own.
And then, on the far right are Smitty on a scooter, Boob McNut in the corner, and the partially hand painted Rudy the Walking Bird, a truly curious mechanism that, while moving backward, makes it appear that he is walking forward. And, last of all, a pristine example of the Toots and Casper’s baby, Buttercup.
Under Mutt’s nose, is the tiny tin Toonerville Trolley. It doesn’t do anything, but the standard model, bathed in shadow, all the way over on the right, is amazing. It is the one Comic windup that is not merely an application of a traditional mechanism. I described its action in something I wrote previously. I will copy and paste it here, in blue, as it isn’t new.
Almost every early Comic Toy, the mechanism, play pattern, or method of construction, was already, in existence and common use, before the image of a Comic Character was adapted to it! Having stated that, I will wander, from my intended path, to pay homage to an Amazing Exception to that "rule", a toy that stands apart from all the other Comic windups, by virtue of its unique and original action! It is a fairly "common" toy, a "basic" in the Comic Tin Toy repertoire. You can probably find one, right this minute, on eBay. Just call up: "Search" and type in: "Toonerville Trolley"! But do not bid on It, unless, it works! ...
The toy, itself, is relatively attractive, and faithful to the original two-dimensional image in Fontain Fox's Strip. Some, might, at first glance, say, "a little too faithful," for the Skipper, here, like on the printed page, is flat! He is no more than a small flat figure, cut out of lithographed tin, and standing at the front of the Trolley. His tiny arms, one resting on the drive crank, that protrudes from the front rail, while the other dangles by his side, are, just, flat cutouts, too.
Now, wind the key and "Let the Magic Begin!" ... The Toonerville Trolley moves forward, wobbling, most amusingly, on its crooked axles and off-center wheels. Suddenly, it stalls, shutters, and comes to a full stop! And, now, in a moment of exquisite enchantment, the tiny Skipper comes to life! He begins to struggle with the crank, turning it first one way, then, the other. The Trolley shakes. He pauses. But, it does not start. He tries again. And, although, he is only a small flat piece of tin, with no visible means of animation, he moves as if alive, and we feel his frustration, and root for him as he fumbles with that "Dang Blasted" crank. All at once, Success! The Trolley shakes again, and this time, hobbles forward, to enjoy smooth sailing for a few more feet, until it stalls once more.
Then we come to Barney riding Sparkplug . As a work of art it is one of my favorites: In this elegant object, Barney Google and Sparkplug have been transformed into an exquisite sculpture that, also, happens to wind up. Their forms have become more Simplified and Boldly Geometric. Was this due to the keen vision of the artist who designed the toy, or merely the restrictions, that the "Wind-up" medium imposed? It matters, Not! For, either way, the results are no less Great! When I, first, saw this toy, some 35 years ago, it knocked me off my feet. To see what I saw then, and still do, now, look at this Mini-Monument and visualize it twelve feet tall!
One windup toy that got “discovered", during my days as a beginning collector, was Hi-Way Henry. It was created by the elusive Oscar Hitt, a man who, sort of like me, hovered on the borders of the toy industry. Was Hi-Way Henry a comic strip, as claimed in a poem that came packaged in one of the few known copies of the box, or not? There is no other evidence of it. There was a Hi-Way Henry game and that is it! When the first examples of this toy turned up in the late 1960s, it was hyped up to the temporary status of the rarest and most desirable Comic Toy. A whole mythology developed concerning whether the original stove that hangs on the back was there or not. Reproduction replacement stoves were made. Now this toy is not as rare as it its original publicity pumped it up to be. The game is perhaps the rarer entity.
Meanwhile, the mystery of who Oscar Hitt was, remains. It is known that, at one time, he assisted Rudolph Dirks, drawing the Katzenjammer kids. And he also authored a highly derivative strip of his own, called, “MaMa’s Darlings”, a Katzenjammer clone. Here is a strange doll I discovered several years ago that was attributed to him.
A Character known as “Snowflake” was also created by Oscar Hitt. Snowflake appeared often, in various sizes, cast in bisque, with rolling eyes. He is also seen on a Nifty Platform toy called, ”Snowflake and Swipes.”
Oscar Hitt also designed, and signed his name to a few very minor games. Apparently, for a long time, he worked for a game company. These, games are dated 1920. This one, called, “Funny Fellers,” was so cheaply made that the figures were squeezed onto existing die-cut soldier shapes.
There is one other windup toy that I should fit in here, either here or with Orphan Annie, because it shares her showcase. It relates to her in color only, and the choice of putting them together is due, more than anything, to lack of space. So I will include him here. I’m speaking of...
“The Little King” This elusive quiet soul tiptoed through my childhood years, charming and mystifying me, simultaneously. An early memory, which I realize contradicts my claim of no nostalgia involved in my motives for collecting, was of one of the small wooden rubber band powered walkers my parents bought me in the 1940s. I think the price was 50 cents. When I learned that there was a large Little king windup toy, as described, erroneously, as “evidence that painted tin was still being used as a means of manufacturing” by Kenny Harmon, the fellow who clobbered together the first book on Comic Character Toys, I believed it! And The Little King windup went onto my priority want list.
The toy pictured in the book passed through many hands, after the death of its original owner. The author, with whom I corresponded, briefly, assured me he had seen other examples of this toy for sale at flea markets in California. He was yanking my chain. No such thing! Meanwhile, the one known toy was peddled far and wide, at an ever escalating price that was way out of my league.
Then, it was Noel Barrett who speculated that this Little King was not a manufactured toy at all, but, actually, a prototype from the Marx factory. Suddenly the price fell. Nobody wanted it! So when it was finally offered to me, at an extremely reasonable price, I jumped at it. Ironically, once I realized that this was the only one, my only chance to possess this image, the whole equation changed. The very thing that turned off others was what, now, made me feel I had to have it. I’ve seen lots of Marx prototypes. More often than not, they look like crap. But this one, like its subject matter, is simple and great.
When Bambergers Department Store did the "Mickey Mouseum" in 1973, part of the reward I requested was that, afterwards, they would give me the showcases that they built to order for the event. Of course, I supplied them with the generous dimensions. One case, a two tiered box, was specified to display two circles of track for two Mickey Mouse hand cars. When the case came back here, I started using it to protect and display tin toys. Eventually, the case, both levels of it, filled up. One has to remove everything on the top level to get to the one below. And the case got moved into a corner. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that what might constitute a collection for someone else, has become just so many cubic feet of tin to me. Evidence that I have run out of space, and this collection, long ago, needed more to be properly displayed. I’ll remove the stuff on top, and try to shine a light down there and get some images of what’s inside. It's all good stuff.
Most of the standard repertoire by Marx is there, including both the Merry Makers bands in the original boxes, and, all the piano toys, the German Uncle Wigley car, and every Popeye airplane tower variation etc., etc. I’ll focus a camera over there and see what, if anything, shows up.
Wow! That is Amazing. the camera sees things that the human eye, at least mine, cannot. The whole corner, with a little cleaning up, looks rather interesting. Masks and things I intended to deal with later have crept into the pictures, but among all the random tries I made at lighting, I’m sure there is at least one good shot. The only light that ordinarily hits that showcase is from the Orphan Annie lamp on top. With a time exposure it’s almost enough.
I put off the decision, overnight, and the fact is, I still can’t make up my mind. I’ll let you decide! Here is the showcase with a lot of stuff removed on top, and just the Annie lamp alight. This is how it looked for many years, in the days when there was space to spare.
And here is how that corner looks today, with many things piled on top. In this shot I added a little extra light. It’s kind of tall so I’ll make it small and run some type along the side.
All of these tin toys are known commodities; either you have them, or you do not. Getting most of them so early offered the thrill of many being new to me. That was the excitement that fueled my quest as a collector. Mere acquisition, brings considerably less pleasure. Discovery, is where it’s at. On second thought, better than that, or, at least, the next best thing, is Restoration. I have never hesitated to help a toy in need of all the skills, God, heredity, and many years of art school gave me. I love acquiring a toy that needs me.
This showcase is kind of ancient history to me. When I committed my affection, skills, and money to a toy it was really like a marriage. And I have remained faithful to the toys that Fate sent to me. I have never felt the need to upgrade, or exchange one toy for a, so called, better one. I believe that much of collecting is determined by chance and destiny. What was meant for me, in the first place, was always good enough for me.
I’ve known collectors obsessed with condition. The ability to examine a toy and pick out its imperfections is what collecting is all about for them. They have no aesthetic criteria, only an eye for detecting faults and imperfections, and an obsession to achieve that glorious state of perfection known as “Mint”. Better than Mint, is “Mint in the Box”. That is the collector who is driven by the quest for original boxes. Boxes that are often unattractive. These are the kind of games that collectors play when the great discoveries are already made. I knew one, whose display of brand new toys, mint in the boxes, had all the charm of a shelf in Toys R Us. How adventuresome was he? He wouldn’t purchase a toy, unless some known collector had one first. That way, he felt assured that it was not fake.
Now, I will turn off the lights, and allow the tin toys, in this not so showy showcase, to continue to hibernate. They are in a place where there is no light to fade them, no dampness to rust them, no playful hands to wake or break them. They are sleeping soundly, in their transparent packing case. They are safe.