All Photographs Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
1978 was the year I descended into Mickey Madness, and the last time I would ever attempt finished art again. It was also the year of a big breakthrough into the hitherto forbidden realm of the basic Colorforms set. And, last of all, the Outer Space Men set foot on Planet Earth again, accompanied by the elusive Men of Series II. They left behind a marker in the form of a Colorforms Adventure Set that would, one day, guide a future generation of Earthlings to discover them again.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, my true passion in life was (and is) collecting. That to me was BLISS. Working at home for Colorforms meant there was never an antique show, auction or flea market anywhere on the East Coast that I had to miss. As long as I met my obligations, my time was all my own. I often described what I did to earn a living as being akin to cutting grass, which is a task I’d prefer to avoid, if possible. But once I got into it, I got into it, and made it as interesting as I could. Nibbling first around the edges, I'd start a giant rectangular spiral. Then I'd gently round-off the corners to transform that rectangle into an ever shrinking circle, until, Voila! Right in the middle, the final stroke! A job well done. It was even sort of fun. But nonetheless, I was glad when it was over.
Then, when the mowing was completed, I’d throw myself, body and soul, into collecting, while beneath my feet, and all around me, the grass continued growing. Soon it would call me back to work again.
The “Mickey Mouse Magic Glow Fun House”, (whatta mouthful!), was my attempt to mix both work and play. Trying to make the best Mickey Mouse toy that I could, I found myself awash in a sea of 1930’s imagery, and soon discovered I was in over my head. As I disappeared beneath the surface, I knew that it was my destiny to either sink or swim. When I resurfaced 6 weeks later, everyone at Colorforms was fed up with me. From Stan Schwartz to Harry Kislevitz, they all proclaimed “Never Again!”
Here is the original comp for the stand-up panel. Even though it has faded over the years and the marker colors have bled outrageously, it still Glows as effectively as it did 30 years ago.
On the top floor, I recreated a fantasy that had burned itself into my memory from my childhood in the once fabled, now fallen, city of Detroit. Once a year, the Sonja Henie Ice Show came to town. The highlight of the evening was that magic moment when the lights in the arena went down. And there in the pitch darkness, silhouetted against the fiery orange glow of the setting sun, Sonja, wearing only a hula skirt and a well positioned lei, performed her signature hula-hula dance on ice to the heart pounding strains of the “Hawaiian War Chant” while standing, with blades flashing, on her silver tippy toes.
The floor below was a spooky place where the specters from Mickey’s Technicolor short “Lonesome Ghosts” appeared. And the bottom level was a sort of combination food court, cabaret, and pin-ball arcade.
The finished art was complicated. It required two separate pieces, one for the Fun House itself, and another for the “transformations", which were printed on the back. Correctly die-cut shapes had to be removed from the cardboard backing before the double-sided laminated sheet was mounted. Then the final piece was die-cut again. All in all, it was a complex and expensive process.
The Catalogue page, below, as was often the case, showed the comp, and not the final toy. Catalogue photos were usually shot in early December of the previous year. This involved a week in NYC, setting up the shots. It was extremely boring. Everything had to be just right, because there was no Photoshop in those days, and the cost of retouching was out of sight. The box lid was usually attached to a boom, suspended in mid air above the toy. The boom arm could be cut out later, when the photo was vignetted by the engraver. These transparencies were large, 8” x 10”, and crystal clear.
At last, the final cover. By the time it was ready, Colorforms was fed up with me. A printer in Poughkeepsie had printed my finished black line on fine Strathmore paper. Then Mike Strouth tutored me in how to paint with my brand new set of bottled watercolors. Believe me, it isn’t easy. You have to keep the area wet, and work quite quickly, to make the colors come out smoothly. I never used those paints again. In fact, Mike Strouth got them in the end.
The other Big offering for the year was a Mike Smollen Extravaganza, “The Sesame Street Mother Goose Stand Up Play Set”. That’s Mike’s actual comp below, so beautifully done it’s hard to believe it isn’t finished art. By this time all pretext of "educational value" had flown out the window. The Sesame Street gang would do anything to make money, even go on a wild goose chase to Mother Goose Land to seek the goose that laid the Golden Egg. Although they didn’t find the Golden Goose, this lovely Play Set laid an egg.
Here’s how it appeared in the catalogue that year. Once again, this is Mike Smollen’s comp, and not the finished toy.
Here is another toy by Mike Smollen, “The Amazing Mumford and His Magic Colorforms”. This comp is all there is. For reasons that I can’t remember, the actual toy never appeared. That’s Toy-Biz! Lots of Great Art ends up in the wastebasket. Being a graduate of Mumford High School, I mourned The Amazing Mumford's passing.
In the early spring of 1977, “Star Wars” conquered the Universe, and “SPACE” was HOT again. Colorforms and every other toy company tried in vain to get in on the action. But Darth-Kenner was all Powerful, and marshaled the forces of the Dark-Side to shoot down every attack on their monopoly. It was then that, from the "Farthest Reaches of our Galaxy", The Outer Space Men returned to Planet Earth again to kick Darth-Kenner’s asteroid! The story of this toy, “The Space Warriors Colorforms Adventure Set” can be seen if you CLICK HERE.
Long after the Original OSM had disappeared, the tantalizing image on the cover of the “Space Warriors Colorforms Adventure Set” introduced ”The Outer Space Men” and the hitherto unknown figures of the Second Series, “The World of the Future” to a whole new generation of collectors. And thus, it was that this modest effort, conceived almost as an afterthought, and quickly cobbled together, became a light saber in Colorform’s courageous battle against the ruthless regime of Kenner, and is largely responsible for the fact that the Outer Space Man have survived.
Like a note placed in a bottle, and set adrift upon the Sea of Destiny, the OSM floated aimlessly for 30 years, until the Fabulous Four Horsemen came across the bottle, half buried in the Sands of Time. The cork was popped! The wandering stopped! And, at this very moment, these fabled Masters of the Art of Toy Design are recreating the Outer Space Men for the contemporary collectors market, to live again in modern times.
1978 was also a Banner Year, because it was the one in which I finally managed to break through the Final Frontier, and step down into the hitherto forbidden world of the basic Colorforms line. At last, I got to take a bite of the bread and butter that kept Colorform’s head above water and the company alive. The “Superman Colorforms Adventure Set” featured a “Magic Telephone Booth” in which the one could “See Clark Kent Change into Superman!!!” Or better still, with the door closed, one couldn’t see how it was done. There was so little profit in this line that any special feature could not be fancy. That’s why, up till now, there wasn’t any. But Colorforms agreed that this little bit of trickery was worth the extra cost of a sliding lower platform, a die-cut telephone booth door, and one percentage point for me.
If you ever rubbed a pencil over a coin placed beneath a piece of paper, you’ll know where this idea came from, “The Rub-a-Dub Printer Magic Picture Maker. In this case, the “coins” were vacuum formed plastic images of Sesame Street characters with raised edges. And the “Color Sticks” were crayons without wrappers. The photograph below is my actual comp. I was becoming comfortable, drawing these characters, at last.
“Rub n’ Play” below, sounds similar to “Rub-a-Dub” above, but they really are two completely different concepts. Rub n’ Play consisted of full color transfers that were a kind of waxy substance, similar to a 1940 toy I loved as a kid called “Koppeefun”. In this case, the transfers were supplied by an outside vendor. I earned my modest royalty based on the way the transfers were applied. In these first sets they were Rubbed directly onto die-cut cardboard figures that could be Played with after the rubbing was done; thus the name Rub n’ Play. These eventually grew into quite a line. Once again, these comps are by yours truly. (The transfers were the real McCoy). Looking at them now, I’m realizing how similar Ernie’s rubbing hand is to Mickey’s.
These traditional sewing cards were no big deal, and the concept was in no way original, but as part of the activity line, a got a point on them as well. Mike did the Mother Goose set. I did the Mickey. I always liked that cover. Drawing this stuff was getting easy.
They’re Back! The Outer Space Men; this time as jigsaw puzzles. In 1978 anything with Space on it was worth doing. The image below was taken straight from the 1968 photos. On the other three, I used 1968 images as well, but had the printer drop in new photos of some of the other characters. It was fun playing around with size and scale. As I said earlier, Colorforms was basically a die-cutting company. Because of these, they found that making jigsaw puzzles was easy. This was a discovery we would remember later, when Jig Saw Puzzles became a whole new category for Colorforms.
Last but least, “Sesame Street Building Blocks”. Let's face it, Colorforms would do just about anything if it could be made out of cardboard, and they could put the Sesame Street name and characters on it. So they bought into this idea just from the sketch below.
When this catalogue shot was taken the package hadn’t yet been created. The blocks themselves were pretty decent; a unique construction made them amazingly strong. They could hold a heavy load, equal to the weight of a full-grown child.
Doing the package was loads of fun. It was the first time I got to meet the Muppets. Meeting Muppets in person is a revelation, primarily because there is nearly nothing there. Cookie Monster is no more than a blue rag and two ping-pong balls. Bert and Ernie are fuzz covered foam, light as a feather. It is the skill and presence of the puppeteers that brings them to life. The day of the photo shoot in Manhattan no puppeteers were present.
The toy package itself was enormous, and the cover photo had to be big too. It required an entire day to set up. Inside the characters, the photographer and I had to jerry-rig a complex makeshift mess of armatures to pose them. We even used some of the actual cardboard blocks to build the Cookie Monster. Eye contact is everything. If Muppets don’t look directly into the camera lens, they instantly look dead. Muppeteers actually have TV monitors nearby, sometimes, as in the case of Big Bird, strapped to their bodies. They learn to watch their characters every move on TV and play to the camera the way you and I might grimace in a mirror. This assures that all-important eye contact is working to perfection.
These Catalogues present a snapshot of the Colorforms Company as it stood at Toy Fair in late February of each year. There are 10 more months remaining in the year, during which time, anything could happen. And lots was Happening at Colorforms in 1978. As I worked at home, and visited the factory rarely, these changes did not seem to affect me, at least not dramatically. Therefore, I am a little foggy on the dates. But, somewhere around this year Colorforms moved out of Norwood NJ to a mind boggling new Office/Factory that Harry built in Ramsey.
The architects were World Famous: Gwathmey and Siegel. They were second only to Frank Lloyd Wright in Harry’s opinion, which is who he would have hired if he were still living. As Harry grew older his ideas grew more grandiose. This was an industrial mega structure, a city block in size, nestled in the bucolic countryside of picturesque New Jersey. It featured a soaring foyer, reminiscent of a cathedral, and offices perched sky high above and overlooking an enormous factory space that resembled a Sam’s Club in size, or more accurately, several Sam’s Clubs joined together.
D Another major change took place around this time. Harry’s eldest son, Andy joined the company. Shortly thereafter, Andy’s younger brother, Adam came on-board as well. The hands on the clock of Father Time were turning slowly. And although, I didn’t realize it at the moment, my Fate and Destiny were sealed.