OSWALD The Lucky Rabbit
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
In 1926, after a series of “Alice Comedies”, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, together, created “Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.” Oswald became instantly popular, competing against the other cartoon movie stars in town, Felix the Cat, and KoKo the Clown.
Compared to felix, who generated a ton of stuff, there was, apparently, very little Oswald merchandise made. And much of that is clad in mystery. What among the items known were actually created when Oswald was still “owned” by Walt Disney? Well, Disney didn’t actually own him. That was the problem. Anyway, when Disney lost Oswald, in 1928, he went on to create Mickey.... and the rest Is History!
There are three Oswald items, generally acknowledged to have been manufactured in Disney’s Oswald days. One is a candy bar wrapper, which is Oswald, in name only, as the art pictures a white bunny, a pin back button, Zzzzzz, and one other thing, a very decent Stencil Set. The first two items never interested me. The stencil set, on the other hand, is a different matter. It is a graphic bonanza, of delicious Oswald Imagery.
All the Oswald stuff I’ve ever seen, with the exception of a large skinny doll by Dean, is shown below. The single most extraordinary and graphically satisfying Oswald object is, by all means, this doll. I got this from the ultimate doll maven, Richard Wright, who had owned it all his life. That is all the provenance a doll needs. Its actual origin is a mystery, but it is clearly early. And, is it “manufactured”? Absolutely! As an ICON this is as good as Oswald gets! So putting my best rabbit’s foot forward here he is:
Panning out from there, we see the rest. Many of these objects are labeled “Universal Pictures”. That gives them some legitimacy as being closely related to Disney’s Oswald, but, whether or not, they were made during Disney’s stewardship, or immediately after, is impossible to say. In the very back of the case, on either side, are two large stuffed Oswalds. They are hidden, largely due to lack of space. One of these is how I first met my friend Carl Lobel. I purchased it from him by mail, very early on. These are not of the same quality as the doll in the middle. On either side of that doll, are two large and impressive windup toys. They were manufactured by “Irwin Toys”.
I’ll never forget when the first of these turned up; Nirvana! I had to have it! Several more have appeared over the years, until they seem almost commonplace. To reach a state of “commonplace” in the rarified world of Comic Character collecting, all it takes is three! One is “rare”, two is “scarce” , and three is commonplace. There may be as many as ten of these. Far more hard to get is the smaller version, on the left, with checkered pants. He also is a windup toy.
On the opposite side, is a printed oilcloth Oswald doll, the only one I’ve ever seen. And in the middle, are three dolls made in England by Dean. The one in the center is made of wood. Dean’s rag Book Company, later, repeated this format with Mickey dolls, as well. And, of course, here is the Stencil Set. The bright pink stencils have faded over the years, but I have a replacement set that’s never seen the light of day. From the ceiling hang several celluloid Oswald toys. They also bear the “Universal” label.
Here is a strange oddity. Oswald appears, without any fanfare, in this generally generic Decalcomania Transfer Picture Book, of the era. God knows what he’s doing there. The Company that made the decals is also named Universal, the same as the movie company that produced the Oswald cartoons. I wonder if they are connected?
Moving along the top row of showcases, on the wall, downstairs ... this is as good a time as any to showcase another case that contains four dolls. The one on the far left is Oswald, as he was transformed, in later years, in the hands of Walter Lantz. This is a surprisingly appealing doll. It probably dates from the 1940s. His rotund chubbiness, pressed velvet face, and floppy ears create a look and feel that’s loveable, but he bears no resemblance to the original Oswald.
The Bimbo doll, on the far right, is right out of prime time. He dates from around 1930, and as a doll, according to the ads in Playthings magazine, actually, predated Betty. The Pluto is by Gund. He was the standard Pluto that I knew as a kid. There was always a whole litter of these pups, littering the shelves of the J.L. Hudson Company.
And, last of all, is this chubby Mickey, made by the Character Novelty Company. When I first began collecting Mickey, he was the sole exception to my “pie-cut eyes only” rule, the only 1940s Mickey I had. In fact, he still remains the only Mouse, this late, in my collection. There was just something about this cuddly Mickey that appealed to me, and made him welcome, in spite of his 1940s eyeballs and chubby cheeks.
Unfortunately, I will always associate him with the time, in 1968, when I met Disney’s, then, new archivist, David Smith. A photo of my meager collection of Mickey Mice had just appeared in Life Magazine, and David Smith, who happened to be visiting NYC, invited himself over to see it, in person. At that time, it consisted of that wall on 28th street. Modest as that might have been, nonetheless, it had caused many a grocery delivery boy, upon entering the apartment, to drop the groceries in surprise.
I was as unimpressed with David’s tact and savoir faire, as he was with my collection. His first words to me, as he stepped through the front door, were, “Is this all there is?” Well, what did I expect? After all he was coming from the Disney archives; I could hardly think he’d be impressed. But, it was the second thing he said that quite blew me away. Walking over to the chubby 1940 mickey, above, and picking it up, he exclaimed, “OH, This is the first Mickey doll, isn’t it! He wasn’t asking, he was anouncing that information, which, of course, was “news” to me!
Ironically, years later, a good friend’s friend, who happened to be the Dean of the school that Michael Eisner attended as a kid, wrote Eisner that he really should see, and consider acquiring my collection. Eisner passed the letter on to David Smith. And David’s reply to Eisner, which I later read, simply said, “There’s too much there!”