All Photographs Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Harry Kislevitz was both brilliant and naive. Brilliant in that he thought in terms of grand and grandiose concepts. In later years he aspired, among other things, to cure World famine and rescue all Mankind. That is how grand his concepts were. Unfortunately, the diet that he recommended consisted entirely of grass grown in soil filled cafeteria trays, crawling with earthworms. Never mind! That is how naive Harry could be at the same time!
Nothing illustrates this better than the first project we undertook together, “The Great Zoetrope”. This modern recreation of a marvelous 19th century optical toy, that both predated and previewed the moving pictures, was something I had “manufactured” as Boutique Fantastique. Sourcing the components out myself was, in itself, an education: from wood turned bases, sprayed black in my loft, to brass fittings, steel rods, wooden hoops, and die cut sheets with slots that we assembled to form a cylinder with a hat box lid on top. The film strips were printed on large sheets of paper, then cut and hand colored, using a stencil a process known as “pochoir” in France.
I had ordered enough components for a numbered edition of 1000. When Harry came into my life, 600 had been sold already. Now Harry was inspired to begin a whole new toy company, based on a fresh new premise that toys could be for adults too. The company would be called “Adult Toys Inc.”
Don’t laugh! At the time the idea seemed ground-breaking and Brilliant. Forty five years ago “Adult Toys”, as they are commenly known today, weren’t invented yet. Or if they were, Harry and I were too innocent to know about them. And the possibility of "Adult Toys" having another meaning never crossed our minds.
So Harry purchased my remaining raw materials and set the employees at Colorforms to work assembling 400 Zoetropes. He also commissioned me to design a “no expense spared” box to showcase the product. How I loved doing this package, printed inside and out on pure white virgin cardboard. Yes, no expense was spared indeed!
How out of it were we? As Exhibit One I offer this broadside, harking back to the 19 Century to introduce Adult Toys Inc. to the World of 1965. We sure had a lot to learn, and a long long way to go.
The 400 remaining zoetropes were sold, albeit, not quickly enough to merit their continuation, or that of Adult Toys either. Nonetheless, the Great Zoetrope returned a few years later in the form of a more commercial children’s product, called “Canned Movies”. Canned Movies didn’t exactly set the World on fire, but they did end up advertized on TV.
The highlight of this whole endeavor was the Disney studio actually lending me a 16mm copy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to play over and over, stopping the projector every few frames to trace authentic animation. Being able to see this film outside of a theatre was a treat unheard of in those days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t unheard by my former friend and upstairs neighbor, who heard it, heard it, heard it, until it drove him crazy. Before I gave it back again, a loft full of kids enjoyed the movie at my daughter Samantha’s eighth birthday party, to the sound of pounding on the ceiling.
Meanwhile, the Zoetrope that refused to die was born again as "BAT-O-RAMA". I threw my heart and soul into this project. It was, possibly, the most dynamic product of the short lived Batman era to never be produced. Trying to do the subject matter justice proved to be a disaster. The price of our enthusiasm turned out to be too high to pay. By the time the products were ready, the Batman craze was ending. We were too late! The TV rental compnay came and took my RCA away.
Hot on Batman’s tail, the Green Hornet “craze” was just beginning. Stuck with plastic end caps and bulbs, etc., we quickly changed course, and the GREEN HORNET SIGNAL RAY was born. It was the first toy product I created to legitimately see the Light of day. And it Signaled the beginning of my so-called Brilliant career as "toy designer".
The flashlight, itself, which is the same old paper tube, projects a glowing green Green Hornet Signal on any surface. The hornet's eyes on the tube light up bright Red.
Unfortunately the Green Hornet TV Show never quite lived up to its expectations, and neither did the GREEN HORNET SIGNAL RAY. In an attempt to come up with a more exciting package, than those I saw in the stores in 1966, I created one
so complex and badly constructed, that few of these items managed to survive for more than few days in Woolworth's, let alone, 45 years! An elastic cord was added by Colorforms, in a last minute effort to prevent paper flashlight from falling off it's ridiculously impractical and over-ambitious card. The fact that both the packages and the toys themselves, were self-destructing in the dime stores, makes this a RARE item, today.
The tongue in cheek copy on the back of the package discloses the fact that to some degree I thought designing toys was a big Joke! In some ways, maybe, I still think that, today. The puns and corny humor that first emerged right here was to manifest itself, repeatedly, in the product names and copy that I wrote throughout my long career.
In 1966, when Batman appeared on television it was an overnight sensation. The show was blisteringly Hot. Bogus Batman items flooded the market. Anyone with any preexisting piece of crap slapped a Batman label on it, and that was that. But, Harry and I were so excited, we really tried to make legitimate products that captured and celebrated the essence of the show. In fact, Harry was so energized by the phenomenon that he even rented me a colored TV, so I could be inspired by it in living color.
Thus, the Scary Light was hurriedly changed to the Batman Shadow Light. It was simple but amazingly effective at projecting the Bat signal and lots of other Batman shadows on the wall. The package was a Knock Out! "BIFF" “POW!”, if I do say so myself!
The very nature of the “Adult Toys” concept, added to the fact that I had, more or less, been in the gift industry as Boutique Fantastique, led to our early items being more suitable for gifts than toys. On such esoteric effort was something called “Fantastics” , a campy cross between a fan and a mask that functioned badly in either capacity. My favorites were the heart shaped one with Valentino where each person pictured supplied the die cut peep hole for one eye, and the Busby Berkley extravaganza, with only one peep hole in the middle.
In an effort to do something more viable than (out of copyright) dead movie stars, we actually licensed the then popular sensation, "Twiggy". In spite of the fact that she just, recently, turned 60, she looks pretty much the same today. Guess she doesn’t need these masks, now, any more than anyone else did, then. I’d forgotten that these forgettable items ever existed, until I stumbled across them just the other day.
In 1965 there were several places in New York City where thousands of glossy movie stills were available for just a dollar each. Days of digging through them resulted in the foray into low-tech technology you see below. We called them “Talking Paper Dolls. Behind each oversized cardboard cut out, there was a small folding voice box. From each voice box there emerged a long strip of red plastic with recorded ridges on it. This primitive gimmick had been around since the 1920s. When someone ran their thumbnail down the strip, dead movie stars would talk to them from beyond the grave. Believe it or not, I channeled all the voices myself. May West cooed “Come up and see me sometime.” in her most sultry tones, while Mickey Mouse, in his characteristic falsetto, chirped out “Hello Folks”. Alas, when “Folks” was translated to the plastic strip it was not clearly enunciated, and proved to be an unfortunate choice of words.
Harry and I were slowly wising up. Eventually it occurred to us that a talking paper doll might be better directed to kids. So,“Tina the Talking Paper Doll” was born. Bill Basso did the charming artwork. There was a certain irony here. Here was Harry, the man who invented Colorforms, which was, in many respects, an updated improvement on the paper doll, producing a paper doll himself. Sort of like Henry Ford making a horse and buggy. If only Tina’s clothes had been Colorforms stick-on pieces, which is what the toy industry expected from Colorforms, maybe she would have sold.
Meanwhile our efforts meandered all over the map. I even sculpted a strange unpleasant little doll. Her name was “Baby Grumpy”, no relation to Disney. I can’t remember why I sculpted her. I guess she would be considered my first doll. At the time, I believed she would be my last as well. Although, Baby Grumpy was never produced, her unconventional expression, perhaps unknowingly, foretold the shape of many Baby Faces, yet to come.
And so it was, for three pleasant years, we played our time away. Traveling down memory lane over the past few days, every remnant of an old item I uncovered along the way has brought to mind the memory of many others were lost and forgotten long ago. Among them I remember a kaleidoscope hidden in an egg, various shadow toys and peepshows, and a line of jigsaw puzzles we produced a few years later. One Idea that Harry fell in love with and wouldn’t leave alone, was a Magic picture book with pictures that transformed when held up to a light. We toyed with that forever. The principle resurfaced years later as the "Holly Hobby Magic Glow Doll House". There was no method to our madness, no rhyme or reason for what we did. Nothing better illustrates how far a field we traveled than the item shown below.
”Monster Squirt”! There was even something audacious about the name. Yesterday I opened two dusty boxes in the basement and there it was again. Any resemblance to a Muppet is purely coincidental. In 1967 Sesame Street was still two years away. Colorforms was slowly moving out of the world of cardboard into the realm of the real toys made in Hong Kong. Monster Squirt was made real by Gene Rubin. He was a sort of manufacturer/go-between, who worked with factories in the Orient. One year later, it was Gene who made it possible for Colorforms to do the Outer Space Men.
There was often little rhyme or reason to what Harry and I worked on, but occasionally there were reoccurring themes. One that was ongoing was the “cheap cardboard flashlight”. Colorforms was always most comfortable with anything made out of cardboard. They were, after all, a die cutting and box making company with some silk screening abilities.
The very first bright toy idea that I came up with was called the “SCARY LIGHT”, a cardboard flashlight with zoom action that produced ghostly apparitions that could be truly scary. The story of it can be seen HERE. Because the Colorforms sales force couldn’t sell it, or much of anything Harry and I came up with in the beginning, it never saw the light of day.
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