THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
Lars” was an Italian doll Manufacturer that made a huge line of high quality felt dolls, beginning in the the 1930s or 40s, continuing throughout the 1950s 60s, and beyond. Their vast line included a multitude of Comic Characters, especially Tom and Jerry, and every conceivable Disney Character, from the more common ones, to the most obscure. If one looks up "Lars Dolls" on Google, today, apart from a few felt dolls that I used to own, auctioned by Hakes, they come face to face with a Movie called, “Lars and the Real Girl.” OY! How times have changed!!
Much of the interest in collecting Lars dolls, over the past thirty years, would appear to have been centered on the few Lars Disney dolls that appeared, here, in the USA. That is, perhaps, because the same handful of dolls changed hands often, occasionally achieving high prices at auction. Believe it or not, I was intimately connected with those few dolls that came across the sea. And, the fact that, at some point, I owned 90% of them has, essentially, been a secret, until now.
At Christmas time, in 1968, a group of Lars dolls appeared at Bloomingdale’s, in New York City. I bought a Mickey and Minnie, in spite of the fact that they were what I called, “New Mickey”, meaning they had eyeballs. I promptly repainted the eyes, giving them pie-cuts. John Fawcett asked me if I would pick him up a pair, so, I did.
I had just begun working in the toy industry, and that year the “International Toy Fair” took place at a hotel, near Central Park. There was a mezzanine, with various exhibits from foreign countries, including Italy. And, Oh my God, an enormous exhibit from Lars! It was absolutely mind boggling. Around the entire perimeter of the hall, there was a long shelf, and on it sat several hundred Lars dolls.
Seeing this stuff, I went nuts! And, then, to my delight, I met the president of the company, Mr. Segardo. Observing my enthusiasm, he seemed to be delighted to meet me, too. He only spoke Italian and a little French. And I only spoke English and high school French that was quite awful, in spite of the fact that I had lived a year in France. Nonetheless, out of sheer inspiration/desperation, I made myself understood. We ended up sitting at the hotel bar all afternoon, plotting a course of action. To this day, I don’t know if he thought I was a toy store owner, or just his most enthusiastic fan. But my heart skipped a beat when he said, “Yes, you can order all the dolls you want, and we’ll gladly ship them to you.”
In the course of the conversation, we spoke about Mickey Mouse, and he said, “We designed a pair of Mickey and Minnie dolls, many years ago, that we called “tipo vecchio”, which means “old style”. He explained that these dolls were made especially for Walt Disney, himself, and were never sold to the public. Disney would order them, and give them to dignitaries, who visited the Studio. They hadn’t made any, for many years, but they did still have the patterns.
I know this story to be true, because when I later saw them, in person, I realized that I had seen one of those dolls on TV. It had been on a Disney special that featured Ward Kimball. One segment dealt with old stuff, and, standing in front of a Mickey’s Nightmare poster, Ward showed a 20 inch tall Mickey Mouse on a pedestal. It was quite unlike any doll I had ever seen, before. Now, in retrospect, I realized that it was one of the original “tipo vecchio” dolls, made for Walt, himself.
Looking at Google, just now, I discovered this small photo of Ward's actual doll. It was sold in one of the several Ward Kimball auctions my friend Noel Barrett conducted, in 2004.
I asked/begged Monsieur Segardo if I could buy some of the dolls on display. He said, emphatically, that he couldn’t sell those. My first thought was that it would seem logical to sell them here, and save the costs of shipping them back to Italy. But now, I realize why he couldn’t part with any. They were, no doubt, the only samples. The factory only manufactured dolls to order. I believe that, like the display firm I once worked for, one master sample was made, which, in turn, was duplicated, only when necessary, to fill orders. The samples on display at the International Toy Fair were, indeed, one of a kind!
I might add that some of the few colored photos in the Disneyana book by Cecil Munsey show Lars dolls. But those photographs were not taken at the Disney Studio. They are, actually, some of the sample photos Lars photographed in its own factory. They were the same shots I was looking at, along with hundreds more, in the photo albums at the Toy Fair. This was further evidence of my growing belief that not many Lars dolls came to the USA at all.
I asked Monsieur Segardo, again, about the “tipo vecchios”. I ordered a pair just like he made for Disney, but, having seen some huge display models, 4 feet tall, of other characters, like a tall Grandma Duck that was on display. I asked if he could make the Mickey and Minnie that large, as well. He said, “Oh no. It would not work. Their heads would be too big and heavy, and they would topple over.” I said, “Would you try?” “I will ask the factory.” he replied.
Together, we filled out an order form for a wildly impulsive selection of dolls, which I had to take to an importing office in Manhattan, where I did a lot of paper work to have them shipped to me. Then, I bought an international money order, and sent it off to Italy. Several months later, the dolls arrived at a customs house, on the docks of the lower West Side.
I induced Colorform’s delivery man to take me to the pier in the company van. Waiting for us at the warehouse, was a large wooden crate, not unlike a coffin. We put it in the back of the vehicle, and drove away, without a problem. Within half an hour, I was happily dragging the crate up the staircase to my loft on Lexington Avenue.
Out of the box came the pair of “tipo vecchio”. They really were terrific, and, Yes, it was the same Mickey that I had seen with Ward Kimball on the Disney show. They were the original size, about 22”. There was also a Goofy and two Plutos. The Plutos were good, and Goofy, who was standing with a hoe, was great. He and one Pluto had both been pictured in the Munsey book. Not caring much for Horace and Clarabelle, who were late images, I passed them along to John Fawcett, for what I had paid for them.
Meanwhile, his wife Jacqui, pointing out that she needed a present for John’s upcoming birthday, asked me if I could get her a set of the Three Caballeros for her to give to him?” I said she could have mine, because there wasnt enough time, and I could easily order more!”
Soon I was corresponding in English with Mr. Segardo, as there were people at the factory, who could write and translate letters for him. And the artists on the staff, there, were so incredibly amazing that they thought nothing of making up a new idea just for the hell of it. They would gladly make up any new doll I asked for. Mr. Segardo said that I could send him drawings, and Lars would make to order any dolls I wanted, based upon my drawings.
Meanwhile, among the first group I had received there had been a fairly decent set of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. They were good, but not great. I envisioned creating drawings for a better set of these.
So, I sat down and made a series of full-color drawings. Among them, was a set of Three less Little Pigs, and a bigger Big Bad Wolf. This new Wolf would be complete with his spotted carpet bag, authentic movie colors, and shiny black patent leather hat.
And there were several views of an old style long billed Donald. Lars had never made a duck like this, before. All their Duck Family dolls, of which there were many, including all of Donald's relatives, who were very popular in Italy, had flat felt beaks.
Several months later, I got the notice that the shipment had arrived. This time, I had just bought my first car, a small Volkswagen station wagon, and drove it to the pier. There it was, an enormous wooden crate, much bigger than before, too big, perhaps, to fit into the car. The customs inspector asked me to open it. With his help, and a crowbar, we pried the cover off. He reached inside and pulled out a Clarabelle; took a look at her, and tossed her in again. Then he pulled out a Mickey Mouse, and said, “Hey! Aren’t these Disney characters? You can’t import these! It’s against the law!”
I immediately went into shock! Then I made a BIG mistake!
The licensing division of Disney is located in New York City. I had visited their offices, a year or so before, where I met the art director, Lou Lispi. He was a fabulous artist. Lou had been there since the 1930s, and designed the famous Lionel Circus Train.
I also met Al Konetzni. He was a “larger than life” kind of guy with an outgoing personality. He was the merchandising manager, and also an artist, who had designed some of the merchandise from the 1950s, stuff from the Mickey Mouse Club era. Now, he was the one that dealt with licensors, and cut the deals with toy companies, like Colorforms.
Al was both fascinated and enraged that collectors were paying relatively big bucks for things that, in his day, sold for pennies. He loudly complained about antique dealers, and wracked his brain trying to figure out how Disney could, either get a piece of that action, or put a stop to it! Nonetheless, Al had been very friendly to me, when Colorforms persuaded the Disney people to let me visit their New York office and photograph their 1930s Merchandise catalogues. So here I was, at the customs office, shaking with emotion, and, out of desperation, I decided to call “my buddy,” Al Konetzni.
This proved to be the worst thing I could possibly have done. I called him, right there, from a pay phone, and told him what was happening. He immediately flew into a rage, and this is what he yelled at me: “Wait a minute! You can’t do that. You can’t order those dolls! It’s against the law!” He was steaming! “Just walk away and leave them!” He was screaming! “I don’t think Lars even has the license to sell those dolls in the United States! I’m going to check this out!” He was about to burst a blood vessel; my heart was, also, breaking.
So I left the crate sitting there, and went home, without the dolls. There was nothing I could do about it……
Except turn to my friend and employer, Harry Kislevitz, the owner and originator of Colorforms, and ask if he could help me. Harry was amazing. He once telephoned Pablo Picasso and asked, “Pablo, I like the baby you have in such and such a painting, Could I manufacturer it as a doll?” There was nothing that he couldn’t or wouldn’t do, over the telephone. So, we worked out a scheme, in which he would contact the customs people, tell them that he was opening a toy museum, and assure them that the dolls were never intended to be sold, and that they were here for his museum exhibit only. In exchange for this, I agreed to give Harry half the dolls. And that’s exactly what happened. It took about six to eight weeks before everything was cleared. The Colorforms van, once more, picked up a crate from customs, and Harry got a set of “tipo vecchio”, the other Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, the new “old” Horace and Clarabelle, and the second Donald Duck.
From what I was later able to piece together, Al Konetzni, who never learned what happened to my dolls, contacted Lars and the sacred the “merde” out of Mr. Segardo. He frightened him to the point that, in the future, Lars would not sell Disney dolls to Americans, even if they went to Italy in person to get them. So, that was basically the end of Lars dolls coming to this country. My enthusiasm for them had resulted in their banishment.
Meanwhile, a year passed, and David Smith, the archivist at Disney Studios sold John Fawcett a mint unpunched Mickey Mouse Waddle Book for $50. And I was desperate to get it. John was open to a trade. So I went to Harry Kislevitz, and traded him a Mickey Radio and a Betty Boop Doll for the other half of the Lars dolls. Then I traded all the dolls to John for his Waddle Book, which, by then, he had punched out! Now John had duplicates of all the Lars dolls that I had, and others that I didn’t. And that is the end of this part of the story.
Here are some rather blurry photos of the Lars Dolls as they were displayed at the Bamberger's Show, in 1973. The Wolf and Three Pigs were in a built in room devider showcase.
The whole line up of basic Disney Characters had a big showcase of their own.
And the pair of Mickey and Minnie, tipo vecchio, got their own custom made showcase, as well.
Over the years, John’s dolls got dirtier, as they sat around his studio, gathering dust. Until, at last, he decided to sell them. Some mercenary wheeler-dealer types in California bought them, and, overnight, the prices began to rise "through the roof", as the expression goes. The inferior Horace and Clarabelle, for instance, were auctioned for $13,000 dollars. Gulp! Eventually, John sold them all. I later saw my Donald Duck, one of the only two in existence, misrepresented in an auction, claiming it was old. It went for a small fortune. Time and again, when I have seen Lars dolls auctioned, they turned out to be the ones I, either, designed, or owned.
Here is my Donald, by the way. He came out very nice.
And here is the Big Bad Wolf, looking big and bad, and the Three Little Piggies looking big and fat, along with the very rare and awesome Kruger Big Bad Wolf doll, from the 1930s, looking small and scared.
This large showcase, now, resides in the hall. It certainly contains a lot of history. The first pair of Mickey and Minnie I got from Bloomingdale's, and repainted their eyes, are here. Goofy and Pluto from the first shipment, are here as well, and, finally, Horace, Clarabelle and Donald, based on my drawings. Thank Goodness for this showcase! Without it, these dolls would be covered in plastic bags, again, or sold; thrown out into the cold cruel World, to be, eventually, auctioned off, as old.
And, Finally, here are Mickey and Minnie, “tipo vecchio.” They really are quite wonderful! They still stand, in the same showcase I posed them in, on the fifth floor of Bamberger’s Department Store, in 1973. Behind them, by the way, is a drawing by John Fawcett. More of his art is, just, three pages away.
A couple of years later, in a garden store in The Garden State, New Jersey, I stumbled across a selection of “tipo vecchio” Mickey and Minnies! Among them were two pairs of huge ones, nearly four feet tall. Apparently Lars had produced the dolls I had suggested, after all. Here they were, in person, the giant dolls that I had tried to talk Mr. Segardo into doing, sitting at that New York bar, several years before!
They were not cheap. Nonetheless, I bought both pairs. I still have one set today. Their original plastic bags are too ugly to look at, and I have no place to put a showcase, big enough to keep them clean. So to protect them from getting dirty, I keep them stored away. Along with the two sets of the huge dolls, the store also had a variety of smaller sizes, none of which were as large as the original 22 inch ones. I have often wondered how this load of dolls ever got through customs. I never saw the original 22” size again. The three sets that I obtained, and Ward's Mickey doll I saw on TV are the only ones I know of.
Occasionally, in the years that followed, I would still see Lars dolls, here and there, mostly Tom and Jerry, seldom Disney. Over time, it became apparent that the quality of what Lars was producing was deteriorating. The craftsmanship was always terrific, but the material, itself, became cheaper and cheaper. The original dolls that I got, during those first few years, were made entirely of thick delicious felt. But as time went by, the felt was replaced by synthetic fabrics.
A few years ago, I heard that Lars went out of business.
All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
I also drew up a much better version of Horace and Clarabelle, based in the fabulous endpapers in the “The Adventures of Mickey Mouse." Those were part of the second order. This time, I requested two of everything. I also added two more sets of “tipo vecchio”, and other stuff I can’t remember. Once more, I went to the shipping office, did all the paper work, and sent a money order.