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 could write a book about the first three puppets, and what it took to get them. I’ll try not to. Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, they belonged to a collector in Philadelphia. My friend, Al Horen took me to visit him. He was a sad man, with an anger in him, browbeaten by a wife who was a beauty operator, with the look of Trixie and the edgy personality of Alice on the Jackie Gleason Show. She smoked, chewed gum dramatically, and blabbed on the telephone, nonstop, all the while that we were there. They lived in a row house in Philly. This guy, whose name escapes me, was forced, by her, to keep his collection of, mostly, comic books in the basement, packed in cardboard cartons, in her laundry room. Out of one box, he pulled these puppets.
As they were so different than the other things that he’d amassed, I asked if he might ever sell them. He said, “maybe”. End of conversation! Several months later, he came to NYC, and dropped in to visit me. I learned that, later, he was ranting about the fact I had a college education. It was all so very strange. There was certainly nothing else about me that he could envy, so he ended up picking up on the fact that I had attended college, as if, sitting, for endless art school hours, drawing naked ladies, was the same thing as learning literature and history. He told Al, there was no way that he’d ever sell those puppets to me.
Meanwhile, one day, a stranger came to the front door of our apartment, beating on it loudly, and insisting that I let him in. Reciting his reputable resume, he refused to go away. His name was Robert. He was a stockbroker, and he was obsessed with collecting Mickey Mouse timepieces. And he was also obsessed with Robert Lesser, who was another collector of comic timepieces in NYC, those days. Robert number two was determined to beat Lesser to the goal of getting every Mickey Mouse watch ever made. And I had one he was obsessing over. Eunice had given it to me for Christmas, a Mickey Mouse lapel watch, in the box.
This guy proved to be the most relentlessly pushy compulsive individual I had ever met. One would need to invent a new word, several times stronger that “chutzpah,” to describe him. He was literally driving me crazy, as he obsessed, nonstop, about the watch. Finally, in a mixture of inspiration and exasperation, I came up with a brilliant plan! As this fellow had proven himself so persistent in working on me, I decided to sic him, and his powers of persuasion, on the man in Philly. And so, I made him a proposal: If he could get those puppets for me, he could have the watch! BINGO!
Robert bedeviled the guy in Philly, until he agreed to sell them to him, and set it up with him. But he insisted that I travel with him, to keep him company on the journey, as he didn’t want to ride the train alone. Of course, when he actually went to the guys home, I would have to lay low. Al, who lived in Philly, picked us up at the station, and drove Robert to the man’s house and dropped him off. Meanwhile, Al and I circled the block, ... for hours. Things were not going well, inside. Once Bob got there, the seller changed his mind. They nearly came to blows. Somehow, they thrashed it out, and I got the puppets. Bob got the watch!
The three puppets were my pride and joy. Here they are, hanging in our apartment in Manhattan. They, along with their original boxes, got their own tall showcase at the Bambergers Show. Although, the puppets were made by Hestwood, this set did not come from Bullock’s Wilshire, in California, like most examples that are known. The original price tags show that these were sold by Gimbals, in Philadelphia.
Several years later, on a sunny day at Brimfield, I acquired three more puppets. Horace, Clarabelle, and Donald. Later, that same day, I found a giant Knickerbocker Easter Mickey. This was the best Brimfield ever! In 1978 the entire set was displayed on this two page spread in an article in “Americana Magazine”.
Horace, Clarabelle, and Donald, who has a moving mouth, are, to date, the only examples known. A man in California, who sold me the celluloid Horace and Mickey, claims to have a Horace. Bernie Shine has a set of The Three Pigs, which are, also, the only examples known of those. A photo in an old playthings Magazine shows an audience of kids, wearing paper masks of the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Pigs, and the caption reads that they are watching a performance of the Three Little Pigs by the Hestwood Marionettes, so there must have been a wolf, as well.
Shortly after the article appeared, Bob Baker a well-known puppeteer and puppet maker, in LA, called me. He had copied and produced the Mickey and Minnies marionettes for sale at Disneyland, at a price nearly as high as what the originals cost me. He seemed like a nice guy. We spoke for 3 hours. He asked me to send him my puppets, so he could copy them for Disney. I said, “No way”. I was not willing to take a chance that anything would happen to them. But, on the other hand, if Disney would insure them and offer me something like another poster as compensation, I would lend them to him. Disney had already traded me several posters, in previous negotiations, so this request was not as farfetched as it might seem. Bob said, he didn’t see why not. It sounded like a good idea to him. He’d run it past them, and get back to me. I never heard from him again. He did copy the puppets, anyway, based on the photos in Americana Magazine. Why he made them 20”, twice as large as they should be, to go with his Mickey and Minnie, always mystified me.
When we moved here, the problem that I faced was how to protect the puppets for display, and at the same time not waste a lot of space for the strings! That is how this strange showcase came to be. To say that it is complicated would be an understatement! In it, the puppets stand on a makeshift stage. A spotlight casts their shadow on a curtain that has wrinkled, now, with age. It looked better in its early days. The stage floor is milk white Plexiglas, through which the lights that illuminate the row of Comic Nodders below, also shine above, to act as footlights. The puppets replicate their pose from the Americana page. Mickey and Minnie’s necks are strange. They are just a piece of elastic. I see that they stretched over the years. Like everything in this collection , they are in need of Tender Loving Care.
Now, we move up to the second tier. The objects here, must be seen through a gentle rain of puppet strings. They include another pair of Mickey and Minnie, I can’t resist these things! And three marionettes, Mickey Minnie and Pluto by Madam Alexander. There are also three tiny simple puppets made by Pelham. I got them at the JL. Hudson Company, in Detroit, for about a dollar each, in 1959. That was 53 years ago. The years sure have a way of creeping up on you. I just realized that, because they were not made in the 1930s, I still think of them as “New”.
Front and center on this tier, are a delicious pair of Steiff Mickey and Minnie. So pretty! The three dolls behind them are impressive, but elusive and offbeat. I have come to believe that the big one, in the middle, is the very rare Deluxe Velvet Knickerbocker that was only manufactured for one year. The Mickey, on the left, is one of those that George Borgfeldt came up with. And, that one, on the right, might be by Charlotte Clark. The age and look is right.
Now, at the risk of overkill and redundancy, let’s see how these two tiers combine. My good friend Dewey Owens was always mystified by the fact that Mickey Minnie and Clarabelle cast a shadow on the curtain, even though, there was no spotlight, that he could detect, positioned in the room before them. This curious glitch in his, otherwise, superior intellect always amused me. I considered the lighting obvious, and not intended to deceive. Amazingly, either he was kidding me, or he really never solved the mystery.
The other puppet strings continue up, into a hidden space, all part of this complex case. And they are, in turn, hidden by a narrow showcase that is not deep, and runs along the top, in front of these. There are some curious treasures in it, worth explaining. In the center is a rare premium, the Mickey Mouse Ice-cream Theater. It was a giveaway, and very early. Mickey is shown holding a cone. The same cones are pictured on the proscenium. To the left against the back wall of the case is an actual steel mold used to manufacture these cones, with the raised image of Mickey on them. Also, here, is the first Post Toasties box to feature Mickey Mouse cut outs, and a set of those first cut outs, cut out.
To the right, are a pair of Dixon pencil boxes of Mickey and Minnie. Next to them, is a fabulous pictorial box for Mickey Mouse Undies. In the front row, are more Maw toothbrush holders. I could never get too many of those. There’s, also, a German orchestra, slightly larger in size than a similar set, in the smaller black and white case. In each corner of the showcase, is a Mickey Mouse Jam jar. These jars, when empty, were intended to be used as banks. They are embossed with Disney characters, and have attractive slotted Mickey lids. Therefore, many of them were saved. But to find any, like these, with their graphically delicious labels, still there, is extraordinarily rare.
Now, let’s step back and see how all three tiers go together to complete the total unit, and how it integrates into the Wall. This will reveal some cases that we haven’t seen yet. But they are just a page or two away, so it won’t matter, now.
Next, well give Mickey Mouse and you a rest and move on to Popeye, at last. His page will be a big one! But,Thank Goodness, almost all the photographs are done! So the task may not prove to be a hard one, after all.