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
“Sonny” Hatfield adored toys, all toys, but none so much as the ones he made, himself. With guileless childlike honesty, he, more than once, remarked to me: “Mel, I have never seen toys more wonderful than the ones I make myself.”
I first met Sonny at a toy show, many years ago. Several friends allerted me, excitedly: “There’s a guy out in the parking lot, you’ve gotta meet!” So I went outside, reluctantly, as the show was in full swing. And there was Sonny Hatfield, seated at a card table, with a few of his hand carved “toys”, on display. That is how he saw them. They looked like ART to me, but they were, and would always be, just "toys," to him.
He was only showing them off. They were not for sale. Sonny was as open and enthusiastic as a little boy. He loved the things he carved, and he loved sharing them, along with a running commentary of what was going on in their tiny hand carved heads, as one after another, he brought them to life, with perfect touch and timing, by turning the large wooden crank on the side of each, just right.
Sonny was a happy-go-lucky guy, and as up-beat as any you could ever hope to meet. His Kentucky accent and demeanor were right out of central casting. He looked, and perfectly played, the role of a direct descendant of the legendary Hatfield Family of Hatfield and McCoy fame, for that, in fact, is what he was. He was also an amazing talent. Hiding beneath that folksy irresistibly compelling Appalachian exterior was a Creative Genius.
Horace on a bike was my first Sonny Hatfield toy. Little did either of us know how complex and spectacular they would become, later on. As time went by, Sonny’s toys grew more elaborate. But there is a charming simplicity to this one. The ball, on which Sonny has carved “Glendale to Beacon”, rotates on the tip of Horace’s finger, while he peddles the bike and tips his hat, dramatically. The toy, like Sonny, himself, is welcoming and friendly. Horace's head, balanced on a single wire, turns from side to side. There is no mechanism turning it. It is simply, as if, the whole thing is alive.
Hardin Marshall "Sonny" Hatfield was an extraordinary man. He was born in Glendale Kentucky, in 1931, and died there, on February 16, 2011. His body was discovered on the lawn of his self-built cabin, while four acres of his land and the barn were engulfed in flame. Thirty firefighters fought the blaze. Foul play was not suspected. I knew that Sonny had passed away. But I didn’t learn the exact date and details, until today, when to make sure I had the facts straight, I looked him up on Google. I was surprised that there was so little there, obituaries, mostly. They speak about the fact that Sonny was a former building contractor, who owned the Glendale Antique Mall, started the “Depot Restaurant,” and was a Korean War Air Force veteran, etc. They also informed me that his wife Marcie, who Eunice and I knew, and liked immensely, and whose maiden name, ironically, was “Disney”, passed away, three years years before Sonny.
One obituary, embellished by Angela, one of Sonny’s two daughters, mentioned that he was “a noted woodcarver.” She stated that he was working on a hand-carved, hand-cranked, moving wooden horse-drawn carriage, driven by Mickey Mouse, just before he died. I know exactly what it was like. Sonny returned to favorite themes, time and time again
The next toy I acquired was Clarabelle the Cow. She dances so delightfully with a little jump in her step, stops, then, jumps again, and turns around. And, all the while, she rings the silver bells that Sonny fashioned out of tin.
To see Sonny operate the toys he made was a once in a lifetime experience. Each had only one means of animation a single crank somewhere on the side of the box it stood atop. But each crank had to be turned just right, and at a different perfect speed. There was no doubt about it, Sonny had a magic touch and he, alone, knew exactly how to make each one of his creations come to life.
With Sonny operating the crank, little “Ploo-Toe”, as Sonny pronounced his name, flew like the wind, while Mickey peddled madly, and Minnie rotated on her seat. I faked out all these “slide shows” to try to emulate the action of these toys, by turning each crank a little bit, and taking a series of still shots. The images can change no faster than once every second. Therefore, what I could not capture, is the speed and wild abandon, at which many of these actions happen, and the swing and rhythm that takes place, once they get underway.
Sonny’s running commentary was always a delight. When he got the pace just right, Tanglefoot would fly at lightning speed, or slow down to a leisurely trot, with Sonny delivering dialogue and storyline, in his inimitable Kentucky drawl, explaining what the toys, themselves, were thinking. Pluto jumping madly, from side to side in the rear of the cart, his eyes open wide, determined not to miss a single sight. Sony would describe the things he saw. This cart that Mickey is driving is not modeled after Disney. Sonny, himself, grew up, riding in one exactly like this, in real life. See how Tanglefoot’s feet fly, his tail held high! Mickey’s ride is rocky, due to an animated seat. He pulls back on the reigns, trying to keep Tanglefoot in tow. The wheels spin, wildly. I am still trying to figure out how Sonny got those spokes in there, and how they hold together, without glue.
Sonny was “The Wizard of Wood”. He could make it do incredible things. His works defy the very element, in fact, the only element that held them together. There is not a single drop of glue or adhesive used on any of these sculptures. Their many parts remain in place, due to an unknown force, called Gravity! I kid you not! The force that holds these works together is simply gravity. If you accidently turn one upside down, it will fall apart and scatter into all its separate pieces. That is exactly what happened to the most complex of these, the Mickey Band, coming up soon. Someone, not saying any names, tipped it over, accidently. It took me three days to put it back together again. And I still feel that, like all the Kings horses and all the Kings men, I didn’t get it quite right. Only Sonny, in person, could do that.
The fact that there is no glue used can sometimes be annoying. Popeye, below, loses his head in nearly every battle. The last time it fell off, with my diminishing eyesight, it took me half an hour to get it back on again. Finally, I gave in and placed a drop of glue on the tip of the wire it sits upon.
This elaborate scene is Amazing. Popeye and Bluto really go at it, in an all-out battle that makes the "Rock-em Sock-em Robots" look like sissies. Olive Oyle is going crazy, in a way only she can; her arms flaying wildly. You can almost hear her saying, OH! Popeye! Wimpy is eating lunch; isn’t he always? There is a hole in one of the corner posts, from which a little bird pops in and out. These boxers really pack a punch! The whole floor of the boxing ring rotates as Popeye and Bluto battle to the bitter end, which usually happens when Popeye loses his head. As a toy inventor and collector, I thought I knew a thing or two about toy mechanisms. The stuff that Sonny did is totally original. His wild solutions to creating complex motions were all his own invention, intuitive, and insanely unique.
There is another element that is amazing about these “Toys!” I wonder if you noticed it, or if you allowed yourself to be diverted. I am speaking of the fact that all the wires and rods that operate the figures are fully visible. They are so integrated into the totality that our mind accepts them, and our eye fails to detect them. The machinery that makes these automatons come to life, like the fully visible operators of Japanese Bunraku puppets, escapes our eyes.
What will escape our eyes, as well, is what’s inside the box. For the sake of space, and to help the oversized slide shows, here, operate, I have not shown the plain wooden boxes with a hand crank on one side that serve as bases for these works of art. I have seen Sonny open one of these up to make adjustments. The mechanisms are a tangle of complex craziness, all of which is based on intuition. What’s going on inside these boxes, would make Rube Goldberg blush.
All of the wood for all of the toys that Sonny made, over the years, came from one huge old table that he sawed up to harvest the precious perfect wood from which he carved all the tiny bits and pieces that made up a lifetime's worth of intricate figures, He used standard lumber to build the control boxes, and stained them to match.
This complex masterpiece is right out of the pages of Walt Disney’s, 1936 “Mickey Mouse A B C Story.” It represents the Cannibal Chief, first introduced in the cartoon, “Trader Mickey.” Sonny showed me one of these that he had made, and I asked if he would also make one for me. He often made duplicates of his favorite themes, and for better or worse, they never came out the same. Each successive one became either simpler or more complex, depending on the mood that he was in when he worked on it, or how the spirit moved him. In this case, it moved him in the right direction. On the version Sonny made for me that crazy creature, jumping up and down and turning around, on the chief’s head magically appeared, as did the little guy perched on one of his three toed feet. The first version I’d seen, just beat the drum. Lucky Me!
Sonny could work Magic simply by twisting a piece of wire slightly. By some uncanny trickery on the spectacular toy, below, he managed to get Clarabelle Cow to open wide, and hold the note, throughout a couple of beats, while everyone else moved in step. When this one fell into pieces, it was a miracle that I got Clarabelle to do that again. When these toys are in motion, it is almost impossible to take in all that is going on. Mickey, of course, plays the piano, but as he does so, the piano, itself, is jumping up and down. Atop it, Minnie Mouse is jumping, too, and turning around. Horace Horsecollar is playing the triangle and the cymbal both. If you listen carefully, you can hear them clang and tinkle. Pluto is beating the drum with his tail, and jumping around. Goofy plays the drum and taps his toe. And Clarabelle lifts her songbook, opens her mouth in song, and holds the note. All of this, going on at the same time, boggles the mind!
Sony and Marcie created, owned, and ran a restaurant, and an Antique Mall. So he was not in need of funds. Nonetheless, he would supplement his income by selling these works of art, usually carved to order, for a growing circle of fans. But he so loved toys that when it came to me, he would accept no money, he insisted that I trade him toys, instead. And so I did, with great pleasure. What a delightful time we had. Sonny and Marcie came up to visit us several times. Once we all went to Brimfield together, Sonny Noel and I. Another time, we went to the JFK Toy Show. That happened to be the weekend of the Bil Baird auction, so Sonny and Marcie attended that with us as well. Sonny had a large toy collection and a Toy Museum, and loved just seeing and being at toy shows. We had a ball!
Writing this I have had to keep going back to change the verbs and context to past tense. It is so hard to accept the fact that Sonny is dead. He lives on through his children and grandchildren, I guess, and through the many works of art he created in his lifetime, and left behind. Sonny was a religious man, a member of Gilead Baptist Church. So, hopefully, he is living someplace else, as well. Sometime, on a summer day looking up into the sky, you might well see the work of Sonny Hatfield, floating by. Can you not imagine him, carving toys out of the clouds. Sony said it best: There are no toys in Heaven or Earth as wonderful as the ones he makes himself.
Photo by Derek Poole