All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
1981 was a BIG year for Colorforms and a SMALL one too. For it was the year of “Shrinky Dinks”. It was also a year of change. Harry had been growing more distant from the Company for a long time. He had bigger fish to fry. Essentially, he spent his time conspiring to help discover cures for heart disease and cancer, and eradicate World hunger. He hoped that what he learned along the way, would enable him live forever. He also aspired to build a pyramid of glass on a tract of barren desert that would become a prototype for the ideal city of the future. He even bought the land. Then he acquired an estate in Santa Barbara, and surrounded himself with astrologers, disciples and hangers on, all living on his dime, in La La Land.
Every once in a while, he would revive his interest in Colorforms and get actively involved by phone. But for the most part, he left his sons, Andy and Adam in command. Together they adroitly steered the ship of Colorforms into hitherto unexplored waters, and discovered brave New Lands. Plasticine was one, Shrinky Dinks another. Business prospered in their hands.
The 1981 Catalogue cover proclaimed the acquisition of Shrinky Dinks as a permanent, and successful, addition to the Colorforms line. This was my most ambitious cover. My desire to turn the Colorforms logo into a character, the likes of "Mr. Peanut", continued. Ever since I first laid eyes upon the cover of this comic book in 1943, I’ve been fascinated by diminishing images. And now I applied the principle to the Catalogue. On this journey into the infinitesimal, the second size cover down was actually a complete small catalogue, attached to the cover of the larger one, dedicated to and introducing “Shrinky Dinks”.
Shrinky Dinks already had a line of products when Colorforms adopted them. This small catalogue shows mainly those pre-existing items. The packaging was pretty awful. Now Andy set about updating and redesigning the line. The only new item, “The Muppet Show”, complete with a tiny theatre, was mine. This was the first of many Shrinky Dinks products I would eventually design.gn
Shrinky Dinks aside, the lead item for 1981, appearing in the Catalogue on page 1, was “Tummy Ache! The Junk Food Game”. Looking back over my years with Colorforms, this is the item that, more than any other, filled me with pride. A good friend, who I shall not name, was unimpressed with everything I ever did, with the sole exception of this game. Oh My God! It's about FOOD again!
The discreetly worded description in the catalogue tells the story: Feed “Tommy Tummy Ache” his favorite Junk food. BE CAREFUL! One piece of Junk food too much will give Tommy a Tummy ACHE … Causing him to “Tip forward and spill all the food!” (That means: BARF, VOMIT, PUKE, THROW UP!) A Tummy Ache tablet (Alka-Seltzer) will make him feel better, and ready to eat again. “BON APPETITE!”
I loved doing this game. The action was so graphically delightful. When Tommy took one bite too many, his head and neck tipped forward over his plate, sending the food flying, while his tongue shot out and wagged around. I especially liked the product names, like “Cracker Jerk” and “Ka-Ka Cola”. Mike designed such a fabulous cover. I felt compelled to go back in and bring the inside up to snuff.
There was also a fabulously revolting musical commercial that left nothing to the imagination. It began with the exclamation, “OH OH! TUMMY ACHE!” and a close-up shot of Tommy, barfing, right into the camera. That dramatic announcement was repeated several times to punctuate the jingle, each with a graphic depiction of vomiting on camera. It ended with a final Blast, and a chorus of hysterical kids screaming, “OH OH! TUMMY ACHE!”
“Tummy Ache” was doing well. The game was flying off the shelf, when overnight, everything went All to Hell! Tummy Ache was voted “The WORST GAME of the YEAR". And appeared in articles like this one, entitled, “GAMES of SHAME!”. At first, I thought this was GREAT, a wonderful achievement. My college roommate, Harley Wolf had become a toy inventor too. He had created a game called, “My Dog Has Fleas”. That also had been deemed, the Years Worst Game, years before me. Move over Harley! I took a kind of perverse pride in this achievement, and felt no shame.
Unfortunately Andy did! Young, eager, and upstanding, the responsibility of being newly named the “President” of Colorforms weighed heavily on his head. He felt this Game of Shame would ruin Colorform’s good name. And so, he pulled it from the line. Tummy Ache was dead, prematurely terminated in its prime. But not before Colorforms sold the rights to companies throughout Europe, where it continued to be made. In fact, in England, where it was renamed “Tommy Tummy Ache”, it became an all time Best Selling game.
In this house of a thousand objects, few things I made myself, over the years, are on display. The original comp of Tommy’s head is one exception. Still hanging around among the treasures, looking up-beat and ever eager, his days of Fame and Shame are over.
There were other new games as well. These were designed for younger players. I came up with the insides… Mike did the covers…..
Colorforms managed to license these games, along with all the others I’d invented, to manufacturers in Europe. This created a certain quandary, namely how was I to be compensated? As usual, I had a good idea, good for Colorforms, bad for me. It actually was a gamble for both of us, but Harry loved to barter. Sotheby’s was offering some Mickey Mouse movie posters in an upcoming auction. As Mike Strouth, who watched in amazement, would attest, I was obsessed. Deliriously desirous of two posters in particular, “Touchdown Mickey” and “Mickey’s Nightmare”. I knew that they would be expensive, not that the amount mattered, for I had no money, anyway.
After a lot of soul-searching I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t trade my soul for them, but I would trade the potential royalties, whatever they might be, from licensing my games to Europe. There was no telling what either amount would turn out to be. But the proposition captured Harry’s imagination, and he was Game for the idea. Stephan Spielberg was purported to have bought the most expensive poster in the auction, “The Klondike Kid”, but I got the two I wanted. And Colorforms got a good deal too, as the games, especially Tommy Tummy Ache, did well. So, everyone was happy in the end.
The Plasticine line continued to grow. The new addition for 1981 was DAY-GLO colors. Move over Play-Dough. The catalogue, as usual, pictured hand drawn comps, to be replaced by the real thing later.
Here are the Plasticine figures for both packages, propped up and photographed. The engraver stripped them into a black background.
In 1981 Colorforms love affair with the Muppets continued. The first Muppet product, in the order they appeared in the catalogue, was the Muppet Show Comic Printer. It featured a different sort of rub-down transfers, each good for a few tries, a rubbing tool, (popsicle not included) and a newspaper pad with pre-printed comic strip panels. Last of all, were “Colorforms” crayons. We’d given up on Crayola by then, and no doubt, visa-versa.
The fun of doing these sets for me was working with Anne Gayler. Anne was one of Henson Associate's lead art directors. She was also a fabulously talented draftsman. It was her role to gather together and organize all the props and paraphernalia that went into making of each of these Muppet sets. We also worked together on setting up the cover photos. Well, I guess she’d see it as her setting up the cover photos, and me getting in the way. We squabbled and argued the toss on every issue. It was like Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. I think we both enjoyed these bouts, and in the end, we’d manage to agree to a truce, born out of mutual respect.
In the middle of one such altercation, Anne whipped out a pair of scissors. And in 10 seconds flat, snipped out this dead-on unflattering caricature of me. It captured that elusive quality that inspires my wife to refer to me as “The Lunchbox of Notre Dame."
The Muppet Show was blistering hot, at the moment, and Colorforms was ready and willing to do any Muppet item they could get into the line. Therefore, I had little trouble convincing them to make a Miss Piggy Paper Doll. I don’t know the Paper doll repertoire beyond 1930s comic characters, but I have a feeling this might have been the only paper doll, up till then or thereafter, with clothes done photographically.
The preparations for this project were extensive. Anne and the Muppet workshop coordinated and created the props and costumes weeks ahead of time. The photo shoot took place in Manhattan. Miss Piggy arrived in several pieces and had to be assembled, like the flying horse in my favorite movie, ”The Thief of Bagdad”. And like that magic pony, when properly put together, she would come to life. That is, provided the camera angle was just right.
Anne and I toiled and bickered over posing her all morning, carefully matching her size and position to an acetate overlay taped, upside down, on the film plane of the 5”x7” view camera. When everything was perfect, the photographer looked into the camera and said, “Wait a minute, she needs to be an inch higher”. Anne said “I’ll fix it” rushing over to Miss Piggy. Meanwhile, I was yelling “No ! Don’t Touch Her! Just tilt the film a little”. Anne gave her a tug and “CRASH!” There she was all over the floor in several pieces. And so we started over. Who said Toy Design was fun?
When the cover shot was finally done, we had to repeat the process for each of her six outfits, and then photograph the trunk itself for the back of the package. It was a long grueling day, that lasted well into the evening, but it was worth it. Note the specially created Muppet labels that decorate the trunk. “HA!” really knew how to do things Right!
In 1981, "Strawberry Shortcake" had just been introduced, and Kenner, who had the toy rights, wouldn't share them with Colorforms or anybody. Even though Kenner didn't make any product remotely like Colorforms, they didn't want a single dollar that walked into a toy store to be spent on anything but their products!
So I said to Andy and Adam: "Never mind! We'll make Our Own Strawberry Shortcake!" Then, Mike Strouth and I got together and created "SUGAR and SPICE". It was contrived to be exactly like Strawberry Shortcake only "different". Instead of fruit we had candy, and as the big feature with Strawberry Shortcake was scents, we even added Scratch and Sniff patches to our play set.
We had a ball working on it. I found that my strength was in coming up with the characters and their names, [ their pup was called "Lolly Pup", I loved that one, and the cat was "Ginger Snap"] and determining what they consisted of visually, while Mike was great at doing the lively candy land they lived in, and, as always, the finished art. He also did their faces, alas, in the going cutesy style he had learned too well at Hallmark!
Although, there was no time to spare, we pulled out all the stops, and actually had real printed samples complete in time for Toy Fair. Colorforms, unlike most toy companies, did not have a "closed" Showroom. Thus, anyone could walk right in, and did. The first day of the show, we noticed that one group after another from Kenner was coming in to, we thought, "admire" our work. Then, suddenly, a menacing letter from Kenner's lawyers appeared by messenger. It threatened to sue Colorforms for ripping off Strawberry Shortcake!
Well, I had to admit, they had a valid case, because we not only had outrageously parodied their property, but Mike had done the faces in his stereotypical Hallmark style, which just happened to make them identical to the faces of Strawberry Shortcake. It really was her and her friends in candy coated clothes. Colorforms contacted Kenner immediately, and promised them (with my assurance) that we would change our toy! And if they didn't agree that we had made it completely different from Strawberry Shortcake, we would drop it, altogether! Kenner said "Show Us!"
So I pulled the comp off the display, and went home early. That night, I drew the cover you see here! Feature by feature, I replaced the eyes, noses, mouths, and every detail with their complete stylistic opposites! The drippy oval eyes now became round; the closed smiley mouths opened to show teeth; the Strawberry Shortcake like bonnet became a bow, and the yarn hair also had to go! Then, I added a cute little birdie for good measure. And early the next morning, the brand new version was placed before the discerning eyes of Kenner. I knew full well that, in spite of all my changes, the essence still added up to exactly the same thing, a rip off of their property. And Kenner knew it too, but nonetheless, detail for detail, there was nothing they could do, but grudgingly agree that it was, now, "completely different"!
Ironically, because of Kenner’s stinginess, Sugar and Spice” turned out to be an unexpected success, as other companies, who couldn't get Strawberry Shortcake, wanted to license Sugar and Spice. Thus, Colorforms began a licensing program, and dozens of companies signed up. This was our first taste of Licensing. It was to lead to bigger things.
Around this time a change took place in my arrangement with Colorforms. The company never had an in-house art department. So all standard items, basic Colorforms, etc. were done by outside freelance artists, who could deliver a finished product, like Bill Basso and a variety of other independent artists, of which Mike Strouth was one.
Then there were “my” items, those which I originated and developed, often using other artists to do the finished art. On top of that, I threw in other services as well, to help “my” items sell, the catalogue, and the showroom, etc. Over the years, the 1% royalty, tabulated solely on “my” items, added up to a decent sum, second only to what Harry, himself, was making.
Eventually, everybody realized that items with my mark on them, not only dominated the line, but tended to look better than the others. So Harry proposed a new arrangement. Henceforth, I would be responsible for the entire line, choosing, scheduling and art directing all the outside artists, while continuing to innovate new items of my own, and, as Harry stated it, put my touch on every item in the line. That was more than fine with me. I was nearly doing it already.
Colorforms comptroller did the math, and came up with a slightly lower royalty rate that, when applied to not just “my” items but the entire line, amounted to the same, and then some. Alas, as Colorforms sales continued to grow beyond anybody’s expectations, largely due to the efforts of Adam and Andy, the total got a little crazy, and many a resentful glance was cast in my direction.
Meanwhile, I now found myself working with Anne Gayler again, setting up another cover. This time for “Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog Dream Date”, a product that, formally, would not have qualified me for a royalty. Now, along with the entire line, it was considered a little bit “mine”. Bill Basso did the artwork inside.
Here is a video by the one and only Mike Mozart. His Videos are Fabulous and often Hilarious. If you don’t know his YouTube Videos, you should. I am honored he discovered “Tummy Ache”.