THE LOWER CASES
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
I can’t believe we’re half way done. This has turned out to be a bigger project than I anticipated. But a lot has been accomplished. It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle; the border has been finished, as well as some major areas of the interior. Now, it’s just a matter of filling in some empty spaces, and finding the right places for the remaining pieces. Some areas on the Great Wall have been ignored, until now. The time has come to catch them up. Those located, below the belt of Comic Nodders, I’m referring to as The Lower Cases.
I count them, roughly, as five, in all. Technically, there are six, but one really belongs with Popeye. And there is one other, that hibernated for many years, and blossomed when the Giant Mouse appeared. It is a big one. I’m tempted to include it here. I’ll see how the first five go, and then, play it by ear.
Starting from the left, the first showcase that we come to is this, a kind of catch all, without a theme. Damn! There are some great things here! I'm, already, tempted to photograph them separately. At that rate, I will never finish. In case you haven't noticed, I’m writing this in real time, thinking out loud, and going with whatever impulse moves me. Let’s look at the photo that I shot a few weeks ago.
Oh, WOW! The photo's more than adequate! I can post it almost life-size. But there also is a lot to say! So, before we get to the actual showcase, let me show this photo below. It is one of several known shots of Walt Disney, in the early years, surrounded by the very first Mickey Mouse merchandise! There are better shots of Walt than this that are printed in books, in which he isn’t covering as many of the objects. But this is an actual photo, and what one can see here, is clearer than any book would be.
I have studied the photos in this series for years, trying to discern and identify the mysterious objects that they show. It has always been a kind of challenge, and a guide, to try to find these treasures, or, at least, find out what they are. I have duplicated and discerned many. Many more, remain a mystery.
I could discuss this photograph for hours, from big things to little things, like the fact that they didn’t realize that a tiny Minnie they placed with the small stuff, above, is actually the Minnie from the Hurdy-Gurdy. The reason I posted the photo here, is because, on the floor at the back center, beyond the set of china, and in front of the box of hankies, tied with a ribbon, and the pictorial tray made by British Veterans, is the rare Mickey Mouse Doorstop that you can see, in person, front and center, in the showcase below. So far, I only know of two of these. Phil and Elaine Ellenbogen own the other. There are other Mickey Doorstops out there, but only this one was legitimately licensed by Walt Disney. And the Photo proves its authenticity.
In the background of the showcase, are the Mickey Minnie Paper Dolls. Then, top center, is the first Mickey doll, distributed by George Borgfeldt. It bears the original “NIFTY” label. Ironically, it’s held on by a gold “safety” pin. In those days, before child safety laws, that was about as safe as safety got. The smaller version is there, as well. The Spears Stencil Set is also in the Disney photo, only Walt is sitting in front of it in this pose, the smaller version is on the floor.
And then, there are two items in the case, above, that I adore. One is the exquisitely crouched Mickey, on the right , made, very early on, in Germany. This is an actual commercial product with eyes made of glass, and a custom tailored stand. It’s a miracle that he survived the War, with his vest that resembles a prayer shawl, he might have been thought to be a rabbi! All kidding aside, there is something powerful about this image, while quaint and charming, at the same time.
And then there is this wood jointed Popeye doll, that was made in Mexico. Of all the Popeye items that I owned, of which few, if any, proved to be unique, my favorite was a wood and composition doll of Wimpy, also made in Mexico. It is the only one that I or anyone had ever seen. I always dreamed of finding the other figures in what must have been a series.
Eventually the Popeye cases got so full that there was no space for Popeye left. The fact is, I couldn’t squeeze another in. And after having talked with an obsessive Popeye collector friend, on the phone for, sometimes, several hours every day, my head was starting to feel the same. Eventually I acquired a chronic case of Popeye fatigue.
This appears to be Phil Ellenbogen day. I just recalled that it was he who steered this Popeye doll my way! Finally a Fresh Face! Not only, was he a Popeye I had never seen, but one that Wimpy and I had fantasized about for years. Now, Ironically when he finally arrived, I couldn't find an inch of space, in any Popeye case, to squeeze him in. And so, he stands here with a door stop and a German rabbi in a lower case, where, at least, he can be seen.
Moving to the right one step, we come to a showcase that is Spectacular! It's filled with a crowd of dolls by Knickerbocker. Every time I met a Knickerbocker mouse that fell within the range of adequately ordinary to exquisitely extraordinary, I offered it an invitation, engraved on a blank check, to come and live at my house. As you can see, many did. There are some nice mice here, Bandleaders, Cowboys and a rare Cowgirl Minnie. In the center is a Marx Bros. of Boston Mickey Jack in the Box, with a Knickerbocker head. There is also a Wells Brimtoy Humming Top, in a lovely box, and a colorful six piece bisque orchestra, made in Germany. Mickey did not make a hit with Hitler. Therefore, his life in Germany was short lived. But he did the best he could with limited time. Here is a Mickey Minnie Handcar, English style, by Wells Brimtoy, as well. And, last of all, two rather rare yellow wood and composition Mickey dolls.
The next showcase is frozen in time. I always found it pleasing to my eye. So, it has remained unchanged for 30 years. I remember when I got that drum. It was at Schupp’s Grove in 1968. A young couple beat me to it. I had little money then, but they had even less than me. So I managed to talk them into selling it to me. None of us knew, then, how rare it would prove to be? The tin drum, itself, is stunning with its dramatic image of Mickey Bursting out of the front. It was, most likely, manufactured for Borgfeldt by Chein. Even the original drumsticks are here.
The showcase itself is lined with the cutout panels from Post Toasties cereal boxes. In the bleak days of the Depression. these images offered the children of an impoverished nation a wealth of playthings they could afford. There are also a trio of dolls, all distributed, early on, by Borgfeldt. Two are by Steiff, and the third, on the right, is one of the even earlier types. Below these, on either side, are a pair of Mickey and Minnie folk art wooden door stops, and in the lower corners of the case, are a pair of ceramic banks made in France. It is interesting, the way the figures interact. Minnie, adopts a pose that is alluring, fluttering her eyelashes and a fan. Clearly, Mickey is intrigued.
In the very center of the case, is a group of extraordinary things: A Steiff Mickey on a go-cart, as nice an example as I have ever seen. Next to him, is a European variation of the Mickey Tin Drummer, with an expression that is unique. This is in its original plain brown box. Leaning against one wheel of Mickey’s scooter is a precious tin Mickey pin. When one attaches it to their lapel and pulls on Mickey’s tail, he tips his hat. More precious still, is a teeny tiny pair of Mickey and Minnie dolls. They are hand crocheted. Mickey looks slightly distraught, and exclaims, Oy Vey! Minnie holds the baby.
This lower case couldn’t be more out of the way. Nonetheless, it holds some interesting things: A graphically stunning target game by Marx Bros. dominates the case. I think I must have every Mickey thing they ever made. Unfortunately, most of it is packed away. They were the manufacturer who offered the World most of the most exciting Mickey Graphics, in the early days. On either side, are two smaller variations of Spears stencil sets, and in front of those, a curious pair of pull toys, Mickey and Pluto, made in France. In spite of the fact that they are marked and “Manufactured”, they were entirely made by hand.
There are a pair of telephones by the Gong Bell Toy Company. I always found the things they made perplexing, pull toys, toy telephones etc., all heavy objects, made of steel. They were so strong one could drive a truck over them and not put a dent in them. On the other hand, the key element, on each, the Mickey Mouse, itself, was always just a fragile piece of cardboard. Of note, also in this case, is an Ingersoll watch display card, with the very watch it was intended to display, as well as a small wooden Mickey, manufactured to display a Mickey pocket watch. Moving right along, we come to a Santa/ Mickey Hand Car, made by Lionel Trains. I keep its unattractive box upstairs. And, in front of all of this, is a selection of glazed porcelain odds and ends, made in Germany and Japan.
In the far corner of the Wall, is an often overlooked showcase. The potpourri of objects in it, all deserve a better place. Many are good old, old fashioned, characters out of the funny papers. In the upper left corner, is a large Mickey doll from France, and then, two more Felix the Cats, One of which is staring at a unique effigy of a “Cady Bug”, by Harrison Cady. At the very top, is the absolutely awesome Scarecrow. Close to 100 years old, he looks like he was made yesterday. Well talk about him when we get to the Oz page. Next to him, is a pristine mint, large and impressive doll of the Matador from the Disney short, Ferdinand. Like the Three Little Pigs, this seven minute Silly Symphony generated a sizeable amount of merchandise.
Moving down, we come to a selection of Barney Google and Spark Plug things: The best pair of dolls of them that were made. a highly stylized perfume bottle, and a match holder. Only Rube Goldberg could conceive of a more elaborate way to hold a box of matches. And then, is a rather amazing doll of Happy Hooligan. He’s not only good looking, which would be more than enough for me, he has a unique feature, one on the cutting edge of early 20th Century technology. When the bottle he holds in his hand is raised to his lips, his nose lights up, bright red! Miraculously, it still operates today, in spite of the fact that there is no way to change the bulb.
This has amounted to more writing and reading than I thought. So, I’ll leave that other big showcase, I mentioned earlier, for the Giant Mickey page, and move on to “The Puppet Case”.