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
Beyond the Big Room, and the studio upstairs, there is one other area the collection has invaded, and that is “The Hall.” We have, already, nibbled at many of the treats, there, as they overlap other categories, to which they are more intrinsic. But there remains a lot of things that might escape, unseen, if they were not included here. Walking past all these showcases, many times, each day, tends to make them disappear. But, when one actually focuses in on them, it is surprising how much is really there.
As this is a Guided Tour, let’s begin on the front porch, and walk through the two massive wooden doors that lead you to Mouse Heaven. Pearly Gates, they aint! On the brick wall, overwhelming in its size and presence, is a Giant Mickey Target. I always loved the graphics of this object, from the first time that I saw the original 18” inch version, by Marx Bros. of Boston, half a Century ago. I’ve seen, and had, many of them, since then. Nonetheless, the image has never lost its power for me. Many years ago, John Fawcett painted a four foot version of it, on homosote board. He added a small Mickey and Minnie on the bottom, and called it “his art.” Then he used it to play darts! Eventually, it was torn to ribbons. And John was going to throw it out! But, after a bout of begging, he gave it to me, instead. And so, it hung, here, on this wall, for years, until it literally fell apart. I replaced it with this one, as big as two 4’X8’ sheets of plywood, seamlessly joined together, would permit, and replicated the original toy, exactly, right down to the copyright notice, adding nothing extra. I’m not an artist. I’m a purist, who just wanted a big target!
Well, it’s not as sharp as I would like. But I’ll take some photos down there, today, and see what they look like. The fact is not a lot has changed in the hall, between the years of then and now, and those changes that did take place were not necessarily easy on the eyes, like the introduction of a flat screen TV, the back of which, now dominates the view, seen through the doorway on the right. It's not a pretty sight!
The lower entrance area is my wife’s domain. It is a jungle, and a jumble, of artificial plants, potted palm trees, brooms, snow shovels, birdseed, cat food for the outdoor cats, artificial poinsettias, illuminated jack-o-lanterns, Christmas wreaths, and a stuffed chicken, all of which sit there, all year, blocking the, once, wide stairs. This unheavenly vision is permeated by the sight and scent of kitty litter. It is Purgatory, a little taste of Hades that one must circumnavigate, in order to ascend into Mouse Heaven. And looking up the stairs, this is what you see, from there:
The hall is dominated by one huge showcase. Its main component measures as big as a single sheet of 4’X8’ Plexiglas will allow. It is packed with mainly Mickey Mouse. Because the Plexiglas is so difficult for, even, two men to remove, very little inside it has changed, since it was photographed for "Antique Toy World," in 1995. I would love to use that same photo again! I'll look and see how sharp it is.
Well, It’s not as good as I would like. It was shot on film, and this is from a print that shows its age. I’ll take some new photos down there, today, and see what they look like. The fact is, not a lot has changed in the hall, between the years of then and now, and those changes that did take place were not necessarily easy on the eyes, like the introduction of a flat screen TV, the back of which now dominates the view, seen through the doorway on the right. It's not a pretty sight!
I took the photos. Some came out Great; some, just OK. Just for the fun of it, I’ll leave the old photo, in place, for comparison sake. I turned the flat screen TV out of the way. Like I said, very little has changed, in the last eighteen years. New things, when they appeared, pretty much, went up the stairs. My God! It is Amazing, almost scary, the way time has tended to stand still, here! The photo, above, was taken on a sunny day. The one, below, was shot, late, on this cloudy afternoon, just as the blue-green twilight was beginning to fade. Apart from that, the lights still shine, as bright, today, as they did then.
The one thing that has changed, is yours truly. These days, I tend to look at things from a lower angle. My respect for the things that I collect has only grown, over the years, and low angle photography, I feel, conveys a sense of their monumental awesomeness. As I’ve lived to appreciate and see their rarity, I am increasingly humbled by their beauty. Besides, I couldn’t decide, which of these two shots I liked best! The first shows more; the second shows less, but makes less look more dramatic. Which point of view do you prefer?
Here is the central case. The two large Old king Cole displays of Mickey and Minnie were, actually, made in England. I don’t know how the makers were connected. They used all of old king Cole’s designs and molds, but manufactured them, over there. The central target is the original version of the big one, on the wall of the lower hall; and the mouse, standing before it, is, possibly, by Charlotte Clark. There are many Marx Bros. items in the case, both variations of the Bagatelle Game, and both the English, and American Scatter Ball Games. In the center, is the rare Marx Bros. Ring Toss Game.
The two largest Knickerbocker dolls are here, as well as two very early Borgfeldt flannel dolls. One of these is taller than the other, the only one ever found in this tall size. He’s holding an Atlantic City sand pail. And the biggest, best sand pail, ever, featuring Mickey and Minnie on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City is on the far right. On the far left, is a snow shovel, with scarves flying, that is composed with the dynamics of a painting. One can also find the mickey and Minnie Paper Dolls. They are exquisitely designed. Here, too, is the fabulous Easter Mickey I found on my best day of Brimfield. This is a large doll, that, here, looks small! It’s hard to visualize how big this showcase really is! Front and center is the Mickey Mouse Tumbling Circus Pull Toy with beautifully lithographed tin platform. And, just above it, is a wooden Jumping Jack that is one of the very first Mickey toys.
From here, let’s go down to the Showcase, just below it. There are some very choice dolls, in this case. Starting on the left, is one of the first dolls by Borgfeldt. This is from 1931. Then, back a bit, is a long legged doll from Deans. Next, is the rare Knickerbocker Mickey Mouse Clown Doll, and two Knickerbocker Cowboy dolls, in both sizes. They are all original, with everything, including hats, guns, and lassos. Then, there is a strange orange doll from Spain. In the back, is the Chad Valley Helter Skelter Game. And right up front, is the nicest of the German Gobel figurines, Elmer Elephant, kissing Tillie Tiger.
To the left of this showcase, is another, dedicated to “Gulliver’s Travels.” This movie came at a time when it looked like Fleischer might rival Disney for feature length cartoons. I remember the paper dolls, on the back wall. In this era of the Modern toy industry, one can’t conceive of how small the toy business was, back then. Paper dolls and paper toys were very important. Paper dolls, in particular, played the role, now filled by Barbie and her kin. And, in the center, is the rare Gulliver Doll, who, was, actually, Dianna Durbin, dressed as a man. Here, too, are two more excellent examples of the work of Joseph Kallus, in the form of wood and composition jointed dolls of “Gabby” and “King Little.”
The other compartments in this large showcase have been, or will be, visited, elsewhere, Popeye, Felix and Buck Rogers. There is only one other, that we should mention here. High up, in the top right corner, with a background, consisting of the Marx Bros. Coming Home Game, is a delicious pair of Steiff Mickey and Minnie dolls. It is rare to find a Steiff Mickey with an open mouth. This is a feature usually found only on Minnie.
On the right side of this big showcase, is the Horace and Clarabelle bookcase. It is stacked with many Disney Books, of the1930s era. Books are not ordinarily my thing, but I really needed these to adapt the art for the many Mickey Mouse Colorforms I made. And, along the way, I got some beauties. My original obsession “The Art of Walt Disney,” a 1942 volume that launched me on the road to becoming an artist, in the first place, is here, with all the rest, now, in good company.
To the left of the main showcase, is a free standing unit that we have glimpsed before. This features a sculpture of KoKo the clown by John Fawcett, on the top. It will be seen better, later, on John's own page. Below that, is the spectacular Barney Google Drum, with the Schoenhut Barney and Spark Plug dolls, standing atop it, and four more Schoenhut dolls, surrounding it: Jiggs, Maggie, Happy Hooligan, and a later variation of Barney. This one has a fully sculpted head. I don’t know how to make a subject like this exciting, shot against an accordion door, so I pulled the door aside, to reveal a glimpse the room, behind.
This showcase is one that I got from the Bambergers show. It was made to display the (then) three Mickey Mouse Marionettes. This is a classic case of be careful what you ask for, you might get it, and I did. The stuff on the bottom is impossible to access. I don’t remember how I got them down there; with a stick and a hook, I guess. It’s like putting a ship in a bottle. Then the stuff that’s hanging has to be adjusted from above, by bending wires, after the grill is put in place.
By the stuff hanging, I mean, of course, my beautiful Polichinelle, who I got in Paris, fifty-five years ago. He has been hanging in this case for forty of those years. He is well over a hundred years old. The Crandall acrobats, in the back, fell over twice. I fixed them, the first time. It took all day. They fell again, ten years ago, and there, they stay!
On the bottom is the lovely doll that Eunice and I found, together, at the Paris Flea Market, and the Charlie McCarthy Doll that she gave me for some holiday, when we were newly wed. There is a fabulous wind up toy in the case, based on an actual circus act, from the Turn of the previous Century. An acrobat, inside a ball, maneuvers it to the top of a winding spiral, and when it reaches the pinnacle, the ball opens up, and out he pops!
Here, also, is a dramatic Ring Toss Game. The clown’s grinning face resembles the famous grin of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park. And here is a colorful toy theater that, even though, it was made in England, represents the New York Hippodrome.
The florescent light bulb, by the way, has never needed to be changed, ever since it was placed there in 1973. The light stays on, night and day.
Now, let’s head down the hall that leads past the kitchen. Along the wall, on the left, are a few of Charles Ponstingls’ Carvings. There are many more, elsewhere. At the end of the hall, is the showcase with the Mickey Mouse Circus Train, atop it stands a set of Snow White figurines that we will see better, later. On the wall is the Clock I “made” in New York City. As these photos are all time exposures, the mouse, which rotates, will always be out of focus. One can’t turn on the neon lights, alone.
With just the clock alight, the hall is filled with fuchsia light.
And here is the Circus train, itself. At one time, before anybody knew about the sort of Mickey Mouse tin toys that were made in Europe, this was considered the Holy Grail of Mickey Mouse Collecting. It’s true, the lithographed train cars are delicious, and the cardboard tent is fabulous. This was part of the exquisite batch of Mickey art that was generated in NYC. Ironically, the box, itself, is ugly. I just went to look at it, now, wondering if I should include it here. Nah! One glance, and I remembered why I always keep it out of sight.
Now back into the hall again. Another showcase that is difficult to photograph is this one. It includes, two big minty delicious Mickey and Minnie dolls, the largest size Steiff made. Minnie has her tags, labels, and everything.
That is everything in the Hall that we have not seen, yet, or will see, later, elsewhere. Gus Whites Punch is done, and the Blue Ribbon Waddle Book is yet to come. And, of course, Charles Ponstingl’s carvings have a whole website of their own. This leaves only the posters.
So, here are the first two, "Mickey's Nightmare" and "Building a Building", along with a fabulous poster for "The Dayton Family." They were a family of acrobats. The poster reveals every trick in their entire act! Mickey’s Nightmare is the Best Mickey Mouse poster EVER! The big image of Mickey is Killer! The cartoon, itself, was just OK. But nothing could equal the poster, anyway.
I traded the other poster from Disney, in exchange for a bunch of toys, dolls and figurines, as they really didn’t have any in the archive, at that time. Now they have mine! All they had, then, was a pitiful showcase full of stuff, shown in color in the Munsey book. I was offered a list of Mickey cartoons to choose from, in exchange, and instructed to pick one, from column A, and two, from column B. While this trade was taking place, I was literally “Building a Building, and doing it all by myself. Or I might better say, tearing one down! And the very spot where we are standing, now, and the corner we are looking at, above, looked like this!
I am really ad-libbing this whole thing. Two minutes ago, I didn’t dream of showing this! But here it is. So, you can see why “Building a Building” seemed like a logical choice to make.
On the other wall, is another pair of posters, the two I chose from column B. Mickey was on the A list. The Silly Symphonies were on the B. This pair, which are, ironically, more rare, are the same coupling that were grouped, together, in the Blue Ribbon "Silly Symphonies Pop Up Book."
Oh, I just realized that there is one poster that was hiding behind the walking Mickey Carousel Figure, when seen, from the bottom of the stairs. I guess, to make this page complete, I should include it here. Therefore, I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get a decent photo of "Touchdown Mickey".
Talk about unexpected, I not only didn’t anticipate this, but the shot was set up by Fate, entirely! There was only one camera angle from which the Plexiglas was not bathed in reflections from lights and windows. So, when I found that only angle, the rest was there, already. Thus, Mickey set the shot up for me. All I had to do was avoid reflections and click the shutter. As Mickey posters go, Touchdown Mickey is one of the more dynamic ones. And it also happens to be a genuinely great cartoon!
Years later, when I saw the actual cartoons, I was shocked! King Neptune might be one of the most disturbing cartoons ever made. It’s all about attempted rape, punished by death. King Neptune, a fat naked old man, sings a ditty reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, then laughs sadistically, as he drowns a shipload of lecherous drunken sailors and stomps on their ship. Afterwards, he sits on the sunken wreckage and sings his merry song again. I guess this was considered appropriate for kids, in the days of Big Bad Wolves and Bogymen.