All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I can’t believe that 1980 was thirty years ago. It seems like yesterday to me. It was a year of this and that. A little bit of everything I’d done before continued in the line. One nonevent that was meaningful to me, and maybe to “toy history”, was the quiet appearance of a project that I had been working on for several years, Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things dolls. Problems with the patterns had delayed them endlessly. They really didn’t belong at Colorforms, but unfortunately for Maurice and the Wild Things dolls as well, I DID, or so it seemed.
Meanwhile the game line continued with a lame old game that was the essence of ordinary. I think it was included among my first attempts the year before, and didn’t even have Colorforms plastic pieces in it. At that time, when it was unanimously rejected by everyone, including me, it was called “Fishin Around”, a title borrowed from a 1930’s Mickey Mouse cartoon. The only reason I sketched it in the first place, was because it could be made of cardboard. The eventual product, below, looks so much like this first sketch, it’s almost scary.
In the year that followed the sketch above, I noticed the advent of a new technology: scents encapsulated in microscopic plastic bubbles. These could be printed on any surface, and the odor released when scratching burst the bubbles. The official name for this process was, “Scratch n’ Sniff”. I sent for samples. They were mostly food and flower scents, with one fascinating exception, the familiar smell of SKUNK. Wow! “Fishin Around” came to mind again; and the game became, “Hook Line and Stinker”! The catalogue below tells how it was played. Can you guess who wrote the copy? The game itself proved NOT to be a stinker. It actually sold well, both here and overseas.
The Plasticine line continued, with the addition of two Modeling Sets for Super Hero fans, who were sculpturally challenged. The hard parts, hands and faces were just paper stickers. Sculpting them was Super Easy! Selling them was Super Hard!
In 1980, Sesame Street’s popularity was waning, but The Muppet Show was on the rise. And Colorforms followed the trend, movin' on up to the West Side, from Children’s Television Workshop to “HA!” (Henson Associates), located in a trendy townhouse on the upper West Side of NYC. This elegant establishment, and the beautiful people in it, existed on the cutting edge or savoir-faire and sophistication. Lunch with that bunch was an event, where everyone, even the men ate quiche.
Our new friends at “HA!” gave us tickets to the World Premier of “The Muppet Movie”. It was there at this event that on the cover of the souvenir program I first encountered the exquisite artwork of DREW STRUZAN. It was love at first sight. And shortly thereafter “Jim Henson’s Muppet Show” by Colorforms appeared. As I often said, when it came to artwork, Harry spared no expense. He was always willing to pay whatever it cost to get the very best. And Drew was the very best, as well as the most expensive. He was already famous, being more or less to movie Posters what John Williams was to movie Music. I never spoke to him or met him. We communicated through his agent, who insisted on bringing his whole promotional dog and pony show to my house in person, as if I wasn’t sold already. A few years later, we would (not) meet again, this time to collaborate on “E.T.”
“Mork & Mindy”, popular on TV took over Tricky Mickey’s shtick. They even took over Mickey’s old tricks, and the “Mork & Mindy Magic Show” was born. Just say the magic words “NA-NO! NA-NO!”. Did it sell?... NAH-NO!
The following photos tell a sad story of what could have been, and should have been, and the changing times we lived in 30 years ago. I found these comps and sketches among my souvenirs. They visually tell the tale: Harry Kislevitz should go down in toy history for almost single handedly rescuing Raggedy Ann from oblivion. His Raggedy Ann Dress-up set brought her back from the brink. And subsequent Colorforms sets, such as the Doll House, the Puppet Show, and the Surprise package, etc. infused her with life again.
The comp below must have predated the first Stand-up Play Set, Snoopy’s Beagle Scouts in 1975. I can see I was feeling my way along in this, bending the corner of the stand up partition and tabbing it in for unnecessary extra strength. I don’t know why the set proceeded no farther at that time; maybe because Snoopy was in heat, a hotter property than Raggedy Ann!
The Next comp is Bill Basso’s. In it he carried one of my worst comps further, improving it dramatically, as he always did, to become one of his best comps ever. This would have been a Classic Colorforms.
Here is the next step, Bill’s final pencil drawing for the cover, with my blue pencil notes, suggesting he move this and that a little, here and there. I can’t remember what happened next, or why the set didn’t.
Now turn the clock ahead to 1980. Look what happened to Raggedy Ann and Andy! The Bobbs Merrill Company brought their, now revitalized property “up to date”, by showering it in a candy coat of mediocrity, and for good measure, threw in a dog named Arthur. From that point on they required all licensees to adhere to their new styling. Raggedy Ann, as the World once knew her, was dead. I don’t remember who got stuck working on this piece of crap, with bigger pieces for little fingers, Bill or Mike or me, but some remnants of the Stand-up Play Set, like the house and tree, remain. Harry Kislevitz and Bill Basso had raised Raggedy Ann to a new level. Bobbs Merrill smacked her down again.
Here’s another in the continuing series of “Pre-School play Sets”, “Colorforms Peanuts”. How basic is that? Bigger pieces for Little Fingers and Inside-Outside play. Even Snoopy’s dog house opens for a look at his inner life.
Rub n’ Play continued with four new sets, “Barbie”, “Kiss”, “The Incredible Hulk”, and “Mork & Mindy”. The Rub n’ Play category was still doing well.
Meanwhile, Chuck Cohn suggested that we develop a new lower priced “Rack Colorforms”, to be sold only in the beginning of the year, when funds are low and sales are slow. The cutoff date for availability would be the last day of March, in order to, hopefully, prevent these low priced sets from competing with more expensive Colorforms in the fall. I experimented with a variety of approaches, including those below:
The final format can be seen here. They became a kind of self-contained fold out easel, called “Colorforms Stand-Up and Play”. Toy buyers were promised: “This rack merchandise will rack up new sales for you”. Was this a good idea? Did the prophecy come true? Stand-Up and Play didn’t reappear next year.
Last of all, is a project I had been toying with for several years, my friend Maurice Sendak’s “Wild Things” dolls. They finally appeared at Toy Fair 1980. If you CLICK HERE you can see the entire story of how they came to be. At the time that it was written, the photographs that follow were missing. I found them recently, so here they are. These show the one and only set of original blank dolls, on which I mustered up the courage to dare to draw the line work in by hand. I only had one shot, and feared I would strike out. But, for once in my life, it felt like a Grand Slam.
Colorforms had no business doing these dolls. Few buyers even noticed them at Toy Fair. No doll or plush buyer even walked through Colorform’s showroom door. The small quantity that Colorforms ordered were soon sold through Brentano’s; and that was that. Years later Maurice licensed the dolls again. This time to Determined Productions. I connected them to the original manufacturer in Hong Kong. Ironically this was through Gene Rubin, the same man who did the Outer Space Men, 10 years before. The factory still had all my finished screens and patterns, enabling them to reproduce the original dolls exactly.
The very same dolls are still manufactured today. They are the only dolls that Maurice would OK to tie in with the recent Wild Things movie. This was the longest running product I ever did, ... for which I never earned a penny.
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