All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Colorforms began 1972 with a whole new lease on life, and so did I. Although, I didn’t realize it when I first teamed up with Harry, the company had been going through hard times. Now, after many years without a catalogue, they had a full-fledged one again. And the first three items featured in it were “mine”.
Back then, just about everybody knew what a Colorforms toy was. Today, I’m not so sure. But forty years ago Colorforms filled an entire aisle in many toy stores. The basic “Colorforms” set consisted of essentially an 8”x12 ˝”x1” empty box, with a laminated cardboard platform in it, and two black laminated cardboard pallettes with die-cut and silk-screened vinyl pieces adhering to them by cohesion. Cohesion is what happens when two extremely smooth and shiny surfaces come in contact. Their molecules actually intermingle; and that’s "What Makes Colorforms Stick". There was also a fold out booklet that offered visual play suggestions, as well as instructions that directed the user to: Keep the pieces clean and they will always “Stick like Magic”
Alas, the real “Magic” of a Colorforms toy was mostly on the cover. The appetizing cover art offered a delicious promise of wonders that were simply not inside. But there was play-value and plenty of it. Even putting the pieces back in their proper places on the palattes was fun. The toy sold for just a dollar, and was what Harry called the perfect “Shut Up toy”. When a kid is in the toy store, hollering for a six dollar Barbie, the parent could shut her up with a Barbie Colorforms Dress-up Set for just a buck.
That $1.00 was a price that Harry desperately fought to hang onto. He felt that it was a “magic” figure. At the same time, he refused to sacrifice quality. That basic set was the essence of the company. There wasn’t a penny of extra cost to spare, and no way to add to what was in the box without raising the price.
There was also a larger “Deluxe” version of the basic Colorforms set that had a bigger box and lots more vinyl “stick-on” pieces. This is where the price was not so sacred, and I could add more to the contents and the price. And this is where I concentrated my efforts. How many variations could I cook up to enhance and romance the contents of that bigger box? The possibilities seemed endless. The forbidden door to “Stick-Ons”, the Holy Grail of Colorforms, was open wide. And once I got my foot inside, there was no stopping me. Eventually “my items” took over the category. Until, in the end, I was earning a royalty on everything in the entire line.
But this first year my items numbered just three. They constituted a new “mid-priced” category, and came in a new box size that fell between the big and small.
The first of these was the “Barbie 3D Fashion Theatre” Bill Basso did the artwork. The gimmick was an acetate window, upon which vinyl plastic Barbie dolls seemed to stand out in space against a background one inch behind them. The background was a double sided sheet of paper, lying on the bottom of the box. It could be flipped to change the psychedelically inspired scene.
The second item, again with artwork by Bill Basso, was Twist-O-Change-O”. Turning the knob changed the characters facial expressions. This was a kind of dress up set for boys. What a stupid idea! Of course, it didn’t sell. A dress up set for girls would have been better! Duh! Different expressions, better still. “Baby Face” where were you then?
Then there was "Mickey Mouse Puppetforms". What’s pictured here is my actual “comp”. The time frame must have been rushed, as it shows the first cover. The second cover, apparently, hadn’t been done yet. In the years that followed, photographing comps for the catalogue, instead or finished toys, became a common practice. In going back over the catalogues, I am amazed how many of the items pictures are actually comps hand drawn by me. I could whip out a comp quickly and accurately. It would usually serve as the only source of reference, for whoever did the finished art. On a few rare occasions, as in this one, the finished art was actually done by me.
Mickey Mouse Puppetforms was actually on TV. I was at the shoot for the commercial. The kid they hired was good looking, but couldn’t operate the figures. I ended up attaching long sticks to them and moving them myself, lying on the floor, off camera, while the kid's hands were posed above the knobs. From that time on it was part of my non-job to be at every commercial shoot thereafter, provided that the items shot were “mine".
Here in this first New Catalogue there were still a few of my “old” items, lingering from “before”. The Finger of Fate was still hanging around. This time pointing to a brighter future. I don’t know if this sold or not. I never saw one in a store. But I did notice it the other day on the Internet in an impressive website dedicated to OuiJa Boards . The website is intriguingly called The Museum of Talking Boards.
The “Inch Worm” was in the catalogue as well, a relic and reminder of the days when my so-called career was just inching along. Now in the real World of playing with the big boys, like Fisher Price and Play School, it simply couldn’t measure up.
The “Flower Xylophone” was also still around. Doesn’t every kid want to play a tune by bashing the head of a bumble bee against the metal petals of a flower, until the whole thing tumbles over and disassembles with a clatter? Guess not! Thanks to my new found Colorforms obsession, it really didn’t matter.
Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that I was going to need a business card to get into Toy Fair etc. So Harry had one printed up for me. He also came up with a title, something he called “Creative Director”. I had never heard the term before. Is that something like an Art Director?, I inquired. No it is better, he replied.
I never did find out what the term means, But over the years I did discover, the hard way, what it meant to me. Basically, that I got stuck doing anything we found out that I could, all part of what I did for free to enhance and encourage the sales of “my Items”. That included designing and decorating the newly acquired Showroom for Toy Fair every year, and designing the annual catalogue, as well as setting up, lighting and directing every photo in it.
All the photographer did was calculate exposure and click the shutter on his giant 8”X10” view camera, for which he charged a fortune. I also wrote all the catalogue copy, dictating it over the phone to a secretary in New Jersey. That’s how I developed a propensity for puns and excess adjectives. Only the basic Colorforms sets, standard and deluxe, did not involve me. My paw prints were on everything, but those. I sometimes joked that I dare not let them see how good I am at sweeping floors, or I would end up doing that as well.
But, for now, I was simply overjoyed to sweep away the cobwebs of a couple aimless years behind me, and eagerly step forward into 1973.