All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
And so this brings us to the final chapter of a book I am about to close forever. What began as a phone call, 20 years before, ended as another, 20 years later. The writing had long before been on the wall. It came as no surprise.
Meanwhile, 1986 was essentially a lousy year in terms of Colorforms innovations. With Harry permanently on vacation, Colorforms had become a breeding ground for self-interested secret motivation. Many there were making deals and doing business on the side; I, myself, of course, included. The cat was away, busy at play in La La Land, leaving his business, wife, and kids behind.
The Hot property for the year was a piece of crap called Popples. God knows why I include it here. There certainly was none of my innovation in the product presentation, maybe because it led off the line, page one in the catalogue. That’s how far Colorforms and the times had fallen.
Popples was a plush product, cutesy animals that turned themselves outside-in to become a lumpy ball, by stuffing themselves into an attached placenta. Then they popped outside-out to be their hollow selves again. Or one could plump them up, if they desired, by stuffing their afterbirth inside. This toy had been expanded to become a licensed property; just what Kiscom and I were trying to do.
The 3-D Play Sets were still in play. And Muppet Babies had joined the fray. Even with the Magic Glasses, the public couldn’t see it. But, Len and Colorforms kept pushing it anyway.
Color N’ Play survived, and “those winsome Pound Puppies” had joined the line. They were really ugly, Cabbage Patch gone to the dogs. Buy this dog, or it will be “put to sleep!”.
Rub n’ Play was also still alive. Crummy Bears had joined the line and Muppet Babies, featuring the impressive draftsmanship of Anne Gayler. She was an artist’s artist, if there ever was one.
As you can see, there was little to be excited about at Toy Fair 1986. And yet, I was very excited, indeed, for just across the rainbow bridge that led from the front door of Colorforms to Schaper’s Showroom, was my personal Valhalla, where I hoped to grab the Golden Ring, and escape the Twilight of the Gods that was taking place behind.
It was there that our next big project, “ANIMAX” was on display.
Meanwhile, back at Colorforms, the Puzzle line continued. There were some good ones this year. First a fabulous vision of OZ by Greg Hildebrandt, in which our familiar friends, and Toto too, emerge from their perilous journey through the dominion of lions and tigers and bears, to step into the light, and behold a glorious vision of the Emerald City. As I crossed the bridge to Schaper, I felt that I was emerging too. Then, there was Len’s contribution to the line. He was on the puzzle hunt, as well, and dug up this one, for which he paid someone a royalty, a cocky leghorn in a box marked, “Boss”.
But the puzzle I wish to bring to your attention is “Uncle Sam and Aunt Sarah”. Uncle Sam is actually Harry, and that is his first wife Pat, as “Aunt Sarah”, a name and character Harry invented. Her body language, even in the puzzle, showed that she was beginning to pull away.
Then came a series of puzzles based on the Muppet’s "Kermitage" Collection, brilliant, as usual. There was a new Antique Doll and two exciting Toy Robot puzzles too.
But, last of all, a fitting finish to the year, as well as my Colorforms career, was Harry, looking great as Uncle Sam again; this time, with a hammer in his hand. This image carries with it great significance. Above all, Harry saw himself as an American, made in America. And he took great pride in the fact that Colorforms were made in America too. His life had been the realization of, and a living testament to, the American Dream.
Toy Fair ended on a slightly sour note. A bright young lady and avid fan of the TV show Miami Vice, had invented a game based on the show. She had peddled it to all the major game companies, without success, until scraping the bottom of the barrel led her to Len. He embraced it willingly, although, Colorforms had no logical reason to be producing this unrelated game. He offered her a 5% royalty, for what was, essentially, a map of Miami, a deck of cards and a pair of dice. Mike and I got the uninspiring task of making this look nice.
Then David Letterman’s staff got wind of this story, “Underage young lady invents and sells a game”! And arrangements were made for David Letterman, himself, to come to the Colorforms showroom, during Toy Fair, to interview her for TV.
David Letterman was young and fresh and new to the TV screen in 1986, and the secretaries at Colorforms, in New Jersey, were all atwitter. Somehow, they managed to get themselves to the Colorforms Showroom to meet this funny, friendly, charismatic talk show host, in person. I watched the drama, inconspicuously, from a corner of the showroom. Bottom line, when the camera wasn’t rolling, cute compelling David showed himself to be a rude, unpleasant, angry, fellow, who disdainfully brushed the disillusioned secretaries away. They went home shocked and disappointed, vowing to never watch his show again. And this was many years ago, well before his darker side was publicly exposed.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
From the day Adam and Andy walked out the door of Colorforms, and other feet, too big for their boots, yet too small to fill Andy and Adam’s shoes, walked in, I knew my days at Colorforms were numbered. Harry was fully aware he had hired conflict and adversity. One aspect of his complex personality took pleasure in disrupting harmony. As he once explained to me, he thought it kept his minions “on their toes”.
Colorforms had become a hotbed or infighting, backbiting and political intrigue. And mine was the back most bitten, as my situation was the most intriguing.
There had always been two camps of opinion at Colorforms, two schools of thought, regarding me. They existed, not only, throughout the company, but actually inside each individual there. One resented the fact that they had to trudge to work each day, while I, like Harry, got to stay at home and play. Thus, some of Colorforms employees were consumed with jealously and erroneously regarded me as an employee, one far more unfairly privileged than they. Others thought: if only Colorforms had an art department on the premises, they could walk in and out, throughout the day, and look over the artist’s shoulders to offer their astute, although admittedly untrained, opinions on the works in progress.
Actually, at one time, Harry had hired an in-house Art Director, a nice enough guy. He put together a little studio at Colorforms, and soon discovered that no one bothered to look over his shoulder, and if they did, they had nothing constructive to say. He sat there 8 hours a day for about 6 months, and only managed to art direct one small Popeye play set. But that wasn’t why he was let go. One day, I’m told, he opened the trunk of his car, within sight of Harry, who spotted some oil paintings in there, and asked him what they were. The young man explained that he was importing them from Israel. Harry said you can’t work for Colorforms and be doing your own business on the side, and fired him, right then and there.
Fortunately, I was never an employee, which was one of several complicated reasons Harry was reluctant to ”fire” me. Even though I was doing a lot more than importing paintings, and he knew it; the fact remained, I was helping his sons succeed. And, in spite of all, Colorforms, too, was doing well.
Those at Colorforms, who were, more or less, on my side, realized that Colorforms had been stuck at three and a half million in annual sales for several years before I joined the company, and seemingly, with my help, that annual number had multiplied by five.
The situation had, more or less, come to a head at Toy Fair 1986, as those, who aspired to be "the powers that be", knew I had sharp eyes and a sharp tongue, as well as Harry’s ear. So they refocused their sites on me, not realizing that Harry was so preoccupied, elsewhere, he really didn’t care. But that is not to say he wasn’t unhappy with me. Now that my role had become more bread and butter, making sure that some 76 Products and the Catalogue and Showroom were all done on time that year. I was doing much less “innovating.” Therefore, if Harry found me less invigorating, let's face it, he was right. Besides, I was running out of ideas for variations and applications for full color plastic pieces that no longer stuck like magic, anyway.
So, one afternoon, not long after Toy Fair, the phone rang. It was Harry. His voice was as up-beat and enthusiastic as it had been on that first phone call, over 20 years before. He said he had “a Great Idea”, a way in which “the way I worked with Colorforms would change for the better”. Harry had an uncanny way of presenting anything in its best light. He realized that my day to day responsibilities left me little time to innovate new products. So, he had already relieved me of those tiresome chores by calling Mike Strouth, the day before, and offering him the “job” of being ME, an offer Mike accepted willingly.
Throughout, my years at Colorforms, there had been a contractual understanding that in the event we should part ways, for any reason, my royalty on the entire Colorforms line would continue for a period of one year, and then come to an end. Furthermore, any non-licensed items I had originated, that did not involve Colorforms Plastic pieces, and were not part of the current line, were mine.
Now, as Harry explained enthusiastically, I would be free to use my year’s worth of royalties to enable me to invent and innovate for Colorforms, full time! And for every new product I invented, and Len accepted, I would get a full 5% royalty. Wow!
After a deadly silence that lasted for 10 endless seconds, I replied. “Harry, in other words, you’re Firing me!” After another silence, more deadly than the one before, Harry, somewhat shocked, replied: “Errr … I guess you could put it that way. Hummm, let’s see. Well, Ummmm, I didn’t think of it like that, but Yes, I guess… that’s true!”
There was a distinct possibility that Harry, blinded by his own enthusiasm, had seen this chess move as one that would induce me to press the restart button, and begin again, right back where we started, some 20 years before. It didn’t quite turn out to be the check-mate move intended, but more like one in which he lost his queen. The conversation ended amicably, with Harry guaranteeing me my promised one year royalty, beginning that day, and me saying I would be glad to offer Colorforms any new Stick-on Ideas I came up with.
One thing that Harry suggested did come true instantly, I did feel FREE! Free of guilt, for wearing two hats secretly, and free of animosity. I couldn’t blame Harry for his decision. It was, if anything, overdue. I must admit I was disappointed in Mike Strouth. A simple phone call to let me know what was happening would have resulted in my offering him my blessings. Instead, he Never called me … 20 years passed before we spoke again.
What little I know of what happened, from then on, is mostly hearsay. Mike stayed at Colorforms for two years, I’m told, driving past my house many a day to have his shoulder looked over at Colorforms. They got their in-house art department, after all. Later, he did a lot of work for Henson Associates, “HA!”, traveling to NYC, frequently. He always did excel at Muppets.
When Mike left Colorforms, I could tell, as their artwork promptly went downhill. I think back to those early days, when all of us, Harry, Bill Basso, Mike and I, thought it was so important, that the Artwork should be “Fine”. We all believed that doing the best we could mattered, then. I wonder if it really did, or if the success of a Colorforms toy depended merely on the popularity of the licensed property, whose name was featured on the box.
Harry remained in California, where he begat a second family. Every now and then, he’d call me to share some new idea, enthusiastically inviting me to play. I’d always say I was, regretfully, too busy, which was true. Then I’d suggest he call Mike. “Mike who? Oh? Oh! Yes, that fellow! That’s a good idea! Do you have his number?” I did.
Harry passed away, last year, on September 1, 2009, in a nursing home in Ajijiac, Mexico. He left: two wives, ten children, and thanks to him, millions of happy childhood memories, and a better World, behind.
As for what became of me? Well, the very fact you’re here, means you know already. Hibernating for 20 years is not all that unusual, here in the Hudson Valley. After all, it’s Rip Van Winkle country. My years with Colorforms had been like a Dream.
At the time that final phone call came, I was working on a project called “KIDANIMALS”. I felt for them, a deep affinity:
“Safe and cozy, in their little boroughs, the KidAnimals slept peacefully, dreaming of the day when spring would, once again, awaken the Enchanted Forest, and life would bloom anew.”
Spring was here.........