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
Ladies and Gentlemen, Step Right Up, and Behold the Greatest Show on Earth, a Circus of Celluloid that, to this day, remains unmatched! Thank God for that! For all it would take is just one match, and with a mighty “POOF”, it would be gone, incinerated in a single flash.
As a medium for rendering imagery, celluloid was great! Unfortunately it had one fatal flaw, the tendency to immolate! Fragile, and often beautiful, celluloid not only enabled flights of fantasy, like those you see below, it was also the vehicle that made “The Movies” possible! And transparent sheets of celluloid, by the millions, called “cels”, for short, became the planes, on which the individual frames of animated films were traced. Without celluloid, the fabulous animation that brought the characters we knew and loved to life, never could have taken place.
When celluloid was banished from the Earth, due to its flammability, it was replaced by “acetate”. And thus, the Motion picture industry survived, and animation cels, as well, were, for a while, painted on acetate. Now, film, itself, and animation, too, has been computerized. But one element of magic that modern technology has not been able to replace, is the elegant enchantment of toys like those in this showcase.
Light as a feather, celluloid could be formed into toys that, seemingly, defied the laws of gravity. It enabled toymakers to create delicate images of impressive size, with very little weight. And tiny windup motors were all that were required to enable weightless acrobats to perform amazing feats, lighter than air, on the flying trapeze. Here, high above the center ring, assorted aerialists do their thing. Their stands, designed to rest on solid ground, have been rotated, upside down, and attached to the very top of the Big Top. Now, that’s unique! Nowhere on Earth can stunts like this be seen! It takes a toy inventor, like me.
Below us, in the center ring, a spectacle is taking place, as three mighty pachyderms lead a Grand and Glorious Circus Parade.
Each time I see these elephants, I am reminded of a lovely day at Brimfield, one early May. A favorite dealer, who always saved great stuff for me, placed a plain brown box in my hand. It was not marked, apart from a number, rubber stamped on one end, and the tiny words, “Made in Japan.” If I had to guess what it contained, judging from weight alone, I might have said the box was empty. I lifted the lid to find a miracle inside, Mickey and Minnie on a bright pink elephant! Oh My God! I had never seen one of these that started out complete. The toy was pristine, and all original! I could tell, for sure, because there was no hole in Mickey’s hand.
I had assembled several of these toys in the past; and the replacement Mickeys I managed to dig up always had a hole in their left hand, the telltale remnant of a former life, on, maybe, something, like a bike. So I inserted a small red celluloid cane where the handlebar had been. Other collectors, taking their cue from this, did the same, until it became generally believed that this was the way the toy was made. Not so! And this Mickey’s hand had no hole. How can I convey the joy that welled up in me, on this occasion? Pure unadulterated elation! That is one of the greatest gifts God gave me, the ability to find great pleasure in something so simple, something that the entire world, except for a select few, would view as trivial.
I tried to photograph the Circus case, last week, with the Plexiglas in place. The results created such a feeling of dismay, that I was compelled to remove the Plexiglas today, and reset everything, just so. Toys move, you know. It’s subtle, but over the years, (and sometimes overnight) they are no longer in the same place they were put. Thus, the photo that I shot, the other day, displayed a touch of disarray. And what was once a carefully coordinated whole, had taken on the appearance of a free-for-all. Too many things, all in one place! That’s what this collection has become. Would that I could start again, in a much bigger space.
Even after 50 years, there are still some rarities here. On the upper tier, the only pristine, all original Mickey Mouse drummer that was not concocted, or put together, takes center stage. And off to the right, is the only original box discovered, to date. I will seize this opportunity, which might well be the only one I ever have, again, to place a few of these rarities before the camera’s lens. Not having seen this Mickey Drummer, out of its setting, for many years, I am surprised at how large it really is. I've taken care to match its actual size, right here.
Another toy that's proven, over time, to be one of a kind, is this small rubber band operated canoe with Mickey and Minnie inside. I got this treasure, 40 years ago, and have never seen another, since. At the time, I took a photo that my old computer ate, one, which I’ll now attempt to recreate. It shows the boat afloat, on a river of cellophane, above its reflection in the water, which is, in fact, a picture puzzle, on which the toy, itself, was based.
The boating theme appears, again, on this pillow cover. It is one of a series of many designs produced by Vogue Patterns. This one has been impeccably embroidered with a perfect outline of black embroidery thread, and a subtle color change to render the ripples on the water. One of the pleasures of collecting Mickey is discovering how various images evolved, and how they interrelate. Each reoccurring image has a visual history. One can, often, trace them to their point of origin. Many images were issued officially, by means of “model sheets” or books and other publications, while others came about spontaneously.
Some of the most exciting images were based on misinterpretation, and wild unlicensed flights of the imagination. When one becomes immersed in early Disney, they can often tell, just from the look, alone, which year a product or a piece of art was made. So much was taking place in those ten years of Mickey's merchandising heyday, from 1930, when the first toys appeared to 1940, when his appearance changed.
Meanwhile, back at the circus, we see, cascading down the ramp, many variations of mice on bikes or riding in carts, some of which are pulled by Pluto. There are some Donalds, here, as well. And many of these toys have their original boxes, hidden deep under the canopy.
Boxes made for celluloid toys can often be attractive, but in a Circus Ring they just get in the way. The simple toy below has a box that is sweet and straight forward. It manages to disclose the complex working of the toy’s quite awkward mechanism, yet portray it in a fashion that makes it look perfectly natural. The box art also tells a little story. We see Minnie appearing in the rear. While Japanese celluloid toys have a look that is universal, the boxes often display a delicate style that is distinctly Japanese. I wonder if, in the 1930s, anybody noticed that the label on the Mickey Drummer, above, pays homage to the Japanese flag, with its symbolic depiction of the rising sun?
Sometimes, the boxes were bread and butter boring, straight forward depictions of the actual toys, often drawn badly. At other times, the same toy could be packaged with such imagination that the toy, itself, paled by comparison. This makes me think of Colorforms, where I spent,(one might say squandered) 20 years. The magic of the box cover was everything on a Colorforms Stick On Toy. It was designed to romance and glorify the often deadly dull plain printed pieces that hid inside.
Here is one variation of a box that offered little to excite. A far superior variation is on the right.
Double click to edit
Moving to a more modest case, we see more of the same. There are many rarities here, badly displayed. Front and center, is a walking Mickey made in Germany. He and these rather interesting geometric Mickey dancers, each the opposite color of the other, again, by choice, in black and white. Celluloid Mickeys, made in Germany are quite rare. There are a couple of German Felix celluloids, here, as well.
Not all celluloid was Japanese. This group, below, was made in Germany. An impulse told me to take them out of the case, above, and photograph them separately. Is it just me? For some reason I couldn’t foresee, all together, like this, I suddenly find them Stunning! Stark, almost brutal, in their black and white simplicity. Notice the color range is limited to black and white and red and pink. I, just now, discovered that the double pull toy, with the two figures of opposite color polarity, has a unique mechanism that makes the platform with its two leering Mickeys rotate responsively. The motion is not haphazard, but locked in. These would have a showcase of their own if I had it to do all over again. And I would line it with black velvet, like this photo. Having captured these thoughts as they occurred to me. Now, let’s see what the camera saw. WOW! Why do I love this photo? The power of this imagery was hidden, where it was displayed, up to now.
Now, moving on ... This next showcase is much better composed than the last. Against a background that is a page out of the Columbia movie press book for the year Mickey Mouse began, we see a cornucopia of extraordinary things. Right in the middle, is a Mickey on a whirligig that is big and spectacular. On either side of him, are large figures of Mickey and Minnie. I once believed that celluloid mice came no larger than these. I was wrong, as you shall see. Among the other things in this showcase, is a wonderful wood carving from Spain of Mickey and Betty Boop together, with a mirror between. I love items, in which Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop become a couple. In terms of licensing, it’s such a “no-no”, kind of like Juliette and Romeo, their families, especially, Papa Walt, would not approve; not to mention Minnie! Minnie who?
On each side of the case, are a pair of Mickey and Minnie baby rattles. These are unusual, because of the heads on top. It would take a baby 30 seconds to bite them off. Such fragile lethal rattles are among those totally absurd playthings that would definitely be outlawed today; and so, they should be. Inside them, is a series of sharp metal spikes of different lengths that, when struck by a hanging pendulum, play a tune. Considering that the celluloid that separates these from the baby is as fragile as an eggshell, they were a calamity, waiting to take place. On the far left, is a Mickey Boy Scout, on a hike, with a canteen around his neck. His pink uniform indicates he’s up to date. And next, Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop share an umbrella. Most interesting here is Mickey dancing with Betty, and, likewise, dancing with Donald too; not that there’s anything wrong with that. And farther along, a little hard to see, is Betty and Mickey, walking their babies.
Then there are celluloid jointed dolls of Scrappy and Yippy, which pose the question: Was there a Margie? There must have been. And behind them, is Mickey pushing Minnie on a swing. This is a toy that I made up. It was such an obvious variation, waiting to happen, that I couldn’t resist. Thinking back to the early days, when I did this, these toys were inexpensive, then, and creating playful combinations, provided they were not offered for sale, was considered fun, not forgery.
In 1975, a grade school teacher in Nebraska wrote one of the first books on Comic Character toys. Although, his book didn’t state dollar values, it did rate each toy, of which he knew, individually, on a scale of one to twenty, based entirely on his own opinion, as to their rarity and desirability. Eventually, time proved what I knew instantly, that his assessments bore little resemblance to reality. Fortunately for me, he condemned Disney celluloid to the rock bottom of the list, giving them the embarrassing score of “1 to 4”, the lowest of the low. No other toys even approached that modest score. The Charlie Chaplin Boxing Champion”, a toy that I, in fact, created, by playfully enhancing a smudge on a generic figure’s upper lip, got a score of,“14”. The Little King “hand painted windup” got a “20”.
In those days, there was so little known that books, like his, were influential in herding a growing flock of new collectors. And I was glad the sheep and lambs, were being taught that celluloid was “Baaaaaaaad!” This helped to keep the prices low, and, for a while, affordable.
From here, we move down a to a showcase, in which things get complicated, as some of the best celluloid and the best tin toys, as well, are all in the same place. The background is another stunning page from a very early press book.
Front and center, is a rare tumbling Mickey, that few collectors know exists. This is the only one I’ve ever heard of. The original box is here as well. To the right of it, is Mickey and Minnie dancing, a toy I assumed was out there somewhere, having seen the Elmer Elephant variations, all of which, themselves, are rare. Then, there is a Mickey on a platform with a small Pluto, who trots along, beside him. And just behind these, is my favorite Celluloid toy of all time. The unspeakably rare Skating Mickey. I got this toy from Doug and Pat Wengel, some of my favorite people, and I will always be grateful.
This is as close to a perfect Mickey image, as any I have ever seen. And it’s construction is unique. Only celluloid could permit a 7 inch mouse to stand tall, and navigate on just one tiny roller-skate. With all our modern technology, there is no way a simple feat like this could be achieved, today. Celluloid, indeed, was the very stuff from which dreams could be made.
One doesn’t have to be an artist to sense a commonality of look and feel in all these Celluloid toys. There is a distinct possibility that they were all designed and sculpted by one man, and, without a doubt, produced by the same factory in Japan. Certain unique designs were sent, exclusively, to specific countries, but all these toys are obviously close relatives, members, of a universal family.
Now, it’s time to move on to the next page, "Tin Toys". Two of the best of them are right here, the Distler walking animated Mickey; Ecstasy, and the Mickey Motorcycle, as good a one as you will ever see.
We'll say more about them, soon. Meanwhile, there are some celluloid toys, elsewhere, that I should mention here. Both are in the showcase, which, since yesterday, for lack of a better name, I am calling “The Tall Tower”.
The first, is this exquisite Mickey on a Scooter, with its very very early original box. Yes, I actually got this toy on eBay! Miracles have been known to happen there.
Miracles have, also, been known to happen, here! If you happen to be a toy collector, you might, perhaps, know that Hake’s Americana has never stopped boasting about selling a toy like this, for quite a lot of money, a year, or two, ago. I assure you, this isn’t it! Even so, you might wonder how a humble toy inventor, like myself, could afford such a treasure? The answer is simple, you need to be me! You need to do what I did, namely, spend a lot of time in art school! The end result of all that training, when successful, is invisible.
A visitor remarked, the other day, about the fact that in this house, full of a thousand works of art, none of “my own art” is on display? I replied: “Au contraire, my artwork is everywhere! Its embodied in every toy in this collection, beginning with the simple act of its selection. Choosing it, is all part of “my art”. “My art” is also at play in the way the collection is displayed. And above all, I have touched every toy in the collection with a little or a lot of restoration, according to its wishes. If any toy you see here is less than perfect, that’s not because I couldn’t fix it. It’s because the toy itself preferred to be that way. And, bottom line, the best examples of “my art” can only be judged as successful by the degree to which it can’t be seen." The slide show below will explain, exactly, what I mean;
Some would say, revealing this is a mistake. I have many friends who are dealers. They would consider it decreasing the value of the toy. I would answer that three ways. First of all, The restoration is for the sake of the toy and me. We are who I aim to please. And, furthermore, I have no intention of selling the toy, if I can help it. Secondly, if it is sold either during, or after, my lifetime, either way, I would not wish the buyer to be deceived. And, last of all, there are restorations, and there are restorations. It’s just possible that a restoration, done by yours truly, might be more unique than the toy in mint condition would be.
This page has certainly traveled to places that I had not anticipated, but one thing led to another, and I just went with the flow. In spite of that, there are several celluloid toys I never got to, a whole case full of them behind me, and others, here and there, downstairs. But there is one toy that I would like to introduce here, and then, present it properly, later, on the page called, The Tall Tower.
Mind Blowing is not an expression that I like. But I don’t know how to better describe this next surprise than to say, it sure as Hell blew mine. I got it at Atlantic City from one of my all-time favorite dealers, John Haley. This was in the great shows final days, when it had begun to fade and had taken on the ambiance of a totalitarian police state. On one of the set-up days, when there was a momentary lull in the pandemonium, John called me aside for one of his secret rendezvous. I knew this was my cue to be amazed, and have my checkbook ready.
I always got a tremendous kick out of John Haley. I realized, over time, that he is a very kind man inside, but dealing with him was challenging. He effected a Dickensian demeanor, like some cunning character from Oliver Twist, or, perhaps, John Worthington Foulfellow Fox, the charming villain who led Pinocchio astray. John made a big show of trying to be both sly and wily, and succeeded admirably. This time, wearing his familiar cloak of secrecy, he dramatically led me to an empty stall in the most deserted corner of the hall. And, after making sure the coast was clear, handed me what felt like an empty box, an ordinary corrugated carton, a fairly large one.
I cautiously opened the flaps and this is what I saw! Filling every corner of the box, as though it was custom made for it, was this, the biggest, most outrageously spectacular celluloid Mickey in the World! This object was way outside the parameters of my wildest dreams. Never had I fantasized the remotest possibility that a celluloid like this might exist. This photograph, taken, not long after the event, box and all, is actual size.
This awesome Mickey monument was perfect in every respect, except for a big piece of celluloid, missing from his cheek. Not that that mattered. The fact that a toy needed my assistance never bothered me. This idiosyncrasy gave me a certain edge, for dealers could offer me things that others would not accept. Nonetheless, the flaw saved me a pretty penny. Which didn’t help much, considering that the price was calculated in dollars, many! Of course, I had to have it, this casually packaged tsunami of Nirvana.
After the usual make believe negotiations,( John always knew when he had me) I literally flew back to my booth, set free from Earth’s gravity. This elation inspired levitation was facilitated by a lightness in my wallet! Ow! The ceiling of the Atlantic City convention center was lower than I thought!
I quickly buried this treasure, deep within the labyrinth of cartons, that hid beneath the cloth draped table, and didn't mention it to anybody, not even Noel. I spent the rest of the weekend in a mixed state of euphoria and paranoia, floating on cloud nine, while obsessing over the giant Mickey's vulnerability, and fantasizing that felons, with mouse sniffing dogs, might stalk the deserted aisles of the convention hall at night. When I finally got Mickey safely home, he stayed in his box for a long time, as I relived and savored the exquisite experience of seeing him for the first time!
Mickey and I had many long and serious conversations, discussing how to repair him. It was a monumental challenge, not like a missing ear, which I could, easily fabricate, and then, paint black. This missing piece was not only in the worst place, it also needed to be pristine white unpainted celluloid, of exactly the right shade, slightly ivory, perfectly formed and trimmed to fit.
I looked in vain for some white toy that I might sacrifice. And I discovered that I simply didn’t have it in me, the ability to do harm, to any toy in my collection in order to do good to one that was considered better. I would just have to wait for the right transplant to come my way. Meanwhile, I rehearsed the hypothetical operation in my mind, many times. This procedure was going to be one that I could either make or break. There was a lot at stake!
Several days passed, before I finally decided to take Mickey out of the box. I had been afraid to touch him. As I turned him over to see if there were any markings, I heard the sound of something very light moving around inside. I turned him over, again, to see what it might be, and as I did, out through the hole in his cheek, flew the missing piece! A Miracle! How long had it been hiding in there, days, weeks, months, or years? With a needle dipped in crazy glue, dot by dot, I stitched the perfectly fitting fragment back in place again! Now, Mickey stands complete, in the very center of The Tall Tower. We will visit him, there, soon.
This walking quacking Donald really is a stunning toy. He deserves a portrait of his own. This is the only boxed version known. As for the toy, I believe there is one more. The animation is quite simple. A spring loaded mechanism causes Donald to snap from one position to the other, quickly. There is no delay in between. Thus, this two image slide show can imitate his action with amazing accuracy. As he rocks from side to side, his jaw opens and closes, and he makes a loud “quacking” sound that more resembles "Froggy the Gremlin" plunking his “Magic Twanger”. or "Gerald Mc Boing Boing”, “boinging” than it does a duck. The rocking motion causes his fixed position feet to waddle.