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
In the last years of the 1960s, there was a sort of passageway, spacious, but dimly lit, that led from the Pan Am Building to Grand Central Station. Perhaps, crowds of commuters poured through that area, during rush hour, but it was always deserted when I was there. Even on a sunny day, twilight reigned in this gloomy place. There was nothing there, except, against one wall, a single showcase, large, with glass on three sides. And balanced on a pole, in the very middle of it, looking as if it were floating in space, was a most incredible Mickey mask. My friend Henry Mazzeo Jr. who commuted, every day, told me it was there, so, I went to see it, and brought my camera with me. It was worth the journey.
A small sign explained that the mask was worn by Mickey Mouse Balloon handlers, in the early Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. The sign also proclaimed that this fabulous false face belonged to the artist, Claes Oldenburg. I made several pilgrimages to this secret temple, to stand in awe, before this haunting idol, glowing in the solitude, illuminated by a single spotlight. And I made a wish that, one day, Santa Claes would offer it to me. I got two of these masks, eventually!
Is Mickey saying, “Oooooo,!” or blowing hexagonal smoke rings? No! Those are just a line of warning circles, attached to the glass, hopefully, to prevent a crash!
There is something bold and daring about a Mickey Mouse mask. It hovers in that nether world, the narrow line between friendly and scary. Early Mickey masks were honest. They stated their case clearly, and never stooped to cutesy. The rubber face of Disneyland, on the other hand, is soaked in sugar candy, sweet, cloying, and unflinchingly upbeat. But in the early days, Mickey Mouse masks were simple statements that captured the essence of Mickey. The basic 1930s Mickey Halloween mask, made of gauze, was pure, powerful and iconic. The photograph, below, depicting charming multiples of Mickey, encountering a weird black cat, is one of the most "mousmerizing" that I have ever seen. Of the two Minnies, in the front row, the one with her legs crossed at the knees, is the more discreet.
These three vintage photographs are stacked, one above the other, in a very tall old frame. The nails that hold the back in place have rusted over, long ago. I rearranged the pictures, electronically, to fit them on this page. These photos are quite enchanting.
Mickey and Minnie are playing together, nicely. Sweet innocent children? Maybe!
Or is there an undercurrent of something vaguely sinister? Mickey is beckoning to Minnie with a gesture that signifies, come hither. I believe, they are from Germany.
Here are two Mickeys (a small peek of a fifth ear reveals the fact that there are, actually, at least, three). They cross that line, into the world of scary. They were photographed on a Paris Street in the early 1930s.
Brace yourself for a unique experience, a photograph that is truly Extraordinary! This is a meeting of the original Mickey Mouse Club that took place, as it did every Saturday, sometime, in the early 1930s. It is a surreal vision that you might see, either as a nightmare, or a pleasant dream, or, perhaps, somewhere, in between. My hope is that you are viewing it on a 24” screen.
Now, scroll down, and you will see, in person, many of the Masks we just saw in photographs. Before you scroll, might I suggest you do so, with One Eye Closed? This next showcase is the perfect place to experience Make-believe 3D. Give your eye some time to assess the situation, and, soon, the masks will emerge from the background, and appear to float in space.
At the top of the showcase, is my favorite paper mask of all. This amazingly powerful image of Clarabelle Cow, clearly made of circles, is one of the multitude of iconic paper masks, created by Einsen Freeman. In 50 years of collecting, this in the only Clarabelle I’ve ever seen. How can there be just one of these? I found it, at the first table I came across, at the first Stormville Flea market, in 1970. The price was just one dollar! Suddenly, I liked Dutchess county!
The paper masks of Mickey and Minnie, are the same as those that are shown in the hallucinatory photograph of the Mickey Mouse Club. Here, too, are the various masks, made of gauze, in both child and adult sizes, and in variations with tongue and teeth. At the bottom of the case, are two hand crafted Mickey masks, made by costume shops. And, between them, is an adult sized costume in the original box. Put it on, and you can resemble this handsome couple, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, hanging out, around the house.
Hanging around this schoolhouse, are other masks, as well. There may be too many, to photograph them all, but I will give it a try. First of all, here is one of the Mickey Mouse Parade masks. Actually, they were not made specifically for the Macy’s Parade. They were standard papier mache masks, made in Germany, to be used, any time, by anybody. Kenneth Anger used this image of one of mine, from his film, “Mouse Heaven,” to adorn the card that announces showings of the movie.
Where to place these masks to photograph them is a problem. Here, I have posed one on the finial, atop the stove, which is, of course, only safe to do in summer! I have posted the photo large, to give an impression of the size of these imposing icons. Actually, the mask is much bigger, in reality, than it appears here!
Bigger, still, is the one, below. It is the official Kay Kaymen Mickey Mouse Costume, as it existed in the 1930s, the equivalent of the mouse one sees at Disneyland, today. It was made by Old King Cole Display, and has the official Kay Kamen orange and black label, inside. The rest of the costume is in there, too, a black velvet top, and red velvet pants, with silver buttons. Whenever Mickey made a personal appearance, during those early years, this is what he wore. Not knowing where to place this for its close up, I put it on Charlie Chaplin. Actually, he looks quite handsome and debonair!
The pie-cut openings in Mickey’s eyes tend to disappear. I wonder if, at one time, there was some sort of white gauze there? On the shelf in the rear, we see another Mickey Mouse Mask. This one, a fairly recent acquisition, was made in France. On the wall, behind it, is a tall frame that contains four amazing animation drawings of Mickey, singing his signature tune, “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!”
Getting the mask, below, from an auction, in France, proved to be a nightmare. The auction house was incommunicado for two months, after the sale was done. Try as I might, I could not get an invoice or the shipping price. Finally, with some help from the collector, herself, whose mask it was, the auction house emailed me an invoice, which I immediately paid. Then, after the two month wait, they took it on themselves to send it by special courier, overnight. He accompanied it on the flight, then, drove it to my house, at many times the price of the actual mouse! Oy Vey! For what the shipping cost, I could have flown to France, and picked it up, myself!
So, here he sits, smiling away! Next to him, are two hand crafted toys by Sonny Hatfield. We’ll see more of them, soon.
At a loss for where to put them, in order to shoot them, here are three masks, together, atop the showcase they crowd onto, along with many other objects, every day. This is the official Kay Kaymen Costume, along with the two German masks, of the kind used in the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
In the upper corner of the large showcase, in the Tall Tower, there is a papier mache Mickey Mouse mask, made in France. It is one of a series that attempts to render the flat paper masks by Einsen Freeman in full dimensional 3-D. Note that even the colorful shading is airbrushed in.
In the hall, there is a pair of papier mache Mickey masks that were made in Czechoslovakia. They are nearly identical, except for the fact that one has a bright red tongue, and the other one does not. They are simple in design, and display no emotion. They don’t shout out or proclaim their presence. They whisper, quietly.
I suppose, as this page is dedicated to masks, the Mickey Mouse Gas Mask should be included here. My wife, Eunice, being English, remembers these. Years ago, she asked her dad, in Dover, to try to get me one. He did! I must confess, I was a little disappointed. It did not look the way I imagined it would be. It took me a long time to embrace it emotionally, and I must confess, I never fully did. It is more a Mickey, in name only, than in visual reality. I saw it more as a myth than a hit! Over the years, several of these have found their way to me. This one, in the box, is as good an example to show, as any.
Years later, another, more convincing one showed up. I believe, it is considerably rarer. The mask, itself, looks even less like Mickey. But it might explain the origin of the name, for, with it came this incredible canister to carry it, by the English tin toy manufacturer, Happy Knack. Apparently, the idea of including Mickey was to make the whole concept of a gas mask seem more friendly. Actually, the illustration on the can addresses the fact that it is scary. Mickey, wearing it, is actually attempting to frighten his nephews, by saying, "Booo-oo." One thinks "He's a bear," while the more astute of them, proclaims, "Sonly 'Unca' Mickey!”
Forty-three years, later, I am still thinking of the time that I stood in that deserted passageway, lusting after an iconic effigy, securely enshrined in an isolated showcase. The moment stands out in my memory, like a never forgotten dream. Were it not for Mickey, being there, the dream might have been more like a nightmare. Now, after all these years, I believe my desire for a Mickey Mouse mask of my own has been more than satisfied. I guess I have acquired all the Mickey masks I need, or ever desired in my lifetime, with one exception, a mask that is totally unique. It was devised by those diabolically clever Germans. Who else would have thought of this, a Mickey Mouse Mask for the "Nasen!"
At first, the concept struck me as absurd. But, upon reflection, and putting it in historical perspective, I began to perceive the logic of it. In Germany, just before the Second World War, there might have many who could see the wisdom of disguising their nose.
There are other masks around the house. I wonder if I should include them here? It’s now, or never! Ok, the decision has been made! We’re on our way! This is going to be a long page, and a long day, after all.
Here’s Felix, cleverly disguised as Felix, hiding in plain sight!
“You lookin’ at me? If you dont like what you see, then, “watch it,” Buster. I’m cruisin’ for a fight!”
Popeye, also, has a rather spectacular mask. Asked, what he’s supposed to be, he replied: “I yam what I yam!"
Here is Der Captain Katzenjammer. This mask is absolutely huge, maybe big enough for two! I discovered it at Atlantic City. Although, I thought it was “good looking,” in a moment of generosity, I passed it on to a friend. A few years later, I bought it at an auction, when he sold his collection!
Here are two fragile fragments, The Captain from the Katzenjammer Kids, and Moon Mullins. They must have been part of an entire series of all the famous Comic Characters. These were crushed when I discovered them. It took a lot of TLC to get them into even this delicate condition. These are hand painted, quite nicely. I would love to have the entire set.
Here is Mr. Peanut, a mask that is extraordinary. It is made of some sort of clear material, perhaps, acetate. This mask is much earlier than you might think. On the back it reads “Made in France.” Its transparency catches light, in a most fascinating way. Lit from above, it glows dramatically, which proves to be a most eerie illusion, when on a person’s face.
This large Mr. Peanut shell has stood in the corner of this schoolhouse, for forty-three years, now. He seems like part of the house itself, and as such, I forget that he is there. I also forgot, until just now, posting the mask above, that he is a mask, as well, the largest one of all. This Mr. Peanut is the very one who used to appear on the Boardwalk at Atlantic City, every day. A piece of decorative wrapping ribbon from the Atlantic City Planters Peanut Store is still tied around his waist.
Following where this web page is leading, I just realized that I have a costume of Mr. Peanut’s lookalike. I’m speaking of Charlie McCarthy. They both wear the a top hat and monocle. This box was stacked atop a cabinet, out of sight, and out of mind. Inside it, a costume, never worn, has been sleeping for half a century, or more, never dreaming it would be sought out, and photographed, today. Then, it will be put away, to wait for another day, and another person, who won’t be me, to lift the lid, once more.
Costumes, like this, in elegant substantial boxes, were not necessarily meant for Halloween. They were sold in department stores, not in the five and dime. And they were a year-round part of play time, in the era, before TV. In spite of my proclamations of the pleasures of patina, artfully applied by the hard knocks of time, there is something thrilling about lifting the lid of a box, like this, to behold its pristine contents, absolutely mint! It kind of takes your breath away!
There is one final mask I will include. It sits over in a far corner, by the window, a place I rarely go, but when I do, it catches my eye, as it did, when I acquired it. And, for reasons that I can’t explain, it pleases me. If one were to ask me if I liked "The Flintstones," I would reply that “I Yabba, Dabba, Don’t!” But there is something about this mask, its enormous size, and audacious presence, that I like. It radiates an aura that is irresistibly up-beat. The unpleasant looking gentleman in the corner is “ThePolitician,” a puppet, by Lou Bunin.
Now, when it comes to scary, this Mickey Mask is really creepy. It is made out of some kind of leather, origin unknown. I have to say that I am uncomfortable with the vibrations that it radiates. And the fact that it comes from Germany isn’t helping any! It sits, permanently, atop the potbellied stove, upstairs. And I tend to forget that it is there. I don’t derive any pleasure from looking at it. Nonetheless, it is interesting, in a weird sort of way, and powerful! When one is surrounded by a thousand Mickeys, they start to look the same. This one is an un-refreshing change.