BLUE RIBBON BOOKS
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
Growing up in the 1940s, there were some books called “Jolly Jump-ups.” They contained simple pop-up illustrations that folded out, resembling a flight of stairs. And there was also a series of animated story books by Julian Wehr that were, in their own weird way, fascinating. But, throughout my childhood, nothing as wonderful as The Blue Ribbon Pop-up Books, popped up. By the time my time began, Blue Ribbon Books had come and gone.
I discovered them, years later, in my quest for Mickey. When I did, I was amazed, and immediately drawn in, not so much by their clever construction, which was fantastic for its time, but more by the quality of the art inside, and the voluptuous thick-thin modulation of their brush drawn lines. One could isolate even a small section of the most incidental artwork, and discover that it contained all the visual excitement of a painting. My friend, John Fawcett did that very thing, for what might have been his most successful show, at the OK Harris Gallery.
This is one of the final pages I have tackled for this website. I have been avoiding it, because it necessitated opening the coffee table, as many of the Pop-up books reside, inside. But, I, finally, did it, and what a job it was! It took all day, removing all the stuff on top, replacing light bulbs, cleaning glass, photographing the books, then, putting it all together again. It was late at night, by then! That's when I took this shot. I should have had a shot of gin!
Now that I have photographed a variety of the Pop Up pages, I can pretty much, shut up! They speak for themselves!
Here is the first, “The Pop-up Mickey Mouse.” The cover, with its exuberant image of Mickey, captures the essence of excitement. I have often wondered who illustrated this amazing series. I know the books were engineered by Sam Gold Novelty Company, here on the East Coast. But the Illustrations are attributed to the Disney Studio. According to Ward Kimball, the animators at Disney disliked these illustrations, intensely, and made them the subject of jokes and ridicule. This statement always troubled me. I find these drawings to be superior to anything I ever saw generated by Disney, outside of an actual animated movie. And I might add that, unlike the average Disney storybook illustrations, there is nothing about them that is sugar coated, or cutesy. They have not been doused with pixie dust.
The central Pop-up is a single figure of Mickey, who pops up from the page. His simple shapes stand out against a background that displays a riot of deft and busy penmanship. One of Mickey's most ingenious design features was his bright white face. That aspect of he and Minnie is utilized to good advantage, throughout the series of Pop-up books. Often, these character's white faces stand out in an environment that is fully colored in. The Disney organization, later, threw this visual advantage away, when, in a rush towards "reality," they colored their faces pink.
In Both the Mickey and the Minnie Pop-up, the major Pop-up page was located in the middle of the book. There were two simpler Pop-ups that used only one additional element to pop up, incorporated into the “endpapers,” just, inside the front and back covers. These books sold for 75 cents, each. Here is the scene that begins the Mickey book:
Mickey and Minnie wave goodbye to a boatload of beautifully styled animals. Note the lyrical fluency of the sea; the foam and ripples are poetic. The dock that Mickey and Minnie are standing on appears to raise above the waves, on pylons. This is virtuoso draftsmanship!
“The Pop-up Minnie Mouse” was every bit as good as Mickey’s book.
In terms of paper trickery, Minnie’s book was more complex. Her voluminous skirt introduced an area of paper construction that, for its time, was groundbreaking.
The endpapers had a spectacular drawing, as well. The flaps of the dust jacket are filled with some overheated rhetoric that one would later see outdone on the dust jacket of the Waddle Book. Sam Gold Novelties knew a lot about promotion, and it shows.
The last of the four Blue Ribbon Pop-up books, based on Disney, is this: “Mickey Mouse presents his Silly Symphonies.” Here, in this volume, the art work takes off. The details everywhere in the illustrations of the "Babes in the Woods" are more delicious than the candy on the house. And the Pop-up "King Neptune," emerges from an ocean, turbulent with fancy brushwork, gone wild. It is a tour de force of fancy thick-thin penmanship!
This coupling of these two early Silly Symphonies seems to have been very popular, at the time. But they are two very strange films. Babes in the Woods is, almost, about Hansel and Gretel, but not quite. It sort of previews the wicked witch from Snow White, and has a gang of dwarves, thrown in for good measure. The characters, throughout, remain distant and impersonal.
King Neptune is even stranger. It doesn’t surprise me that Disney has sort of buried this movie in Davey Jones' locker. In it, a shipload of lusty letcherous pirates attempt to abduct and molest a topless mermaid. King Neptune, a fat naked jolly old man, laughs sadistically, as he dramatically drowns the pirates, stomps on their ship, then, sits on it, sending them to a watery grave.
One Blue Ribbon publication that has floated to the top of the list of Mickey Mouse Collectibles, in terms of rarity and desirability, is the Mickey Mouse Waddle Book. It certainly played a major role in my adventures in collecting! And, right from the beginning, drove forward many a trade. In later years, it became an ever-present element in my friendship with Maurice Sendak.
On numerous occasions, Maurice asked me if I would assume the role of his “product director.” I had done the Wild Things dolls, at his request, under the umbrella of my association with Colorforms, and, ironically, they turned out to be the longest selling item I ever made. But, as they never generated any Colorforms royalties, at the time, I never made a penny from them. Nor could I expect any remuneration from the other companies, who, later, continued to manufacturer my designs.
Here is the Book I traded from John Fawcett, who saved me the anguish of having to decide, whether or not, to punch the Waddles out, as it appeared in the Bamburgers show in 1973.
And here it is, as it proudly stands, showcase and all, in “The Hall” today.
As you will learn on the next page, I traded my un-punched waddle Book to Maurice. Subsequently, I got another one. It's not quite as perfect as the one I traded him, but it is good enough.
How does one define “Rare?” Is it something many know about, but few possess? Or would something be rarer, still, if it is so scarce that no one (who should) knows it exists? The following item is the rarest of the Rare; the rarest Blue Ribbon Publication, anyway, “The Mickey Mouse Midget Library of Books!”
I found myself on a treasure hunt, today, one, in which I did not succeed. I was looking for the place that I first learned about this item. I saw it mentioned, somewhere, early on. I thought that it was included in a list, on the back flap of the dust jacket of the Waddle Book. Not so! Nor was it listed in the Kay Kamen Catalogues, my second place to look. I even found myself returning to the Munsey Book. But there was no mention of it there. I know I was not hallucinating, I saw it listed, someplace, 45 years ago, and always wondered what it was. And when I got the only one, I exclaimed,” My God! This is it!”
I got this treasure at Brimfield, on a secret excursion to Kenny Chapman’s car. He opened up the trunk and there it was! He had discovered it, only Minutes, before. I don’t think he realized how unique and extraordinary this boxed set was. Well, neither did I, for this was years ago, and only time would tell the tale of its true rarity. I was excited, mainly, because the graphics of its cover thrilled me. This was fresh imagery, and beautifully done, clearly by the hand that drew the Pop-ups!
This memorable event took place, on the final day of the week long show, minutes before I headed home. It was a miracle that I made it home alive, for I placed it on the floor of the passenger seat, and, throughout the drive, my eyes were focused on it, more than they were on the road. Noel and I were driving in tandem in separate cars. He insisted that we stop in Hartford, to see the Mark Twain house. Although, I really enjoyed the tour, my thoughts remained with Mickey Mouse, on the passenger side floor.
In the past 45 years, “Ted Hakes Americana” has literally handled nearly every collectible item known. At least, one of everything has passed through their hands. So I was surprised when Ted’s assistant called me up, mystified, a few months ago. They had been given two of the small books that this set makes, and they had no idea what they were.
So, without further build up, here it is “Make your own Midget Library - Including material for making your own Mickey Mouse Books” That is what the title on the box reads. Inside is just what the cover says, enough stuff to make several Mickey Books! There are full color covers, and many pages, printed in black and white, as well as several full color sheets of gorgeous, made to order, images of Mickey and Minnie, to cut out, and paste in place. Then, with the paints that the cover implies might have been part of the set, a child would color in the rest. There is an envelope of clips to hold the finished books together.
Many licensed properties rely on stock images, recycled endlessly. The contents of this fabulous set is all original art that appears only here, and is of the very highest quality. It would appear to be the work of same artist who did the Pop-up Books. The images of Mickey and Minnie are all brand new, and fresh! And the stories are as good as any in the Mickey Library.
And, the whole thing is displayed in the last showcase that we will see. It is the only one that, at this time, has not, yet, gone before the camera’s eye. It is the last case along the couch, in the big room. And it contains some of the rarest things. It could have been included in several other categories, but, because of the Midget Library, I saved it for here.
In the center of the showcase, and the reason a strong light is directed to bounce off the back, is the “Mickey Mouse Gummed Paper Toy Cinema.” How rare is that? The only other one known is the smaller version that I have upstairs. It was made in England, and it is a Shadow Theater, complete with many uncut sheets of Disney Characters and a playbook. It was made by a gummed sticker company. The gummed paper part consists of applying lick and stick colored panels to complete the facade of the stage. The actors are displayed behind a translucent screen. The scenery is made up of cut out pieces, too. The play book is grizzly, to say the least. The drama ends with Mickey and his friends, cutting off Peg Leg Pete’s Head. Clearly, the violent tradition of Punch and Judy, and France’s Grand Guignol, was alive and well in 1930s Britain. The cut figures of Mickey and Minnie, shown on stage, are Xeroxes, so, I wouldn’t need to cut the sheets, which are displayed on the left side of the case.
Somewhere, around the middle of the back wall of the showcase, the printed sheets change to those for the Midget Library. They are held in place by tiny pins. The box, itself, is against the back, on the right. It is somewhat obscured by the “Chad Valley Mickey Walk Along Toy,” which effects walking, in a weird way, by splitting the figure down the middle. Nonetheless, the graphics are terrific. On either end of the case, are two exceedingly rare Chad Valley animated pull toys, and across the front of the case, is a Mickey Mouse pull toy Parade, consisting of six figures that link together. Look carefully, to the right of the shadow theater’s screen, and you will see a celluloid Mickey doing his impersonation of Edvard Munch's painting, “The Scream.”
So what is it that is so alluring about this most Amazing book? Well the blurb on the cover says it all! It is “The Story Book with Characters that Come Out and Walk!” The copy inside the Dust Jacket goes on to explain: “This NEW MICKEY MOUSE WADDLE BOOK uses for the first time in the history of book-making a marvelous new invention (fully protected by patent applications), which gives to children a book with characters that walk. These animated three-dimensional figures come right out of the pages and, without the use of springs, or rubber bands, or delicate contrivances, walk with a fidelity to life which will delight any child.” I couldn’t have said it any better, myself!
In the Mickey Mouse Waddle Book, unlike the Wizard of Oz version, the pages, from which the Waddles are punched-out were tipped right into the book, itself. In the Oz book the punch-out pages were packed separately. Lets open the cover, and, through the miracle of “MOUSE OVER," see the Waddles, neatly bound.
In the beginning, and right up to the end, they were the only Wild Things dolls that Maurice ever liked. And all the Wild Things dolls, sold today, are still based on my designs. The lines, printed on them, are still mine. Nonetheless, I always turned Maurice’s offers aside, for several reasons. One being that I simply could not afford to do it. I was doing much better on my own. And, even if that were not the case, I didn’t want to lead a life, forever in the shadow of Maurice.
But this much I can say with certainty, and much regret: If I had assumed that role, (we had discussed this, many times) there would have been a “Wild Things Waddle Book!”
A sprinkle of pixie dust might be what’s needed here. This is the nasty German edition, with "Micky," hideously redrawn. How did they manage to make it look so ugly? Is it just my imagination, or does that harsh lettering have an aura about it that reminds one of a swastika?
Next, Mickey appeared in a fat volume, based on the cartoon, “Ye Olden Days,” called “Mickey Mouse in king Arthur’s Court,” a title inspired by Mark Twain! This book contains four complex Pop-ups, and sold for two dollars. Much more went into the creation of these volumes than one might realize. Beyond the complex Pop-ups, themselves, the paper that they were printed on had to be a special kind, developed in a lab, especially, for these books. And the bindings, too, were complicated, in that the four Pop-up pages had to be able to lay flat.
The cover of Mickey in King Arthur’s Court, had bright delicious images, on both the front and back.
Minnie’s endpapers were not quite as interesting as Mickey’s. But, the final one is rather pretty, while, at the same time, it displays the one touch of draftsmanship that is less inspired than the rest. While all the Pop-up art appears to be fresh and original, the figure and pose of barking Pluto, is based on standard pick up art.