COMIC CAROUSEL FIGURES
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 discovered this photograph, the other day, among a bunch of slides. It shows the Carousel figures of Mickey and Minnie as they appeared, the first, or second time I saw them, at Madison Square Garden, or the Armory Show, in NYC. I never traveled with a camera, and I doubt that the show would even allow one. I don’t know how I got this Photo.
But, I do remember the encounter. It was like meeting that first cast iron bank at the Paris Flea Market, in 1958, all over again. Now, the year was 1972. We had had been living in the country for two years, and the collection was still packed up. Nonetheless, I continued to collect. Mickey Mouse and Comic Characters remained relatively inexpensive. And I had become a Master Mouse Hunter. My secret method to detect them was the rule of Pie Cut eyes! All “good” old Mickeys had them. All “bad” new ones did not! I would take a chance on buying a mouse, sight-unseen, if the seller described it as having pie-cut eyes. Mickeys with eyeballs were what I considered “new” (and still do). They were off the menu! Now, here I was, once again, confronting, not one, but two interesting sculptures, and my pie-cut eye rule was placing them out of bounds. But, I had to admit, as works of art, I found them fascinating.
All of this was academic, because the asking price was ridiculous. I proclaimed that, even if I were a millionaire, I still would never spend $3,000 on that pair. I wasn’t the only one who thought that way. I saw them at two different shows, and, obviously, they weren’t going anywhere.
In the summer of the following year I was contacted by an ad agency that was planning a Christmas Show for Bamberger's Department store in Newark New Jersey, celebrating Mickey Mouse’s 40th birthday. My collection was still packed away, and our lives remained in disarray. So, I explained that I could not participate. But from the things they said on the phone, I could see that they didn’t know much about Mickey Mouse. Therefore, I invited them to visit my house for a complimentary crash course in Mickey. A few days after the occasion, they called and offered me $3,500, if I would loan them my collection, for a few weeks in December. I really liked the people, but I turned the offer down. I guess you see where this is going. But I sincerely meant it! It simply wasn’t worth the money to me to unpack the whole collection, and imperil it in Newark, which at that time, was the most troubled city in New jersey. So, I gave them the names and addresses of my some of collector friends and suggested that they contact them.
A few weeks later, I was walking through one of the antiques centers in Manhattan, when I noticed the woman, who always shared a booth with the man who owned the wooden mice. We got into a conversation, and I asked, in passing, if her friend still had them. Yes. he did, and she very emphatically proclaimed that his price had gone up! It was, now, firmly fixed at $3,500! I found that rather comical. if something doesn't sell, raise the price! I also learned he was her husband! She gave me their card.
Driving home, along the Palisades Parkway, a wild thought occurred to me: What I wouldn’t do for money, I would consider doing for Mickey! I considered it all the way home, and by the time I got there, I had made up my mind. So, I went right to the phone and called my friend at the ad agency, and proposed the following: If they were still interested in using my collection, I would be willing to do it for No money. Just get me those two mice! This offered a double benefit, as they would also enhance the show!
Without a second's hesitation, he replied, “Its a deal!” And for good measure, it was agreed that when the show was over, I would get to keep any cabinets that were custom made. Oh, and there was one more thing, a Snow White cel that was in a local antique shop. It was not expensive, but would look good as part of the display. He gladly said OK. Remember this was 1973, I didn’t realize, at the moment, that the cel that caught my eye, in a humble shop in Newburgh, for a relatively modest price, was actually the ultimate Snow White cel of all time.
So here are the two figures as the appeared at Bambergers. They really looked terrific!
Meanwhile, I learned more about the carvings. They had been the crowning decorations on a French Carousel. I had no concept of the iconography of Mickey, European style, in 1973, so I didn’t realize that my rule, regarding Pie-cut eyes, might not apply. These objects could have been patterned after the rolling eyes on the first English Mickey dolls by Deans, circa 1930. Not that it mattered, for I had taken yet another step forward, and embraced these works of art for what they were, Works of Art!
In the months before the show, my little hands were busy unpacking things, and listing them for the insurance policy that Bambergers intended to take out with, would you believe, Lloyds of London. Meanwhile, my little mind was working overtime, thinking up creative ways to display them, ways that required lots of fancy frames and complex custom cabinetry. I’d call up, every other day, with another bright idea and the Bambergers embraced them all. They really let out all the stops, and spared no expense on the show.
The culmination of this came when I convinced them that they needed a set of giant Mickey furniture, faithful reproductions of the 1934 originals, enlarged, beyond adult size. I had the patterns already drawn up, as it was a project I hoped to do myself, someday. Bambergers loved the idea and got their wood shop to make the parts, and then send up the blank panels for me to paint. OY! They arrived here late, with only a week to go, before the show! I worked on them night and day. Somewhat, afraid that if I didn’t get them done, I’d be billed for the carpentry. But I finished them in time for Bambergers to pick them up and assemble them, down there, without a day to spare.
The show was successful. Some notable Mickey Mouse collectors and authors got their start right there. And, as Promised, after it was over, the Mice, the frames, the showcases and the furniture all came back here. And here the mice are now, newly arrived. It is the spring of 1974. They are the first of many more Carousel figures to follow, standing proudly in the bleak and barren schoolroom that would, one day, become “Mouse Heaven”
With the Great Wall to be, behind them, and the newly fabricated furniture gathered around them, soon to be scattered all around the house, the Carousel figures stand on a pedestal made from a pair of shipping crates that, eventually, will be replaced by an 800 pound sub-woofer. I’ve sat before that unit, listening to music, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, right up to the present time, and, all the while, my eyes have endlessly traced every curve and nuance of these sculptures. The more I looked at them the more I admired them, the bulbous forms, the insane ears, seen with abstract objectivity as oval orbs. No matter how many times I saw them, I never grew tired of them.
With the coming of the Kennedy International toy Show, American collectors discovered the Old World. For me, it proved to be a whole New World of Comic imagery. And the leading European dealers, who dabbled, from time to time, in Comic Characters soon discovered me. Once they did, dabbling often turned to “specializing”, finding “special” things for me.
Many of the most spectacular objects in Mouse Heaven, especially those that came from France, are here thanks to one man, Pierre Boogaerts. Pierre is a far seeing insightful dealer author artist. He wrote the first book on collecting Robots in 1978, years before they were popular. Having done that, he moved on to the next up and coming thing. Pierre was always years ahead of everybody in forecasting trends. And I am thankful that he focused his amazing powers of discovery on finding treasures to offer me. Anything in Mouse Heaven that is big and spectacular, and French, is, no doubt, here, thanks to Pierre. Especially, the parade of Carousel Figures that he steered my way.
They are located throughout the house. At rough count, I believe there are 11, in all. A few came from other sources, but those that are, by far, the most spectacular, came from Pierre. Charlie Chaplin, who we have met elsewhere, Is arguably the most exquisite. He was in Pierre’s own collection, for many years, before he intrusted him to me.
Charlie came from a carousel in Belgium. Possibly, by the same carver as this rather serious looking Popeye. Charlie was in incredible condition when I got him. He has never been repainted. This is unusual, unheard of really, most carousel figures got a new coat of paint, every year. And with each coat, a chapter in its history was covered over. This can be, either horrible, or attractive. In Popeye’s case, it was a disaster. Beneath one ugly color after another, the real Popeye was hiding. Every time I looked at him, he bugged me, and begged me, to set him free.
One really should not attempt to remove these coats of paint, because there is no stopping, no separating the layers; one leads right into the other. But Popeye was different. A little exploration revealed that his original surface was oil paint that had been coated with shellac, several times, in the years, before the odious repainting began. This created a barrier that, I hoped, would protect the bottom layers from the solvents necessary to remove the more recent coats of paint. And so, I undertook the task. The result was spectacular. What you see here, is Popeye’s original surface, fully revealed, with absolutely no retouching! Why someone saw fit to paint over it, in the first place, is a mystery.
Here is a photo, shot, several years ago, of Popeye, eyeing some of his relatives.
This second Popeye figure is also from Belgium. It is considerably more recent, but still old. This is a popular configuration that was mass produced, as opposed to the last, which was carved by hand. The image of Popeye, riding on a rocket has been used everywhere, on everything, from carousels to individual coin operated rides. I like its slick and elegant styling. His patina is now half original with no over painting remaining, from the butt up. After days of meticulous scraping, Popeye and I, both, agreed that the bright blue on his lower pants, and the remaining bright red on the rocket, is actually quite pretty, with little to be gained, visually, by removing it. So, we left it as it was.
I always preferred this elegant Olive Oyl, to her companion piece downstairs. She rides her rocket, gracefully, beneath the skylight in my studio. And is, apparently, the rarer of the pair. Check out the sweeping curvature of her back, the lyrical bending of her knees, echoed by the soles of her enormous feet, the flamboyant flourish of her hair. Even the metal handle curves curvaceously. This is an exquisite sculpture, sensuously stylized and sophisticated, voluptuously realized in wood. Even in her "Reel Life", Olive never looked this good!
The rest of the carousel figures you are about to see are all from France. There are two Mickeys, bending over. They are intended to carry a single rider. The styling is obviously the same as the pair of standing figures that appeared at Bambergers. They might even have come from the same carousel. One is perched on the balcony wall, beside the stereo.
Be careful Mickey! Don’t look down!
The second Mickey is tucked in, beside the spiral staircase, waiting, in the dark at the top of the stairs, for someone to ascend, and turn on all the lights, up there.
Ducking out of sight, behind the corner of the the bell tower, we find a French Donald Duck. He is one of the French Carousel family. Disney characters appeared on French Carousels, frequently, and illegally, throughout the 1930s. I have been told that small independently owned carousels were a familiar sight, often located out by the Gates of Paris. Some may still be there today. I regret the fact that I never encountered one of these, in my brief year there. That is yet another item, along with the Mona Lisa, that I must add to the list of sights I didn’t see.
Flying over the Great Hall, is Mickey in an airplane. The coded message on his license plate translates to read "The Ace of Aces." I have this wired to the stereo, so that the wing lights illuminate when it is played. They’re on a lot, all day! In the sky beyond him we get a preview peek at some Old King Cole Displays.
And Now, the Best Carousel Figure of all! Pierre bid on this for me in a French auction. He is all original. Some of his many coats of paint are flaking, and he was much better looking when I got him, but I am not touching anything. Like me, he is deteriorating. We are both hanging on together. He was actually cut right out of the carousel. A portion of the original floor, itself, including the wheel housing, is still firmly attached to his feet. When mounted on the carousel, Mickey would have been pulling a cart or rickshaw, with a passenger in the seat.
There must have also been leather reins, for the metal bridle, to which they were attached, is still clentched between his teeth.
Mickey’s legs are cast iron; all the rest is made of wood. The carvers metal plaque is still attached to his foot. The styling of this Mickey Monument is outrageous, and utterly unconventional! His grinning teeth and lolling tongue are audacious. His feet are like sausages. His body is round and enormous. His arms are sharp, with elbows pointed. And his amazing ears resemble something out of King Neptune’s Realm.
“Wow! This was worth waiting for!” says he.
“A jaw dropping display of Electricity!’
This Gargantuan collection of unexpected elements has a fierce, and, frightening, presence. He is a Giant among mice, a Colossus of the Carousel. Nonetheless, with mighty Mickey towering over me, I bravely broached the subject of his skin condition, and suggested the possibility of enhancing it cosmetically, offering him a choice of anything, from a minor make-over to a “Lifetime Lift”? As you might remember, I have an aptitude for restoration.
Mickey looked down at me, menacingly. He rolled his scary pie-cut eyes, and gnashed his terrible teeth, and said, “What! Don’t you like the way I look?”
“No! I love it!” I replied. “I was just asking! Never mind!”
“I yam what I yam!” I heard him exclaim. Comic Characters always say the same thing. Then, flashing a big toothy grin, this awesome effigy, I always called “The Walking Mickey”, gently warned me, “I can be friendly, But Keep Your Hands Off Me!” and walked away.