All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
The timeline of this website is, admittedly, confusing. It is organized by the items that appeared in the catalogue for any given year. But, as the catalogues came out each year at Toy Fair, which was in February, and the photos in them were all shot in December of the year before, the events involving the creation of the items occurred in the year before as well. Not that any of this matters, 30 years later. Anyway, the big event for Colorforms in 1982-1983 was the coming of E.T.
Getting the "E.T." license was huge, and expen$ive for Colorforms. Therefore, we pulled out all the stops to introduce six new items. There would be no standard play set. They all had to be Deluxe, in one way or another, to generate the out of this World royalty. The artwork was expensive too. No one short of Drew Struzan, who had done the E.T. movie poster, would do. Actually, Spielberg, himself, had specified that no artist, other than him, would be allowed to draw E.T.
Working with Drew Struzan was no simple process. Although, he was a great illustrator, when it came to doing Colorforms, the backgrounds, booklets, and plastic pieces, Drew didn’t have a clue. So, Bill, Mike and I all participated in creating finished comps for three E.T. Colorforms sets. I did the inside-outside background for the large set and the layout for a new concept, the “E.T Play Story”. This consisted of 9 fold out panels with a plastic bag to hold the “full color” plastic pieces. The vinyl pieces shown, below, were picked up from Bill’s larger set. The full-color pieces in the production model would be painted by Drew.
Here they are, Colorforms “vinyl” plastic, printed in full-color. They represent a step both forward and backward in the simultaneous improvement and decline in the quality of Colorforms. Harry’s first Colorforms consisted of several colors of vinyl, laid on black laminated pallets, and silk screened with a black line. Once they were die-cut, the excess vinyl was carefully peeled away by hand. The end result was good looking with the pieces popping out against the shiny black background. And, by the way, they really did “stick Like Magic” then.
As costs rose, Harry fought to retain the peeling process. Eventually, someone came up with the bright idea of printing the black right on the plastic, so it looked somewhat the same, and letting the l kids peel the excess off themselves. This, in Harry’s opinion, was a step backward.
Then additional colors were added to the screening process, one or two, besides the black. This was a step forward. Although, it sometimes led to unfortunate results. For instance, when “flesh color” was added to the “Welcome Back Kotter” set, pale pink didn’t seem appropriate for the black character. So he remained the color of the plastic he was situated on, which in this case happened to be green. No one at Colorforms even noticed, until outraged letters were received.
Now in the “E.T. Play Story” the final vinyl step was taken. Full-color lithography on white vinyl. This was a step forward, in that it looked “better” to some, and was cheaper to produce. But it had its downside too. 1. The printable plastic was thinner. 2. The black pallets were gone, replaced by slippery white paper. Once removed, the pieces didn’t stick to it again, so it was difficult to put them away. 3. The plastic pieces didn’t “Stick like Magic” any more. 4. The “LOOK” of Colorforms was gone, as the pieces looked more like paper than plastic.
When the 3 Colorforms comps were finished, they had to be approved by E.T.’s producer, Kathleen Kennedy, before they could be passed on to Drew Struzan to substitute his “Official” artwork for our own. This should have been a routine procedure. FedEx could have had them on her desk the following day! OH NO! That wouldn’t do! Kathleen Kennedy adamantly insisted that they be presented to her in person by Colorform's Art Director!" That (GULP!) was me!
My first reaction was to say “NO WAY!”. I’m not risking my life for E.T. I suggested they send Mike, if he was willing, instead of me. So the arrangements were made for him to go. Meanwhile, I got to thinking. Three major Comic Character collectors lived in L.A. Two were my friends already, and the third would like to be. This was my chance to see their Collections. On second thought, I’d risk my life for Mickey Mouse, if not E.T.!
So I called Andy and said, I changed my mind and was willing, if they still wanted me to go. As Mike was already Hot on the idea, Andy said “We'll send you both.”
So 3 days later we found ourselves in California, where my friend Chet Moriyama led us on a whirlwind tour of Comic Character collections, beginning with his own, Amazing! Then to meet the legendary Lynn Becker, who had been sucking up every Comic Character item in the state of California for years, Awesome! And from there to my friend Bernie Shine, the Best!
Chet later sold his collection to fulfill his dream of “a million dollar home” in his native Hawaii, where he is living happily to this day. Lynn, eventually, sold his, as well, and moved to Las Vegas. But Bernie still has his collection, now better than ever. Along with that of my friend John Fawcett in Maine, it is one the last great Comic Character collections that remain.
The following day, Chet dropped us off in time for our one o’clock appointment at Universal Studios, and waited for us outside. We were directed to a rather unimpressive little outbuilding, and then ushered into Kathleen Kennedy’s office, to wait. She was half an hour late. Both Kathleen and her lunch arrived at the same time. For a great Hollywood producer, she was surprisingly young and unimpressive too. She could have been a secretary in the typing pool.
Mike and I sat there in two chairs across from her desk, feeling invisible, for another 20 minutes, while we watched her eat her lunch. Then she looked up and acknowledged us, as if we’d suddenly appeared. We took the comps out of the bag, and explained that the finished toys would look the same, except that Drew would draw the art. Kathleen Kennedy replied: “They look good! Good bye!”
The actual "meeting" part of the meeting, for which we had to fly to California, lasted all of 3 minutes flat, if that. Oh, the Audacity of the Rich (or word that rhymes with it) and Famous! From there, Chet took us to a great place for dinner, where we rejoiced and celebrated. All in all, we had a ball! The trip had been a great success, entirely thanks to Chet!
There was also one more set, “E.T. Giant Sewing Cards”. Colorforms was willing to produce any E.T. item they could get. These consisted of pre-existing art by Drew that we could pick-up free of charge.
Plasticine was not dead yet, only on the way to slowly dying. Always looking for new ways to package it, I came up with this Six Pack. Of course, the hand-drawn images on this comp were soon replaced by clay. One such attempt to package Plasticine in a unique way, although rejected at the time, was about to open the door of Destiny, next year, as you shall see.
Behold a really Bad Idea! Where was Stan Schwartz, when we needed him…. to proclaim: “Rolling Ball Puzzles DON’T SELL!”? I had first encountered these in France, where they were called “jeu d’adresse”, and were quite popular throughout the 19th Century. Now I addressed myself to them in 1982, and Colorforms swallowed the idea “Hook Line and Stinker.” And what a stinker they turned out to be! But how could Colorforms resist the appeal of being able to sell an empty blister card with just a few balls in it?
The concept started as a bunch of drawings, of which the two, below, that were never produced, were among my favorites.
Video Games were Hot, and thus, Colorforms opted for this next design, and I found myself in hot water. The drawing is self-explanatory, a vacuum-formed piece, printed to look like a video game with an acetate window and a rolling ball inside. This whole exercise turned out to be a grueling crash course in how art for vacuum-forming is done.
First a 3D model was sculpted by a model shop, with removable inserts for 3 different games. Then impressions were vacuum-formed in pure white plastic. Next, I had to carefully draw the art, right on the 3-dimensionsl formed plastic. Believe me, this was NOT easy! After that, the plastic was flattened out again. And I redrew the art, one more time, using the resulting distortions as a guide. That line was printed on plastic and formed again for testing. Whatever adjustments proved necessary were made, and Mike used the resulting image as a guide for doing the finished artwork, which, Thank God, became his job, not mine. Below are the three finished vacuum-formed pieces for the games, without the acetate windows and balls inside.
The three items, above, were only the beginning of an entire line of A-MAZE-ING mazes. The ad, below, ran on the back cover of Playthings Magazine in 1983. If, by chance, you’re wondering how I spent my time that year, just keep in mind that all the items shown below are actually hand-drawn comps, hand-drawn by me. The sloppy way the Colorforms logo is drawn and my messy handwriting gives the game away.
Seen enough? There’s more, some ideas that happened, and others that did not. The most amazing thing about A-Maze-ing Mazes was how quickly they managed to disappear. They were gone from Colorform’s line by the following year. Andy and Adam did the same.
Shrinky Dinks continued to do well. The Victorian Doll House had proved itself a winner and now had a package, pictured in the catalogue this year.
The major Shrinky Dinks introduction for 1983 was the “SMURF” Play Set. It featured a tricky piece of paper construction that formed a “Miniature Mushroom House” concocted by yours truly, and an army of little blue Smurfs, and one Smurfette, designed, colored, cut, and baked by Mike. The original handmade prototype has miraculously survived.
Another innovation for Shrinky Dinks, and excuse for doing yet more Smurfs and E.T. items, were “Mini Masterpieces”. Each set contained 2 pre-printed scenes and colored pencils. Anyone as talented as Drew Struzan could simply color them, shrink them, and frame them in the Miniature Plastic Frame, included.
“Rub n’ Play Transfers” continued with a series of Video Game related items. There was no longer a background included. I, alas, plead guilty to coming up with the slogan / instructions: “Rub 'em here! Rub 'em there! Rub 'em EVERYWHERE!” It seemed innocent enough at the time. Who knew that the following year Michael Jackson was going to be added to the line?
E.T. invaded Shrinky Dinks as well. The contents of this set were recycled from art generated for the Colorforms play sets, so it was easy to do. Just color the pre-printed Shrinky Dinks plastic sheets, cut them out, and bake then for 4 Magic Minutes. They Shrink Like Magic before your eyes! After 4 Magic Months, the sales of E.T. merchandise began to Shrink Like Magic too.
“Q-bert” A-Maze-ing “Fuzzy Fun” is an interesting example of how harmoniously Mike and I worked together. We were a perfect team. My comp is on the left. Mikes finished art is on the right. I had to use an existing blister for the prototype. A custom-made blister was created for the finished product.
The 1983 Catalogue you just read was where things stood, as of Toy Fair, in February of 1983. A whole year of events still lay ahead. Let me tell you about one terrible day:
Reluctant to spend money on anything but Comic Character collectibles, I had run our family cars into the ground. At one point, both cars broke down in town, and I had to hitch a ride home on my neighbor's golf cart. So I willingly let my daughters take advantage of my midlife crises, and talk me into ordering a semi sports car, called a Toyota “Supra”. The Toyota Showroom was located a mile from Colorforms in Ramsey N.J. and my car was sitting on the lot, waiting for me. All I had to do was stop by after a meeting at Colorforms, that day, sign the papers, hand over my Pacer, and drive away in a new Supra.
Meanwhile, out in California, Harry’s varied interests had led him in many wild directions, and further away from Colorforms with each passing day. Moreover, he was utilizing resources for his altruistic projects that should have gone for advertising. Thank God for Andy and Adam! Contrary to whatever doubts and preconceptions one might have about sons who assume the leadership of their father’s business, these guys had proved their mettle, fighting an uphill battle, and leading Colorforms to Victory, time and time again. Under their enthusiastic guidance, business blossomed and the company prospered, as it never had in Harry’s day. I prospered too, beyond anybody’s expectations or intentions. And working with them both was fun and exciting.
When I arrived at Colorforms that morning, there was a buzz in the air. Harry had called from California to announce that he had put a woman on a plane the night before, who was due to arrive at Colorforms later that day. When she got there, all work was to stop, both in the offices and in the factory, and all employees were to gather in the cafeteria to hear her deliver a lecture on the “Joys of Blue-Green Algae”
In the course of the day that followed, Adam on the phone with Harry voiced objection to stopping all work at the factory to hear a lecture on blue-green algae, asserting that it was an expensive waste of time. Both he and Harry lost their tempers, and by the time the conversation was over, Adam and Andy’s careers at Colorforms were over too.
Later that day, I sat beside them in the cafeteria. All three of us were in a state of shock and disbelief. As the lecturer droned on about how she had been cured of cancer by blue-green algae, the world, that had once been my reality, became a surreal nightmare fantasy. Now looking back, in retrospect, 25 years later, on the events of that fateful day, I realize that, there and then, the Golden Age of Colorforms came to an END.
Heading home that afternoon, it must have been late Fall, for it was growing dark already. As I approached the Toyota dealership, where I was expected, I hesitated a moment, then kept on driving. My thoughts were: “I am working with a Madman, in a world of sheer Insanity! How can I in my right mind sign up for an expensive sports car? A mile farther down the road, my vehicle, as usual, began to shake and rattle. I happened to be passing a Honda Showroom. It was brightly lit, like a friendly beacon, beckoning to me in the night . I pulled in and bought a Honda.