All Photographs Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
As 1973 drew near, my quest to come up with variations to expand the Colorforms line and grow my list of Royalty items continued. This next attempt was an ambitious one called, “Pop-Up” Colorforms. It increased the contents of the box and production costs, as well, to the bursting point. But I loved what I was doing, and, apparently, so did Harry, for he was making all this stuff, in spite of the fact that, financially speaking, it may not have made sense. Once again, out of sheer enthusiasm, I undertook to do the art myself. And, as always, I was insisting that all the artwork would be based upon original Disney images from the 1930s. This time, the Disney organization didn’t complain. All the examples shown here, and pictured in the catalogue, are comps, hand drawn by me.
This was the first of several variations, and a first attempt at a cover. I’m not altogether sure why I changed it later. The final cover wasn’t that much better. I really didn’t care for either, but I did like what popped-up inside.
Here is the second cover, and a second interior, this time laminated. The cover art is pretty rough here. The final art was better. Bill Basso did the plastic pieces.
This photo was shot when I was working on the finished art. I really knocked myself out, trying to get every line just right, and emulate the thick and thins of the delicate penmanship I admired in the Blue Ribbon Pop-Up books. The final printing was a disappointment. The engraver boasted that he had taken it on himself to fatten up the lines in order to better trap the colors. This really cooled my ardour. I never undertook doing final artwork, with the same level of enthusiasm again. Soon I tired of it completely and found just doing comps more satisfying.
This is how the toy appeared in the Catalogue. This is a comp as well, a third one. The actual toy never appeared before a camera. I can't remember if there was a commercial. I believe there may have been one for Raggedy Ann.
By the 1960s, Raggedy Ann had declined in popularity to become the sort of doll that mostly aunts and grandmothers purchased as gifts for favorite kiddies. But, Harry brought her back to life again with his Classic Raggedy Ann Colorforms. This simple dollar toy pulled Raggedy Ann out of department store obscurity and into the toy stores again.
Something about Raggedy Ann always fascinated me, even when I was a kid, although I observed her only from afar, as she was clearly for girls only. Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to buy the dolls of her and Andy for my own daughters when they were small. Her uniquely stylized face harkened back to the early Jack-O-Lantern, one of the first stylized images in the pantheon of Comic Characters. The other characters in her world were fascinating too, Beloved Belindy, Uncle Clem, The Camel with the Wrinkled Knees, and above all a strange, four-legged creature called Snoopwiggy.
Now, I seized the opportunity to do the art for this toy as well. Uncle Clem and Beloved Belindy, and of course, Raggedy Andy, were invited to the “Raggedy Ann Pop-Up Tea Party” along with a host of the charming insects that Johnny Gruelle drew so well. I did the art for the interior and Bill Basso did the stick-on vinyl pieces and the photographic cover.
Here is the Raggedy Ann Pop-Up Tea Party as it appeared in the catalogue that year. Again this is a comp, not the final toy. Both the Pop-Ups did sell well.
“Mickey Mouse Puppetforms” reappeared in the new catalogue as well. I made sure the photograph was shot again. This time with the real toy, not a comp, and shown with the final cover. Mickey Mouse Puppetforms continued in the line for many years. On the page facing it was another new offering, one of my favorites, “Tricky Mickey”.
When Sesame Street came on the scene they were courted outrageously by the entire toy community. Every Toy manufacturer wanted to gobble up a piece of that new pie. But because they were funded publicly, the folks at “Children’s Television Workshop” were extremely cautious and uncertain if it would be appropriate to license the property for “toys” at all. The overriding rule was that everything had to be “educational”. Colorforms was one of the first lucky few to gain a license. But in 1972 all they were allowed to do were two boring basic sets, Alphabetzzzzzzzzz, and Numberzzzzzzzz. By the next year, CTW had loosened their standards, as they discovered that bastardization in the cause of education i.e. making money in order to make the TV show better, might be considered both permissible and noble.
Meanwhile, Colorforms and I were wracking our brains to come up with more items to slap the Sesame Street logo on, arguing that having “fun” could be educational too. I managed to squeeze out three.
Back in 1973, CTW was not quite ready to accept the premise that watching a robotic monster do the Hokey Pokey qualified a kid for a Masters Degree. But they did reluctantly agree that dressing up cardboard puppets of Bert and Ernie encouraged a child’s thespian tendencies. Therefore, the Powers that Be were able to give us the “go-ahead” to do the “Ernie and Bert Puppetforms Theatre”, guilt free.
“Turn and Tell” was a magnetic answering toy, in which Big Bird magically pointed out the answers to a variety of questions a preschool kid would like to know, such as: what objects certain letters stood for and what the people in their neighborhood were up to. The Mechanism was based on an old principle invented in the 19th Century. And Colorforms was so eager to produce anything with the Sesame Street logo on it they invested in the steel molds and plastic pieces willingly. It actually worked very well. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell.
The third item I finagled was the “Sesame Street Shapes and Colors Set”. Yes, it is the basic Colorforms, the toy that began it all. How could I manage to put my mark on that? Well, there is a tale to tell, one that ends with a twist that is downright surreal. My addition was “transparency”. Instead of opaque basic shapes and colors on a black background, it introduced transparent vinyl in the three process colors on a field of white. Thus, when the magenta, cyan (turquoise) and yellow pieces overlapped, they formed the secondary colors, red-orange, purple and green. The transparent colored vinyl was imported from Germany.
Now, in an early effort to be Politically Correct and assure racial equality, CTW had hired a small angry black man, with a chip on his shoulder twice as big as he was, to be the Race Police. Stan Swartz and I first encountered this unpleasant fellow when we showed Sesame Street an item an outside inventor had brought in. It was called Alphabet Animals, and consisted of 26 cardboard animals that slotted together. There was one for each letter of the alphabet. The product director, Sharon Lerner, a bright young executive, with whom we developed a great relationship over the years, rather liked the item. So she had us wait in a small chamber until the above mentioned gentleman appeared. He was sullen, humorless, and very serious, as he carefully looked the item over, one animal at a time. Then he decreed: “There aren’t enough BROWN animals here!”
I’m not kidding; this is absolutely true. The concept of animal inequality had never occurred to me. Could it be that Father Noah made the brown animals sit in the back of the ark? Well they would get-even now, as we went over all the animals, one by one. Well, the dog could become brown, I suggested, and the cat could be brown too. Would reddish brown do? And the kangaroo could be darker shade of tan. We were eager to please. Finally, when the polar bear became a grizzly, and every animal that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be brown was slated to be changed, he left the room, still unhappy that the pig remained pink and he couldn't think of a brown animal that began with the letter "Z".
Our next encounter with this gentleman was even more absurd. As the “Sesame Street Shapes and Colors Set” was set before him to judge, his verdict was: Red, yellow, and blue are racist colors. The colors they mix, orange, green, and purple are racist too. Furthermore, he observed that if a kid is going to make a simple figure, he is likely to use a circle for the head. Therefore, there must be brown plastic in the set, and all the circles must be brown. So if a child makes a human being, that human being will have to be brown. Well that’s not biased, is it? Seems fair to me! Colorforms, desperate to get any product out there with the Sesame Street name on it, was quick to agree.
There was one problem though; it turned out that the transparent vinyl that came from Germany didn’t come in brown. Therefore, after much negotiating, the Race Policeman reluctantly agreed that GRAY would do. Black would be all right too. So here it is, below, folks, the Sesame Street Shapes and Colors Set. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that all the circles, and therefore, all the faces, are either black or gray. You can’t make this stuff up!
Rummaging through the quaint and curious shops of Paris in 1958, I came across this trifling treasure. It was a tiny bit of genuine Magic, inconspicuous, but clever. All but the sharpest eye might have passed it by. It held the seed of an exceedingly bright idea. That seed lay dormant for over a decade. Now, fifteen years later, it blossomed. And “Tricky Mickey Magic Colorforms” was born.
The "Magic" lay in the red and green colored windows. The green is faded here. White ink on red vinyl, when seen through the red acetate window becomes invisible. But seen through a green acetate window, the red areas appear to be black while the white appears as green. Once again, I insisted on doing the art myself. I also worked out the tricks and Bill Basso translated them into stick-on plastic pieces.
At last, I got to use the jumping Mickey image from the Blue Ribbon pop-up book. And having gained more confidence I dared to follow John Fawcett’s advice and draw some stuff myself. So Mickey got a magician's top hat and tuxedo. Graphically speaking, of all the Mickey toys I did, this one was perhaps the most successful. There was a really great TV commercial. And the toy sold well for many years.
THE LAW SUIT
Yes, “Tricky Mickey” got sued! A small doll company in New Jersey, that had seen better days, sued Colorforms. The company was called “Uneeda”, which I think stood for “Uneeda our dolls, like Uneeda hole in the head”. They had manufactured a doll called “Triki Miki” that, at the time, was already discontinued. Nonetheless, they claimed that Colorforms has stolen their name. They also maintained that a child coming into a toy store to buy a “Triki Miki” doll might be confused and misled into purchasing a Tricky Mickey Colorforms Set instead.
Meanwhile, we asserted that the “MICKEY” in our name, was, not only, spelled differently, but, combined with the Disney graphics, clearly pertained to “Mickey Mouse”. Uneeda countered that Disney always used the full name “Mickey Mouse” and never just plain “Mickey”. Unfortunately for Colorforms, they were essentially correct. Unfortunately for Uneeda, Colorforms had me, “Mr. Mickey”. I knew that in the earliest days of Disney, some manufacturers didn’t get the legalities quite right, and a few rare products inadvertently appeared with labels that read just “Mickey”. Alas, I didn’t have any in my collection at the time, but I knew the whereabouts of a pair of dolls that could be procured for a certain sum of money. Harry was easily convinced that acquiring them would be worthwhile.
And so we gathered the evidence. And this is what it was:
1.The Catalogue and photos from the “Bamburgers Show”.
2. A gum card that just read, “MICKEY”.
3.Two Mickey Mouse dolls with decals that said “MICKEY”
4. My original first sketch for “TRICKY MICKEY”
Uneeda’s lawyer delivered his spiel. Bottom line: Even though Triki Miki was no longer for sale, she might return someday. Meanwhile, they wanted money, Now! Our toy had stolen her good name. He conjured up a heart-breaking scenario in which a poor little girl would want a Triki Miki doll and her parents would get her a Tricky Mickey Colorforms instead. Worse still, she wouldn’t know the difference, and Uneeda would have lost a sale.
Then it was our lawyers turn: He pointed out that the names were spelled differently etc., and then he called me to the stand. This wasn’t a jury trial. It was held before a judge. I was bombarded with questions. I can’t remember from which side. But I do remember that it had to be established that I was a “Mickey expert”. The judge studied my photos and the Bamberger’s catalogue and decreed I could continue.
Then came the "Perry Mason Moment". The other side put forth the absurd premise that because there was a “doll” pictured on one of the plastic pieces a child could confuse the Colorforms set with the Uneeda doll. I held the tiny piece aloft, and trying not to laugh said “In my opinion, Your Honor, any child who could confuse this printed picture on a small flat piece of plastic with a real doll, wouldn't need a Uneeda doll: They'd need Psychiatric Care". The judge said, “Case dismissed!”
Ironically. the ability to see a small piece of plastic as a substitute for the “real thing” is the very premise on which Colorforms is based.
The toy pictured below has nothing to do with me. But it has a little secret too delicious not to share. David Cassidy was the hottest idol of the day, among the pre-teen set, anyway. Colorforms was thrilled to get the license. Bill Basso did the toy. Of course, David was not about to strip down to his underwear for a lousy toy. So Colorforms had to find a body double. David’s head would be dubbed in later. They hired a suitable young boy. OY!
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The final photographs were a disaster. No one had anticipated the inappropriateness of male body hair. Photoshop hadn’t been invented, yet, to shave his legs digitally, and airbrushing would have been more expensive than taking the shot over again. So Bill looked for another model willing to use Nair.
When that search proved unsuccessful he came up with a solution that has remained a secret til this day. He posed the shot with a young girl instead. A multitude of little girls, and David too, never knew they were dressing and undressing a prepubescent young lady with David Cassidy’s head.
I did the number with the name "MICKEY". I showed him the MICKEY gum card and my two new dolls, "Exhibit 3". Oops! Did I say they were MINE? Then the opposition asked if I had ever made a doll, myself. Caught off guard I said, “Yes, 7 of them. They were called the Outer Space Men”. It worked. I was deemed to be a doll expert too.
Then I showed my original sketches for Tricky Mickey and swore that I had never heard of the Triki Miki doll at the time I did it, which was true.
The evidence went home with me, including the two MICKEY dolls,“Exhibit 3”
Evidence tags are still taped to them.
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