THE BIG MICKEY DOLL
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
Unabashed idolatry of Mickey requires an idol worthy of adulation. That is where “The Big Doll” comes in. Second, only, to the gigantic 1930s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloon, in terms of pure raw overwhelming awesomeness, is the Big Mickey Mouse doll, created by Charlotte Clark, very early on. This imposing figure was once the official surrogate and stand-in, whenever Mickey Mouse was required to appear in person. That being with Walt Disney, himself, or in multiple locations at movie theaters and special occasions, anywhere, across the nation.
And, because these imposing idols were handmade, each one looked a little different, at least, to an eye trained in observing every Minute variation in the constantly changing image of the Great God Mickey. Some were downright perfect, like those that appear with Disney, in this two page spread in this 1935 article in Playthings Magazine.
Others were almost comically strange and skinny, like the pair offered here in the 1935 Mickey Mouse Christmas Campaign Book for the relatively high price, of $50 each!.
But, wherever this big doll appeared, it emitted a radiating presence that inspired admiration. One of my favorite photos is this image of The Big Doll, appearing with a group of children, in conjunction with a Bread campaign.
Later that same day, he was presented at a gala event, celebrating the same.
Mickey Mania diminished and faded, in the late thirties, to disappear almost entirely in the 1940s. As Mickey Mouse was pushed aside by newer Disney properties, personal appearances, and the big dolls that made them, were no longer required. And so, these dolls, made in unknown quantities, disappeared. Some, it is hoped, went into hiding, and survived.
Never in my wildest dreams, as a collector, did I think that I would ever own one. It is a Fantasy! And, in the end, that is all that it might be. The truth is, even though, I actually got one, I’m not really sure I own one; I mean a real one. But what I do have fills the space, visually and emotionally, in my heart, in my collection, and in this large showcase.
A number of these dolls have appeared, relatively recently. The one above, is one of those. The expression “Too Good to be True” might apply to all of them. For in a masterstroke of irony, the very thing that, in the eyes of some, might appear to be their greatest asset, the fact that all of them are pristine MINT, becomes, for others, the foremost element that casts doubt upon their authenticity. They look, feel, and, indeed, might be, brand new! The fact that each successive one is a little different, as if, someone, out there, is constantly trying to get it right, adds to the mystery. And, a Mystery, is just exactly what it is.
The bottom line is, I have not solved this mystery, and barring some great revelation, I don’t believe I ever will. But, just for the fun of it, I’ll share some of the clues with you.
Several years ago a multi-zillionaire declared that he wanted to put together the World’s best collection of Comic Characters. What the allure of that might be, beats me! But that was his desired goal. Like a great vacuum cleaner he sucked up every Comic Character Collectible that was not nailed down. Being that he knew absolutely nothing about the subject, dealers and collectors, alike, came out of the woodwork, and offered him everything, at three or more times the going price. He was reputed to have stated that his greatest pleasure was seeing grown collectors cry, when he took their toys away, with the power of his dollars. Some, on the other hand, have suggested that they might have, actually, been laughing ... all the way to the bank.
This feeding frenzy culminated in the purchase of one of the several known pairs of ruby slippers. Then he clicked his heels together, and went back to Kansas, I mean St. Louis. And having all but ruined the hobby, he sold the whole thing off, at multiple auctions, for a fraction of the sucker prices he had paid. Those "Rare" items that he had overpaid for, so outrageously that he could never recoup a fraction of his money, he reportedly retained.
Among the items he acquired was a series of six or so Mickey mouse dolls that were claimed to be from the Charlotte Clark estate. Each was mint. Each was about 20 inches tall. And each was a little different. Although, they all looked like they had been sewn, at the same time, they traced the development of the doll's styling, from Charlotte’s first version, to later ones, with narrow hips, etc. I only saw them in a photograph, but the story that I heard was puzzling. One aspect of it that I filed away, was the statement that the place of origin of these dolls was Las Vegas.
There was also one doll in the “set” that more than all the others, set off alarms in me. The final doll in the lineup was one, rendered in black and white! That sent me a signal that there was something seriously suspect about them. It wasn’t merely black and white, as the earliest Mickeys were, in Europe, but it was rendered in various shades of gray, as if one took a black and white photograph of a full color doll. This is a totally modern concept, one only sees this historically and intuitively incorrect and cutesy sort of thing in Disney shops, today, as an attempt to create clever variations.
Several years later, a young man in Las Vegas offered, one after another, some dolls, reputed to be Charlotte Clarks, on eBay. The first looked slightly off to me. The second was more convincing. I bid on it, and bought it, as it was an odd size, 22 inches. In person, it was puzzling. There was not only a strange look about it, but what really was unsettling was the fact that the wires in the legs ended at the ankles, rather than extending into the feet, and bending over, to allow the doll to stand securely. It was, as if, somebody copied the parts of the doll that they could see, but didn’t realize what should have been going on, inside. I kept the doll, which is a decision that I, now, regret. It stands, with difficulty, to the right in the big case in the tall tower.
Then the same seller, who claimed to also be a Disney collector, mainly, of Alice in Wonderland, showed me another doll. This one was a ”Big Mickey”. It was clear that he was on the brink of offering it to me, but there was something about it that led me not to pursue it, something highly suspect about its look. I asked him about the wires in the legs. He said he couldn’t tell. Well here is the doll as he showed it to me, standing on his dining room table, beside a smaller modern Lars doll. What do you think? Look at the strange hips, the buttons widely placed , one can see those on the back, from the front, the hands are extra-large. Tthe face, on the other hand looked pretty good, although Mickey's mouth seemed to be positioned quite low, (side view) and then again, there was the fact that it all looked brand new. Although, both he and the dolls were located in Las Vegas, he claimed he was getting them from his mother, who lived in LA.
Around the same time, a big doll appeared on eBay. The ad for it was "whispering", in that the impact of the doll's size was not emphasized in the copy or visually conveyed. The minimum bid seemed outrageous for an ordinary doll, and only the number 54" revealed its size. If one didn’t read the fine print, it looked quite ordinary, like any other Charlotte Clark doll, but with a bigger price. There were several aspects of this particular doll I liked. First of all, it was located in Boston. There appeared to be nothing that I could detect, upon questioning the seller, that would connect it to Las Vegas. Secondly, I liked its look.
Compared to the doll I was being shown, from Las Vegas, it was totally different, and had a look about it that was far more credible. Side by side, the doll from Vegas made the one from Boston look more genuine, while the one from Boston made the other look more fake!
Isn’t it amazing what placing them, side by side, reveals! Suddenly, the one from Las Vegas looks brand new! The one from Boston appears old. The one from Vegas has arms that, now, seem enormous, huge hands, a fat tail, no abdomen, his crotch is only inches away from his belt line, legs much shorter, no shoulders, shoes bright orange, gloves pale yellow, and check out those hips! Yet, when the dolls are not compared, side by side, the Vegas doll, almost, looks, all right. Almost, but not quite!
Last of all, I liked the story the young lady, who was selling it, told about its origin: She claimed that she was told that it was won at a raffle at a meeting of the Mickey Mouse club at a Boston theater, by a young boy, who placed it in the attic, where it remained, untouched, for all these years. The seller who was a college student, and, I assumed from her name, of Asian ancestry, sent her fiancée to a house sale, to seek furniture for their new apartment. She was about to enter graduate school, and money was scarce. He came back with a night table, and this doll. She researched it, (told me which book), and put it on eBay .
She, guilelessly, revealed that a dealer (who turned out to be a friend of mine) who actually lives in Boston, but was out of town, had called her and expressed his intention to come see the doll, in person, after the auction. All this, she openly disclosed. I guess he, like me, believed it wasn’t going to sell. I assessed the credibility of the whole story, which, like her demeanor, seemed honest, straightforward, and believable. Then, I placed the minimum bid on the doll to lock it up. Mine was the only bid.
I speculated that my dealer friend did not feel secure investing in the doll if he did not see it first. And he, too, was, most likely, convinced, by the understated eBay presentation, that it would not sell. He might have also figured that, after the auction was over, he could whittle down the price. Of course, once I bought it, that put a certain stamp of authenticity on it. The fact is, I was not certain at all, but I figured that even if it was not ”real”, it was so well done that it was worth the money, real or not. I sent a bank transfer, the next day. And the young lady, who generously insisted on paying for the postage, herself, sent it out by UPS.
It arrived here in a snow storm. Our driveway, and all the roads were sheets of ice. I checked the delivery schedule, and watched the UPS truck slow down, hesitate at the foot of our driveway, then drive away. Years ago, I had learned the secret phone number of UPS in Poughkeepsie, so, I phoned and asked if I could come and pick the package up, myself, that night. The dispatcher said OK! So, I bundled up, and drove off, into one of the worst nights of my life. After hours of driving in blinding snow and darkness, and getting lost, several times, I, finally, found the place, deep within an industrial park, marked by only a few bare light bulbs, and not a living soul in sight. A long line of UPS trucks was parked, outside. Inside was a hive of activity. Several dozen men were toiling over packages on a maze of moving conveyor belts, and all ignoring me. Finally I found one willing to point me in the general direction of the trucks, and I walked along the deserted line, outside, in the darkness, on the ice. All the big back doors were open wide, and all the trucks were empty. It was like a hallucinatory scene in a bad dream. Finally, I came to, nearly, the last one, and way at the back of the empty truck was one large box, with poor Mickey inside. I was stunned! Anyone could have taken him! I clamored up into the truck, and lugged the package out. I dragged it, through the building, signed the paper work, and managed to cram the box into my station wagon. Mickey and I survived the perilous journey home, arriving close to midnight. I opened the box, and placed Big Mickey on the kitchen Counter. Eunice took this photo.
Did seeing him in person, finally, convince me he was real? Not really. It did not spontaneously solve the mystery. At the same time I could detect no false note. The doll itself looked Marvelous! The fabric looked as good as new, but could be old. The mother of pearl buttons were not plastic. The wires inside extended securely into his feet. He had been uniformly stuffed, tight as a drum, and lump-free, by commercial machine. If this was fake, the forger had not missed a beat. The only point that I found hard believe was, again, the fact that he was so amazingly mint. If I had just purchased him at the local shopping mall, I would find it difficult to get him home this clean. The drive to the Galleria Mall takes 50 minutes. This guy had traveled 50 years to get to me, spotlessly. Well, actually, there was one spot on his cheek that showed the signs of age, a sort of small erosive hole, cause unknown, but natural. I welcomed the presence of this telling imperfection. I was beginning to Believe!.
Now the problem was where to put him. He stood on my desk, next to the computer for several weeks.
Finally, I bit the bullet, and traveled to Canal Street in NYC, my old stomping grounds. And found, to my dismay, that Industrial Plastic Supply, a place I went to often, and often saw Andy Warhol, there, by the way, was gone! I found another plastic store, farther along the road and ordered all the Plexiglas I needed to construct a showcase. The prices were sky-high! This was no Industrial Plastic Supply!
Bill Maxwell had built for me the two panels that would make up a large showcase with a low flat top, years before. I never used them. Over the years the surface had been ruined, from lying around. So, now, I sanded the parts and sprayed them white, and completed the case with panels of Plexiglas, and added lights. It would supply the base, on which the Big Mickey’s case would stand. One problem remained; there was no place to put this thing! In the end, I did something outrageous! I placed it right smack in the middle of everything, right in front of the Pyramid of Bisques, blocking the Felix case. It looks audacious, but on purpose! The lower section now contains the Mickey bike that I had intended to sit on top of that lower unit, when I asked Bill to build it. That, and some dolls and other things are safely in there, now, and the big Mickey stands on top. It worked out Great!
Here are some shots I took with my old camera, at the time:
As for the mystery of the giant mice; It continued! Several months later, another big Mickey appeared on eBay. Guess where? Yep! Las Vegas! This one looked better than the last one, but it was strangely tall and thin. “Elongated”, might be the word. The minimum bid on it was 50% higher than the minimum on mine had been. This time my dealer friend in Boston was taking no chances. His collector in California must have expressed regret that he missed the mouse that went to me. So, he immediately entered the, now considerably higher, minimum bid. And, as might be expected, he got the doll for that! He, then, flew to Las Vegas to pick it up, and flew, with the doll, from there, to deliver it, in person, to his benefactor .
A year later, two more dolls appeared on eBay. This time there was a Minnie as well. The minimum bid for both was twice what mine had been, for one, which seemed fair enough. My friend Carl Lobel and I discussed getting them together. I’d take Minnie and he’d get Mickey. Carl never followed through, I didn’t mind, This new Mickey looked quite different from mine, So I was not sure that the Minnie would be compatible with my Mickey, anyway. And with Mickey now dominating Mouse Heaven, a Minnie stuck off to one side would merely be redundant.
Would you care to venture a guess where these dolls were located? Las Vegas? WOW! I’m impressed! how did you know? The dolls just sat there by the way. The auction came to an end. Nobody bid!
Here are the four Mickeys, all together, in a little comparative montage I made up at the time, three from Las Vegas and one from Boston. It’s clear from studying the photos that all the mice from Vegas are related. The Boston Mickey is the odd mouse out. I wouldn’t bet my life on the authenticity of any one of them, but I am happy with the choice I made. What do you think? Which one would you take?
By the way, Who says: "What happens in Vegas, stays there"? Although the latest pair from Vegas didn’t sell on eBay. The owner, then, placed them in a Ted Hake Auction, where they made auction History! I don’t know what’s rarer, two bidders who would pay the kind of price they went for, or the fact that someone into Mickey Mouse that deep would not have known about the dolls when they were on eBay, where they went begging, at 15% of what the auction buyer was willing to pay, which ironically is what the Auction Buyer's Premium turned out to be.
All this Mickey Magic pouring out of Vegas is cause for a degree of wonder. I know as a collector, there are certain places rich in treasure. The state of Pennsylvania, for instance. It is with good reason that there are so many flea markets and Antique centers there, all those old homes in Philly, where so many generations lived. It is an area, rich with centuries of history.
When I was nine, my parents and I drove cross country. We visited Las Vegas, and I hated it! One reason was because I got the worst sunburn of my life. I remember Vegas, well. There were a few casinos and lots of motels, baking in the burning sun. The fabulous electric sign displays of today were modest then. I recall one animated cowboy sign that moved one arm, as if he was thumbing a ride. Perhaps, like me, he wanted to get out of town. I played the nickel slot machines. That was the highlight, there was little else, but lots of nothingness surrounded by untold miles of burning sand. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I had known there were so many Mickeys there. The year was 1947; who could have guessed that ten years before, it must have been a bustling metropolis of Mickey Mice, who found an extraordinary place to hide, where they could safely survive the fading rays of desert sun, and defy the ravages of time, to emerge from hiding, one after another, fifty years later, and not look a day older. The time has come for me to go there! If only I had Ruby Slippers, I would click them, now!
Now, let’s take a look at the last lower case! The one that supplies the base for the Big Mickey. The Mickey bike is there, ridden by a genuine Steiff. A real Charlotte Clark doll stands by its side, while an oversized chubby Mickey doll, a rare Deans variation that comes from England stands on the other side. The Betty Boop Boudoir doll is, also, here. And, carrying out the tricycle theme, is Ignatz on a tricycle, and a nice pair of celluloid Mickey and Minnie, on tricycles, as well.
Just to the right, a little out of camera range, are a couple of my Favorite Things. Well visit with them next.