BLACK AND WHITE
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
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Welcome to the Wonderful World of “Black and White.” These are two words I find exciting, when applied to Mickey, as they usually mean that the mouse is going to be both great and early! One of the things that always fascinated me about the Victorian Toy Theatre, was the fact that on the opening night of every new production to appear on the London stage, for half a century, the front row of the theatre was always occupied by artists, madly sketching every actor and scene, rushing to be the first to publish the play in miniature as toy theatre sheets. And so it was with early Mickey. In the very beginning, all around the World, artists were sitting in darkened theatres attempting to capture the likeness of this new character, Mickey Mouse, and then render him in toys and figurines. And because what they saw was in black and white, so were the things they made.
And, furthermore, being black and white proclaimed that this animated entity, like Felix the cat, before him, was a Movie Star. For all movies, up to that time, had always been in black and white. This phenomenon, most often, took place in Europe, where licensing was just beginning, and many a manufacturer felt that this popular new character was theirs for the taking. They were certainly not getting a licensing package from Disney; all they had for reference material was what they could capture in a darkened theatre. That, too, is the reason that much of this very early merchandise presents Mickey with five fingers. The fact that he had only four escaped their observation. Thus, five fingered Mickey, again says “early”, and often, but not always, unlicensed. And the worse the artist’s powers of observation were, the wilder and more interesting were the variations.
Thus, I regard “Black and White as a “Category”, and always an exciting one! The exquisite china figurines by Rosenthal were always Black and White, so were the many jointed wooden dolls made in Germany and Italy, and offbeat images of every kind. A single black and white Mickey in a group of brightly colored ones, never fails to catch the eye. And when these objects of no color are grouped together, their impact is intensified.
Behind Minnie is a Cast Iron Doorstop, holding a badge from the Dutchess Junction Fire Company. In front, is a sculpture by Ernie Trova. To the left of Minnie, is a wooden Mickey doll, made in Germany. On the right, is a Spectacular Crystal Canister, surrounded by a small Mickey porcelain orchestra. The rarest piece, among them, is Mickey crawling on top of the grand piano. And in front, is a wooden German orchestra. Behind is Mickey carved out of a piece of coal, and in the corner is the mascot from my father-in-law’s lorry, circa 1934. And then there is a gossamer spun paper Mickey, carrying an umbrella.
In the Center is a German condiment set with a Mickey Mouse mustard pot and Mickey salt and pepper shakers. In the very front is a tiny blown glass orchestra. These delicate figures were made by hand. On either side of the Mickey mustard, are a pristine pair of Mickey and Minnie party favors made of crepe paper. How does something this peripheral and delicate survive for 80 years?
Hiding behind the canister, is this delicate blown glass aperitif bottle. It has never been opened. The sealed nose stopper is still in place. In spite of that, the contents have evaporated.
And here is a tiny dish by Rosenthal, on which Mickey strikes a carefree pose. A small composition Felix has got his eye on Mickey. He thinks he’s the cats whiskers.
Just as Black and white objects stand out in a showcase full of colored things, so, too, do Colored objects “pop”, when set among objects that are all Black and White. In the very center, above, is the Desmo painted version of the Mickey Mouse auto mascot, or hood ornament. And on the other pedestal is a smaller Minnie. The background is the screen from an English Mickey Mouse slide projector. On either side of Mickey, are a pair of German soap figures. Their noses are glass tipped hatpins. Incredibly, when the soap dissolves, to a certain point, the bather gets the point! They sure don’t make soap like that, anymore! To the left, is the French radiator ornament. It has a very different look than those made in England.
The showcase, below, is overrun with Rosenthals. These are among the finest quality Mickeys known. And they are very early. The model sheets that they were based on were the very first ones. Ironically, the pencil drawing for that first Mickey model sheet is on the wall above the showcase, and there is one pose on it, in particular, that never appeared in any product, except one of the Rosenthals, which happens to be in the showcase below. All the Classic Rosenthal poses are here, except one, Minnie powdering her nose. Only that one has eluded me. Mostly because, whenever it turned up, it was simply too expensive. There are several other porcelain pieces, here, that are also black and white, but not by Rosenthal.
The case is dominated by an exceedingly rare toy. Well, actually, it’s not a toy at all! It is a still figure, a statue made of tin. That, apart from the fact that it is the only one known, renders it doubly unique. When I first saw it, I thought it was its twin, the rare, but, nevertheless, known windup with an animated face, simply, with the face uncut. But that is not the case. The lithography, here, is completely different, and was not made to be cut up. This figure has no moving parts at all. It seems rather ironic that the rarest tin windup toy I own, winds up not being a windup toy at all.
My God! I love this photo! It captures the essence of entering the Temple of Mickey Mouse. It illustrates the principle of appreciation and admiration, that is the way I choose to see these icons, and the way they should be viewed, in my opinion. One must practice the willing suspension of size awareness. What a difference the camera angle makes. The photo above this one, shot, looking down on the same showcase, displays a crowd of small objects crammed into a single space. But seen from this lower angle, confronting these objects on their own level, they become monumental! It’s all so simple, and it is the key to seeing the objects in this collection through my eyes. It is the difference between looking down on something or looking up to it.
A small German bisque Bonzo is listening to a Crosley Radio, while Baby Snookums is not amused. Several of the Rosenthals were sports related, depicting events at the Olympics. This one is the shot put, another is the discus throw, and my favorite features a soccer ball, perched on the tip of Mickey’s toe.
There are some Amazing framed photographs in this case. The one below is that of an entire group of children, all clad in Mickey costumes, and posed as in a dream, a pleasant hallucination. Behind the tin Mickey in the middle is an official photo of the 1931 Fanchon and Marco show “Mickey Mouse Idea.”
There is a small but beautiful German marionette, and a Spanish tin plunger toy, in which Mickey lifts the lid of a container to reveal Felix el Gato. And on the Mickey pedestal, stands the Distler walking Mickey. Both the Dixon pencil boxes are represented here. One is made of paper, and the other is made of composition.
And on the right, is an amazing photograph of an enormous audience of children all wearing Mickey and Minnie paper masks. This photo was blown up to the size of a wall for the 1973 Bamberger show. Here also is another smaller variation of the Desmo radiator ornament.
And the last of the Black and White objects, included here,( You’ll notice more, elsewhere) is this set of porcelain Mickey Mouse musicians. They were made in Germany as well, but not by Rosenthal. These images were available in several sizes and variations. This set is made up of the largest figures. It features a Mickey Mouse conductor with articulated legs and arms. Notice how articulately he holds that fragile porcelain baton. You might also notice that the hand holding it has five fingers. Some, but not all, of the others have four.
Now that you’ve seen this, It might be logical to continue to the Pyramid of Bisques.
Behold the awesomeness of Mickey! Whew, just looking at these pictures, now, I realize, there’s just too much crammed into them to describe. But I’ll mention a few things. A windup tumbling Mickey by Schuco sits on the couch. Fanned out behind it is a Mickey fan with a mouse carved out of every blade, and a couple dozen Mickey razor blades, beautifully packaged, are sprinkled throughout the case. That is a line of them balanced atop the frame.
Now, we go upstairs to where the World of Black and White, or I might better say, White on White, continues. This showcase contains many uncolored things made of plaster. But the wooden object in the center is, by far, the most extraordinary, a wood jointed Mickey Mouse from Spain, with a clock in his belly. He is the ultimate Mickey Mouse timepiece! A pair of modern Mickey and Minnie figures that are borderline OK, have also danced their way into this case.
To the left of Mickey is a pot metal statue of Abe Kabibble, or “Abie the Agent”, the first Jewish comic character, circa 1914. Jackie Coogan as “The Kid” comes next, and then, a delightful sculpture of Grace Drayton’s parody of the painting, September Morn by Paul Chabas. Grace Drayton created the Campbell's Kids. Perhaps you notice the resemblance to them.
"September Morn" is followed by one of many known plaster images of Charlie Chaplin. Moving forward, there is a plaster “Spark Plug” sniffing a sleeping Bonzo. Farther right, are two interesting early and obscure characters, "Joy" and "Gloom" by T. E. Powers. They appeared in books and comic strips and even some early silent animated films, but are quite unknown today. These few things, here, are all I have found related to them, over the years. In front of these are a rare set of unpainted figurines from some sort of ceramic painting set by Harman and Ising. Their best known character was Bosco, the first reoccurring character to appear in Looney Tunes cartoons.
This end of the showcase contains some interesting odds and ends. Did you ever think you’d see a china figure of Felix the Cat, using the kitty litter? Behind him is a rather handsome statue of Buster Brown and Tige. Next to that is a bronze image of Felix the Cat, so primitive that it resembles a "Wild Thing" by Maurice Sendak. And here is that great Bonzo, again. We spoke about him, early on. Here, too, is a rather animated statue of Jiggs. And in the very back, is the Our Gang figure painting set, consisting of several early unpainted bisques, mostly hidden, and a cardboard stage, or Club House. You might also spot a celluloid head that resembles an Aesop’s Movie Fables elephant. I‘m still looking for the body. And two early skeletons, one of which is the business end of an Ives toy.
Here is a Distler Walking Mickey. It’s condition is the best of any I have seen. This toy is quite severe, somewhat robotic, and abstract. The totally round eyes are a surprise. Here, as well, is a pair of German dancers. Their feet are huge. Their grins are sinister. Minnie’s dress is crepe paper.
From the angle, below, we can see the first Mickey fan card on the wall. This is what a child would get when he or she wrote a fan letter to Mickey. I notice a most curious phenomenon: the small celluloid mirror has picked up a glowing image of the Mickey Mouse lamp on the opposite wall.
The art below is a mystery. It’s origins and place in Mickey's history are unknown. But, as it is so black and white, I will include it here. It is an original design for the entrance doors to the auditorium of a movie theatre. It is clearly very early. The artist adopted some of the imagery from the first known depictions of Mickey and Minnie. He also created some of his own. Those that he copied, verbatim, have four fingers. The ones that he made up, have five. This piece of art is extremely sophisticated and well designed. It displays a sense of symmetry; note the matching angles of the ukulele and the baton, played off against asymmetrical elements, such as the Steamboat Willy goat and the flower in Minnie's hat. All this is placed against a checkered background that is bold. There were other designs in the series, but this was the only one that related to Mickey.