All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
As 1971 began, Harry and I continued to aimlessly meander the crooked streets and back alleys of Toyland. It's difficult to remember what, if anything, we accomplished. One thing I do recall was something called the "Finger of Fate". It was a sort of Ouija Board variation in which a floating hand was held aloft magnetically within a (styrene) crystal ball. We even got a patent on it. Bill Basso did the artwork.
A questioner's fingertips, resting gently on the mystic rim, would send metaphysical vibrations to the disembodied hand. Its extended index finger would then point out the future, which at that moment, looked grim.
But that summer, something amazing happened, a simple twist of Fate that amounted to a Revolution. Suddenly, a door that had, hitherto, been closed to me, was accidently opened, and when I eagerly stepped through it, my life was changed forever. Little did I realize that Destiny was digging a rut for me that I would be stuck in for the next fifteen years.
Having run through several Sales Managers, and killing one off in the process, Harry now hired another. Then, after been an agoraphobic prisoner of his house for years, he suddenly went on a vacation. What shall I work on while you’re away? I inquired. “Go in to Colorforms and meet the New Sales Manager”, he replied, “AND DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU TO!”
And so I met STANLY SCHWARTZ, a force to be reckoned with. There behind his desk he sat, larger than life, a powerful presence, with a bombastic bone shaking baritone voice, and fists of ham. He asked me to explain who I was and what I did. When I finished my sheepish dissertation, I added that for the previous week I had been on Vacation. “Vacation form WHAT?” he boomed out, sneering judiciously! He had a way with words that was blunt, honest and intimidating.
Clearly this relationship was off to a bad start. Stan was as unimpressed with me as I was terrified of him. But in the years that followed, in spite of our opposite natures, a mutual respect, and I might even say, a cautious trust and friendship, grew between us. Man oh man, Stan sure knew the toy business! He was brusque, but wise, a no BS kind of guy. With Stan as my teacher, I quickly saw the folly of my own and Harry’s ways. And learned many a lesson in reality and practicality that Harry took as a challenge, and refused to succumb to, but I never forgot. And much of what I know about toy-biz today, I can, with gratitude, attribute to Stan Schwartz.
Now, when I told Stanly that Harry had requested that I should work on anything that he, the New Sales Manager suggested. His answer was swift and definitive: “WORK ON COLORFORMS!” he said!
Oh my God! The door, at last, was open! Even though, I knew I was being naughty, not to explain to him that Colorforms was forbidden territory, I seized the opportunity, and happily headed home
A week later I reappeared at a meeting with both Harry and Stan together. In my hand I held three concepts that Harry, awe struck, readily admitted he had never seen or thought about before. He was amazed and excited, and vowed to do all three.
Thus, began a whole new phase of my association with Colorforms. But, how was I to be remunerated? What kind of royalty would be fit? Because so much of the appeal was due to the Colorforms themselves, the 5% I had been getting was clearly out of the question. Grateful for anything I could get, I quickly cut a lousy deal. I was never a good businessman, being essentially allergic to money, at least, until the rising cost of comic characters made making some a necessity.
Colorforms stick-ons were Harry’s great achievement. He really didn’t want to share. It was bad enough that most Stick-ons were based on licensed characters. That meant there was an added 5% royalty already, which was the same as I had been getting on my items, i.e. The Outer Space Men. Furthermore, the general public would be amazed if they knew how small toy profits often are. Thus, while Colorforms was making a living for Harry and his employees, the actual profits at the end of the year were considered good if they were 1%. That’s what he offered me, a 1% royalty on every Colorforms I added "my touch" to. Oh, and as before, at my own suggestion, my help with the art work and design on any of “my” items would be included free.
And so began my relentless attempt to “touch” everything in the Colorforms line. But here, in the first year, there were just three: “The Barbie 3D Fashion Theatre” “Twist-O Chang-O” and “Mickey Mouse Puppetforms”. Bill Basso did the first two toys. But, at my insistence, the Mickey Mouse one fell to me. This was my chance to pay homage to and reintroduce the 1930s Mickey that I loved and collected. I dove into the project with a passion.
In 1971, the licensed merchandise that the Disney organization spewed out was crap. All product artwork had to pass through the Merchandising department located in NYC. Just about anybody, who plunked $5,000 down, could get a license to make just about anything. And most of the art was awful. This is what a typical Mickey Mouse Colorforms toy looked like, before me.
A few years earlier, because Harry had licensed so many properties from Disney, he had been able to get me entry to the NYC office to photograph their 1930s merchandising catalogues. I went crazy doing that for several days, and in the process got to know the players: The art director, Lou Lispi was a fabulous artist. Lou had been there since the 1930s and designed the famous Lionel Circus Train and the Blue Ribbon Waddle Book. He had worked on all the Pop-up books as well.
By the time I did Puppetforms, Lou had retired and was replaced by Jim Tanaka. Jim was a great guy, I was crazy about him, and he seemed to like me. Every time I went there he would load me up with animation cels and other odds and ends for free.
I also met Al Konetzni. He was a larger than life kind of guy with a gregarious outgoing personality; reminded me of Ed McMahon. He was the merchandising manager and also an artist, who had designed a lot of the merchandise from the 1950s, stuff from the Mickey Mouse Club era. Now he was the one that dealt with licensors and cut the deals with toy companies. In order to get Mickey he relentlessly tried to make you also license Fred Mc Murray. Al was both fascinated and enraged that collectors were paying relatively big bucks for things that in his day sold for pennies. He loudly complained about antique dealers, and wracked his brain trying to figure out how Disney could either get a piece of that action, or put a stop to it!
But the Big Boss there was a guy named Jack Smith. He was more than a little scary. His stern angular appearance and humorless demeanor reminded me of a stereotypical movie Nazi. I steered clear of him.
Because I was aware that Mickey had never been allowed to be seen in his original incarnation with pie-cut eyes and circular anatomy since 1939, I urged Harry to clear it with Disney before I set out on my journey to the world of way back when. So he called up Disney and spoke to Al Konetzni. Al had no idea what Harry was talking about, so he said “Sure, go ahead!” And so I set about it, the hallowed task of bringing vintage Mickey back again.
So as 1971 ended, Mickey Had taken over my desk and my life as well. I was determined that what I did must be “authentic”, Therefore I assembled the toy in much the same way that Dr. Frankenstein made his creation, from bits and pieces sewn together. If I needed a hand or other body part, I’d find it in somewhere in the pages of my growing collection of 1930s Disney books and products.
The original final comp, now badly faded, still hangs in a plexiglass frame above my desk today.
I entered this endeavor with ambivalence and trepidation. Up till then, collecting Mickey by mail had been easy. I only had to ask the seller if the item they were offering had pie-cut eyes or oval eyeballs, and by that alone I could tell if their mouse was “new”, my term for anything made after 1940, or “old”. My interest lay in “old” things only. Now I was about to break down the barrier, and erase that distinction forever. Would I regret it later? Well someone was bound to do it, eventually. I managed to convince myself, it might as well be me.
Excerpt from1960s WANT LIST, CLICK to see ENTIRE SHEET
Looking over my shoulder, my friend, favorite artist and fellow collector, John Fawcett, said “Why are you doing that, Birnkrant? You know you can just draw it” No, drawing it myself wouldn’t do. Everything had to be unerringly true, dating from the 1930s. The toy was put together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece, a piece of history, affectionately assembled.
The box lid started out with a favorite image of Mickey from the cover of the 1933 "Pop-up Mickey Mouse" by Blue Ribbon Books Inc. The Mickey lettering was adapted from this cover too. I was never quite satisfied with the design, It really didn’t tell the story. I don’t remember the time frame, but, somehow, the actual comp below made in into the 1972 Colorforms Catalogue. There must have been a tight deadline.
Like a terrier puppy tugging on a slipper, I couldn’t let it go. Dissatisfaction with the cover gnawed on my mind incessantly. Finally, I discovered this small image of Mickey on the lid of an aluminum tea set in the 1935 Kay Kamen Mickey Mouse Catalogue, and decided he would make a better cover.
Now all I had to do was find the perfect matching Minnie. I felt like a Disney Dating service. Eventually, I found her and tested the new characters together on the rough paste-up sketch below.
Years later, at the fabulous Brimfield Flea Market, I watched in Shock and Awe as a good friend and fellow collector bought the only known example of this rare aluminum tea set right out from under me. It was complete and in the box with even the original paper napkins; the only one that ever turned up, as far as I know. After a decade of trade negotiations, I finally took it home.
When the finished art was finally done, I brought it to Harry’s house in New Jersey. It was picked up from there by messenger, and carried across the river to Disney for approval, while Harry and I waited patiently for its arrival there. And then the horror began! The phone rang. It was Jack Smith; he hated it! For the next hour I sat there agonizing, while Harry pleaded for its life. He must have said “Puleeeeeze”, at least two dozen times. Finally I heard Harry say. “Jack, Colorforms has given Disney thousands of dollars in royalties over the years, and in all that time. I’ve never asked you for a favor, I’m begging you for one now.
Jack finally said, “OK.” grudgingly, but added, When they see this in California "The Shit Will Hit the Fan!" Being Mickey's biggest "fan", I thought that he meant me!
That wasn’t the end of it. A few days later, some secretary in the office, with the latest character model sheet in hand, called to say “Pluto looks funny.” And the battle began all over again. Then, later still, when they discovered long-billed Donald hiding in the wings, we had to fight a final round… and ultimately Won! Ironically, they had no problem with the Big Bad Wolf in drag.
A year later, I, once again, had occasion to visit Disney. There in the reception area, in a glass showcase all its own, was my Mickey Mouse Puppetforms, dramatically illuminated by a spotlight. Jim Tanaka told me they all loved it. In fact, he offered me a job designing a Disney Calendar for the following year. It would incorporate all of the old characters. The thought of that was overwhelming. There were not enough body parts in my 1930s Disney morgue to fill twelve complicated pages. I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. Besides, it would have taken me twelve months to do it. In the end, Jim did the calendar himself. The results were somewhat funky, but also fun and charming. It glowed in the dark as well.
And so it was, as 1971 was ending, my new career, thinking up variations on Colorforms (and reintroducing classic Mickey) was beginning. It would continue for the next fifteen years.
Thus the flood gate was opened. More attempts to rediscover vintage Mickey followed, not just from me but others. A sweat-shirt was produced with that overused image of old Mickey with his hands behind his back and one foot forward. Overnight it sold 50 thousand pieces. Disney was stunned and mystified. They couldn’t understand it. Al Konetzni finally decided it was “Mod Mickey”. And naming it accordingly, "Mod Mickey" a new licensed property was born.
The fifteen catalogues that follow tell the tale.
The only one of the three prototypes I still have is this: “Puppetforms”. To demonstrate the principle I used Raggedy Ann and Andy. The die-cut moving figures were to be dressed up in Colorforms clothes and animated by the knobs below. The other two rough comps, one with changing faces and the other with an acetate window to emulate 3D, were lost in translation. With a little urging form yours truly, (Who Me?) Raggedy Ann was changed to Mickey Mouse, and I was off and running.