SOUND & LIGHT
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
Bridging the gap between sound and light is this romantic Radio Light. This is what folks gazed at, in the days before TV. Here Mickey rows his boat, on a moonlit lake, at night. The rays of the full moon gently dance upon the rippling water, as clouds, floating in a misty sky, sail silently past the moon, and momentarily eclipse its light., Minnie to protect her pie-cut eyes from starlight, holds her parasol, on high. In the distance, a snowcapped mountain rises. It looks suspiciously like Mount Fuji. Could this mysteriously enchanting object have been "Made in Japan"?
Hiding just beneath the surface of these deliciously decorated contraptions, was the makings of a miracle. It was indeed wonderful to be around at the time. They represent the first steps on a journey I have been privileged to witness with great interest, throughout my lifetime, as sound and moving images entered our homes and daily lives. All this is taken for granted by today’s generation. My grandson, who is six, complains that his computer is too slow. He will never know the thrill of seeing a faint hand cranked image of Mickey Mouse flickering on his bedroom wall. Nor will he ever hear the comical sound of a Victrola, winding down, or strive to achieve better sound, in the only way possible, at the time, by inserting a new needle, when the old one has worn out!.
In the beginning of the history of the movies, toys and technology were intermingled. Many an optical toy preceded the invention of the cinema, itself. And, now, in the 1930s, this technology was decorated in colorful ways to become toys again. And here they are, radios, cameras, and projectors of every kind, all striving to produce in-house sight and sound, and all bearing the image of Mickey Mouse.
In the showcase, below, we find an example of every (real) American variation of the 1930’s Mickey Mouse Radio. They were all made by Emerson. This was the very beginning of sound technology. And, apart from requiring a long wire that served as an aerial, the electrical cord, itself, was thick, cloth covered, and required, as part of the operating principle, to get quite HOT!
The first models were exquisitely sculpted on front, sides, and top, and cast in sirocco. One of the most memorable moments, in my early days of collecting, was when I was offered one of these radios, by mail, for only fifteen dollars. Of course, the price was nice, but what was really exciting was opening the shipping carton to discover that the radio was packed in its original orange and black box! The seller had never mentioned that. Surprises like this are just about as good as collecting gets. The box is a little rough, but I would not exchange it for another, even one that was much better. I consider this one to be a gift, sent to me by Destiny.
The next variations of the Mickey Radio were easier to manufacture, just wooden boxes with metal trim, nailed on. They came in two color variations, cream and black. The metal triangles bore images of Disney characters that unfortunately wore off easily. Here, too, is the painted version of the Snow White radio. There were two other versions, standard and deluxe, But this is the only one that was in color.
The radio below, is the larger of the two unpainted Snow White radios, the deluxe model. By 1938, technology and sound quality had improved considerably, and this bigger better radio even had an illuminated dial.
Rarer still, is the series of three picture records. There are attractive images on both sides of these. They were made in 1934.
In the very middle of the showcase, above the radio, is something that is very rare. "The Emerson Mickey Mouse Phonograph." The number of these that I can verify, can be counted on one hand, Mickey’s hand, not mine; only four digits neccessary, not five! When I purchased this phonograph, the dealer couple, who sold it to me, nearly had twin coronaries. Although, they specialized in toys, it was the only thing they'd ever sold me. They $uddenly felt they mu$t have made a di$a$terous mi$take!
On the turntable, along with some German porcelain musicians, is a Disney record from a set produced in England that is very pretty, and rather rare. "Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies." This set is really heavy; it contains six disks! All are original sound tracks!
One day, when I was four, my father came home with a huge old console style standing Victoria. It was dark mahogany with animal feet on the ends of its gracefully curved legs. It was so tall that I could barely reach the turntable. He also brought one set of records, the sound track music from Pinocchio. I listened to these, nearly every day, until I knew every single sound effect, from the tiny tinkle of Gepetto’s music boxes, and the winding of their keys, to the familiar tweets of “Give a Little Whistle.” I’d wind the crank on the side, and sit on the floor, among the paws, and study the delicious picture on the record cover. This is not my original set of records; I literally wore those away. And the picture of Pinocchio was deeply embossed, from the many times I tried to trace it. This set is the first edition It is much fancier than mine. Here, the cover is die-cut, and there are pictures, and a story, on all the record sleeves. It‘s in incredible condition.
The “audio” department is upstairs. Now, lets head downstairs. Along the side of the couch, is a long showcase that many do not notice is there. It is full of all things “visual.” Here is nearly every device, known, at the time, for projecting images as a beam of light.
Some of these devices were genuine projectors, capable of showing everything from slides to movies. Others were whacky attempts at alternate technologies that, ultimately, led nowhere. One such crazy gadget, seen on the left, is a variation of the “Movie Jector,” appropriately called, the “Talkie Jector.” It was a hopelessly failed attempt at emulating real sound motion pictures. A hot light bulb, inside the tin box, projects faint images of simple two phase animation, printed in color, on rolls of paper. Inside the device, a primitive tin flap acts as a shutter, revealing one image, then, the other, while the the crank, not only moves the film along, but also manually rotates a 78 RPM recording that sits on the very top. Turning the crank at constant speed is utterly impossible, and the resulting sound is comical. That is, until you touch the case and burn yourself. Toys like this could only exist, in the days before toy safety rules.
Moving to the right, we come to several elaborate sets of English Lantern Slide projectors. The boxes are quite wonderful. The slides, themselves, crude images, printed on glass, are terrible. Yet, these were produced profusely, and were very popular, with many sets of slides available.
In the middle of the showcase is a toy that I had as a kid, but not in this glorious box, “The Keystone Mickey Mouse Projector.” The inside of the lid is a screen, on which one can project the image. The sides depict a darkened theater, with Disney characters, watching a Mickey Movie. This heavy duty version was made in this delightful box, for one year, only. The following year, the projector got simpler, and the box was replaced by one printed on plain brown corrugated.
Lest you notice those two bogus “Kodak” cameras, and mistakenly think that their inclusion, here, gives them some vestige of authenticity, let me clear the matter up. These comical attempts at fakery have somehow wormed their way into acquiring the status of semi-authenticity, among the uninformed. To me, they are evidence of man’s gullibility, and eager willingness to suspend disbelief. They are so obviously phony as to be almost funny. Yet, both Disney and Kodak, who, never heard of them, before 1995, nor have any record of them, allow that “they might have been prototypes.”
I picked these two up, in the mid-90s, the very instant that they first appeared, at the Stormville Flea market, for fifty bucks apiece, as a kind of curiosity. The young man, who sold them to me had a bunch. He claimed he got them from someone, who drove up with a pickup truck with a pile of them in the open bed.
I thought they were momentarily intriguing, possibly amusing, and, if the Kodak Brownie Six turned out to be as modern as my intuition told me it was, they would, at least, be worth a laugh, if not fifty bucks. Quick research proved the latter to be the case. The camera was made in 1946! Someone, trying to make a convincing 1930s artifact by placing a decal on a camera, not manufactured, until 1946, the Brownie Target Six-20, was definitely making a forgery faux pas! These cameras, minus the phony decal, are available in unlimited quantities on eBay , even now, for under twenty dollars.
Many good natured people (especially, those with one of these to sell) are inclined to search for some innocent explanation for the existence of these. They are reluctant to suspect the obvious, namely that these were an attempt to deceive!
Whoever made these was also dabbling with doing the same with watches. I also got this at Stormville, at the same time the cameras appeared. Here is the same art and distinctive red and white lettering, traceable to only the keystone projector, and the same exact kind of low quality decal, applied to a pocket watch. The watch dial, itself, is original and printed. Only the Mickey image, the words Mickey Mouse, and the Disney copyright are thick decals, easily apparent, in person. These were applied to an Ingram watch. Alas, it is a well-documented fact that only Ingersoll had the Disney license. So this application is as out of whack as a 1930s decal on a 1946 camera. Nice try! The guy who made these bumbling attempts, got luckier with the camera! I sense that this whole enterprise might have begun as misdirected fun, not intended to become grand larceny. The pocket watch was only fifteen bucks.
Then, about a year or two later, when it looked like these things were being well received, in spite of their innate absurdity, the forger got serious and came up with a “box”. This cunningly contrived combo of box and camera, together, has been known to go for thousands, at auction.
The first time I saw one of these “original boxes” was at an Atlantic City Show with my friend Carl Lobel. We have been known to detect a phony toy or two, calling ourselves the “Hardy Boys” or “Toy Busters,” and specializing in uncovering toy forgery. Our most notable case took place, some years ago, The forger was outed by an extensive article, by Leta Solis-Cohen, in the Maine Antiques Digest. His name was revealed in a roundabout way, hidden in the title. That caused him to lay low, for a while. Now, he’s back again, specializing in, among other things, Mickey dolls, dressed like Santa Claus, and a new line of bogus bisques, all offered on eBay.
Anyway, Carl came running up, with the box, in hand. We were somewhat amazed, as we assumed the cameras to be fakes. Suddenly, here was this strange box. Apart from its form and content being unconvincing, it took us all of two minutes to discover that there was one accidental flaw that completely robbed this artificially “distressed” piece of fakery of any vestige of authenticity. The box, yellowed with age, had been dipped in some kind of stain to tint the paper tan. But, on one side panel, there was a triangular shaped area that the liquid missed, and thus, this patch remained unstained. It was as bright and white, as the card stock had originally been, at the time the box was printed, most likely, a week before! Notice, in this photo, that, as this was not made on box making equipment, the edges were not commercially scored, thus, causing them to split, disclosing more bright white interior, when the “box” was folded.
This enthusiastic forger has since come up with a later and smaller version of the camera. At this rate, we might, someday, witness surprises, like 1930s Mickey Mouse I-pods, “by permission of Walt Disney Enterprises!"
At the front of this showcase, is the Ensign Mickey Mouse Camera, made in England. It is the only real Mickey Mouse camera in the case, and the only Mickey camera made in the 1930s. It is rather unattractive with its plain brown camera case, and a label that is only a foil sticker. Behind it, is a French device, called, "Cine Mickey," which is really a Movie Jector, made entirely out of heavy paper, complete with all its numbered films.
Next to it, is the Safe-Toy Cinema, an English Projector that is quite bizarre. It uses its own kind of film, with a single hole in-between each frame. The colorful box is wonderful. Another larger version is further along, with its own folding screen and a large handsome box. And, in front of that, is the silent version of the Movie Jector.
As this page is called Sound and Light there are a few other things that should be included here.
This large tin lithographed theater, designed for showing "movies," or, at least, emulating the experience, is really rather handsome. Simply called the “Comic Theater,” it is quite elegant in its straight forward simplicity. I have the original box, somewhere. Alas, I stored it under the floor, and have misplaced it. I had really hoped to include it here, as, even though, it is quite plain and ugly, it shows that the toy was made by a small company in Kansas City, Disney’s home town! The movie, sadly, isn’t Disney. It’s titled “Bunny’s Escape” by “Vic Vac”. The toy is labeled Patent Pending and a patent was granted in 1933.
There are two more light related objects in Mouse Heaven that, while it might be a stretch, I have decided to include, here. Both of them happen to be lamps, yet, both are magic, and both of them are works of art.
The first is, either, a work of genius, or evidence of madness, a piece of “folk art” in the form of a standing floor lamp. If any object was destined to eventually belong to me, this one would be it. This lamp tracked me for years. Way back, in 1970, it was offered to me by a dealer in Seattle, at a price that, then, seemed obscene. Years later, it was offered, again, by another dealer in Los Angeles, who claimed that it once stood in the office of Walt Disney! That possibility was hilarious. I am certain he would hate it.
More time passed, and eventually, it turned up in the collection of Ken Anger. Kenneth’s history has had its ups and downs, to say the least. And, at one of the down times, he sold the lamp to me. When Ken is down, he sells things. When he is up, he gives them away. Either way, he is the very embodiment of generosity.
Nothing about this monument to excess is ordinary! The colors,are not distressed, but iridescent. Many of them are metallic. The wooden shade is covered with rough concrete. And the Mickeys! There are many, many, Mickeys! I tried to count them once, I believe the number was something like over 50. Whoever made this Mousterpiece must have really liked Mickey Mouse a lot! They even carved a pair of matching Mickey cigarette holders. There are pieces missing from the bottom of the tray; the nail holes are still there. Could they have, maybe, been more Mickeys?
Photographing this did not prove to be easy. The spot it’s in is so busy. Here are two tries, side by side.
The second object is an iron ceiling fixture that I got on eBay. It was found in an old barn, buried under years of hay. Clearly, it was made in Mickey’s heyday. It certainly shows its age, and wears its history on its sleeve, evidenced by the rust of half a Century. And it insists it wants to stay that way!
But this surface patina, gone crazy, does not detract from the spell of absolute magic that this lamp casts, in the form of enchanted shadows. When the sun goes down, and the light is lit, it becomes a Magic Lantern, a larger than life Optical Toy, painting the likenesses of Mickey Mouse and his familiar pals, across the canvas of the ceiling!
Here in the azure glow of a glorious Maxfield Parish Sunset, we see the twin reflections, floating in the sky beyond the windows, like friendly flying saucers, with all our Disney Friends, on board.
Surely, this no mere ceiling fixture. It is a Work of Art. And it is Magic!
Incidently, for those who try to excuse this absurdity by speculating that the Mickey Mouse face plates might have been made earlier, and applied to these cameras, later, dream on! The original 1946 “Brownie Target Six-20” black and silver printed face plates are still there, underneath the Mickey Mouse decals.
Isn’t it curious that, among the many examples of this camera that have appeared, to date, some of which are in various states of wear, in no case, is the delicate decal on the face plate ever nicked or scratched. Could that be because the person, who, manually, put some age on these, didn’t want the original Brownie Six face plate to be seen? The Black of the original begins just under where the Mickey decal ends. The slightest nick, along the edge, would disclose the fact that it is there.
The Mickey image, title lettering, and the copyright notice, “by permission of Walt Disney Enterprises” as well as the colors and “look” were, clearly, copied from the 1934 Mickey Mouse Keystone projector. (on the right) The copyright notice “Mickey Mouse Enterprises”, by the way, was used for the last time in 1939. Any sign of 1930s Mickey graphics was long gone, along with most sightings of Mickey Mouse, himself, by 1946. There was no way Disney would allow use of a Mickey image, ten years out of date. This was Donald's era, and a "Donald Duck Camera" was produced, that year, by the Herbert George Company of Chicago. It was molded plastic and bore the copyright "Walt Disney Productions."