All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Looking back on 1982, in retrospect, it’s clear to see that the hand of Fate was putting pieces into play that would eventually change the destiny of Colorforms, Andy, Adam, Mike, and me. Andy and Adam were clearly running the business now, and it was prospering. Fueled by their youthful energy, the next two years would be the brightest of Colorform’s Golden Age. It’s star would shine, like never before, and then begin to fade.
The lead item for the year was “Smurf Land” a “Super Deluxe” Play Set. It featured an incredible collection of “full-color” blue Smurfs and a Mushroom House and Forest that opened up for inside, outside play. This looks like Bill Basso’s work to me.
Meanwhile, "Sugar and Spice" was succeeding, beyond our wildest dreams. Not only did the play set appear a second year, this time with the new cover pictured, it also generated three more toys in the Colorforms line, and many more outside. Outside? Yes, Adam and Andy began licensing the property to other companies, who, like Colorforms, couldn’t get the Strawberry Shortcake license either, because of Kenner’s tyranny. This was a good second choice.
Here’s Mikes “Sugar and Spice, Sweet Shop” play set. So sweet! Mike was really into these characters. They were exactly his cup of tea! They got better and better. He was on a roll! (Tootsie?) Apart from Scratch and Sniff, this was also the first time that Colorforms sets were printed in Day-Glo inks, which caused the pinks and reds to positively glow.
Mike and I Viewed the Success of Sugar and Spice with Mixed emotions. The sweet smell of Success turned out to be slightly reminiscent of Scratch n’ Sniff Skunk to Mike and me. Although, Toy Fair 1982 had become a bacchanal of self congratulatory celebration for Colorforms, it never occurred to anyone there that Mike and I ought to share in the proceeds they would derive from licensing our creation.
We consulted "a lawyer", my Uncle Joseph, who really had more important things to do, as he was, not only, President of the American Bar Association, but also the attorney who had come forward to defend Bernard Getz, the, so-called, "Subway Vigilante". He spelled out a variety of things we could do, including sue, which sounded complicated, expensive, and unduly unfriendly. So we went back and plead our case again with Colorforms, who, in the end, recanted and threw us a "bone", without ever learning how far we had traveled down the road to legal recourse.
Ironically, Sugar and Spice turned out to be a sort of testing ground, in which we were all unknowingly rehearsing the roles that we would come to play together in the, not so distant, future.
While Mike was perfecting the existing Sugar and Spice characters in each successive set he did, I was having fun creating new ones. This was the very thing that, in my youth, I had hoped to, one day, do at Disney. My interview there in 1955 revealed that the Character Development Department had been eliminated. Henceforth, each specialized animator would design his own. Pumping out a hundred drawings every day, just to occasionally design a character, wasn’t my forte. Therefore, at the age of 17, even though they “hired” me to begin work as an “inbetweener”, my desire to join the Disney team faded away. I realized I really didn’t want to work for Walt Disney; I wanted to be Walt Disney. Now, 26 years later, this was my chance to play that game.
Mike continued to pump out Sugar and Spice sets, each one sweeter than the one before it. This Scratch and Sniff game was probably as stinky as its name, but Oh! It looked so good! This is a portion of Mike's delicious artwork for the cover. The background color would be stripped in, later, by the engraver.
In 1982 the era of Colorforms games was beginning to wane. Digging through a stack of memories, I came across a pile of game ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor. Toy designing is like an iceberg; for every idea that sees the light, there are many more below the water line, that remain forever out of sight. Here are a few that seemed like good ideas at the time, but, in retrospect, range from ridiculous to just “all right”. The first is a shameless variation on the classic game of “Chutes and Ladders”, called “Ups and Downs”, featuring menbugs and ladybugs and a spider. Mike reinterpreted it, using cute little animals in the vastly improved version above.
Who wouldn’t want to attend a Teddy Bear's Picnic, especially if the bears are tame? Alas, so was this hibernation inducing game. Food again?
Can’t remember what this game was called, or if it even had a name. It was not exactly a timely theme. I much preferred a variation that involved an old timer and a donkey called “Kick in the Pants” that played and tested well in prototype, but got booted out, in the end. I don’t know what happened to that working model; I kinda liked it. Maybe it's somewhere around here, packed in mothballs, along with another rejected game, I can recall, called “Mothballs”.
The elaborate Rube Goldberg contrivance, below, was called “All Washed Up”, like my career at Colorforms was, all too soon, to be. God knows what I was thinking. The subject matter was slightly outdated, to say the least. Appellation Antics, Hummm, not a bad name, were more popular when I was a kid than they were then in 1982.
The idea was to hang the wash out on the line, without tipping over the outhouse, causing Bubba to take flight. In a more complicated version, the privy hits the donkey’s rope, who kicks over the washtub where Pappy was gettin' washed up too. Must have been Saturday night.
“Gee Wizzard!” This was just a cover sketch. I have no idea what would have been inside.
“Knock! Knock! Who’s There?” and “Guess Zoo?” were Memory Games with artwork courtesy of Mike Strouth and Otto Messmer. Few people remembered the name, Otto Messmer, even in his day, the 1920s and 30s. He was the man behind Felix the Cat. He created and animated Felix, and drew the comic strip as well. Although, another man, Pat Sullivan, owned the property, and took all the proceeds and the praise. Vintage Felix was amazing. But the styling of the secondary characters was every bit as good, or better. I introduced Mike to the work of Otto Messmer, and he adapted it to both the Memory Games.
Otto’s influence is clearly visible, when the animals in “Guess Zoo?” are compared to the fragment of a 1930s Felix comic strip below.
Plasticine continued. But 1982 was the last year, in which an enthusiastic new item would appear. Sales and interest were prematurely drying up, much like the subtly sub-standard Plasticine that Colorforms was manufacturing was prone to do. A “One Pound Fun Pack” was introduced. And I continued to have fun, designing the packages. I could make little Plasticine figures in my sleep by then, and sometimes did, in dreams.
“Basic Play Shapes” was the most elaborate Plasticine set, ever. It was the Grand Finale, just before the creative curtain came down. In it, Colorforms met Plasticine. It was essentially Colorforms Basic Shapes that children could make out of clay. The cover below was more complex than meets the eye. It required several separate photographs combined. This process, that would be easy on Photoshop today, had to be done the hard way, all by hand, back then.
The set came with a full rainbow of Plasticine colors, as well as a rolling pin and six shape cutters, with which one could make geometric shapes that would “Stick like Magic” to create pictures on this colorful Play board. It was a fitting final effort, my last for Plasticine.
Magic Transfers continued in 1982, without originating anything particularly new. I included them here because they added Sugar and Spice.
Shrinky Dinks were off and running. The Muppets, with their elaborate die-cut theatre and entire cast and tiny figures, was still the lead item in the line. Before the Shrinky Dinks era was over, Mike would become as sick and tired of making and baking Shrinky Dinks as I was of playing with Plasticine. It really was a commendable product. When the full sized cutouts shrink down to dinky size, the thin plastic thickens, and the colored pencil coloring condenses, to take on a vibrant intensity that is amazing.
Last, but not least, is a collaboration that turned out to be extremely pleasing. Mike and I at our best together. I did the rather complex doll house, and Mike furnished and populated it with a charming Victorian Family and all their period stuff. When it comes to teamwork and Shrinky Dinks, this set was “as good as it gets!” Period!