All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
1984 was only marginally better than George Orwell predicted it would be. Big Brother wasn’t watching any more. Actually, he and his younger brother, Adam were (secretly) going into business with me. Meanwhile, Chuck Cohen was elevated from sales manager to President, at least according to his resume. That was the good news!
As for the bad: Harry filled Andy’s empty chair with a person named Len Sausen. I was never quite sure what Len did there, but whatever his job profile might have been, "Marketing Manager ", perhaps, it often put him in direct conflict and competition with me. As for his personality, I found it to be a combination of chutzpah and vulgarity, seasoned with a propensity for pomposity. I searched, in vain, for some quality that, either in his eyes or mine, might serve as valid rationale for his overbearing self esteem.
Into this mix, throw the Megalomaniacal Madness of Michael Jackson, and you have 1984. I spent the year puzzling over what to do, and pumping out Puzzles up the wazoo.
Michael Jackson was the Hot property that year. Everyone was clamoring for the license, and Colorforms was one of the few who got it! Wow! We planned to pull out all the stops and do as many items as we could, much as we did with E.T. the year before. There was no time to waste, as E.T. had already Phoned Home and disappeared. One other lucky toy company, “LJN” made news by landing the license to make a Michael Jackson doll.
The following ad appeared in several trade publications, heralding what Colorforms intended to do. And then the HELL began!
The ad above is IT! You just saw it all! There was nothing else to show for Colorforms biggest introduction of the year. Counting a line of Jig-saw Puzzles, Colorforms, Shrinky Dinks, Rub n’ Play, and two new categories, “Lazer Blazers”, and “Puzzleforms”, there were some 12 items or more, planned. And not one of them appeared in the catalogue that year! How could that be?
Upon signing the licensing contract, Colorforms was issued a package of “official” photographs, all high quality transparencies, familiar images that had been reproduced and seen everywhere. We based all our products on these photographs, reproducing them faithfully and never altering them in any way. Yet Michael would not “OK” anything we submitted for approval. Something as simple as a jigsaw puzzle, using an oft publish image his own organization had given us, inevitably failed to please. We would lavish our most expensive lithography on reproducing it perfectly, and the proof sheet would come back to us with a cryptic note saying “Michael doesn’t like it”, and no explanation why. Just an invitation to “Try again!” All we could do was guess what to do next.
It was like dealing with a tyrannical child king, the sort one only encounters in fairy tales, whose frustrated subjects would gladly sacrifice their lives to please him, trying in vain to meet his every whimsical irrational and impossible demand. A fierce and scary woman did his speaking for him. She was a cross between a pit bull and the Queen of Hearts, “NO!” is what Michael said. Take it or leave it! Off with your head!”
Meanwhile LJN was going through the same thing with the doll, only more publicly. Articles appeared in the newspapers about the fact that LJN was sculpting the doll, again and again, and yet, Prince Michael rejected every one. Colorforms too, lavished a fortune in time and money. They carried many of the sets to near completion, only to find that none would please him. By this time, the year was passing. Toy Fair and the Catalogue were over, and there was nothing to show.
Then the News broke! The headlines in the newspapers proclaimed, LJN’s doll had finally met Michael’s approval! WOW! Len called up LJN and explained that we were in the same boat as they were, and begged them to disclose how they managed to please him. The secret was simple, although, no one on Michael’s staff would reveal it. LJN explained: “Michael regards himself as “white”. Just make him white!” I called the engraver and said, “Wherever Michael’s skin appears, cut back the black plate 80%, and remove the blue dot altogether. Just leave the red and yellow. He did, and Michael loved it.
By this time, it was essentially too late. The 1984 Michael Jackson rage was over. Colorforms threw the sets out there, and they sold well for a while, then died. The following year, Michael Jackson was no longer in the line.
As there was nothing in the catalogue, and I saved none of the actual sets for myself, there are no photographs to show you. I gathered this potpourri of images from eBay and the internet.
“Rainbow Brite” was a cunningly contrived Hallmark property. And 1984 was her year to shine. This “Super Deluxe Play Set" led the Colorforms line. The theme was colors and the vinyl pieces in this set were silk-screened in many colors to be more colorful than ever.
As Creative Director, I sat in on all the licensing presentations, and saw first-hand how they were put together. Hallmark’s Licensing Manager, who represented all their products, was a dynamic young lady, who resembled Tinker Bell, named, Cheryl Stoebenau. We would meet again before the following year was over.
“The Cabbage Patch Kids” were still hot in 1984. Bill Basso gave them the “Colorforms Play House” treatment, another charming doll house in the tradition of his Raggedy Ann and Holly Hobby.
The new “innovation” for the year was “Puzzleforms”. It began with the comp below, but soon evolved into a frame-tray puzzle. It’s a Puzzle! It’s a Colorforms Play Set! It’s Two Toys in one! It’s PUZZLEFORMS! Colorforms invested all its hottest licensed properties in this item, and it paid off. Puzzleforms reappeared the next year, and stayed at Colorforms longer than me.
Rainbow Brite appeared in two Shrinky Dinks sets that year. The second of these, the “Rainbow Brite Play Set” was quite spectacular, and lots of fun to do. I loved working on the comp below.
It carried me back to one of my earliest memories, the glorious Fantasia punch-out book I had when I was three. It was the eve of World War II, and toys made of paper were commonplace then. Paper dolls for girls, punch out books, paper planes, trains and model sets for boys; throughout my wartime childhood, these were the toys. Colorforms truly continued that tradition. Their dress-up sets and play sets derive their inspiration form an era when one could still have a good time for a dime.
And for the boys there was: "Shrinky Dinks Masters of the Universe Play Set". Castle Grayskull and all the characters, complete in one box; this set was extremely satisfying. I lost the comp along the way, but I did see one of the production pieces in the cellar the other day. I wonder if I still have the plastic pieces that Mike dutifully drew and shrank? If I can find them, it would merit a photo. Yes , here they are. The colors much truer here than they appear on the package.
OK! Let's take a break, here in the middle of the catalogue, to talk about the Secret that was going on all year. The rest of the catalogue is boring, anyway. It’s essentially a line of jig-saw puzzles, until it ends up in a Lazer Blaze of glory, but you might be asleep by then. So….
Shortly after Andy and Adam left Colorforms, like, would you believe, the next day?, they contacted me to discuss their future plans, which were to start their own toy development and licensing organization, and invited me to join them. I eagerly agreed, and we have remained partners to this very day. Meanwhile, until things got off the ground, I would continue to perform my chores at Colorforms.
They called the company “Kiss Communications”, referring to “Kislevitz” plus communications, or “KISCOM”, for short. And thus, began a series of weekly meetings at my house that continued for many years. They already had a project in mind: “WEENIES”
Sometime in the distant past, a small container of marzipan made its way to our refrigerator. It was packaged in a plastic sleeve and tied off at each end to form a sausage shape, about the size of an average knockwurst, and was imported from Germany. On the package was a drawing of a teddy bear. Every time I opened the refrigerator door, I would see it there, eye level in the butter tray, and vow to open it, and make that teddy bear one day. It remained there for years, as things in our refrigerator have been known to do. There are secret places way down below in the back that have never seen the light of day. To explore what is buried there would constitute an archeological dig. But that marzipan was always in my face, and never went away. So when working on Plasticine the possibility of packaging it like that marzipan sausage came to mind.
With the plastic wrapper removed, plug-in plastic body parts could be inserted in the clay to make ”Weenie People” In the tradition of “Mr. Potato Head”.
There could even be a whole Plasticine Weenie Set.
Andy and Adam had a different vision, one that never occurred to me: “The WEENIES” as a licensed property! WOW! What a GREAT Idea! There was an air of excitement at our weekly brainstorming sessions, as we discussed the possibilities for different characters, their personalities and stories. We even had a Weenie Wanguage. Weenies, weplaced their “Rs and Ls” with Ws.
Looking back over my years in Toyland, I believe the times I relished most, were those golden days when Andy, Adam and I, together, followed the Yellow Mustard Road to Bunville, and the “Weenies” were born.
Mike Strouth didn’t let us down. He created this Fabulous diorama of “Bunville” that was the Crowning Glory of the presentation. As Grand Finale, it filled the bill many times over! Huge both in size and concept, the narrow confines of this screen can’t do it justice. Do CLICK on the image to SEE it LARGER.
Having seen numerous licensing presentations, I knew they usually consisted of a series of boards, introducing each character. And the best of them, the sort that Hallmark did, also had a spectacular “Knock Your Socks Off” Diorama, guaranteed to win over even the most critical viewer. I set about doing the Character boards. There were thirteen, in all. The character profiles were self explanatory, funny, short and to the point. Adam, Andy and I wrote these together at our weekly meetings, and honed them down to razor sharp perfection.
A few months later, Andy and Adam walked into Coleco with the presentation that you can see in its entirety below. And they walked out with a deal that exceeded and fulfilled our wildest Dreams. Coleco was at the pinnacle of their success with the Cabbage Patch Kids, and Weenies, they proclaimed, would be their next Big Thing.
Throughout the year Mike and I pumped out vast quantities of artwork. And Guess What? Coleco hired Cheryl Stoebenau away from Hallmark to take charge of the Licensing of Weenies! I told you we would meet again. The first thing that she requested was a Weenies Style Book. Once again I got my chance to explore what it would have been like if I had opted to take that job with Disney. I worked nonstop, pumping out animation drawings for each character. And Mike and I together did board after board of product concepts.
These were great days. Coleco was even producing an animated TV Special, and I spent hours on the phone collaborating with the writer. We even composed songs together. Meanwhile, the licensing program was going Great. Cheryl rented a suite at the Helmsley Palace to present the Weenies to the industry. I created this display for the occasion. Mike and I were present for the initial presentation. As each character was introduced, one figure after another was added to the display, until the whole thing was assembled, as you see it here.
We stayed away the second day, as that was the day Colorforms was scheduled to appear. I later learned that was the day that I got busted. Colorforms knew that this was Adam and Andy’s property, but they didn’t know that I was involved. At least, not until Len Sausen recognized my handwriting in the Magic Marker on the back of every board. I believe Mike escaped detection.
Of course Len immediately told Harry, who never said a word to me. As I wasn’t an employee, he couldn’t very well fire me. Furthermore, as this was his son’s property, he could take a certain pride and solace in his oft stated philosophy, “Acorns don’t fall far from the tree!”
The Helmsley presentation proved to be a great success. By the time was over, there were 30 Manufacturers on board. Artwork for everything, from slippers to sleeping bags, began pouring in for my approval.
Amidst all the excitement, my obligations to Colorforms continued. The next project we undertook was Jig Saw Puzzles. Products like the Outer Space Men Puzzles had proved that Colorforms was well equipped to manufacture jig-saw puzzles. So why not do it? Hallmark had been highly successful producing a series of up-scale jig-saw puzzles for the gift trade. They were elegant and expensive. I convinced Harry that we could emulate the look and feel of those at a fraction of the cost. And so, the jig-saw puzzles became my personal project. This involved everything from choosing the subject matter, to doing the package art.
Last of all, was “Lazer Blazers” 3-D Holographic Stickers. These were cutting edge technology. I can’t remember how they came be, but I do remember naming them. And rather than being clever, it was not until years later, that I realized laser was spelled with an “S” and not a “Z”. I also remember writing the overlong copy on the page below, and coming up with the look of the packages, and even doing the art for the first several sets of laser stickers, as well as the unicorn cover of the Collector's album. But that’s all I can remember. The rest is just a blur to me.
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE
Even though, the project was well underway, I nevertheless, felt like Dumbo, precariously perched on the edge of a high cliff, about to jump off into the great abyss. Like him, I convinced myself I needed a Magic Feather. This seemed like too big a leap to take alone. So at the cost of half my share of half the royalties, I brought Mike Strouth on board.