OLD KING COLE DISPLAY
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
Old king Cole Papier Mache Company, in Canton Ohio decorated America's stores and store windows by the thousands, throughout the first half of the 20th Century. They made it all, everything from RCA Victor Nipper dogs to elaborate Christmas windows. They were licensed to make Disney displays from 1932 to 1942. And the incredible stuff they produced, in that window of time, Mickey's Golden Age, staggers the imagination!
The first Disney item that Old King Cole manufactured was this iconic display figure of Mickey. It was used everywhere, from stores, selling Mickey merchandise, to theaters, showing Mickey Mouse cartoons. This is the page that introduced it in the 1932 Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies Campaign Book. The price for these was four dollars apiece, but, with the coupon on this page, theater owners could purchase them for just three dollars each.
And here he stands, one of those early Mickeys. If ever there was a perfect iconic image, one that captures the dynamic excitement of this newly created deity, this is it! There are three of these in Mouse Heaven, give or take a few, depending on how you count : two made in the USA, one made in England that looks the same, and a fourth, made in Germany, before Mickey was “verboten,” there. There is, also, one more variation that we will discuss, later. And there are two others that are different, altogether.
Mickey was soon followed by a matching Minnie. And that began the great outpouring of one display piece, after another, depicting all the Disney Characters in an endless variety of forms and poses.
I have thought this out in detail: If I were able to travel back in time to the 1930s, I would have to own a retail store, just so I could order lots of Old King Cole displays. The very thought of this makes my head spin! In the early New York City days, I used to go to the NY Public Library Annex and pour through back issues of “Playthings,” and other toy related magazines. With my camera poised on a four legged tripod, I copied many of the images. I, especially, loved photos of stores and store windows from the 1930s. They are truly snapshots, captured through the porthole of a Time Machine. And photographs, like this pair, drove me crazy. Here is an elaborate Old King Cole display of full dimensional animated Disney Characters, presided over by the imposing god-like image of Disney’s Santa. He looks like Mighty Zeus, holding court on Mount Olympus, surrounded by Disney Deities, Mickey, playing his cigar box banjo, and Minnie, dancing, Donald, Goofy, the Three Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf, and even Red Riding Hood. This scene appeared in two different stores:
Of all the images I discovered, my favorite was this maypole, with all the early Disney characters, hanging onto it, and spinning around. It is suspended in the very center of the Great Hall downstairs. Many are the times I’ve seen it there, with my eyes closed, more vivid, in my imagination, than it might be if it were really there. Could this incredible hallucination possibly still exist, somewhere?
These elaborate displays were often made to order, but there were hundreds of stock images, as well; and new designs were added every year. The variations numbered in the hundreds, from simple to elaborate. And even the most basic figures were often available in two versions, standard and animated. And so, on a ledge, atop the Great Wall, there is a line of Old King Cole displays, with Horace and Clarabelle on the ends, and four animated figures, in between them. How did they get there? Therein lies a tale:
I saw my first Old king Cole Displays, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, in Kenny Kneitel’s shop, “Fandango,” in 1967. When Kenny closed the store, and sold its contents as a total package, he pulled these figures out, and they went to me.
Several years later, my friend, Eliot Sherman, discovered four Old King Cole figures: an animated Mickey and Donald, and still figures of Pluto and Minnie. They were not exactly figures. They were more like bas-reliefs. And he offered them to me for a sum that rhymes with “many” thousand dollars. Huh! My house cost little more than that! But, as my wife might say, in one of her olde English expressions, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat!” So I made a counter offer: If Elliot would lend them to me, I would make two sets of copies, one for him, and one for me. Elliot, who has an unconventional imagination, instantly agreed! And so, I did!
Let’s assess the situation. These images were hand made. As I have always said, and believe, “My hands are as good as anybody’s.” So why not me? I had no need to own the originals. I only wanted to possess the imagery. As an artist, buying them, or making them, was all the same to me. In my eyes, buying imagery and making it are the same thing, but one is instantaneous, and easier than the other, provided that you have the money. If you don’t, you have to do it the hard way. And so, I dove right in, and set to work, earning a Master’s Degree in Old King Cole display.
In the factory, the originals were first made in clay. Then a plaster mold was poured, and glue soaked paper strips were layered into it. The plaster absorbed the moisture. When dry, the final form was painted. I, on the other hand, wanted perfect copies of the images only. I wanted them to capture every nuance, exactly, but at the same time, I wanted something that would, purposely, not pretend to be original, or qualify as forgeries.
So, I made molds of Silastic RTV, which would not harm the originals. No release agent was neccessary. The Silastic captured every minute detail, and every imperfection, as well. The flexible molds were cradled in a plaster nest, to hold them in place. They are still in the basement! And I made the images, themselves, out of fiberglass. These will outlast the originals by centuries. I painted them to match, including every chip and flake in the original paint. Then, I cut acetate masks, and airbrushed in the names. You’d have to know me to believe me, but you can trust me, when I say that, from the front, it was absolutely impossible to tell the difference. When Elliot came to pick them up, we played that game. The copies I made won!
As an added self-incentive, I animated my version of Minnie and Pluto, and motorized all four of them. Here is a really bad Polaroid of all of them, together, on the front porch, with yours truly in the middle. Can you tell which ones are fake? Hint: The fatty on the upper step is really me.
I then introduced Elliot to Maurice Sendak, who bought the originals. Elliot sold the copies to a collector in Staten Island, who later, resold them. Mickey and Donald are now owned by John Fawcett, on display in his museum in Maine. Minnie and Pluto changed hands several times. I forget who has them now. The question is: Are these insanely inspired re-creactions "works of art" or merely "fakes"? In some ways, they are more amazing than "the real thing!" How different are they, from Andy Warhol's Brillo Box? The difference is: 1. I am not Andy Warhol. 2. He wouldn't have the skill to do it. So here they are, one at a time, the four I made. I photographed them, while standing on a ladder. This simple form of animation attempts to emulate their action:
Over the years, I have acquired more of the "real thing", the iconic first Mickey and Minnie, in three versions, one set of which, came from England. Those are located in the big showcase “In the Hall”.
Atop the tall tower, is a running animated Mickey, with his original paint. I have not touched up a thing. I discovered this at Renningers Extravaganza, many years ago, for one hundred dollars. Compared to what Elliot was asking for the ones he sold Maurice, I could have 200 of these. This Mickey is quite different, in color, from the repainted one that was sold at auction, recently. Old King Cole was not into color variations; all their Mickeys and Minnies, without exception, had yellow gloves. And Mickey’s red pants always had blue or yellow buttons. Even the foreign versions continued the same colors.
Speaking of foreign versions, this is what the Micky Maus display looked like in Germany. He is quite accurately pictured in this 1933 German ad.
Each year, Old king Cole, not only, added new characters, they also added new variations on the Images they already had. Here are a handsome pair of figures that stand on either side of the subwoofer. They represent Mickey and Donald, updated by a year. I really got carried away, trying to photograph these two figures. I placed them on either side of the Mickey and Minnie’s trunk, which is where they stand all the time. Before I realized it, I had created an extravaganza, one too good not to capture on film. So recorded the entire scene. Floating on a cloud, in Mouse Heaven.
And, then, to give each of the two figures their due, I shot a photo, featuring each one. Of course, I couldn’t resist including all the other stuff, as well.
There is a related item that should be included here. In the mid 1930s, Old King Cole teamed up with W. L. Stensgaard & Associates Inc. to produce a folder that folds out to three foot wide, advertising their mutual products, as a means of decorating a store for Christmas time. Stensgaard made printed murals, by a process they called, “Comura.” We would call it “silk screen.” The folder, which is too big to reproduce, shows several of these. I’ll scan a small section of it, here. These banners were intended to be used, along with Old king Cole displays.
The lower of two, shown in the folder, hangs high up on a wall overlooking Mouse Heaven. It is 90” long, and was a bitch to frame.
My friend, Al Horen, made a pilgrimage to the Old King Cole Papier Mache Company, in Canton, Ohio, in the 1970s. In their warehouse, they still had Mr. Peanut figures eight feet tall, and a giant image of Superman, holding up the ceiling. They would not sell Al anything! But they did let him have this photo. They explained that he had to get permission from the licensor. Al wrote to Planters, without success. Sadly, several years later, the place burnt to the ground, and all the treasures that it held were lost forever.
The shining star, among my modest array of Old King Cole displays, is this Mickey Star. It represents the culmination of a trade with Maurice Sendak that was in the negotiation stage for, at least, twenty years. Compared to the Mickey and Minnie carousel figures, you can see that it is big!
The Stensgaard, Old King Cole Catalogue Folder pictures the entire mind boggling line of stars. There were six in all. So far, the lone star to appear, is the Mickey that you see, above.
And here is the final photo, the last time Maurice visited Mouse Heaven, just as he was leaving, following the Great Waddle Book Trade that took so many years to consummate. It was a most memorable day. The photo shows Eunice, Maurice, and me, and the cat, Smoochie. Now, only two of us remain.
So here it is, “The STAR,” shining high up on the wall, overlooking Mouse Heaven. It is an image packed with reverie and poignancy that means much more to me than the eye can see.
The ins and outs of the trade deals that were made, and then retracted by Maurice, were never ending. Maurice was obsessed with the Mickey Mouse Waddle Book. I traded him one, complete, but punched out, nearly 40 years ago, in exchange for, of all things, the spiral staircase that I waddle to and from work on, every day. My second Waddle Book was pristine mint, unpunched. I offered it to him, my only one, in exchange for original art. He even agreed to let me suggest the subject matter. It was to be called "The Art of Maurice Sendak," and would be a kind of compendium of his most famous characters. I also suggested that he should publish it, to reap the financial rewards of that, and then, give me the art. He actually, did, exactly, that! He did the drawing, and his publisher issued it as a special edition, including it in a fancy gift set. Then, Maurice "fell in love with it," and "couldn’t part with it." He vowed he would make me another. But never did! Later, with profuse apologies, he sold the drawing to somebody, for a lot of money. In the end, neither of us knowing how near the end might be, I gave him the Waddle Book, anyway, in exchange, for which, he traded me the star. Both the book and the star were intended to be symbolic of, yet, a bigger trade, promised to take place, posthumously. I took it seriously. He did not. At any rate, I guess, all along, we knew it was a game, merely a pipe dream, designed to dull the cutting edge of destiny.