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
So, I filed what he said away, and it didn’t cross mind again for several years, until the first Kennedy Airport International Toy Show took place in the mid-70s. There were dealers there from Europe, and Oh My God! That changed Everything! Suddenly, my interest was renewed! And yes, there were Tin Toys too! The opening of the doors to Europe, more than any other factor, accounts for the fact that I continued collecting Mickey.
The Airport shows, three times a year, were soon joined by an even bigger show, in Atlantic City, twice a year, and there were European sellers there! Suddenly, it was a whole new World! The Comic Character toys that were made in Europe were often more exciting and creative than much of what had been made here. I soon developed relationships with the leading European dealers, one or more in every country. As a collector, my secret weapon was discretion, and my ability to keep a secret. Thus, a dealer had nothing to lose by showing me things first, and so it was, from secret meetings, often, days before the shows began, that my collection grew.
Collectors across the country, who didn’t live near New York or Atlantic City, were at a distinct disadvantage. My friend John Fawcett, for example, due to his teaching schedule, could not attend these shows. Not that he would have, anyway. Brimfield, alone, and running wanted ads in antique papers, no longer made one competitive, in terms of growing a collection. Although, foreign Felix and Mickey toys were suddenly washing up on America’s shores in droves, I and a few others, kept the beach well combed. John shifted his main interests to collecting the Lone Ranger, who was American grown!
One of the first tin toys to appear, over here, was the Distler Mickey Hurdy-Gurdy. The first was ballyhooed by its boastful new owner as the Find of the Century. It was a total wreck. And for a tail, Mickey had a shoelace. No one, at that time, even realized that there was supposed to be a Minnie. Then a complete one appeared in an auction at Sotheby’s, in London. My friend, Chet Murayama bought it, at a record setting price, and the rat race was on!
One after another, more Hurdy-Gurdies appeared in a various states of disrepair. Many had an arm replaced. A few had a Minnie there. She was rare. That is, until someone I won’t name had a flock of phony Minnies made. I’m afraid I spoiled his game, when I recognized its’ illegitimacy in a heartbeat. He quickly maintained they were not intended to decieve, and changed his tune, and the price too! Somehow, in all this mouse confusion, I ended up with two Hurdy-Gurdies. I kept the better of the two, and passed the other on to Harry K. Eventually, several with original boxes appeared at auction. “Too rich for my blood”, as my Mother used to say.
I remember the very moment, standing on the field at Brimfield, when I heard something so exciting that I thought the teller of this news was lying. I had been collecting Mickey avidly for many years, and thought I knew a lot about him. Some fellow collectors, too, believed that I knew more than many about what Mickey things were made. It’s true that I had studied the Kay Kamen Catalogues, gone to Disney Licensing, in NYC, to photograph them, long before they were generally known, and committed every page to both film and memory.
Yes, I knew a lot, too much, maybe, for I had transcended the glorious days when each new item I acquired was an enlightening discovery. It was still exciting to find something that I knew existed, but that was not quite the same as finding something fabulous I never dreamed was made. And, bit by bit, the more discovering became merely acquiring, the more bored with Mickey I became. Did I dare let the thought enter my head that, someday, I might tire of collecting him? Maybe!
So, here I was, chatting with this dealer, whose name I have forgotten, but I didn’t forget what he told me. He swore that he had seen Mickey Mouse Tin Toys! Apart from the Chein Drummer and the Sparkler, I had never seen or heard of such a thing! Seeped in American naivety, it never occurred to me that, at one time, Mickey also ruled in many kingdoms across the sea, England , France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Nor did I realize that each had produced their own unique variaties of Mickey merchandise.
Herein lies another tale. Two came up for sale, at Sotheby’s, in London. A good friend, who was my secret weapon, went over to bid on them for me. One looked fantastic in the catalogue. The other looked a mess. One reason a decent motorcycle was hard to get is because, as part of Tipp’s manufacturing process, they were originally coated with shellac. Over time, this coating became sticky. My friend Stuart Cropper, another favorite English dealer, who has, since, become a part-time neighbor, went to the viewing and relayed some distressing news to me. Sotheby’s had been allowing every visitor at the showing to handle the motorcycles. And the one that once looked, and was, fantastic in the catalogue, was now black with dirt from everybody’s hands. The shellac was like a dirt magnet. Stuart suggested that the other one that looked so awful in the photos, might, now, be the better of the two, as what looked like missing paint might actually be bits of the original tissue wrapping that had adhered to the sticky surface. In the end, my emissary bought them both for me.
That proved to be a wise decision. Stuart was right in his supposition, the one that looked so horrible was actually mint! It had, most likely, never been played with, but the original tissue it was wrapped in at the factory, had adhered, here and there, to the sticky surface. It took only a little soap and water to remove it, and the coat of shellac, as well. The tissue had marred the surface sheen in places, but the color was in tact, and perfect, and I was all right with that. The other motorcycle was a different story. I toiled over it for hours, trying, in vain, to get it clean, without harming the lithography. I barely got it into good enough condition to recoup its cost, by passing it onto a friend, for what I paid. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, it remains today, one of the better ones.
The photograph that tops this page is my motorcycle, photographed on a sunny day, sitting on the roof of the car in the driveway. I took the photo, some years ago, and posted it on my eBay page.
The last tin toy I will mention here is one of my all-time favorites. I will attempt to photograph it in a way that captures a little of its unique animation. This shows the change of expression, but in reality, Mickey, also, dances wildly as a counter weight rotates inside. Although, Hurdy-Gurdies continued to appear and the Motorcycles began to roll out, non-stop, this toy remained one of the rare ones. The condition is near mint. By the way, I will never touch up a toy that is this close to perfection. Even though, a dot of paint would do it, this state of preservation is too precious to upset.
The styling here appears outrageous; one might even say, grotesque! This is not the Mickey that the Walt Disney Company has endeavored to promote. But this is truly Mickey, as he was originally, teeth and all. This toy was clearly adapted quite accurately from, and inspired by Mickey, singing, “Minnie's Yoo Hoo.” He’s not referring to a chocolate flavored drink. This film clip shows Mickey's first presentation of the song that was to become his theme song, as it appeared in the 1930 cartoon "Mickey's Follies". It was, later, reedited and distributed to theaters participating in the Mickey mouse Club. The longer version, shown at every meeting, invited the audience to sing along. The voice, here, is, clearly, not that of Walt Disney. Watch Mickey's amazing facial expressions to experience, first hand, the origin of this toy.
Of all the rare toys in this showcase, my favorite "item" is the small tin Mickey Orchestra. I have never seen another set, complete and uniform, like these. The only grouping that approaches it was made up of assorted pieces, some with different colored backgrounds. I first laid eyes on these, upon walking into John Haley’s hotel room at one of the first airport shows. Chet Murayama was a few paces ahead of me. We both saw them simultaneously. He reached out and gathered the set together, (while my heart was breaking) and handed them to me! That seemed like the nicest thing anybody ever did for me! I am grateful to this day. As they are flat, they all stacked up and fit easily into my breast pocket, where they remained, throughout the weekend. In a manner of speaking, that is where they remain, still close to my heart, today. Chet, by the way, is a success story, he, eventually, sold his fabulous toy collection and used the proceeds, as planned, to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning a spectacular home in Hawaii.
Also in this showcase, top and center, is the fabulous “Slate Dancer.” This is one of the major pieces in the European Tin Toy repertoire. Mickey dances when the crank is turned. There are several variations on this toy, one with a pully, instead of a crank, intended to be animated by a toy steam engine, and another, discovered recently, with two Mickeys.
On either side of the Slate dancer, are a pair of Mickey Drummers. On the left, is one of several variations made in Germany, in which Mickey has teeth. And, on the right, is one of the few Mickey tin toys made in the USA by Chein. The other is the sparkler, barely visible, in the upper left. Atop the pillar, on the right, is a tin saxiphone player with clashing cymbals on his feet. Also in this case, are several small dolls by Deans Rag Book Company, a windup celluloid Crawling Mickey with a fabric covered body, and a French perfume bottle made of glass that wobbles, precariously, on legs that are a pair of springs.
Another delicious rarity, in this showcase, that I greatly appreciate, is a delicate paper fan that portrays a scene in Mushroom Land, where Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop merrily dance. Their arms and legs are very wiggly silken strings.
Once the clouds of confusion subsided, the repertoire of European tin windup Mickeys proved to be relatively small, while the prices they achieved at auction, became relatively large. What was large? In those days, the limit was $5G. That was the maximum for Mickey things, and that was plenty at the time. Thankfully, I got most of mine, way back when, before the prices began to climb.
Now, to revisit the other showcase, and say a few more things about the Tipp Company Mickey Minnie Motorcycle, which is generally considered to be at the pinnacle of all the fabled European Tin Mickey Mouse toys.