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
When I was living in Paris, the Cinémathèque française was a cinema museum where my friends and I often went to see great movies, free. I remember seeing Eisenstein’s Masterpieces, “Alexander Nevsky”, and “Ivan the Terrible”, with subtitles in French, as well as Salvador Dali's epics “Chien Andalou” and “L’Age d’Or”. It was there, too, that I first saw films by Kenneth Anger, “Eaux d'Artifice” and “Scorpio Rising”. Ten years later, Ken, who coined the phrase "Mouse Heaven" would become a family friend. And it was there, at the Cinémathèque française that I first met, and fell in love with Betty Boop. One night, a single Betty Boop cartoon was added to the evening’s program as an extra diversion. It was a stunning revelation. Growing up in Detroit Michigan, Walt Disney and animated cartoon characters, in general, had been my nourishment, and my salvation. They were the source of inspiration that directed my destiny along the road to Disney, and beyond, to art school. And, so, it seemed utterly incredible that, in all those years, I had never seen or heard of Betty Boop.
The cartoon that was shown that night was one of Betty’s worst, “Zulu Hula”, a late offering, created when her career was waning, as she was being forced into oblivion by overzealous censorship. On top of that, the cartoon was full of the worst kind of racial stereotypes; as was often the case, when comic characters, especially, Mickey Mouse, came face to face with cannibals, in the 1930s. Worse still, the movie featured Grampy, who always did his best to steal the show. So there was very little of Betty in the movie, and yet, there was enough. Even though she was toned down and buttoned up, she spoke in that adorable voice, and radiated her innocently alluring sex appeal, and that was enough to steal my heart, and make me fall in love with her that night; love at first sight.
Where had she been hiding all my life? The world of Disney that I was raised on was relentlessly antiseptic, devoid of any hint of sexuality. Snow White was loveable and charming, appealingly innocent and irresistible. But the other Disney heroines who followed her, from the equine bobby soxers, who frolicked in Fantasia to Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, were as vacuous as beauty queens. And, suddenly, here was Betty Boop, the offspring of Max Fleisher, who I later learned was often referred to as, “the Jewish Disney.” I loved the way she looked. She turned the stereotypes of beauty upside down. Her head was grossly oversized, her body was less than petite, with minutely tiny hands and feet. And yet, in spite of these extreme excursions, beyond the borders of what was considered pretty, she was beautiful to me. And, unlike my purely visual interest in other comic characters, in Betty’s case, I loved her warm infectious personality, and her incredible voice. Everybody knew that she was sexy. Everyone, that is, but Betty. And that innocence is what made her so appealing. And that was it, seven minutes I would never forget. Like Dante, I had glimpsed my Beatrice, and we didn’t meet again for several years.
Fast forward to 1963. My wife, Eunice, and I were living and working in an illegal loft on 26th street in Manhattan. We were just beginning an enterprise called Boutique Fantastique. All day, every day, we sat at a large table made from a 4’ X 8’ sheet of plywood on sawhorses, hand making music boxes and reproductions of nonexistent antiques. It was a humble way to, almost, make a living.
Our infant daughter, Samantha, played in a playpen beside us, often watching a small black and white TV. Half an hour, every weekday, at lunch time, two Betty Boop Cartoons miraculously aired on NYC TV. One Betty Boop began the show, followed by a horrible made for TV travesty called “Powwow the Indian Boy”, after which there was another Betty Boop cartoon. This became the highlight of the day. Over the course of a year, we saw almost all of them. Then, sadly, they went away.
Moving forward several more years: Now, we are living in an apartment on 28th street. And, one day, cutting through Willoughby’s Camera Emporium to take a short cut from Macys to Gimbals, I discovered that they were selling used 16 mm movies, and they had some Betty Boop sound cartoons for $10 each. That was a lot of money, but, every now and then, I would purchase one or two of these, even though, I didn’t own a projector, yet. It seemed that no one was buying them, but me. And, over time, I acquired all they had. I came to learn that these were the actual prints that we had seen, years before, on TV. The station had been dumping them.
Meanwhile, I discovered another source of prints, as well. And soon, I came to own more than 100 16 mm Betty Boop cartoons and an old sound projector that formerly belonged to the actor, Fredric March, on which to to show them. Like many of the toys I collected, early on, I bought them, solely, so I could see them. I still have them today. They are amazing! Eventually these same cartoons became available in fabulous complete sets for VCR and laser disk. The video tape set was so cleverly packaged that I never removed the cellophane. Inexplicably, a complete compilation has never been released on DVD. Nonetheless, many of the best Betty Boop cartoons can now be seen on You Tube.
It is amazing how popular Betty is today, her image, anyway, and at the same time, how little known she really is. Few of those who collect her likeness on merchandise have ever seen, or heard, a Betty Boop cartoon. For those of you who have never seen one, you really owe it to yourself to meet her. I am going to be so bold as to embed a couple of them here. In this one we hear the voice of Max Fleischer, himself, and meet KoKo the Clown, who came “Out of the Inkwell”, several years before Betty. Note Betty's signature opening curtain scene, and the name of the co-animator, Seymour Kneitel.
It is so difficult to choose, just two; each of her films was so different, in look and style. But all had one element in common: This was life seen through a different lens than Disney. Unlike Mickey, who was raised on Kansas corn, Betty was born and bred in New York City. And while Mickey was cutting up to the strains of “Turkey in the Straw”, Betty was belting out her often suggestive songs to the accompaniment of the leading Jazz musicians of the day, from Louis Armstrong to Cab Calloway. Of all the Betty cartoons, Snow White is the most surreal. It features bimbo and KoKo, as well, who is transformed into a terrifying figure, “rotoscoped” (a fancy way of saying traced) over Cab Calloway, himself. Believe it or not, I actually designed a plush toy that operated exactly like the dragon in the closing scene.
Betty started out life as a dog, a poodle to be precise, Bimbo’s canine girlfriend, and metamorphosed before the public’s eyes. Soon her dog ears became earrings and she not only became human, but also more exquisitely defined. Throughout, her voice remained unchanged, irresistibly adorable! For most of her career it was the voice of Mae Questel, who also created the voice of Olive Oyl in the early Fleischer Popeye cartoons. Eunice and I actually met Mae Questelle. She visited us in Mouse Heaven, and she is, truly, Betty Boop, in person. That amazing voice in the cartoons, and some of Betty's mannerisms, too, are patterned after Mae, just being herself, and absolutely charming. She enjoyed seeing so many artifacts of her days as Betty Boop, some of which, surprisingly, she’d never seen before.
Around 1966, I met and became friends with Kenny Kneitel, who was Max Fleisher’s Grandson. Kenny’s mother, Ruth was Max’s daughter, and his Father, who’d passed away two years before, was Seymour Kneitel, Fleisher’s head animator. Kenny, his mother, and a few other family members were all that remained of Fleisher Studios, and they owned the rights to Betty Boop.
Kenny had a shop in Manhattan, called "Fandango" that, along with "Michael Malce and Son", constituted the cutting edge of a movement referred to, at the time, as “Camp”, and they specialized in selling definitive and off-beat merchandise. Kenny and I decided to manufacture the first Betty Boop product created since her untimely demise in 1939: “Betty Boop Incense.” Kenny had a fabulous way with words, and he thought up most of the names and copy for the labels on the cylindrical canisters of powered incense. He also did the type, while I supplied the graphics, adapted from the only Betty Boop reference material available to us at the time, a meager handful of images that were left to Kenny by his grandfather Max.
Together, we travelling to the incense manufacturer in Long Island city. The creepy owner of this operation was a genuine excentric, who eyed us with extreme suspicion. The incense he produced was intended to be used seriously in the practice of Voodoo and Black Magic. It was purported to have Mystical Powers for casting spells and incantations. It also brought good luck in love, as well as gambling, numbers and the ponies! We bought an unhealthy supply of plain brown cardboard canisters that contained six different colored flavors of powdered incense, enough to get us started. When the label art was finished, we had it printed on six different shades of colored paper, so they could be mixed and matched and thus, each set of six flavors would be different. I still have a box containing hundreds of these printed labels, and also some of the original canisters. I guess I should see if I can find them and put a set together. The other day, I noticed the original artwork for the labels, decaying in the basement.
Kenny was a brilliant man, witty, perceptive, and a connoisseur of extraordinary things that few others had the eye or intellect to see. He discovered beauty in objects that, at the time, the rest of the World passed by. Life took on a new perspective with Kenny as your guide. And his discoveries could be purchased at Fandango. He put the incense out for sale in the store, and sold perhaps a dozen sets. Few knew who Betty Boop was in 1967.
Kenny had a Cameo Betty Boop doll, the only one that we had ever seen. It was given to him by his grandfather, Max Fleisher. It was in pretty sorry shape, and also had a missing hand. Nonetheless, I wanted her desperately, Uncle Max’s Betty. Compassionately, after a year of coaxing, Kenny agreed to sell her to me. And this became one of those occasions where I did an uncannily inspired restoration, beginning with her missing hand, then, touching up each chip and imperfection in her paint. In the process, I recreated every delicate eyelash, restored the highlights in her eyes, airbrushed her rosy cheeks, and brought her back to life again, right down to the perfectly detailed decal, with no one to guide me but the doll, herself. This rarity felt like a gift from Max Fleischer, to me, personally. Here she is, below, a year later, reunited with her old pal, Bimbo.
This haunting photograph of a store window full of Betty Boop dolls in her prime, was also a gift from Kenny’s grandfather that Kenny passed along to me. On the back is written in red pencil “Window of Maurice Manne’s Store”. Manne’s Toyland Inc. 2801 Boardwalk Atlantic City N.J, and a rubber stamp that reads Ritz Studio 2607 Boardwalk Atlantic City. N. J. This enchanting photo of a window is, itself, a window, looking back in time, to a toy store on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, featuring the entire Betty line. We see Betty and Bimbo in all their variations, along with their original boxes, and the ghostly image of the photographer, himself, reflected in the glass. Could it possibly be Uncle Max? This tantalizing photo drove me absolutely Nuts!
So that’s how I began collecting Betty. Finding Betty Boop stuff wasn’t easy. Around this time, 1968, I met my good friend John Fawcett. As pen pals, in the beginning, we wrote to each other often, and voluminously, exchanging drawings of our latest acquisitions, in a friendly competition to be the first to discover great things. And when we were offered a duplicate of something that we had already, we’d pass it on to the other. So, while we were in playful competition, we were also helping each other grow our parallel collections. Those were great days! We both placed ads in "Collectors News" and "The Antique Trader." Of course, we were both looking for Mickey Mouse, but to set our ads apart and not butt heads directly, John worded his ad to read,” Felix the cat and Mickey Mouse Items Wanted”, and mine said “Betty Boop and Mickey Everything”.
Isn’t it amazing! Today there a hundred and fifty thousand Mickey Mouse items, offered every day on eBay. And I just checked; there are thirty eight thousand Betty Boops, listed today, all of which, except for one or two, are new. And there we were, John and I, the only ones collecting this stuff, or advertising for it, right there at the beginning, forty five years ago.
And here it is, the total of all the Betty Boop items I was able to discover, over the past forty five years. This is testimony to how rare vintage Betty really is. And I only managed to amass as much as I did, because few knew Betty Boop was, back then, and no one was more eager to collect her than I was.
I especially loved the Cameo wood jointed dolls, created by the great doll sculptor and manufacturer, Joseph Kallus. His Cameo Doll Company created almost all the composition and wood comic character dolls, throughout the 1930s and early 40s. And each one was a work of art! I found his Betty Boop doll irresistible, and every time a decent one appeared, I’d add her to the chorus line. Here too, are Joseph Kalluses’ images of Betty’s buddy Bimbo. Ironically, the rarest dolls in this cabinet are the small wooden versions, on the right, also made by Cameo. These are proof that being rare does not necessarily make something attractive. Here, Betty’s face is just a decal, and her head is rectangular, like the Frankenstein monster. On the opposite side of the case, is an autographed photograph of Uncle Max, holding tiny Betty in his hand.
This Betty showcase is my Favorite. In the center is an amazing doll, made in Spain. She still has the original foil label from a Barcelona toy store on her back. This dynamic image captures Betty’s early look. She’s less refined here than she appears in the Cameo doll. Her delicate fingers are made of tin. Here, also, is an amazing wooden wall clock, carved by hand, in Japan. Its animated celluloid eyes look from side to side. This clock was made before the War and continued to appear, marked “occupied” after the War was over. There is an earlier more refined version, as well, that I just recalled is in the hall.
This showcase also shows two exceedingly rare Schoenhut items of KoKo the clown, a jointed doll, that, like KoKo himself, predates Betty by several years. The Hollywood camera that KoKo is using was also made by Schoenhut. So the teaming up of these two pieces is not arbitrary.
The same figure offered as a marionette, which is legitimate and the only known example of KoKo in this form
The string holder on the wall behind was once broken in two, right down the middle. It is an example of one of my, if I do say so myself, incredible repairs.
And here is the rare pocket watch, and its even rarer box. The one on the left displays its engraved back. Assorted pins, flipbooks, and autographed fan cards, a rare black dress version of a celluloid doll, and two mid-sized Cameo Bimbos fill out the case.
Now let’s go upstairs; there are two more primarily Betty cases, up there. This one is kind of full of odds and ends. It was not exactly carefully planned, but there still are some interesting things. One being, the only Betty Boop Halloween costume I’ve ever seen. There is also a strange paper mask made in Spain, a Betty ukulele, a soft doll with a fat body, and a tin lithographed watering can that is one of those rare items that illegally picture Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse together. In the middle at the bottom, is an original piece of art that Kenny gave me, a charming Christmas card in pen and ink with Betty Bimbo and KoKo, drawn by animator Leonard McCormick.
The case, below, is more carefully thought out. The most knock out gorgeous item in it is the “The Betty Boop Cartoon Lesson Set”. My mouth was watering for this, ever since I saw a picture of it in an old Playthings magazine in the NY Public Library Annex, years before. I can’t believe I actually got one, mint with everything, the lesson book, the Betty Boop pad, pens, pencils, crayons, and even a Betty Boop eraser. One other example of this item has recently turned up.
Apart from that, there are two interesting stuffed Bimbo dolls, one plush, the other velvet. That handsome black and white Bimbo leap-frogging over a bump, is actually, a Spanish jug. The liquid pours out of his snout. And there are two porcelain ashtrays, both of which are scarce. One is Betty and Bimbo, and the other, outrageously, is Betty Boop and Flip The Frog! Betty dated a lot of strange characters, from dogs to clowns, but surely this is the most unusual. Perhaps he turns into a prince when kissed? Then there is a celluloid Bimbo baby rattle, and a Bimbo fan that pictures him playing the piano with a small Mickey-like mouse atop it, belting out a song.
Last but not least, mint in the box is a piece of Betty Boop sculptural soap. John Fawcett passed this on to me. He was never really into Betty.
And last of all, a trot around the house to see what‘s there. There’s a little bit of Betty mixed in everywhere. Some of which we’ll encounter later. OH, here’s a Banner that hung outside of movie theatres, on days that they were showing a Betty Boop Cartoon. And Here's the clock I mentioned earlier.
On the left, is a hard to photograph panel of original animation art. The ins and outs of getting it could fill a book. And when I finally landed it, after several unsuccessful attempts that involved, among other things, restoring robots, the glass in the frame was so thick with years of collected nicotine that I had to scrape at it for hours with a razor blade. But it was worth it, for this frame contains several original model sheets of Betty, Bimbo, Popeye and Bluto, and some amazing pencil drawings too. Here are Betty's costume designs, front and back, before and after in “Poor Cinderella”, and the master art for Betty's definitive publicity pose.
But, by far, the most incredible item, in my opinion, is the animation drawing for Betty’s iconic opening curtain scene. Of all the drawings that make up that sequence, this is the ultimate! Betty winks for only a split second, and this drawing captures it. It is a drawing of great complexity. Every image on the moving curtain was animated separately, a monumental feat in 1933; computer animation could do it easily, today.
Going back downstairs, I also noticed this beautiful Betty Boop candy Box, The cover is printed in iridescent silver ink. Although, I pass this every day, It's set high atop a showcase, and I must confess, I totally forgot that it was there. That is the price one pays for having too many things; they become part of the wallpaper.
And that’s all, for now, until Betty shows up in some other showcases, later. Meanwhile, I’m adding a long footnote that continues the story of Kenny Kneitel, and How King Features made millions on Betty Boop, thanks to a blunder by my former employer, Harry Kislevitz
For those who wish to skip this, you can click here and: Continue to BONZO, or continue to read, below:
Kenny and his good friend Richard Merkin had gone to school together at The Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, Richard continued there as a teacher, and became a successful painter, while Kenny opened his store, Fandango, in Manhattan. This is where we met. The stuff he sold there was select and sophisticated, too quirky and esoteric to be a wild success. Thus, Kenny didn’t have an easy time covering the rent. Eventually, he closed the store, and sold the inventory to either Andy Warhol or Peter Max. I can’t remember which. Shortly after that, Peter Max hired Kenny as a designer. Peter had a filing cabinet full of his key design elements, and Kenny became one of a group of artists who adapted Peters imagery to merchandise. This was a perfect job for him, as he never claimed to be adept at drawing, but was a great designer, and excelled at typography, and conjuring up concepts.
After a few years with Peter Max, Kenny went to work for the great airbrush virtuoso Charles White III. The studio was right across the street from my loft on 16th Street, where the Outer Space Men were were created. Kenny was so good, conceptually, that, eventually, he planned and sketched out almost all of “Charlie’s art”, beforehand, and Charlie, merely airbrushed it in.
By this time, I was totally committed to working with Colorforms. The Outer space Men had come and gone, and I was living in the country, and working on Mickey Mouse Colorforms. Harry Kislevitz had a trait that was sometimes flattering, sometimes annoying. He wanted to sample everything life had to offer, especially if it was on another person’s plate, and that other person was obviously enjoying it. So if someone had “their own thing”, Harry always wanted to taste some too. I’m speaking, of course, figuratively. He saw my obsession with collecting comic characters and wanted to try collecting them as well. So, when I came across duplicates of items in my collection, I began picking them up for him. I did this, solely as a favor, and I arranged for him to pay the seller directly, so no money had to pass through my hands.
But that wasn't enough for Harry, he decided he wanted "his own thing" too! I had Mickey Mouse, what would “his thing” be? Meanwhile, I had shared with him my enthusiasm for Betty Boop. And to introduce him to her I gave him him one of my 16 mm cartoons, "The Busy Bee". That is the one, in which Betty is a waitress in a diner. It was the only Betty Boop film he had ever seen.
Meanwhile, I had begun advertising in a monthly antiques newspaper called the Collectors News, for “Anything Betty Boop”, and was beginning to acquire a few things. I also got more Cameo dolls, and, passed one on to Harry in a trade. The fact was, compared to Mickey, there just wasn’t that much Betty Boop stuff made. Ironically, because of Harry, there are thousands of Betty Boop items made, today!
Suddenly he decided that “Mel has Mickey Mouse”, so Betty Boop would be “his thing.” And he hired a couple of doll ladies to create a Betty Boop doll, without telling me. Surprise! What they came up with was a disaster. Now Harry did a turnabout and came to me, asking for help. Eager to do anything for a royalty, I taught myself to sew, just enough to fake out a doll. I was trying to achieve a classic rag doll look, like Raggedy Ann. Then I made the master patterns, and designed the packaging, which, unlike the doll, itself, was great. It was based on scraps of imagery I had uncovered in archived issues of of 1930s Playthings Magazines. Then we had way too much fabric silk-screened (I still have a lot of these) and Harry hired my next door neighbor Hazel Lapore, who was adept at sewing for the Annual Church Bizarre, to sew up several dozen samples, in three sizes. Only the medium size was ever made. But packages were printed and die-cut for all three.
Now came a turning point in the history of Betty Boop. Harry was not secure in producing the doll without the proper legal rights. And not having the slightest idea who owned Betty Boop, he asked King Features, from whom he had licensed Popeye, for advice. Meanwhile, I had no idea this was going on. When I finally learned of it, I informed Harry that my friend Kenny, his mother, and the Fleischer family owned the rights, and he should license it from them. Unfortunately, it was already too late!
In the 1930s, King Features briefly produced a Betty Boop comic strip, which was short lived. The strip was awful, and Betty was already past her prime, at the time. Naturally, King Features had licensed Betty from “Fleischer Studios.” Now, when Harry came to them with his inquiry, King Features claimed they owned the rights, based on the fact that they had done a comic strip. Therefore, Harry signed a licensing deal with them. Perhaps, King Features thought that “Fleisher Studios” was dead. So, magically, the onetime licensee, now, became the licensor. And Harry was technically licensing King Features' comic strip, not Betty Boop, the property.
I believe the issue was eventually resolved when Kenny’s mother spoke up. Kenny later told me that King Features became the administrator, and Kenny’s family got half a royalty. Anyway, like the Wild Things dolls that followed later, Colorforms couldn’t sell the Betty Boop doll. Apart from no one knowing who she was, toy wholesalers, called "jobbers" didn’t see themselves buying anything but Colorforms Stick-On toys from Colorforms, a problem we continued to have, all along.
While working on the doll, I came up with another concept. Why not make a Betty Boop Baby doll and call her “Baby Boop”? The character did not exist in Betty’s history, and had never been done before. It would represent Betty when she was a baby. There was one cartoon in which Betty hosted a baby show and I based the styling for “Baby Boop” on one of the babies in the movie. I actually projected the film on paper, stopped the projector and traced it off, I still have the original drawing.
Harry hired the same doll ladies to make the baby, as vinyl dolls were supposedly their forte. All they ended up doing was casting the actual Cameo Betty Boop Dolls head, and not adapting it to baby proportions, and attaching it to a vinyl baby body, with diaper like a beanbag bottom, I designed.
At this point in time, it looked like the Betty Boop doll had a future, so I was on a roll, and came up with a mechanism that would permit Betty Boop’s eyes to roll, when her head was tilted, with the thought of making a Betty doll, like the Cameo original with this feature added. Harry hired a product development company to build a prototype of the head with moving eyes. Actually, I had forgotten all about this, until now, I think I know which drawer that prototype is in.
When the rag doll proved to be impossible to sell, all of these ideas were abandoned. Meanwhile, Harry already had a Betty Boop Colorforms Dress-Up Set in the works. At my urging, he hired Kenny to design it. And so, it began, Betty had taken her first faltering steps on the way to becoming popular again, with King Features on the receiving end of what would become millions, all thanks to a twist of Fate and Harry Kislevitz. He tossed Betty Boop right into King Feature’s lap and they picked her up and ran.
Eventually “Baby Boop”, became a reality, too. I guess somebody had the same obvious idea I did. My Baby Boop never saw the light of day, but a hundred prototypes were made, with diapers sewn by my neighbor again, and King Features, who now had to approve, “everything” (what a laugh!) most certainly, saw that. Here is one of the samples, along with the proposed mock up for the package.
Thus, of all the tens of thousands of “new” Betty Boop products in the marketplace, today, these were the first. Although, this all took place 45 years ago, the dolls still look too up to date to convey their age. And half a century seems like yesterday.
And last of all, is this beautifully framed Spanish Chocolate label. How sweet it is! It was a gift from my good friend and “Outer Space Men” business partner, Gary Schaeffer.
One more Betty Boop item that really should be included here is this big beautiful boudoir doll. She is included in a large showcase downstairs, so we will, no doubt, be seeing her again. She is made of a sateen surfaced fabric that is also laminated to her molded face. She definitely comes from an era when Comic Characters were not just for children. This elegant doll was, quite possibly, designed to languish on a fashionable lady’s bed.
Writing this, just now, I suddenly remembered another Betty, seriously in need of TLC. She has been sleeping in a cardboard box in the cupboard for many years. I simply never found the time, materials, and energy it would require to restore her. But she is a true rarity. I wonder if I could convince her to pose for a picture? As I recall, her face was perfect, but, alas, her silk body is beyond saving. It is totally disintegrating.
Yes! Oh yes! Here is the result: The Betty Boop Purse. I managed to position her so the missing fabric, especially on her chest, doesn’t show too much. Her back view is more presentable. The purse body opens with a zipper, and there is a velvet handle on her back for carrying. Two of these Betty purses can be seen in the photograph of “Manne’s Toyland”.