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
Little Orphan Annie’s world was bleak, and mired in reality, and yet she had a fantasy adoptive father, "Daddy Warbucks", whose very name signified money, a fortune made, selling munitions, during the First World War. Annie represented the triumph of the human spirit, and irrepressible optimism, over the adversity of a hard knocks life. She also had a dog named, Sandy, who everybody on the planet knew said, “Arf!” Oh, and, by the way, she had no pupils in her eyes, and always wore the same red dress!
Somehow, this combination of elements added up to an appeal that was universal. But, one that, from my point of view, was, at best, elusive. The all-important visual elements were missing. Furthermore, Annie’s adventures, and the world she lived in, were far too down and dirty nitty-gritty realistic for me. But content-wise, Little Orphan Annie was a winning combination of elements that appealed to an optimistic nation, one that still believed that spunk and determination could win the day. She also had a collection of expressions, headed up by “Leapin Lizards” that were unique and catchy. And, even her name, “Little Orphan Annie” had a certain ring to it, a pleasant music that made it fun and melodic to say.
Harold Gray, who had been Sidney Smith's assistant on “The Gumps”, created “Little Orphan Annie” in 1924. The strip was not particularly well drawn, but the story that it told, of a spirited child, bucking the World, was a compelling one. It was a tale of rags to riches, and back agan. By the mid 30s, Little Orphan Annie had become the most popular comic strip in America.
Annie, also, represented a comic strip for girls, one that boys, too, could follow, without embarrassment. And add to that, her pioneering place in Radio. She was on the cutting edge of "Tune in tomorrow” and “send away” for premiums, such as secret decoders that delivered coded messages about what was going to happen, on the show, the following day. In other words, Little Orphan Annie, more or less, had everything. Everything, that is, but great art. She didn’t have the visual excitement that made other Comic Characters appealing, because of their look, alone. Harold Gray’s artwork was honest, stiff, straightforward, and purely illustrative. It told a story, without any superfluous visual distractions.
Annie’s one area of visual fascination and distinction was her conspicuous lack of eyeballs. Why this look was so instantly apparent in Annie, while it went unnoticed in Jiggs and Maggie, remains a mystery. Looking at the span of Anny products, it is interesting to note that some manufacturers could not feel comfortable with this anomaly, and, therefore, major items, like the official Orphan Annie Doll were produced with pupils, painted in.
The Orphan Annie doll, of all the Annie products, to my eye, is the most appealing. The box displays a piece of original art by Harold Gray, himself, that is really excellent. And all the contents of the package, as well, are near perfection. The fact that it also included Sandy was a tremendous plus. And for good measure, they threw in a precious tiny comic book, relating one of Annie’s adventures. Her dress, her socks, her little patent leather shoes, all were perfection . And then we get to her eyes. The manufacturer was all right with showing her eyeless on the package, and Sandy could be presented as an accessory, without pupils in his eyes, but Not Annie! This is where conventionality and timidity drew the line, and drew in beautiful blue eyes. Someone at the company decided that little girls could not identify with a doll that, to some people, looked blind.
Another product that can credit Harold Gray with a package that is exquisite, is this Little Orphan Annie Costume. The cover artwork is a fantasy, Daddy Warbucks, confused by a crowd of Annie lookalikes. The entire presentation, the cheesy cheese cloth mask, the pristine outfit, and the perky little hat, all perfectly intact, along with the box that suggests a surreal situation, makes a kind of statement, hard to define, but is sort of like a Work of Art.
Most of my modest Annie collection ended up in this showcase, which it shares with the Little King. Both of them are Little, both are red, both always wear the same thing. Indeed, they have a lot in common! Most of all, they share a mutual lack of space. In the center of the showcase is one of the all-time most delicious premiums, the "Orphan Annie Circus." This is one giveaway that was worth waiting for. It did not disappoint! Spectacular in size, it recreated Annie’s time, working at the circus, one of her most appealing adventures, and featured several additional characters that momentarily entered her life. It also offered a menagerie of paper animals that were, in fact, genuine nodders, with heads that balanced cleverly, and kept moving incessantly.
At this end of the showcase, a group of Annies have gathered, overseen by the Einson Freeman mask. Here was an opportunity to create the ultimate iconic image, but, for once, they missed the mark. Once again, we come eyeball to eyeball with the eyeball conundrum. The Einson Freeman artists, clearly, couldn’t decide what to do about Annie’s eyes, so they settled on a compromise. The pupils, or at least a faint hint of them, are half there and half not. The various paper cutouts are Xerox copies of those in the uncut book on the right side. This is the companion publication to to the Skeezix version that we saw earlier. There are also oilcloth dolls of Annie and Sandy, and two Celluloid Annies with catatonic eyes.
In this showcase one can also see a rarity, Perhaps the most, and only, unique Annie item, here, a handsome pair of German nodders that are considerably oversized. In this larger size, the smaller Annie of the Nodder series gets moveable arms. I mention her, here, in another respect, as well. The solution that the stunningly objective artist who did the German Nodders intuitively saw as the essence of what was going on with Annie’s eyes, and simply painted the white orbs blue. It works, and takes the edge off, nicely. Suddenly, her eyes and Sandy’s too, go from weird to pretty.
There was a raft of Annie products made that say a lot about society’s view of a woman’s role, in the first half of the 20th Century. If Annie were “born” today, she would, no doubt, be an action hero, fighting felons, while toting an arsenal of hi-tech weaponry. But, in her own era, all the products that bore her name were, essentially, involved with domesticity, Knitting sets ...
Sewing sets ... Who are those strange men? This captures all the charm of the Depression.
Baking sets ... with Annie only on the cover. The contents are generic!
And, even, Little Orphan Annie Clothespins, for hanging up the laundry.
And the most classic and popular Little Orphan Annie item of them all, the Little Orphan Annie Stove. This austere and colorless object was a runaway best seller.
The toy manufacturing community certainly knew where Annie’s place should be... In the kitchen! Right Sandy? "ARF!" Annie was one tough cookie; she could stand the heat! What a bummer this stove is. I cant imagine a more depressing toy product. I suppose real stoves looked just like this, during the Depression. In fact, that's, maybe, why they called it that!
I can’t believe I was planning on ending this page right here. I taxed my brain for something more visually pleasing, and, suddenly, remembered a photograph I shot, particularly, to go with Annie, and forgot. So we will end the page with that.
When we first moved to this house, it had next to no facilities, or viable heat, and was depressing, to say the least. And the Oven, by the way, formerly belonging to a nun, looked just like the one above! The collection was all packed away, not to see the light of day, again, for 3 more years. I continued to collect, nonetheless.
The first year we were here, 1970, my friend Al Horen and I discovered an enormous old chicken coop in Kingston. It was the subject of local urban legend, rumored to be full of toys. It was! We found the owner, and Al, using his usual line, “Don't you like money?” talked his way in. It contained the rotting residue of an old toy store. The present owner of this cast off merchandise, knew next to nothing about what was there. He allowed us to dig through it, and fill Al's van to overflowing, weighing the cartons as we filled them, and pricing the contents by the pound. At times, we were climbing atop stacks of boxes ten feet high. That’s when I found the bottom half of this Little Orphan Annie lamp. Sandy’s head was gone. Destiny decreed that, an hour later, I would find the missing piece. Al found the lampshade. Driving home, we made a trade. I gave him the Linemar windup Popeye basketball thing that I had just dug up, in exchange for Orphan Annie’s shade.
And so it was, this Annie Lamp was set alight, among the cold unfinished space of this nearly vacant building, and not turned off again, for several years. With walls torn down around it, it shone, amidst the rubble, throughout many a cold winter night. And there were times when this Orphan Annie lamp seemed like the only lamp on Earth, alight. Its lonely glow was like a ray of hope, promising better times.
Embroidery sets ... This cover is a poignant allegorical fantasy. Annie and Sandy stand on a pair of frozen asteroids, floating in the star studded emptiness of outer space. Annie’s hands are in her pockets. Sandy’s tail’s between his legs. Their body language conveys the fact that they are cold. They stare at a foreboding World. The door is shut and bolted. A sign proclaims, “No Orphans Wanted!”. It’s enough to make you cry, while you play with the unrelated toy, inside.