All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Most of what you will see here was cooked up during the year before, ready to make its first appearance at Toy Fair 1974. Throughout that year, my relentless quest to expand the Colorforms line with items that could be considered “mine” continued. It was also the year that Mike Strouth appeared. He traveled beside me as my friend and partner for the next 13 years. And when my time at Colorforms was over, Mike stepped in to fill my shoes.
After a year of finagling, Stan Schwartz had acquired for Colorforms, the hottest current property, Snoopy. This was an impressive coup. It was an expensive one too. Schulz had made the mistake, when he was just beginning, of giving Determined Productions the rights to everything, although, all they made was coloring books at the time. Thus anyone who licensed Peanuts from that time forward had to pay a double royalty. 5% to Schulz and 5% to Connie Boucher.
The situation was further complicated, or simplified, depending on how you looked at it, by the fact that Charles Schulz had a favorite artist, Nick LoBianco. Nick was the only one that Schulz would allow to draw his characters, or emulate his characteristic line. Let's face it, the characters themselves were easy, they only assumed half a dozen different poses. The thought often occurred to me that rather than laboriously drawing his strip each day Schulz could have used a set of rubber stamps instead. Well that’s sort of what I did, picked up the basic poses and did the sets myself.
Then Nick was hired, as required, to trace over my drawings with his Schulz approved brush and ink line. Nick was a really good artist, and a nice guy. He did most of the Peanuts products on the market, and did the basic Colorforms sets himself as well. But on “my items”, why bother? He just traced my comps instead. Then his black and white line work came back to me to color, which meant I just specified the numerical color values on my comp, and the engraver stripped them in.
The first of four Snoopy items I managed to squeeze into the line that year was “Happy Birthday Snoopy”, a variation on the Raggedy Ann Pop-Up Tea Party.
The second was “Tell us a Riddle Snoopy”, based on Sesame Street Turn and Tell and using the same magnetic mechanism. Nick created all the Peanuts riddles, and they were really funny.
Tricky Mickey, which was still in the line, was joined by “Snoopy The Great and His Amazing Magic Colorforms”. It featured a repertoire of all new tricks, even trickier than Mickey’s.
Mickey Mouse Puppetforms was doing well, so we introduced another like it, Popeye Puppetforms. It was a noble effort. My good friend happened to be Kenny Kneitel, and Kenny happened to be the grandson of Max Fleisher. He was the son of Max’s daughter and his head animator, Seymour Kneitel, who directed “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Mr. Bug Goes to Town”. Kenny originally had a fabulous shop in Manhattan called Fandango. When the ”Camp” craze ended, he shut it down. Then, after working with Peter Max for a while, he found himself assisting the amazing master of the air-brush, Charlie White III. Charlie’s art was fantastic, as you can clearly see from this early masterpiece, the Screaming Yellow Zonkers poster.
The longer Kenny worked for Charlie the more he did. Eventually, he found himself sketching out all of the initial concepts, and Charlie merely air-brushed them in. Their studio happened to be on Lexington Avenue, right across the street from where mine used to be. What better combination to do Popeye Puppetforms than the grandson of the man who created the Paramount Popeye Cartoons and the great Charles White III? I don’t know why it turned out to be one of the worst selling Colorforms toys of all time. Maybe it was because they captured the look and feel of vintage Popeye so completely it looked like it had been sitting on the shelves of some old store for years, even though it was brand new
The initial minimum order for the printed graphics for every Colorforms was always 50 thousand pieces. Boxes were then wrapped, and plastic pieces were silk-screened and die-cut to fill orders. It was rare for the first printing of 50k pieces not to be used up eventually. More commonly, there would be several repeat printings. Popeye Puppetforms set a new record. Only 4 thousand pieces were sold. That was an all-time low.
One day, some 10 years later, Harry and I were sort of reminiscing about all the artwork that had been generated for Colorforms over the years. I said I’d like to have at least one, apart from those I did myself, all of which belonged to me, although some including the OSM, did get away. Harry surprised me when, in a moment of generosity, he said, “Why don’t you choose one, and you can have it?” Do you really mean it? “Yes”, he said, “I’m curious which you would choose”. I answered instantly: “Popeye Puppetforms!”. Harry looked at me in amazement, stunned at the brilliance of my choice, and said “You Bastard!” I knew him well, in that instant, he wanted it himself. Nonetheless, always true to his word, he gave it to me. The cover now hangs in a dark corner of my studio, where, hopefully, it will not fade.
“What Next Snoopy?”… What Next Mel? I managed to crack open another Peanuts shell. This one brought back “Turn n’ Tell”. Another brush-work job for Nick LoBianco, another royalty point for me. And the year was just half over. Bill Basso was about to create a Classic, and Mike Strouth was yet to appear.
While leaping forward to extremes, puppets, pop-ups, transformations, I’d missed a modest basic concept, not spectacular but an open door to quiet play. I turned around and grabbed it, the double platform with doors on the upper one that open to the one below. And Bill Basso’s charming artwork turned it into a Colorforms Classic, “The Raggedy Ann Doll House”
OK, Get ready! Here we go! A whole new category, all original, all mine! One of the most important lessons Stan Schwartz taught us was logical and simple, but, for years, it never occurred to Harry and me. No one was looking to Colorforms for a bicycle, or a squirt gun, or Outer Space Men (an item so cool it overcame the rule). In most toy stores Colorforms sets were positioned in the activity aisle. Where the Colorforms sets ended is where activity sets began. If we wished to expand the Colorforms brand we needed to make something that could sit next to them in the same aisle. Thus, “Busy Fingers Activity Toys" by Colorforms were born.
I’m kinda kidding around about the royalty, It takes a lot of times one penny on the dollar to make a living. It was more like playing a game and keeping score, just for the fun of it. My motives were only secondarily mercenary, more importantly, I was getting a chance to offer some of the early characters and imagery that I loved and collected to the children of the World again. And in the case of the Busy Fingers (Harry’s name) Activities, I was sneaking them in outrageously.
This also is the time that Mike Strouth entered the scene. He carried this entire series to completion from out there in Kansas City. Actually, I believe Bill basso did the interiors of the Raggedy Ann sets, but Mike did the finished art for all the rest, as well as the package photos and the mechanicals for the entire line.
Each Package had a border design that carried out the theme. In the order they appeared in this, a separate brochure, inserted in the 1974 Catalogue, here they are.
"Sew-ons" were essentially sewing cards and dress-up dolls combined. Once again, Bill outdid himself with a Raggedy Ann more delicious that most of those that Johnny Gruelle, himself, drew. Popeye was just OK. I don’t know where I swiped him from, err, I mean I can't recall what ancient artifact inspired this re-creation. But Mickey and Minnie were shamelessly adopted from the beautiful Saafield, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Paper Dolls, circa1933
In the world of Mickey Mouse collectibles, few objects are more desirable than the fabulous, 1934 “Mickey Mouse Waddle Book” by Blue Ribbon Books. Hidden between the beautifully illustrated pages, were fragile cardboard figures of Mickey and his friends. When punched out and assembled, they waddled down an inclined ramp, then fell apart and soon got lost. The Waddle Book is rarely found today, complete with the original “Waddles”.
This treasure was the inspiration for the “Peg Pals”, translating the Waddle Book images into punch out pose-able figures. In this prototype the joints are made from rubber hoses. They were specially molded “pegs” in the final toy. Mickey, Minnie and Pluto were right out of the book. I added Horace, Clarabelle and Goofy. These prototypes were sent to Mike in Kansas City, and he did the rest.
Here is the original Waddle Book alongside my intentionally derivative sketch for the Mickey Mouse Peg Pals box. If you “mouse over” it you’ll see Mike’s original art. The mouse portion of which was then “dropped into” the original bright colored photo, not the dull print used here, only for position. Mike handled the entire process, type, mechanicals, everything, based only on the material you see here. He was a treasure. Working with him was a pleasure. Colorforms had struck GOLD!
By the way, the beautiful child, above, on the cover of the Raggedy Ann Peg Pals was Mike’s own daughter Gretchen. Bill Basso did the figures for the Raggedy Ann set. Mike did the rest.
The characters in the "Popeye Peg Pals" were based on a paper toy called “Hingees”. It was sold in the comic book department of drugstores for a dime in 1945.
The next Activity: "Color n’ Play", combined the fun of coloring with stand-up figures that a child could play with after the coloring was done. Up till then, most coloring activities had always used generic crayons of low quality. Harry and I both insisted that Colorforms had to use the best: genuine “Crayola" crayons. In 1974 Binny and Smith, the Crayola company, was, as Harry might have put it, “asleep at the wheel”. They had never succeeded in producing a series of activities under their brand name, or making use of their own unique look. When Colorforms did Color n’ Play they woke a sleeping giant, who before the year was over, let out a resounding scream! But, for now, the entire package of Colorform’s Color n’ Play took on the look of a big box of "Crayola" Crayons.
A sad footnote: My grandson and I opened a brand-new box of Crayola Crayons the other day. The box itself, as well as the crayons inside, still looks the same. But, alas, I was appalled to discover that the crayons are CRAP! They’re nothing more than tinted wax. The pigment content is so low, across the entire spectrum, that red is pink, and even black is gray. Like so much in the World today, the quality we used to know, has faded away.
1974 proved to be a busy year For Colorforms, Mike Strouth, and me. Colorforms already had more than they could handle on their plate. Then along came this IDEA; and Harry, who was always chomping at the bit to do something totally new, thought it was great! It was also the project that sealed Mike’s Fate. Once I got the ball rolling, Mike picked it up and, literally, did it all. He also picked up stakes mid-way; beginning the project in Kansas City, he finished it in New York State.
For kids, who grew up during WWII, and even in the years that followed, Victory gardens were a big deal. Seeds were peddled in science class at school. We chose them from a Catalogue for only a few cents a variety. And then, the wait began. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally arrived in plain brown envelopes. I was so disappointed! I’d expected beautiful seed packets, like those I had admired in the stores. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the whole process of planting and waiting also proved to be painfully slow. And in the end, only the radishes seemed to grow. "The Mickey Mouse Seed Shop" was my attempt to remedy that situation for future generations. Although, it turned out to be a Giant Project, it began with the few drawings below.
The MICKEY MOUSE SEED SHOP
Each package of seeds came with a waterproof plastic row marker that carried through the Disney theme. So after the seeds were planted a Disney Character remained to mark the place. While waiting for the seeds to grow, at least, a kid could look at it. And even if nothing eventually appeared, by then, he probably didn’t give a darn. There was a kind of Disney pay-off in the row marker itself.
In these early sketches, I visualized the possibility that Mickey Mouse Seeds would essentially be vegetables, while Minnie Mouse seeds would be mostly flowers.
Driving through the country, when I was a kid, I would occasionally see roadside vendors shepherding flocks of wooden cut-outs intended to decorate the garden. These never failed to fascinate me. Certain themes dominated the displays, Dutch boys and girls were popular, as were little girls in bonnets with umbrellas or watering cans. They were a kind of wartime cottage industry. And, here and there among them, there were always comic characters. Of course, I wanted them all desperately. I was a would-be collector, even then. Now the Mickey Mouse Seed Shop would be my chance to make up for the sad fact that I never got any.
Yes, a whole Mickey Mouse Garden Center; I can dream, can’t I? My plans were grandiose. This would be stocked with everything one needs for gardening, all with a Disney theme.
Below is one many attempts at a header for the seed display. I rejected it and several others in favor of the one farther below. This project was another manifestation of my Mickey Mouse enthusiasm. And, for one of the last times, I decided to do some of the final art. Therefore, I did the display header, my favorite part, myself. Mike, aided by a stack of Disney model sheets, did the rest.
Here is the comp for the final header. This photograph was shot on my desk the day that it was done. I was pleased with it. In fact, protected by a Plexiglas case, it hangs high up on my studio wall today, one of the few things that I have done over the years that are still on display.
The Mickey Mouse Seed shop did not sell well. The plastic markers were deceptively expensive, so these had to sell for more than ordinary seeds. That, combined with a credibility gap, made them hard to sell. When you plan to plant a garden, who would you believe, Mickey Mouse or Burpee seeds? Well I, for one, would choose Mickey seeds, wouldn’t you? Provided a live Mickey Mouse is what they grew.
One of these seed displays was recently sold in a Hake’s Americana and Collectibles Auction. These final photos are from the on-line catalogue. The lot included this window poster too.