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
On the Great Wall of china, wood, tin, cloth, and celluloid, we have passed over several cases, some major, some minor. Now, the time has come to visit them. This, alas, is not a sign that the tour is coming to an end. The fact is, we are about two-thirds done. But, nonetheless, some of the largest and most difficult showcases are behind us. I’m hoping for some easier ones ahead. Looking around me, daily, at all the things we missed, I fear the trip upstairs, again, is going to be a big one. Meanwhile, here is a showcase, right up front, that's easy to access.
It is a fairly major one. There are some treasures in it of the sort that are sought by many, and also some trifles of the kind that appeal only to me. If I had to sum up what this showcase is about, I’d say, "the colors Red and Green." Predominately red stuff is on the right, and on the left, is mostly green. These are two colors that were prominent in products featuring early Mickey. Many of the timepieces, especially, were painted in a color I came to refer to as “Mickey Green”. On the left half, are the three Mickey Clocks, both of the wind up versions, and the Electric one. Yes, I got an electric clock, after all. It is mint in the original red box, which is, therefore, on the right. The red Big Bad Wolf Clock is on the right, as well. Meanwhile, in the middle, where the colors meet, are two toys that combine them both. The Marx Bros. Piano, with figures of Mickey and Minnie that dance to the music, and a wooden German pull toy, with a walking action, very much like the Felix Frolic.
Here are several Borgfeldt wood jointed dolls, green Mickey, red Minnie, in their exceedingly rare original boxes. Those put me in the red, for weeks! Here too, are two Mickey- Minnie handcars in red and green. And two sizes of the game that proclaims, in both red and green, “Let Them All Come”, a standing invitation to Mickeys everywhere! On the far right, is a Hopi Kachina doll, carved in the image of Mickey Mouse, another gift from Kenneth Anger. And, on the shelf in front, partly for lack of a better place to put them, and partly because they echo the color scheme, are the Hubley Popeye Motorcycle and the Arcade Andy Gump car we saw earlier. On either side, are the Mickey and Donald lamps.
The Donald Duck lamp is not only rare, but the circumstances, surrounding its acquisition, are rarer still. Around 1975, it appeared in Collectors News, which, by some Miracle, I got early that week, and I immediately called the lady. The price was ridiculously low. I was the first to call. I insisted that I send her twice what she was asking. This wasn’t merely generosity. I knew she would get other calls, and one unscrupulous competitor, in particular, would do his best to screw me. There was no way she would accept my offer. But, I did it anyway. She sent me both the lamp and a refund check. Would that more, in this World, had such integrity.
Oh, I am amending this page. I just discovered a dynamic photo that shows how this Mickey Case, and the Popeye case, above it, go together, and relate to each other. This is the next best thing to being there. I’ll move some things around, and fit this photo in. Here it is!
Here are the two Lionel Donald Handcars, both paint variations. The paint is flaking off the figures, even as we watch. I was never into Lionel boxes, and keep them out of sight, but here the two boxes serve as handy platforms to rest a flock of Donalds on. if anything in this showcase is rare or unusual, I would suggest the Italian ceramic in the middle. When I visited Disney licensing in 1969, Lou Lispi the art director, at the time, had a set of these in four different poses. They were great. I got this one from Hakes, early on. His neck has been repaired. Several years later, I learned that Lou’s set had been stolen! What? Well, the time line is such that this cannot be one of them.
The two plush dolls on the ends are French. Merci, Pierre! And all three sizes of Wade Heath pitchers are there. There are several oilcloth dolls by Kruger, my favorite being the big one in the middle. There is another one, upstairs. It is velvet and oilcloth combined. Here, also, is a Schuco long-billed windup, and several surviving Seiberlings. The more you study this case, the more you see, including a plush doll by Deans. That’s about it for Donald. Apart from Clarence Nash’s ventriloquist doll, I can’t think of any more I “need”.
The two last classic Disney features, "Bambi" and "Dumbo," were tearjerkers that became the acid test for stiff upper lips of my generation. You could pretty much judge your age and degree of maturity by which of these two movies reduced you to a puddle of tears. Sadder still, was the great Disney depression that followed. Something had gone wrong. A strike at the studio? The impact of the War? Walt fought back by doing all sorts of stuff for the War effort. And beyond that, the studio encouraged relations with our neighbors in South America by making two films that for a kid, like me, were the equivalent of K-rations, just enough to barely sustain you, until you were old enough to put Disney behind you. Alas, that age came late for me.
These two animated travelogues, “Saludos Amigos”, and “There Caballeros”, were slim pickings. They smacked of propaganda, lauding the joys of South America. And they generated no products, whatsoever, beyond a couple of books and jigsaw puzzles. On the shelves of Grinnell’s music store in Detroit, there were two record albums of Latin music, one for each film. Of course, I had to have them, and made myself listen to them. You Belong to My Heart, Now and Forever” is permanently imprinted on my brain. The three smiling faces on the cover, the only Disney thing about it, hooked me.
The Stars of The Three Caballeros, Donald Duck, Panchito and Jose Carioca had a certain upbeat, even exotic, aura about them that in images, like the delicious cover of this book, was captivating
But, apart from a few figurines that my mother, ultimately, pulverized, I saw no products until years later, as a collector, when a precious few appeared. They are all up here, crammed into a showcase that is really too small to fit them all.
In the back Is a hat that belonged, according to the auction papers, to either Carmen Miranda, or Hedda Hopper. The document is up there with it, but I’m not about to go to the trouble to retrieve it. Anyway, it is supposed to have been made for her by Charlotte Clark. Patterns, by her, to sew that very doll and his two companions, Panchito and Donald, were later released by “Simplicity”. In the two front corners, are a pair of windup toys from France, generated by Saludos Amigos, of just Donald Duck and Jose Carioca. Panchito didn't exist yet. And in the middle, are all Three Caballeros in the form of dolls made in Mexico that, at least, here, north of the border, are extremely rare.
Over the years, I did discover one item, related to The Three Caballeros that is visually exciting. This cinema toy was made in Barcelona Spain. It attempts to recreate the entire movie in 6 views, displayed in a small window, by means of a rotating wheel. The art is interesting. It has a fluid lyric quality, a unifying sensuality that permiates the entire object, and subtly sets the scene in motion.
“Paul Terry's "Aesop’s Movie Fables” are a curious mystery. This photograph I acquired, early on, captured my attention, and became a kind of challenge. The dolls pictured in it, fascinated me. Who were these unknown, but beautifully constructed characters? Could I get any? Could I get them all? Well, almost! Why do I find these a mystery. Maybe because I didn’t research them carefully, but I tend to let things explain themselves, over time. Bottom line, these characters, seemingly, personify a kind of exquisite mediocrity. They are like a generic brand of Comic Character, that was always “out there”, but never rose to recognition.
Clearly, they were on the scene, long before Mickey. And at the very point when Mickey was just being discovered, this ever changing menagerie of countless characters, had all of the same dreams. But there were next to no products made. I have a book of Hankies, currently misplaced, and this book that exactly parallels the very first Mickey Mouse book. It has the same size and format, had the same number of pages, the same content, page by page, a song, a game, and it appeared in the same year,1930. Aesop's Movie Fables and Mickey Mouse left the sound cartoon starting gate, together, with Aesop’s, originally called, “Aesop’s Film Fables”, in the lead, having a 10 years edge, beginning on the silent screen.
Mickey made it BIG!. While these guys just coexisted, yet there were hundreds of cartoons that bore their name. Did I say bore? If you ever saw one of their cartoons, you’d understand what that word really means! And their names are sort of hilariously understated. With the exception of one pussycat called, the “Countess” and her fellow feline, a Tom, (That’s one common name they missed) called “Waffles”, the rest of the characters have names that redefine ordinary. Would to believe “Don Dog,” “Mike Monkey,” “Max Fox,” “Buddy Bear,”and talk about close, but no cigar, “Milton Mouse”?
So what interested me about these characters? Simple! This amazing series of beautiful dolls! These are of top notch Quality, every bit as nice as Steiff, and they go on and on. I’ve seen many more, including a rabbit that looks as much like Oswald, as Milton looks like Mickey. And I’ve rarely seen one, be it dog, or bear, or fox, or monkey, whose seller, or “I’d never part with this treasure” owner, wasn’t convinced that it was Mickey.
Far away, in the other upper right-hand corner of the wall, is another showcase that is somewhat overlooked, a place to squeeze in something that can’t fit in elsewhere. Soon after we moved up here, I was driving down a side street in Manhattan, when, suddenly, I spotted a Big Jiggs, like this one, in the window of a dry cleaners! I slammed on the brakes, found an illegal parking place, and ran inside. Did they take me to the cleaners? No! They sold it to me, gladly, for twenty dollars. It wasn’t in great shape, but I was glad to get it, the first one I’d ever seen. Years later, the one in this picture came along, complete with Maggie. I couldn’t resist it! The condition was fantastic! These dolls are, most likely, from the early 1940s. That’s Maggie's original jewelry, and rather dainty rolling pin.
What could be more incongruous than sharing this case with Little Nemo? Here’s the very early Nemo bell toy, we’ve seen, before, and a large composition nodder of Flip. On the wall, is a Tuck Valentine of Little Nemo, who has had much better dreams than this.
And last of all, we come to a more exciting showcase, one that is full of many "Firsts". It contains the first Mickey Mouse toy, two of them. And my first Mickey, the cast iron Bank I found at the Paris Flea Market, in 1958, the very object that started this collection. The rest is all the early wood jointed dolls, in all their sizes and variations, as well as other early Mickey treasures, all of which are color coordinated. That color, in this case, is red.
On the far left, is a miniature papier mache display figure of Mickey, made by Old King Cole Display. On either side of the cast iron bank, are two Composition dolls by Ideal. The one on the right, was my second Mickey. This case is full of history. There is a delightful perfume atomizer in the middle. His face is metal. His body’s porcelain. His ears are tin. And the back of his head is a rubber squeeze bulb that sprays the perfume out of a brass fitting, under his nose. His pose is spritely, and delightful. His arms and legs are thin and delicate. This precious trifle is a mini masterpiece of great magnificence.
Last of all, let’s devote a photo to the first Mickey Mouse toy. This toy appeared in the 1930 George Borgfeldt Catalogue. It was the first, and only, Mickey Mouse to appear in their catalogue, that year. The flat version of a toy called “Micky”, without an “E”, by the Performo Company also appeared in the same catalogue.
Bert Gillette’s original design for this first Mickey Mouse toy is pictured in the book, Disneyana, by Cecil Munsey. That volume, mostly compiled from the pages of the Kay Kamen catalogues, became the bible for early Disney Collectors.
The caption on the picture states that the toy was made in two sizes, 7 ¼” and 9 ¼”. That’s probably what the contract read. My guess is that it was referring to the jointed doll. The only files retained at Disney appear to have been of a business nature. If a larger figure was actually manufactured, an example of it has yet to be discovered. Apart from the fact that this was “The First Mickey Toy”, it is a handsome toy, by any standard. When the tail is pressed down, the head pops up.
From here, we hop to the right, and pop in on Flip the Frog!
High Up, almost out of sight, and definitely out of reach, is the Donald Duck Department. I guess that’s saying something. You’ll notice that all the Donalds there have a tendency to be of the “Long Billed” variety. Disney collectors of my generation tend to be, either Mickey Mouse, or Donald Duck men. Those, who favor Donald, are generally focused on the creative output of the great Carl Barks. They, no doubt, grew up, reading his comics, and still enjoy them today. Their collecting tends to be driven by nostalgia. Barks was one of the World’s greatest illustrators and story tellers, but his Duck, although beautifully rendered, is more about personality, and telling a story than it is about form and iconic imagery.
Those who favor Mickey are often more visually oriented. Like me, they, most likely, didn’t even see early Mickey as a kid. They grew up to discover the visual imagery of that era. Many of the first Mickey Mouse collectors were artists, themselves. Mickey is a visual thing.
Only early long billed Donald remotely belonged to Mickey’s World of pure Geometry, a world where circles were still easily detectible. Donald, at his visual best, is embodied in the Hestwood marionette. His head is a perfect circle; his upper body is half of the same, and his abdomen is an egg. His neck is a cylinder, and there are four round buttons on his chest. And, then, there is that ridiculously long beak. That is the ideal Donald that was, also, beautifully realized in the Donald Lamp on the left of the shelf of red and green, above. The shelf below, represents most of the long Billed Donald products known. That is to say, those that were not either Bisque or Celluloid, two categories, in which Donald prospered and multiplied. They are displayed, elsewhere.