THE OSM YEARS
had glued a small round mirror. It was in this magiclly claustrophobic cubical, oppressive, fantastical, and downright ecclesiastical, that the OSM were born.
The only telephone in the apartment was attached to the kitchen wall. Thus, the marathon phone conversations with Harry, that took place nearly every day, always began with the long phone cord stretched and me standing in the hall. Sooner or later, I would, inevitably, end up lying on the floor with my feet resting high up on the chained and double locked front door. But, on this occasion, I remained standing, too excited to lie down. I had just seen Matt Mason in the stores for the first time, and an earthshaking IDEA was counting down: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - to BLAST OFF in my mind.
Recently, I heard the birth of the Outer Space Men erroneously described as a calculated mercenary enterprise, $uggesting that Colorforms had studied Mattel’s bottom line, and seeing that Matt Mason was making millions, hired me to knock it off. The story made me want to puke. Nothing could be farther from the truth. “Colorforms” i.e. Harry had never heard of Matt Mason when our conversation began that evening. But by the time it ended, both of us were committed to travel to the “Farthest Reaches of Our Galaxy” in search of THE OUTER SPACE MEN.
The voyage that began that night was destined to continue for the next two years. Throughout that journey, the desire to make money was never the fuel that propelled our flight, nor did it even cross our minds. We just wanted to make toys that could soar free of Earth’s gravity. Ironically, in the end, it was Colorform’s lack of foresight, guts and money that brought us down to Earth again.
At the time, and for years thereafter, I marveled that I could sell Harry on this project. Up until then, everything we had worked on was a mutual involvement. I intuitively realized, early on, that Harry was more inclined to invest in one of my “ideas” if he could feel it was actually his own. Thus, I subtly endeavored to encourage that illusion. And we could chat about a project every day, refining and enhancing it together as it progressed to completion. But the OSM were different: Harry was literally blindsided by them. Nothing in his previous experiences prepared him to participate in the OSM. He had not grown up in darkened theatres peeking through his fingers at the Wolfman. He was more likely to have been reading Thomas Wolf instead. If he could go home again, he would find no science fiction there. The Outer Space Men were (pun intended) alien to him, but he recognized a good idea when he heard it.
We did have some fun thinking up names together. Anyone, who could create a name like "Androck" for his first born son, had to have a flair for naming OSM. Harry’s character picks were the same as mine in choosing the first 7 from the initial drawings. His check marks are still on the ones we chose.
Over the years, I witnessed Harry’s enthusiasm span diminish. Eventually, it dwindled down to a few minutes. But, back in 1967 he stood by and sustained his belief in the OSM for two full years, even though, the project meant, more or less, losing me, as I worked alone in a world of my own, lost in the stars.
There were occasional gaps in our little space race, and these we filled with minor items, of no significance, whatsoever. One was called “Space Putty”, “The putty that comes in a moon”. It was essentially Silly Putty; and I was silly enough to do the package .
This devilish little creature also made his not so grand appearance. I had sculpted him a few years earlier, just for the hell of it, with nothing in particular in mind. In the beginning, he even had two eyes. He sort of reminded me of "Kilroy" an image that haunted my childhood, throughout World War II.
All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Now christened “Whosis”, a name that Harry thought was cute, he was presented as sort of a lucky charm. A tiny metal horseshoe hung around his neck for luck. In 1969, truncated cylinders, swallow tests, and child safety rules were not invented yet. Needles to say, he didn’t sell.
Harry didn’t give up easily. So with Space Fever in the air, Whosis was renamed “Astro Jerk”, and reintroduced with an updated package, designed by Bill Basso. The name, I think, was Bill’s idea too. The back panel, rather than the usual baloney, had only a charming little cartoon, typical of Bill’s sophisticated sense of humor. Astro Jerk didn’t sell either. You’ll meet Bill in a minute.
Thanks to the initial success of the OSM, I was able to pay Colorforms back for three years of advances, and have just enough left over to put down a deposit on a house in the country. A house in the country! Doesn’t that sound great! Actually it was a “white elephant” fraught with hidden pitfalls. Well, actually, they weren’t so hidden. I was just too dumb to look. Things like no heat were a problem. That’s one that I didn’t discover until I went to turn it on that winter.
Meanwhile, due primarily to post-moon-landing ennui, and a dock strike that left the OSM stranded on a ship at sea for 4 months throughout the Christmas season, the OSM stopped selling. They came crashing down to earth again, demolishing my hopes and dreams.
And so, amid the wreckage of the Outer Space Men, life continued. I woke up to the realization that the "World of the Future" had arrived, and I was stuck up in the country with no money. I had no choice but to (pun intended) "stick" with Colorforms, going nowhere. The bean-counting comptroller there had sprinkled salt on Harry’s tail, and he dared not aspire to fly high again for many years, thereafter.
Thus, in July of 1970 I set up a studio in my newly acquired dank dark cellar. On the sweltering summer days I enjoyed the cool damp air down there. Throughout the summer and the following fall, with the slightest hint of guidance from Harry, like “Why don’t you try some pre-school items!” I’d wrack my brain for bright ideas, and over the course of six lackadaisical days, sketch out, at least, a baker’s dozen. Below is the only one (of hundreds) that remains.
Then on the seventh day, I’d travel to Harry’s house in New Jersey, where, amid the hubbub of 6 kids popping in and out, “Hey Pop can I have five dollars?”, I’d show him what I had come up with. Inevitably, he’d like a few ideas. And thus, the wheels would begin rolling on another pie in the sky project. Along the way, we acquired patents on a variety of items, and even actually produced a few.
No one had ever made elliptical xylophone keys before. There was a mathematical formula to do it that was awarded a patent too.
As the year came to an end, and the autumn days grew colder, moisture seeped incessantly up through the concrete cellar floor. Even with a pot belly stove blazing beside me, working in the basement proved to be bone chilling. So, my “desk”, two sawhorses and a wooden door, was moved upstairs to the unfinished first floor. My first project there was to an attempt to clean up the mess made by two doll ladies that Harry had hired to design a Betty Boop doll. That's the doll that they came up with on the left below. The neck and receding chin line were a problem I never fully solved.
Ironically, this not altogether satisfying item, difficult, today, to give away on eBay, was responsible for the Betty Boop revival that, because of a mistake that Harry made, has made "King Features" countless millions. Harry's Betty BooBoo is a rather interesting story, one worthy of a web page of its own. I mention the doll here merely as an example of how we whiled our time away in the final days before the unintended revolution of 1971, that was to change my life with Colorforms forever.
The things we did redefined “insignificant”, like this little “Inch Worm”. Pull him out, he was a tape measure. When the stem was pressed, he’d zip back into the apple again.
I remember the moment the Outer Space Men were conceived as clearly as if it were yesterday. The heavily armored big front door of our NYC apartment opened into a tiny hall, hardly bigger than a phone booth. And a phone booth, in a manner of speaking, is, more or less, what it turned out to be. It measured 3’X3’. The door, when swinging open, barely missed the walls, one of which was a closet with sliding doors. The other was the portal that led to a small kitchen, hardly bigger that the hall. The third side opened out to the front room and a primitive early version of the toy collection wall, that later grew to gargantuan proportions, when recreated in the house we live in now.
The entire tiny vestibule, from floor to ceiling, doors included, was dramatically wallpapered with bold floral black and fuchsia shopping bags that I had harvested from the Vatican Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. In the middle of each heart shape design, I
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