All Photographs Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
1976 was the Bicentennial Year. Harry Kislevitz was proud to be an American, and prouder still to be able to say that Colorforms were Made in the USA. Even 30 years ago, few American toy manufacturers could make that claim. Therefore, Colorforms celebrated the Bicentennial in a big way. The Catalogue that year was an Americana Extravaganza. The cover was a spectacular three page affair, and is still my all time favorite.
When the catalogue was opened, the FIREWORKS began. The Table of contents tells the tale. It was a banner year for me as well. All eight of the lead items in the line were mine. The last eight items, the activity line, were also mine. In between was no-Mel’s-land, the Standard and Deluxe Colorforms sets. One day, I’d break through that barrier as well.
When the next page was turned, a Masterpiece came into view, “The Holly Hobbie General Store”. In my opinion, it was the best Colorforms that Bill Basso had ever done. It made Snoopy’s Beagle Camp on the adjacent page look bad. Some good friends of mine actually owned a general store. And this was an authentic recreation of it, drawn by me from photographs, and then translated by Bill into something better still.
There was a charming TV commercial, which is posted on line. As it's not on YouTube, I don’t know how to embed it. But you can see it, by clicking HERE.
Snoopy, Lucy, and Charlie Brown celebrated the Bicentennial, too, in a patriotic Puppetforms set, called, “Snoopy You’re a Star”. In this star spangled Colorforms Theatre the Peanuts gang had Bicentenial fun. Snoopy could dress up like Uncle Sam, Lucy could be Lady Liberty, and Charlie Brown, George Washington.
This was a Creative year for Bill Basso. If the ”Holly Hobby General Store” was a Home Run, the toy he followed it up with, “The Castle Dracula Fun House” was a GRAND SLAM! This set was Bill at his unbridled best! In this spectacularly spooky Fun House, his monstrous imagination and unchained sense of humor ran wild. From the secret dungeon to the mad laboratory, there were hilariously scary surprises behind every moving door. Castle Dracula is one of the Best Loved Colorforms toys of all time
Sometime in 1975 I began working on a new idea, later to be named “Tru-Dimension”, which was a hired consultant's name, not mine. For lack of a better title I called it “Space Art” at the time. This one was a real invention, the 5% royalty kind, a sort of 3D paint by numbers set and do-it-yourself animation cells combined.
Until the Bamberger’s show in 1973, my collection had been stored in boxes, out of sight. In spite of that, in my fervor for Comic Characters, I had managed to expand and nearly duplicate it, even while it was packed away. Now, reluctant to pack it up again, I found myself surrounded by it, haphazardly housed in an odd collection of spool cases, make-shift medicine chests and florist’s cabinets, all strewn around the big unfinished room, in which I worked.
In my spare time, I did carpentry, trying to tame the biggest white elephant in captivity. And I was in the process of building a second story, single handedly, which I hoped would eventually become a studio. Meanwhile, I was working, as usual, for a miniscule royalty, while someone else would be hired to do the finished art on my designs at the going rate. I was creating more jobs than the “stimulus package”, for everyone but me. I would repeatedly say to Harry, "Won’t you please allow me to do some free-lance artwork too, so I can make some money to hire a real carpenter?" He would always answer, “Come on, Mel, you know you like it. Carpentry is good exercise for you.”
One morning I arrived at Colorforms, which was then located in Norwood New Jersey, with my original make-shift model of “Space Art” under my arm. Superman was the theme. I set it down in the lobby and headed for the lavatory. It had been a long drive from my house to Norwood NJ. The lobby had a receptionist desk and a highly polished floor. A huge ceramic urn, with a small tree in it, stood just outside the bathroom door.
Suddenly, my feet flew out from under me. And in a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I found myself slowly floating to the floor. As I passed the rim of the ceramic urn, it played a little melody on the xylophone keys that used to be my ribs. Embarrassment soon turned to fear, as I realized, flat on my back and hurting, that one side of my chest wasn’t moving. I was just one lung away from being dead.
An ambulance carted me off to a hospital in New Jersey, where I spent several weeks in bed. It turned out that I had a collapsed lung and six broken ribs. One thing that amazed me was the fact that it wasn't until 5 days later that I actually managed to consummate that wee wee, I had been running to the bathroom for, in such a hurry, 5 days before.
Now came one of those turning points in life when one has to choose which fork to take. I mean in the road of life not at the dinner table. I might have sued Colorforms, (their custodial company had put the wrong wax on the floor), which, according to their comptroller, would have caused their insurance premiums to soar. Or I could carry on as before, which, all things considered, is what I chose to do, but not without making a deal.
Harry called me in the hospital to tell me that he loved “Space Art” and I had definitely made a sale. Well, he sure as Hell better have liked it. If he didn't, I might have had to sue. I think that was his sentiment too. I wondered if I should break a bone as part of every presentation. Anyway. I spent the next two months at home in bed. There is no treatment for broken ribs, other than pain and painkillers, and rest, and pain.
Space Art development continued, daily, over the phone. And in the course of the conversations, I said to Harry, “There goes my Carpentry career. I can climb no ladders now. How about hiring me to do the finished art on Space Art?” He readily agreed.
Believe it or not, in 1974, in the lingering boredom of Man’s conquest of the Moon, one time too many, “SPACE” was still a dirty word. And, even though, the title, "Space Art" was referring to the fact that the images appeared to exist in 3 Dimensional space, I would be the first to admit, there was a problem with the name. So Harry hired a fancy Consulting Company, who after market tests and focus groups came up with “Tru-Dimension”. Although, it was not a “dirty” word, the name was technical and lame.
At Toy Fair 1976, an enormous Tru-Dimension Superman met visitors and they came through the Colorforms showroom's heavy glass front doors. I painted it on five 4’X8’ foot sheets of Plexiglas suspended from the ceiling. It was pretty stunning, if I do say so myself.
I can't remember if Tru-Dimension sold well or not, and if so, for how long. Nonetheless, that giant Superman display dominated the Colorforms showroom for many years thereafter. Finally, Harry had it shipped out to his new home in California. There is a certain irony to the name game we had played. For thanks to Star Wars, once again anything connected with “SPACE” was hot. If we had named the product “Space Art”, instead of Tru-Dimension, it would have sold a lot.
By the way, there was a happy ending. I did meet the World’s most amazing carpenter. Bill Maxwell is his name. After I watched him work for just one hour accomplishing more than I would have in an entire day, I proclaimed, “I’ll never do carpentry myself again!” When that first day was over Bill asked me how long I would need him. I replied “Consider this your Career!” And so it was for the next 20 years. Looking in any direction, from anyplace in this big house, Bill built everything your eyes can see: walls, floors, ceilings, showcases, and cabinetry. In the end, when all is said and done, that injurious accident at Colorforms, turned out to be a lucky break for me.