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
There are many Fascinating facets to collecting, and if one enters into the activity, wholeheartedly, amazing things can happen. One can be swept away by the belief that Fate and Destiny are at play. Gratifying, is the treasure earned by hard work and effort. Making sure you’re in the right place, at the right time, following the slimmest lead, and digging doggedly, all these activities require effort, and that effort is often justifiably rewarded. Does Fate play a role in these discoveries that you worked so hard, while loving every minute of it, to achieve? Maybe! Maybe, Destiny offered you the lead that you pursued with perseverance, guiding you to be at a certain place, at a certain moment , when a van pulled up, and began to unpack.
On the other hand, there are moments when, through no effort of your own, Fate, alone, decrees that some great thing will come your way. A kind of a gratuitous surprise, like a puppy in a basket, left on your doorstep, in the dead of night, that you willingly adopt, and who grows up to be your best friend, and one of the great joys of your life. That is one of those times, when Destiny decides what gifts will be bestowed upon you. And you are so overwhelmed by your good fortune that you dare not break the spell of the euphoria to question why.
It was a moment like that, when these favorite objects were dropped into my life. Seemingly, out of nowhere, this gift was offered. Its arrival on my doorstep, figuratively speaking, was announced, ahead of time, by a letter from a young lady in England, sent to the editor of Americana Magazine, who forwarded it to me. Why Americana Magazine? Good question! I have no idea why an article about this, then young, collection appeared in the November/December 1978 issue of that magazine. Stranger still, is the fact that a picture of yours truly ended up on the cover, looking somewhat saintly with a Mickey Mouse target halo. By the way, the photo, below, was not pasted together. There was no Photoshop, in those days. What you see was actually happening in real life”. Everything is actual size, including that giant target, eight feet wide!
This unaccountable appearance in Americana led to two amazing acquisitions, and, as if Fate had orchestrated both, they bore a curious resemblance to one another. The first, which happened soon after the article appeared, was a treasure trove of early animation art that included the original pencil drawing for the first Mickey Mouse model sheet. Burt Gilette, an early Disney animator, who, among other things, designed the first Mickey Mouse toy, was a friend of the family of a lady in New Jersey. He left an entire box of animation drawings with them in the early 1930s, when she was a little girl, and never asked for them again. She had, recently, offered them to Disney. Their archivist was not interested, “We have lots of that stuff!” he replied. Then, she saw the article in Americana Magazine, and, through them, offered them to me. I, of course, eagerly embraced the opportunity.
The second happy consequence of that article, an incredible pair of Mickey and Minnie Mouse Ventriloquist dolls from England, took place, a few years later. The lady who had them knew nothing about these figures, other than the fact that they had been placed, by chance, in her parent’s custody, in 1938. She was not allowed to touch them, or, God Forbid, play with them, as a kid, being cautioned by her mother, that their rightful owner would return for them, one day, when the War was over. He never did.
The process of acquiring the animation drawings had been easy, compared to what it took to get Mickey and Minnie! I’ll spare you the gory details of negotiating a price, Yikes! Which was only half the problem, the other being, how to get them here safely, and avoid the possibility of another US customs horror story, like one that took place when I tried to import a crate full of Lars dolls, years before. Did you know that its illegal to bring foreign made Disney items, into the USA? In the end, a friend of a friend, who was a pilot on BOAC, carried them over, personally.
Of course, you know what's in the trunk. A trunk, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is, itself, a knock out, fall down, gorgeous, thing of beauty. I was recently interviewed on You Tube, and asked what my favorite object in the collection might be. I replied that in case of fire, I would grab the Ventriloquist dolls. My friend Noel Barrett, after seeing the interview, emailed me, saying, “I agree with your choice. That’s what I would also take, and, by the way, don’t forget to grab the trunk!"
I remember when Noel saw this trunk and its contents for the first time. He was impressed, to say the least. When It comes to seeing right to the heart of any object, Noel is the most perceptive person I have ever met. No one could be better qualified to be an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow than he. Upon examining every detail, Noel remarked profoundly, "These are a complete collection in themselves! You could give away all the rest, and just keep these". Then carefully examining the suitcase, he decreed, “This paint has been on here a long time.” Not that I had any doubt, or, for that matter, cared, but nonetheless, this survivor of a Golden Age had just been officially authenticated by the best!
Now, I will attempt, through the magic of “Mouse Over”, to recreate, and share with you, the impact of the sight that I experienced when I opened up this trunk, for the first time. I hope that you too can feel a little bit of the awe and excitement I did, then.
MOUSE OVER TO OPEN TRUNK
These Figures have been photographed, casually, over the years. There is this one terrific shot of just Mickey that was taken by the Disney folks for an article they did, a couple of years ago.
I wish they had given me a good copy of this one, below. It’s the best photo I have seen of Minnie, and not bad of me. This is blown up from a small “table of contents” photo, in the Disney magazine.
And here they are, newly arrived, hanging out and kibitzing, while I was working an "Baby Face", some 20 years ago. Noel remarked that this photograph looked posed! Guess what! It was. Perhaps, "Willie Weenie" on the hot waxer, is a bit too much.
The dolls have had quite a history, since they have been here. Here is our friend, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, photographing them for a scene in his movie, “Mouse Heaven”, after which this web site is named.
And here is a pleasant photo that I shot, between “takes”, on that occasion. Mickey and Minnie were sitting, side by side, where they stay most of the time. On this day, a ray of sunlight was pouring through the window, bathing them in light. Whenever I think of them, this image comes to mind.
This has turned out to be a fun day. Mickey and Minnie were in a mood to cooperate, and that made taking a few new photos easy. I can’t believe I’ve never made a serious attempt to photograph them, properly, before. They are very photogenic, and I could easily do more. I could sense they felt at home inside that trunk. After all, it was their hiding place, for many years. But they also made it clear that they don’t want to stay in there. They dread the day, and so do I, when hands, other than mine, will place them in the trunk, again, and shut the lid, for there is no telling who will open it, or when.
I was sitting here, not altogether happy with the way this page was ending. Somehow, it seemed incomplete. I thought about photographing the backside of the trunk, “The End.” Get it? Groan! Forgive me, I am old. It’s been a long time since I looked at it. So, I went downstairs into the darkened room, and turned on a single light. The mice were still in the trunk, sitting upright. I took them out and set them on the couch. Then, I closed the trunk, strapped it up, and turned it around. The backside was just “all right.” But there was nothing about it that said Mickey Mouse... In the darkness behind me, or was it in the back of my mind, a small voice said, “What about us? Can’t we be in the picture too?”
Great Idea! Absolutely! I picked them up and placed them in the front. They were unusually cooperative, and sat there, balanced perfectly, on the first try. I left the lighting as it was, set the tripod down intuitively, and, without my close-up glasses, so I couldn't see what I was doing, clicked a shot. Then, I went upstairs, and got my glasses, moved the mice just right, added more light, framed the camera, moved in closer, bracketed the exposures, and 30 pictures later, I came upstairs, camera card in hand, to the computer. The first photo was, far and away, superior. I think the mice were helping me. And here it is:
Mickey and Minnie, together, studying their travel stickers, and dreaming of the fabled places they have seen. Did they really visit these exotic cities, and stay in all those posh hotels? Could one mark these locations on a map of Europe, connect the dots, and trace their history? Or are they merely stickers on a trunk? Only the mice can say. And, what is the significance of the crown emblem on the front? This, too, will remain a mystery, for Mickey and Minnie lost their voice, in 1938... And 53 years later, they found me.
Beyond these essential features, the dolls differ. The interior of Mickey’s head is pretty much filled up by a complete set of wooden teeth that can be made to operate, in tandem with his jaw, to produce a toothy grin. Minnie, on the other hand, can open and close her eyes, together, or one at a time, to wink. She can do one more thing, or is intended to, at least. I had trouble restoring this, without damaging her flower, which is silk. There is a mechanism, inside the flower’s stem, that, as far as I can tell, was intended to let it “wilt”, at will. I’m afraid, It’s, pretty much, permanently, wilted now.
Dammit! In proof reading this, for the third time, I realized that I didn’t photograph the features I just described! I guess, it’s because they don’t operate, without a hand inside. I suppose I should give it a try and insert the photograph, right here. OK! Here it is! I’m glad I did! It came out pretty great! These actions have been caught on video, but never as still photos, before. All these last minute additions are kind of overkill, but I’m not deleting any of the following stuff that I put in, before.
I pretty much know what’s going on inside their heads, in the mechanical sense, as the one of the few signs of time and wear, when I got them, was the fact that they needed to be restrung. Minnies eyes had become unhinged. They were two surprisingly large wooden ball-like things, rattling around inside her head. The inside is accessible through a circular hatch in the back, held in place by small brass screws. It is so well crafted that it is almost impossible to detect.
Both dolls have a some animation that is unique to each. Of course, both can tip and turn their heads. There is a latch inside that can lock the rod that animates them in place, I guess, for storage or traveling. And naturally, they have moveable mouths. And, quite incredibly, each has a wooden tongue that is balanced on some sort of counter weight, so it wags, automatically, in a most realistic way, when the dolls “speak”.
There were the two figures, lying, side by side, in a posh interior of royal purple velvet. Dracula, himself, could not ask for a more elegant, or safe, resting place, in which to escape the ravages of time. They had, in fact, been sleeping there for nearly half a century.
Describing the dolls, themselves, is not easy. In terms of how they look, they are amazing! In person, they have a presence that is larger than life, larger than you could, or would, imagine from photographs. I love the styling! They capture Mickey and Minnie, right at the point when they were most appealing. Every detail is perfect. It’s almost as if they come from another universe, where high heel shoes in Minnie’s size can be purchased at any shoe store, and simple things, like the Mother of pearl oval buttons on Mickey’s pants, are commonplace commodities.
The construction and craftsmanship is awe inspiring. The dolls, themselves, all the hard parts, that is, are carved out of wood, polychromed and polished to perfection. The rest is made from a variety of materials. Minnie's little English style hat, appears to be genuine beaver, as some of the early drawings would imply. Her dress is iridescent printed velvet, with perfect white polka dots, and intricately pleated. Alas, I have seen it fade somewhat, since I removed her from “the box”. I kept the dolls in there for several years. But, finally, they convinced me that they wanted to be free, so out they came, and have remained, for many years. Minnie’s shoes and Mickey’s too, are "real". I mean, I have no better words to describe them than that. They must have come from a shoe store in Mickey Mouse Land. They appear to be manufactured. One friend remarked, upon examining the bottoms of Mickey's feet, “There's not very much wear on these!” I replied, “What do you expect? That he gets up and walks around?” Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.