THE TALL TOWER
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
Visitors, here, often inquire how the Great Wall was constructed. I reply, “It is the work of my friend and Master Carpenter, Bill Maxwell”. Like everything he ever did, Bill made it all look easy. When we first moved to the country, I was doing everything myself. I even built the second story, where I am sitting, at the moment. But an accidental fall at Colorforms, in which I broke six ribs, ended my amateurish attempts at carpentry, and brought Bill Maxwell into my life. And thus, that mishap turned out to be a lucky break for me.
The first day Bill appeared, I watched him do more in an hour than I could accomplish in a day. A few days later, he asked me, how long I would need his services. I replied, “Consider it your career!” Bill and I worked together in perfect harmony. I drew the blueprints. He did the carpentry. He loved the unconventional things I asked him to do. And when I was making a mistake, Bill would quietly say,” What if we did it this way?” He was always correct. Bill Maxwell was a gentle man and a gentleman.
The Great Wall started out as five free standing units, that was as far as I could see ahead. Then, we set them in place and intuitively positioned the connecting shelves. Here you see Bill, spray painting the entire thing, along with assorted pedestals and the pyramid for bisques. There’s no point making this photo big, for it is as blurry as my memory of those delightful days.
When the wall was almost finished, I realized I would need more space. And thus, Bill built this free standing unit, taller than the rest. The other day, trying to organize this website, I arbitrarily named it, "The Tall Tower," and that it is! 12 feet tall, all full of Mickeys! We shall explore it, beginning at the bottom.
Space here is at a premium. Therefore, just because something is on the bottom shelf, doesn’t mean it isn’t great! This showcase is dominated by the Mickey Mouse Aluminum Coffee Set. I had adapted its cover image of Mickey to the first Mickey toy I ever did. I found a tiny picture of it, in one of the catalogues I’d photographed at Disney, never dreaming I’d ever see, let alone get, the actual set.
Years later, at Brimfield, I watched in shock as a good friend and fellow collector Phil Ellenbogen, bought the only known example of this rare aluminum coffee set, right out from under me. It was complete and in the box with even the original paper napkins; the only one that ever turned up, as far as I know. After a decade of trade negotiations, I finally took it home.
This showcase also displays the signature set of English toothbrush holders by Maw. These are beautifully sculpted, particularly Mickey and Minnie. The Tortoise and the Hare are here, as well, along with the Three Little Pigs. I stood out on the field at Brimfield, all night, one cold September, shivering and waiting for a truck from Canada, with the Mickey on it, to arrive. It showed up at sunrise. I wasn’t disappointed! The Mickey Mouse Golfer, and, would you believe, Pluto, are the most rare. Here also is a Disney alphabet set by Chad Valley, and an enameled potty. There is an Ingersol watch display, and a display for hankies, which is nothing to sneeze at! In the very back, are two large dolls by Deans. This version, with strange open mouths, is extremely scarce.
Moving up one case, I feel embarrassed. It’s almost painful, the way some things are crammed in here. At the very back, is a fabulous item, “Mickey Mouse Funny Facts”, a magic electric answer game, complete with all the sheets of questions, fashioned in the form of a book. It’s extraordinary to find one of these complete! Its extraordinary to be able to find it in this showcase! Also hiding here, are both the oval lunch pails, American and Italian, in mint condition, with proper handles, inner trays, and everything. Among the things that are easier to see, is a pristine matched pair of dolls by Dean, with an unusual color scheme, a Mickey mirror, made of porcelain, of the same design as the Maw toothbrush holder, a pair of egg-shaped vases from Germany, a Mickey candle holder from England, and a black and white covered candy dish from Spain. Mickey is kneeling on the cover, with his tail, (at least, I think that is his tail), curiously placed.
Let’s move in closer, now, to get a better look at some extraordinary things. In the center, is one of a series of German tin Mickey Banks. These are considered rare. There are several different images, in the series; I can’t remember if it’s four or three. Mickey’s red tongue, which is actually a tray, pops out to swallow the money. And here. also, is one of the only two sets of Mickey Mouse Britain’s that I know to exist. My friend, Bernie Shine has the other one, in the original box. Last, but not least, is one item that I always wanted, and I finally got, the only one I’ve ever seen, which is ...
Deans Rag Book Mickey, riding on a tricycle. If there are any more of these around, my guess would be they are in England. Then again, I have, admittedly, been out of touch for years. There was a time ten years or so ago, when I knew many people's collections, as well as I did my own. Now, there are not as many collections left to know. Many of the old time collectors have lost interest and bailed out. Only a few of us remain, today: Bernie Shine out in LA, John Fawcett, up in the state of Maine, who now has his own museum, Carl Lobel, in Vermont, who continues to distill his collection down to the quality of fine wine, and myself. We are the only old time Comic Character Collectors, I know personally, who survive.
OK! Here we are in the Main Case! And right in the center, as I promised, is the Giant Mickey celluloid ... toy? Idol? effigy? I’m not sure what the best word would be. But I do know that it is stunning, a fitting object for iDOLLatry! I bet you can't see where I fixed the cheek!
But it’s not the only great object in this case. Looming over everything, is the most super perfect pair of Steiff Mickey and Minnie dolls that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Then, all along the left side, is a gathering of Mickey dolls, by Dean. The wooden jointed ones are by Dean, too, as is the velvet Pluto. This case also contains several of the earliest items known, especially, those that are made of wood, the Cart, on the left, the Ramp-Walker, on the right, and the Jumping Jack, higher up. If you look carefully, you’ll find several smaller dolls by Steiff, and the French version of a wooden Mickey doll. Oh, and there’s a big Mickey on the right, purported to be by Charlotte Clark, that I'm not convinced is right!
Here are three fresh faces, shining bright! On the left, a sparkling Steiff, a French wood jointed doll, on the right, and, in the middle, a genuine seven and a half inch bisque. Several years ago, a forger tried to fake large bisques by casting the 9‘ version, which after shrinkage came out at 7and a half. A leading “expert” in NYC got stuck with 12 of these. Naturally, it was me, who realized the forgery, and sounded the alarm. The felon had painted them with Liquitex, which I could spot a mile away. Anyway, real seven and a half inch bisques do exist. They are very rare; this is one of the few known.
Oh, and look who's here!
And before we depart, check out this small charming Italian car. Beside it, is a perfect bisque Mickey, with moveable arms that, surprisingly, was made in Germany.
We are climbing the Tower slowly, there are many more spectacular sights to see. Now, take a look at these! There are some fabulous treasures on this, almost, upper level. Right in the center are a trio of dolls by Charlotte Clark. They are prime examples of Charlotte in her prime, and Pluto was part of the package when they were purchased, in person, by their former owners, in the 1930s.
In front of these, are a rare pair of Mickey and Minnie, made by Lenci, with original labels, handwritten on parchment. Their funny little rolling eyes are a unique variety. Standing next to Minnie, is an intricate wood jointed Mickey, made in Italy or Germany. On the left of the Lenci Mickey, is an object that makes me crazy, a German Easter decoration, the subject of a long lasting obsession. Then, in a line, are three prime Desmo Radiator ornaments, big, and spectacular. The Mickey, on the left, is the rarer of the three. Along a little, is another radiator ornament, origin unknown, but handsome and imposing. Behind him, speaking of imposing, is an amazing Spanish wine jug. Mickey the virtuoso is clad in a tuxedo. In his hand is a violin. Liquid pours out of his nose. In the back of the showcase, on either side, are velvet jointed dolls from France.
Here are two more photos, shot from an angle, to offer, yet, another view. Right out in the very front, are a series of five wood jointed figures. These were made in Germany. There is so much happening in this showcase, it is a mass of jumbled imagery, glistening with complicated chromium reflections. Yes, it is confounding and confusing to the eye, but it also is EXCITING!
Here are a couple of unique dolls of Mickey and Minnie, made by the “Paris Novelty Company”. How continental! The name brings to mind my days in France. Yes, these dolls must have been made in the French part of Japan! And they are extraordinary; as are the Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Betty Boop dolls made by the same company, which you will see, eventually. In front of them, is a serious object, made in Germany. It is a cigarette lighter that really means business. Mickey’s tail is a heavily insulated cord. On the end is a three pronged plug, designed to be inserted into 220 volts of European current. Then, pick Mickey up, and stick a cigarette in his butt, which is continuously aglow with red-hot wires, and he will, either, light it for you, or electrocute you!
This is an earlier photo that shows the original boxes, abundantly adorned with flags of France!
Of all the objects in this case, the one that I feel compelled to remove and photograph separately is the German Mickey Easter decoration. This dazzling black and white hallucination belonged to Phil and Elaine Ellenbogen. It was always my favorite thing in their collection. To say it glowed, would be an understatement, for it is actually covered in minute reflective beads of glass. Whenever I visited Phil and Elaine, we would open the basement door to descend to the collection, which was attractively displayed, downstairs, and in the darkness, reflecting the light from the open door, I would see this glorious Easter egg, glowing bright orange, in the unlit cellar, below. The same thing happened, in reverse, when it was time to go. Throughout years and years of Brimfield shows, Phil and Elaine were tough, but friendly, competition. The fact that there were two of them, both equally intense and knowledgeable, made them almost unbeatable, especially, when they split up, and covered two fields, at once.
But what kind of people are they? Passionately intense about collecting, every bit as much as I am, and seriously competitive. They beat me to many a treasure that I would have loved to own. And, of course, they knew it, and playfully enjoyed it. In the end I came to learn that their intense urge for acquisition and appetite for competition was exceeded only by their generosity. When, some years ago, they began a new adventure and to finance it, parted with part of their collection, they magnanimously offered me all the items I had missed, at prices that did not exceed what they would have cost me if I got them at the flea market to begin with. May every collector be blessed with friends like this! Oh, did I say “In the end”? The fact is, the end is far from near, Phil and Elaine are collecting again, with renewed passion, this time aided and abetted by their daughter Brittany. So, having said too much already, here he is, the legendary Easter Mickey!
Now, perched precariously on a ladder, we scale the heights, to see a sight that I, myself, have only witnessed once or twice, the upper showcase! For lack of a more accessible place, here are another pair of dolls by Lenci. This time, Mickey& Minnie are horsing around with Pluto. He is a Lenci too. And I am surprised to see a large Mickey Cowboy. I wondered where he went. There is also one of those French jointed dolls that I like so much. This one is felt. We just saw a few of the velvet variety, in the case below. And, last of all, two mystery dolls. These are very early dolls, commissioned and distributed by George Borgfeldt, in the early 30s. The actual manufacturer is unknown. One is cotton, the larger, rarer, one is velvet.
And now, with twilight falling, we glance back for one last look at the Tall Tower. Actually, I just happen to like this photo. I shot it, almost, accidently, setting up for the central case. But, I like the twilight lighting, casting a blue glow. And the photo, not only, offers some perspective, It also shows the delightful piece of carpet that I was told was cut from one that graced a New York City movie palace, something like RKO, in the 1930s. It is so deliciously Art Deco, pink stars and spotlights, echoes of “Mickey’s Gala Premiere”. Beneath it, is a very major smoking stand, with a serious cast iron tail.
Slowly but surely, we’re dealing with Mickey. But we still have a long way to go.
MOUSE OVER TO REFLECT