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
In 1919, Elzie Segar created a comic strip called “Thimble Theater”. It involved the day-to-day adventures of Olive Oyl, her boyfriend Ham Gravy, and her family, Olive’s brother Castor Oyl, her Father Cole Oyl and her Mother Nana Oyl. Ten years later, in 1929, a Sailor, named, "Popeye" made a cameo appearance for a day, and never went away. Suddenly, he was the star attraction, and the strip took off.
Popeye became a star in the toy industry as well. He was first championed by the J. Chein Company, who introduced a comprehensive line of Popeye toys that might be considered the “Classics.” The dynamic cover of the 1932 Chein catalogue really said it all. I could have owned this two page brochure for an ungodly price, but, at the time, I opted, instead, to have a large colored copy of the cover made, and framed. I can’t beleive I am going to try to photograph it, and reduce it, to show it to you here. It depicts a stage with all the Thimble theater characters, lined up, ten years’ worth of them, an impressive lot, with Popeye right in the middle of the line, audaciously exclaiming, "I suspose yer all susprised on account of me bein' center."
There is one oddball product that captures this moment in time. This Thimble Theater figure painting set. The box cover art was, obviously, "inspired" by the cover of the Chein brochure. Unlike a similar painting set, made by the same manufacturer, based on “Our Gang”, the box never included a die cut theater, beyond the picture on the cover. Therefore, here it is, complete with everything, all the paints and the unpainted figures, most of whom, except for Olive Oyl and Popeye, never appeared as toy products again.
I painted the figures from a second set, which you see here. I took great care to try to replicate the delicacy of the German Comic Nodders, while, at the same time, remaining faithful to the colors on the box. This small showcase also contains a Popeye doll by the Paris Novelty Company, and is lined with an exciting cut out book of "Popeye Funny Films".
This is the point, at which Popey's career, as a future collectible, began. The earliest products of importance were those by Chein, and the repertoire of Chein Popeye products, for some collectors, became the building blocks, upon which a meritorious Popeye collection needed to be based. Getting these items in their original graphically interesting boxes became a goal that serious Popeye collectors strove to reach. It is a goal that, by the way, I never chased.
Popeye led several interrelated, but separate lives. As a Comic strip, he was one thing, reflected in the toys by Chein. And he was quite another entity as a Movie Star. The coming of the cartoons changed everything. For those who might find this interesting, here is the first Popeye cartoon. It captures a rare moment in time. There’s a lot of historic precedent packed into these seven minutes. We are not only introduced to Popeye, but we hear his theme song, “Im Popeye the Sailor Man”, in its entirety. This tune, beginning here, stuck with him, throughout his long career. The plot pattern for almost every Popeye cartoon to follow, six hundred of them, is set, right here, as well. It’s simple: Bluto, attempts to molest Olive Oyl, Popeye tries to save her, in vain, eats spinach, beats the crap out of Bluto in... “The End!” The cartoon packs all this in, and also manages to squeeze in Betty Boop as well. It is on the list of “Banned Cartoons” on You Tube. Why, that would be is a mystery to me. Perhaps, the censors found Betty’s topless hula dance too titillating! Curiously, even though, Mae Questel starred in the film as Betty Boop, she hadn’t, yet, become the voice of Olive Oyl.
Now, Bluto became a subject of the toys as well. Popeye and Bluto fought on celluloid in the movies, and figures of them, made of celluloid, now fought as toys. The comic strip and the cartoons coexisted, each in their own parallel universe. Bluto appeared, only briefly, in one episode of the comic strip, but he became the co-star of almost every film. Wimpy was hardly ever seen on screen, but he became a major character, based on his popularity in the funny papers.
This showcase contains the heart of Mouse Heaven's Popeye collection. It's not as Heavenly as that of the Mouse! All the other Popeye cases in the house, and there are several, only exist to hold the things that couldn’t fit in here. The content of this case grew, over the years, until it overflowed and spilled out everywhere. But, for the most part, my favorite Popeye things are here.
Starting, from the left to right, most of the Chein toys are represented. The Overhead Punching Bag, with the, somewhat scarce, Tin Drummer, standing on its canopy. Then, the regular Punching Bag, and, higher up, is the Chein Sparkler. Marx' Popeye and Olive, dancing on the Roof are tucked in there, somewhere. Next are 3 Chein dolls, two small, one large with an original box with art by Segar. Behind the taller Popeye, in the middle, is the Marx Popeye The Champ. The Chein Heavy Hitter is farther to the right. Along the back, are a series of dolls by Cameo that are a little later. They were created by Kallus too. Each is a beautifully articulated work of art! In the right corner, starting in the middle, is a small group of images that are of relative rarity.
In 1935, Chein lost the Popeye license to Louis Marx and Company, and the second wave of Popeye toys began. The Marx boxes were less refined than those by Chein. The difference in appearance in the package for the Chein doll, drawn by Segar, and Popeye The Champ from Marx, in the middle of the case, is a case in point. Looking down from here, we can see the Chein doll, circa 1932, It is strung with springs, rather than elastic, as is the smaller one, on the left. His box features art by Segar; not so, the Marx toys. In the very front, are several Popeye Razor blades, fromSpain. We see also a Popeye Pocket Watch, and a colorful Harmonica, and to the right, are a pair of dolls that are among my favorite things.
Popeye and Olive Oyl, by the Paris Novelty Company. This is the only known example of Olive. How can I put this? The idea of any Popeye item being rare, is rare, because there seems to be an endless supply of everything, out there! I have come to believe that "only known examples" of Popeye things, are few and far between.
And, last of all, in the very corner. past the Hazels Marionettes, which are scarce enough, is what was my favorite Popeye thing for years, and still is, to some degree, the wood and composition jointed doll of Wimpy. I later deduced that it was made in Mexico.
Looking back on all the years, dollars, and precious time I spent on Popeye, one would never suspect that he was not a major thing for me. It’s true that I once pursued him with, seemingly, the same appetite and intensity as I did Mickey. But I was really playing a different game, when it came to Popeye. Mickey and most of Disney was all about the LOOK to me. It was a purely visual thing. In the early days, I could safely advertise for Pie-cut Mickey, and have a reasonable expectation that whatever surprise arrived in the mail, sight unseen, stood a good chance of pleasing me aesthetically.
Popeye, and Donald Duck, each in their sailor suits, and I might add the Warner brothers crew, Bugs Bunny and Company, were playing in a different league. The essence of their appeal was not their looks, although, they were well drawn and conceived, it was all about their personality. It is the subtle difference between "Art" and "illustration". One is about form and color, plain and simple, the other is more about telling a story. Nonetheless, Popeye was visually interesting, to some degree, as was early long billed Donald. Popeye was most exciting to me in the form of dolls created by my favorite toy artist, Joseph Kallus. He did some dolls for Chein, based on the Comic strip, and just a little later, he designed dolls for his own company Cameo, influenced more by Popeye the Movie Star. Each has a very different look, but both are great.
Let’s take a break. Here is a pleasant item I don’t want to leave out. It is a delightful sketch of Popeye that Segar drew for a fan named, Bob Hamilton, on a genuine piece of King Features Syndicate stationery. The date is unknown, but the characters shown might offer some clue.
Now, we'll travel, down a few feet, to the last of the lower cases, on the Great Wall. Then we will head upstairs. This case contains a few dolls and a nice wood walking toy, as well as, two Fisher Price pull toys. The seated Popeye was the first Popeye toy they made. It might be, somewhat, rare. There is one toy here that has always said a lot to me about collecting Popeye. It is a totally surreal pull toy, a little late, and kinda cheesy, and the premise is ridiculous. If this thing was ever pulled along a sidewalk it would self-destruct in a few minutes, as it is intended to be dragged along, lying on its back. This impractical object was made by an improbable manufacturer, Line-Mar, better known for late Japanese tin windup toys. Paper on wood is out of character for them, to say the least.
I had a friend who put together what, at the time, I was convinced might have been the best Popeye collection. Then, for reasons unknown, he took it apart again, and most of the pieces were sold. But, in its heyday, it was great! And, he either had, or, at least had seen, virtually everything. Thus, his collecting was confined to finding trifles, as he already had almost every major piece. The chance of discovering anything unknown, of major magnitude, seemed slim. He found this pull toy to be the most interesting thing in my collection. That said a lot, to me about collecting Popeye. Of course, it didn’t stop me.
I knew this page was going to be big, so the Jeep will have a small page of his own. I’ll add a showcase in the hall to that, as it has one small Jeep in it. Now, well go upstairs. In an area at the back, is a large showcase that’s full of this and that, much of which relates to Popeye. I’ll describe some of the other things as well.
The large central object in this case is hand made in the shape of a cross. It is a Popeye Carnival Game, in which one tries to toss a ball into the holes to win a prize. At the top, on the left side, is a rather primitive, but powerful Popeye mask. I got this from a costume supply in NYC, very early on. It caught my eye in their front window, as I was walking past. On the right, is the most complete Popeye kids costume I’ve ever seen. It has the hat and pipe, and most interesting, the tattooed lower arms! Moving down, we find an item that is slightly unsettling, the Popeye Flyswatter! It even comes with a cutout play figure of Popeye swatting flies. What fun!
In the center of the showcase, is a large unusual Popeye doll, origin unknown; it’s not homemade. There are several more Kallus designed Popeye dolls, hanging around. That strange square thing is the prototype for a toy I made called, “Tummy Ache”, voted the worst toy of the year, in 1981. On the left, is the awesome Captain Marvel Doll. He was my favorite superhero, as a kid. Hoppy the Marvel Bunny peeks over his shoulder. Yes I know! He should be better displayed. This showcase illustrates the fact that I’ve run out of space. The cardboard jointed Popeye, holding a fan, is actually quite rare. There is a plaster Popeye thinker, and a jointed Jaymar Popeye, on its original card. To the right, is an elegant carnival figure of Wimpy, eating hamburgers, and an oilcloth Orphan Annie doll. Who knew she owned another dress? And along the bottom, is the complete set of King Features sirocco figures. I got them all in one fell swoop, the happy result of one of my earliest attempts to sneak into a show. Oh, how could I overlook the Dopey ventriloquist doll, the dumbest toy I know? With it, a kid could master the art of ventriloquism instantly, due to the fact that Dopey doesn’t speak.
OK! There is one more Popeye case to go. This stuff will look familiar to anyone who has ever collected Popeye. But there are a few “fresh” items. I’ll point them out. In the background, is the rarer of the three Popeye tin lithographed games. Many a "Bubble Target" and “Popeye Menu” met my eyes, before I ever laid them on this "Popeye Ring Toss." Then, there’s a Popeye sailboat, and another flyswatter, and, in the center, an ugly Popeye doll by Deans, and the largest Popeye Celluloid I’ve seen. It's standing, behind a 16 page comic, called, “Coozing Around the World with Popeye” I have no idea what “coozing” means. In front of that, a Spanish Popeye plays an accordion.
Let’s look at this, from another angle. If one sinks low enough, everything looks monumental. One can pick out the cast iron door stop, some plaster carnival prizes’ and some interesting cutouts, on the far wall.
From the other side, one sees three small cast iron figures, a Popeye battery operated toy, the only one I own, and the rather rare Popeye Puppet Show. The silver statue, in the center, is a corkscrew, and next to it, is a folk art Popeye in a barrel.
Last but not least, I’m moving in on another favorite, another Popeye doll by Paris Novelty, but this time, while Olive Oyl is still downstairs, Popeye is out with Betty Boop. Oh, by the way, check out that fan that Betty’s holding, Is that Mickey Mouse I see?
With one more look at these refreshingly fresh images, we’ll bid this showcase, goodbye, and take a look around the house. There are a few more Popeyes, to be seen!
On the platform by the chimney, is an interesting pair of Popeye figures. Both of them are walking toys. The large one, sitting down, was homemade. It is a rather inspired piece of folk art, carved of wood, with clothing that is all original. A rod in Popeye’s back controls the walking motion. The smaller folk art Mickey, next to him, is based on the same principle. The other walking Popeye doll is European. Its concept and construction is complex and interesting. It’s made from a variety of materials: wood, composition, and, inside, there is some intricate machinery. Aided by a helping hand, he toddles along, balancing precariously, not unlike a baby, taking its first steps. His arms and head are animated, as well. Europe brought some interesting Popeye items into the collection, but, unlike Mickey, not that many. Here too, is a pair of Popeye and Olive dolls, carefully crocheted, and permanently attached to their base. They were also made in Europe, where handwork, like this, was often considered “manufacturing”.
The stylized Popeye head on the left, with a neck that screws in tight, is ... I’m not sure what! It’s, either, some kind of bottle opener, or a torture device. The long face on the right, belongs to Bil Baird’s Heathcliff. We’ll see more of him, later.
Here are two items, pictured together, simply because they are both tall and thin. On the left, is an oddity that I only encountered one time, in 40 years. Because of its unusual size, I have to believe it might be as rare, as it is unwieldy. This is a punch-out book, in which the front and back cover, themselves, oversized, combine to create a Popeye paper doll, three feet high! On the right, is an elegant folk art whirligig. It is difficultto date this piece. But the bottom of the base displays the evidence of many years, outdoors, rotating in the wind.
This weathervane is an unlikely pairing of characters from two different strips, Segar’s Popeye and “Major Hoople,” from “Our Boarding House” by Gene Ahern. They meet to saw wood together, in this exquisite animated folk art weathervane. Its rich and radiant patina glows with the inimitable aura of age, and tells a tale of countless years, outdoors, in every kind of weather.
I can’t believe I hesitated to acquire this treasure. One Friday at Brimfield, I circled it all day, trying to overcome an aversion to its asking price. Could I afford it? Could I afford to live without it? I couldn’t decide, and didn’t, in fact, make up my mind, until I went back, one last time, and it was gone! There’s nothing like missing an item, due to your own hesitation, to make you wish that you had bought it! I sheepishly asked the dealer about it. He had merely started packing up and put it away. Yes, Oh, yes, it was still available! Now it sits, in the middle of the coffee table, where I enjoy it, every day.
Will we ever finish this page? One thing leads to another. Speaking of Major Hoople, he makes one other appearance in Mouse Heaven, in the form of this mysterious ashtray. Was this object manufactured, or was it home made? The cast metal figure, with its intricately tooled brass mechanism, and a custom made glass stopper, leaves little doubt that it must have been the former. On the other hand, the subject matter, and the limited possibilities for retailing an object of this nature, in an almost Victorian era, suggests that it should have been, the latter.
To operate this appliance, one must, first, prepare it, by removing the glass stopper. Then fill Major Hoople’s body with water. Now he’s ready! When it’s time to extinguish a burning cigarette, one need only place it in the ashtray. Then, press the lever on Major Hoople’s back, and a hidden faucet suddenly appears. When fully extended, It automatically emits a stream of water to dramatically douse the flame.
Another folk art object that is related to both Popeye and the putting out fires, Is this huge handsome glass goblet. It was apparently created as a tribute to the “Reading Hose and Fire Company”. Painted on the exterior we see many of our favorite Comic Characters, Popeye and Olive, Jiggs and Maggie, etc. When viewed from the inside, we encounter the same characters, unencumbered by their clothing.
Here, at last, we get to the final Popeye Item, one that seems to impress everyone, this spectacular display for Popeye Sunshine Cookies. Popeye is die cut from heavy cardboard. On his shoulders, he balances a plank. Hanging from this, are six colorful boxes of Popeye Sunshine Biscuits, each one with a different set of images. Everything about this object is original and complete, including the cookies. Each box was full of hundreds of broken pieces, all of the original cookies. Every single crumb was there! They just needed to be reassembled. Would you believe I solved this monumental jigsaw puzzle, using “Crazy Glue?” The cookies continue behind the base of the display, adding up to 26, in all, each different. They portray all the Thimble Theater Characters, from “Alice the Goon” to “Wimpy!” Now, each one is absolutely “Perfik!” And I have become an aficionado on “How the Cookie Crumbles!”