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
The World is just beginning to rediscover the Greatest Comic Artist of all time, Winsor McCay. There are simply not enough superlatives in the English language to describe the genius of this man. His draftsmanship was quite possibly the most articulate the World has ever seen. And his imagination knew no bounds. He used his amazing ability to draw realistically, and beyond, to create a surreal world of dreams where anything was possible, and everything was visual. Little Nemo was his Masterpiece, but it was not McCay’s first foray into the world of unbridled fantasy. Nemo had been preceded by ”Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Sammy Sneeze.” All of these erased the barricades that separate reality from fantasy, and carry the viewer into a world of visual gymnastics, the likes of which had never before been seen.
I’ve often wondered how such an amazing talent could disappear. If not for “Gertie the Dinosaur,” a film that is often seen in anthologies on the history of animation, I, and many of my generation, would never have heard of Winsor McCay. He was introduced to us as a pioneer of Animation, credited, with creating Gertie, rather than the first meaningful animated film, a two minute clip of Little Nemo that consisted of four thousand drawings, every one of which, he drew himself.
Perhaps it was the story line and the characters of Little Nemo, that prevented Slumberland from remaining in the publics eye. Unlike the visual elements, which were light years ahead of their time, the story, itself, was strictly Turn of the Century. Much of the dialogue was hard to read, and Nemo sort of mumbled his way through his adventures, saying things, like Huh? and Oh! The five main characters were sort of strange, as well. Apart from Nemo a small boy often attired in his pajamas, there was Flip, a kind of clown with a cigar and a green face, Doctor Pill, another older man, the Princess, daughter of Morpheus the King of Sleep, and the subject of Nemo’s quest. She appears to be considerably older than Nemo. And last of all, the Jungle Imp, a young native of Nemo’s age. Sometimes referred to as Impy, he is one reason that “Little Nemo in Slumberland” can never be revived again. Although the Imp was a major character, loved and treated with respect, he was a racial stereotype, nonetheless, and today would be considered politically incorrect. In the recent Japanese animated feature, the Imp was written right out of the script, and replaced by a squirrel! Nuts! I kid you not!
As a collectibles, toys and objects related to Nemo are the rarest of the rare. The showcase, below, contains nearly all the Little Nemo stuff that I was able to scrape up, over the course of 40 years. It is, nonetheless, more that even the most knowledgeable collectors, who have viewed it, have ever seen before. Many of these objects are only known examples. And, at the same time, they are a sort of a guide to guessing what else there must have been. Ironically, what is there tells a tale about what’s not!
Clearly there were two sizes of Schaffer Vater flasks. Four of the smaller set are above, and Dr. Pill, in the lower left hand corner, is from the larger one. I once saw a photo of the bigger Imp. It was IMPressive! Apart from the 5 bisques, the late doll expert, Richard Wright once told me that there was a larger set of bisques, with moveable heads that turned up in an auction catalogue, years ago, in Germany. He might have just been putting me on.
The Fabulous Dr. Pill Roly Polly, in the back row, tells us that there must have been a set of five of those. It was sold to me as “Uncle Sam” by a self-important pompous ass, who proclaims himself an authority on toys. When I pointed out that he had just sold me Dr. Pill, he was ready to cut his throat! There is also one set of Little Nemo dolls known. I’ve often dreamt of finding those.
Apart from the things in the above case, I’ve have been fortunate enough to obtain a few other items. Here is a bell toy featuring Flip and Nemo. It still glows! Its durability enabled it to survive a hundred years.
This paper on wood Target Toy was manufactured by "Bliss". The idea was to throw small beanbags, and get then through the holes to score points. I guess I don’t need to point out that this art was not drawn by McCay, himself. But it has a certain grotesque charm. And the joy I felt upon discovering it made the name Bliss seem apropos.
This set of 12 Valentine Post Cards were produced in England, in 1907 by Raphael Tuck, and Son, and printed in Germany. This artwork, too, was not created by McCay, but it is quite charming, anyway. The twelve cards can be arranged to tell a of story. They are adapted from panels in the original Sunday page.
The oversize sheet music, below, is from the Broadway production of Little Nemo. It opened in the New Amserdam Theatre in October 1908 and starred Master Gabriel, the talented midget actor who previously played Buster Brown. Billed as an Operatic Fantasy, it featured music by Victor Herbert, the composer of “Babes in Toyland”, and lyrics by Harry B. Smith. It ran for 111 performances. and closed in January 1909.
The four post cards, below, show Master Gabriel as little Nemo. The first is a printed card. The other three are actual photographs. Might I venture to suggest that Dr. Pill’s hands-on bedside manner might not be well received today.
Sitting here at the computer, at this very moment, if I look up, above my desk, this is what I see, a glorious triptych, drawn by Winsor McCay, for the Winchester Stores. Three panel scenes, like these, were changed each month They fit in special wooden frames, in the front window, and were sent out each month, twelve times a year to all the outlets in the Winchester chain. Much of the artwork was great. It often featured Comic Characters. Two of these spectacular displays were created by Winsor McCay. On the reverse side of one is a scene depicting "The Toonerville Folks" by Fontaine Fox. This photo shows what the Little Nemo panels look like in daylight. A time of day when they can only be photographed from this angle, because in daylight, the rafters and white ceiling reflect in the glass.
Here is the same art, as seen at night. This is the only light, in which the art can be photographed straight on.
And here it is at night, close up, exactly as it looks in person, illuminated by a spotlight . This is Winsor McCay at his most Spectacular.
Looking to my far left, while still sitting in the same place, I can see this. It is the companion piece to the art above. This wondrous scene takes place in a fantastic garden, and is advertising seeds. The photo is a little blurry. It was shot a year ago, just playing with the camera. There is a better shot of just the art, itself, below.
Here is a French poster, advertising the Vitagraph Movie, “Little Nemo”. In French, it’s titled, “Winsor McCay the Last Cry in Animated Drawings”.
Last of all, there is no way I can end this page without mentioning my friend Charles Ponstingl, a genius, in his own right, who was simply blown away, upon discovering the art of Winsor McCay. And instantly perceiving that he was the greatest comic creator of all time, Charles was moved to pay his own humble homage to the greatness of the man. So, here is a peek at Charles’ wood carving of Winsor McCay’s “Little Sammy Sneeze”. This is an example of the kind of Visual Fireworks that can happen, when two Great Artists meet!
The film, itself, features 8 minutes of McCay, in person, wagering with some of his friends, including the comedian John Bunny, that he can make animated drawings come to life, by doing 4000 drawings in a month. There is some slapstick nonsense, involving a young man who accidently mixes up the drawings. But, in the end, we see two minutes of glorious animation. This two minute clip can be viewed below, courtesy of the Library of Congress. The film was, supposedly, hand tinted by McCay, himself. This short movie is generally considered to be the first example of great animation, the best there was, until Walt Disney.