THE MAKING OF MOUSE HEAVEN
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Looking back at these random recollections, it occurs to me that, over time, this haphazard collection of disjointed memories has turned into a running history. The last two entries, especially, resemble those year-end newsletters that well intentioned families send to friends and relatives at Christmas. And thus, this web page has become merely the story of what the Birnkrant family did lately. Although, in this case, “lately” happened in 1970, nearly half a century ago.
The tale, from that point forward, was merely one of toy inventing and toy collecting, all of which has been chronicled, ad nauseam, elsewhere on this website. So, this would seem to be as good a time as any to discontinue this continuing narrative. Nonetheless, before I stop recollecting, I believe there is still one final story worth attempting, the tale of how the Dutchess Junction Schoolhouse was transformed into Mouse Heaven.
This was an ongoing saga, one that I wish I had documented with lots of photographs. Alas, I did not. And I am ashamed to say that I don’t even have a decent photo of the hero of this epic, William Maxwell. It was Bill Maxwell who made Mouse Heaven, and the glorious unfinished house we live in, possible.
Today the trees have taken over. And on the all too rare occasions when I actually go outdoors, I can barely recognize the stark brick building that, at one time, stood alone on a barren acre of the mountain, devoid of any foliage, as we first beheld it, on a bleak December morning, forty-seven years ago.
Yesterday, I ventured down the driveway to shoot a current photo. I tried to stand in the very same place I stood, when I shot the above photo, only to discover that I could no longer see the house from there. This being summer, fifty years of trees and foliage have grown to nearly hide the house completely. Perhaps, I will try again this winter, when all the leaves are gone. But, for now, here is an earlier photo that shows the schoolhouse on a snowy day, thirty-five years later, after Bill Maxwell had worked his magic.
In this photo, one can see that the driveway has been dug away to expose the formerly buried basement wall, half of which is made of stone. Bill blasted through it with a sledge hammer to neatly cut out two garage doors. And one can almost glimpse the newly glassed-in back porch, the bell tower turned into a bedroom, and the eight tall windows in the front room that have been bricked in, and reduced to just two taller ones. Meanwhile, as these changes were happening outdoors, within the vast interior of the house, Mouse Heaven was growing. And the Superhero who did it all was a small and modest man, named, William Maxwell.
When we moved into the schoolhouse, I fully intended to do everything myself. Throughout my lifetime, I have always operated on the premise that my hands were as good as anybody’s, and anything that hands can do, my hands could do as well. Included in the things I thought would be a breeze, was carpentry. I seriously believed that logic and lumber would be all I’d need. And that theory proved to be true, essentially. The only thing standing in my way, in terms of renovations, was money.
It was lack of funds that accounted for the slow progress that characterized my attempts to renovate the Schoolhouse. Nonetheless, I managed to accomplish much. When the cellar proved too damp to be habitable, I built a massive wall that cut off the entire hall, and extended from the floor, some twenty feet, to the newly exposed rafters. This closed off the large room that would eventually become Mouse Heaven, and it now became my studio. I moved my work table, a wooden door on saw horses, up from the cellar and placed it against that wall. The plaster wallboard served as a perfect bulletin board, into which I could stick push pins to hang my current work in progress.
Although the collection was still packed up and stored in the hall closet, I continued to collect. I displayed these recent acquisitions in an antique dentist’s cabinet. Early Mickey and other comic character collectibles were still affordable back then, and soon, I had come close to duplicating much of the collection that I had packed away. Here is what the big room looked like in those early days.
As time went by my income and collection grew. The royalties that the items my Colorforms innovations generated finally exceeded the advances I had been receiving, and I actually began to make a living. Behind the safety of that tall studio wall, the collection continued. I acquired a large florist’s cabinet, and began to fill it up.
Another addition to the origins of Mouse Heaven was a glass display case intended to hold old fashioned collars. I removed the rods that extended from top to bottom and installed glass shelves. This was perfect for holding larger dolls.
The architecture and design part of the task came naturally. The enormous house, itself, like most inanimate objects, spoke to me decisively, and told me exactly what to do. The structure that was there already imposed both opportunities and restrictions that made my choices intuitive and easy.
Occasionally, I found someone to assist me. That second summer, Harry Rickard, the carpenter from England helped fabricate a waist high wall around the raised floor that I had already built in the combination bedroom living room. Later on, I found a carpenter my age to help me construct the second story. Unfortunately, we spent more time arguing than building. And I ended up, as usual, doing it myself. Our neighbor, Paul Miller helped me hoist several heavy beams made from timber with a steel plate bolted in-between to hold the second story. And I finished the construction with two-by-eights and plywood sheets. These random photos of the wreckage will convey, to some degree, what was going on, as I totally ripped out the hall, and began building the second story.
My attempts to renovate relied entirely on logic, as I had neither experience nor training in carpentry. Nonetheless, I managed to fabricate two duplex bedrooms for my daughters, making full use of the 14 foot tall ceilings to create an upstairs and a downstairs for each of them. I also built a rather modern bathroom, complete with a black bathtub, encased in walls of white Formica and a counter with two sinks, one red, one blue, beneath a four by eight foot mirror.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, I was tearing the place down. Even though, the process was dramatic and traumatic my family lived through all this, gladly. Whenever I managed to acquire extra money, I’d spend it at the lumber yard. In those days, it was customary for lumber yards to make deliveries. Thus, while most red blooded young men would turn their heads to appreciate attractive young ladies, the sights that most often caught my eye were trucks, laden with lumber, plywood, planks, and two-by-fours on their way to a delivery. I’d wish and dream that they were on their way to me. Second only to comic character effigies, five gallon cans of spackle and stacks of standard wallboard became my favorite fantasy. So, bit by bit, and piece by piece, the schoolhouse was renovated slowly, with yours truly doing the carpentry.
I discovered this ancient drawing just the other day. Forty-five years old, and yellowed with age, it shows the bathroom, as I first visualized it, many years ago. Then, I proceeded turn it into reality, single handedly, while, at the same time, keeping Harry Kislevitz happy and convinced that I was devoting all my time to Colorforms. This became the story of my life. All the while I was doing carpentry, and collecting, and trying with limited success to live a life, I managed to keep Colorforms satisfied, that they were getting ALL my time.
These photos show the bathroom roughly blocked in, and the new black bathtub in place. I find it hard to believe that Sister Magdelena’s horrible tub was what we bathed in for well over a year. I must not have taken many baths, for I have no memory of ever using it. But I have the photograph below, to remind me of the happy day when I could finally tear it down.
My favorite feature of the new bathroom was a small illuminated showcase, set into the Formica wall beside the shower. It is hidden from immediate view by the massive medicine chest on the left side of the sinks. At the time, I planned to display the entire collection this way, but as it grew, I realized that would be impractical. There was simply too much there.
I remember these intuitive attempts at doing carpentry most vividly. I had no clue how to work with Formica. Nonetheless, I managed to cut each piece to the exact size, and glue it in place perfectly. Later, I learned that I was doing this the hard way. If one cuts the pieces oversized and then trims them with a router, after they have been applied, the job is easy. This was just one of the mistakes that I realized I had been making, when I finally had the pleasure of watching a real carpenter. In the meantime, I did the entire bathroom on my own, the structure, the Formica, the electricity, and the cabinetry, everything from the spackling of the walls and ceiling to the tiles on the floor, all except the plumbing. For this, I hired a plumber; Frank Sramek was his name. Frankie and his wife Wanda, as well as their four children, became good friends of the family, and their offspring remain friends, to this day.
Speaking of this day, I took the photograph below, this morning. It shows the bathroom as it appears today. Unlike yours truly, it still looks the same as it did forty-five years ago, when I turned the drawing above into reality.
When the bathroom was nearly complete, and I had finished almost everything, except the drawers and cupboard doors, a Miracle took place. And from that moment forward, I never did carpentry again. How this Miracle happened is a story that I have told already in “The Colorforms Years." But for the sake of continuity, and the fact that it was the most important factor in the Making of Mouse Heaven, I will repeat it here:
Until the Bamberger’s show in 1973, my original collection had been stored in boxes, out of sight. In spite of that, my fervor for collecting Comic Characters continued, and I had managed to expand and nearly duplicate the collection, even while it was packed away. Now that the show was over, and the everything had been returned to me, I was reluctant to pack it up again. Therefore, I found myself surrounded by a thousand objects, haphazardly housed in an odd selection of spool cases, make-shift medicine chests, and florist’s cabinets, strewn around the big unfinished room, in which I worked. To this was added the two big wooden mice from France, and all the many customized showcases that Bambergers had made for me, along with the four huge Mickey and Minnie chairs that Bambergers and I, together, had fabricated for the show.
Sometime in 1975, I began working on a new idea, later to be named “Tru-Dimension”, which was a hired consultant's name, not mine. For lack of a better title, I called it “Space Art,” at the time. This one was a real invention that didn't incorporate Colorforms Stick-ons. Therefore, it was the 5% royalty kind, a sort of 3 Dimensional paint by numbers set and animation cels, combined.
One morning, a few days later, I arrived at Colorforms, which was then located in Norwood, New Jersey, with my original make-shift model of “Space Art” under my arm. Superman was the theme. I set it down in the lobby and headed for the lavatory, without a minute to spare. It had been a long drive from Dutchess County to New Jersey, and I was in a hurry. The lobby had a receptionist desk and a highly polished floor. A huge ceramic urn, with a ten foot tall tree in it stood just outside the bathroom door. Suddenly, my feet flew out from under me. And for a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I found myself slowly floating to the floor. As I passed the rim of the ceramic urn, it played a melody on the xylophone keys that used to be my ribs. Embarrassment soon turned to fear, as I found myself flat on my back, hurting badly, and breathing with great difficulty. With the entire office staff gathered around, and staring down at me, I slowly realized that the right side of my chest was stationary. In other words, it wasn't moving! What a terrifying feeling! I was just one lung away from dying.
An ambulance arrived and rushed me to a hospital in New Jersey, where I spent the next two weeks in bed. It turned out that I had a collapsed lung, and six severely broken ribs. One thing that amazed me was the fact that it wasn't until 5 days after the accident that I managed to overcome the pain enough to consummate that wee wee I had been running to the bathroom for, in such a hurry, five days before.
Now, came one of those turning points in life, when one has to choose which fork to take. I mean in the road of life, not at the dinner table. I might have sued Colorforms, (their custodial company had put the wrong wax on the floor), which, according to Colorform's comptroller, would have caused their insurance premiums to soar. Or I could carry on as before, which, all things considered, is what I chose to do, but not without making a deal.
Harry called me in the hospital to tell me that he loved “Space Art,” and I had definitely made a sale. Well, he sure as Hell better have liked it. If he didn't, I might have had to sue. I think that thought had occurred to Harry too. I wondered if I should break a bone, as part of every presentation. Anyway, I spent the next two months at home in bed. There is no treatment for broken ribs, no body casts, splints, or bandages, just pain, painkillers, immobility,and rest.
Meanwhile, Sace Art's development continued daily, over the telephone with Harry. And in the course of the conversations, I said to him, “There goes my career in Carpentry! I can climb no ladders now. How about hiring me to do the finished art on Space Art?” He readily agreed. The terms of the deal were diabolical. Instead of paying me the agreed upon sum of 14G, two thousand each for seven titles, (this was for just the paint by number art, itself; somebody else would complete the packaging) Colorforms would give the money, not to me, but to a carpenter of my choosing, and write it off as an expense for developing an art department in Dutchess County.
In 1974, thanks to the lingering boredom of man’s conquest of the moon, one time too many, “SPACE” was still a dirty word. And, even though, the title, "Space Art" was referring to the fact that the images appeared to exist in 3 Dimensional Space, I would be the first to admit, there was a problem with the name. So Harry hired a fancy Consulting Company, who, after market tests and focus groups, came up with the title, “Tru-Dimension.” Although, Tru-Dimension was not a “dirty” word, the name was technical and lame.
At Toy Fair 1976, an enormous Tru-Dimension Superman met visitors as they came through the Colorforms showroom's heavy glass front doors. I painted it on five 4’X8’ foot sheets of Plexiglas, suspended from the ceiling. It was stunning, if I do say so myself.
In my spare time, I continued to do carpentry, trying to tame the biggest white elephant in captivity. And I was in the process of building a second story, single handedly, which I hoped would eventually become a studio. By the way, aided by a pamphlet I got at Sears for fifty cents, I also installed the electricity. I found electrical work to be exceedingly easy, then, and to this day.
Meanwhile, I was working, as usual, for a miniscule royalty, while someone else would be hired to do the finished art on my designs, at the going rate. Thus, I was creating well-paying jobs, for everyone but me. I would repeatedly say to Harry, "Won’t you please allow me to do some free-lance finished artwork on my own designs, so I can make some money to hire a real carpenter?" He would always answer, “Come on, Mel, you know you enjoy doing Carpentry. And it's good exercise for you.”
I can't remember if Tru-Dimension sold well, or not at all. Nonetheless, the giant Superman display dominated the Colorforms showroom for many years, long after the product went away. Finally, Harry had it shipped out to his new home in California. There is a certain irony to the name game we had played, for, thanks to Star Wars, once again anything connected with “SPACE” was hot. If we had named the product “Space Art” after all, it might have sold a lot.
Tru-Dimension came and went, without making a ripple on the surface of toy history. Then, it sank into oblivion. Few of my friends ever saw this product, or realized that I did it. Nonetheless, Tru-Dimension might well be the most important toy I ever invented, for it was the key element in the Miracle that made hiring Bill Maxwell possible. And with Bill came the means to make Mouse Heaven. Our friend Harry Rickard had given me Bill’s phone number, five years before, and now, I called him up. It turned out that he was still doing occasional carpentry for Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, in Garrison, which was where Harry Rickard had met him. A meeting at the schoolhouse was arranged, and Bill arrived here, the next day. From that moment forward, my life would never be the same.
William Maxwell was an inconspicuous genius. His unremarkable appearance and humble demeanor belied the enormity of his ability. Bill was a quiet man, neither big nor small, but somewhere in between, and slightly balding. He reminded me of a timid character from the earliest days of television, whose name was “Mr. Peepers.” Even though, Bill was not the sort of person that one might notice on the street, he was a master carpenter, who had also mastered the art of masonry, cabinetry, painting, plumbing, and electricity. The fact is, Bill Maxwell could do anything, anything, that is, except pronounce the letter R, and occasionally the letter L. He deftly used the letter W, instead. As a result, he had a voice identical to that of Elmer Fudd. At times, I could believe Mel Blank was hiding in his head.
After I watched Bill work for just one hour, and accomplishing more in that brief time than I would have done in an entire day, I proclaimed, “I’ll never do carpentry again!” When that first day was over, Bill asked me how long I might be needing him. I replied, “Consider this your Career!” And so it was, for the next 20 years. Looking in any direction, from anyplace in this big house, Bill built everything your eyes can see: walls, floors, ceilings, showcases, and cabinetry. In the end, when all is said and done, thanks to the miracle of Bill Maxwell, that injurious accident at Colorforms, turned out to be a lucky break for me.
And so, a new era began, starting with the drawers and cabinet doors in the bathroom, which Bill completed in a few days. From there, he headed upstairs to begin transforming the unfinished second story. I might better say, he headed up a ladder, which was still the only way to get there. Needless to say, Bill quickly corrected that by constructing a hidden stairway, before the week was over. Shortly after that, he cut a perfectly round hole in the plywood of the floor, and installed the spiral staircase that I acquired in a trade with Maurice Sendak.
I‘m trying to recall the order of the many amazing feats that Bill preformed. I believe the next may have been laying a new hardwood floor over the plywood, and coating it with polyurethane, polished to perfection. Some years later, he would also sand and finish all the floors downstairs.
Unfortunately, my camera of choice, in those days, was a Polaroid. As a result of that mistake, the only photographic record of the many improvements that Bill made, while he was making them, are barely visible today. Nonetheless, they offer a glimpse of some of the miracles he brought about.
These photos of my new work area were shot at night. I can’t imagine way. They show the double-wide desk and enclosure for the sink, before the drawers and cabinet doors were made. Above the place where the sink would be, Bill cut the roof away and installed a small high window. Years later, he would make it larger. One photo in this little slide show reveals the Spiral staircase. A piece of the Styrofoam I used to insulate the ceiling leans against the Chimney. The other view features my daughter Alexandra standing beside the yet unfinished desk. Clearly, I was working at it already. I was also in the process of covering the wall behind my desk with dark brown cork. Even in this state, it was a far better workplace than the two saw horses and a door I used downstairs.
And this is how the same area looks today, forty years later. As you can see, even though, I had become obsessed with earning enough money to enable me to keep Bill busy, I still managed to continue collecting.
There was no challenge that Bill couldn’t undertake. Here, you can see that he cut another hole in the ceiling and installed a spectacular skylight, eight foot long by the two beams wide. Below it, is one of many bookcases he was creating. When finished, it would have sliding glass doors, with darkened glass to protect the books from the overhead sunlight. By the way, all the windows in the house are treated with a crystal clear film that filters out ultraviolet light. It is really quite amazing to me to see these ancient Polaroids.
Below, is the identical scene the way it appears today. Years of collecting has filled up every space. The bookcase continues on the right to accommodate the control center for the stereo that dominates the room below.
Later, when it became clear to me that Bill could chop through brick successfully, I asked him to remove the small window he had installed on the left, as seen in the photo on the right, and replace it with one twice its size that began about waist high.
Of all the spectacular renovations that Bill undertook, none was more ambitious than transforming the bell tower into a bedroom. Bill managed to turn the original arches of the tower into three arched windows. Then, he built a covered walkway to connect the fourth arch to the house. The Polaroid photo shows the newly constructed room before Bill built a flight of steps. The finished bell tower served, sometimes, as a guest room and, sometimes, as a bedroom. Over the years, I became increasingly allergic to perfume, which is something my wife maintains she cannot live without. Therefore, I sleep there now. The moon, in all its changing phases, is my companion, and I follow its journey across the heavens every night. I love to watch it rise, over the mountains on the left, to travel through a cloudy sky, and set, blood red, across the Hudson River, in the early morning. As the full moon majestically floats by, it often floods the room with moonlight. And on those nights when the crescent moon becomes a tiny sliver, or disappears entirely, in its place, the sky is studded with million starry diamonds. Sleeping in the bell tower, with my bedside CD player, filling the night air with music, while I enjoy a heavenly light show in the sky, has become one of the greatest pleasures of my life.
I tried to keep keep Bill busy, but when my funds ran out, so did he. Sometimes a year would pass. Then, when I managed to acquire money again, Bill would come back. On one of these memorable reunions, we created a kitchen. It was long overdue. Drawing the blueprints for this center of domesticity was exquisitely boring to me. Nonetheless, a few niceties, such as this showcase for the Campbell Kids and Mr. Peanut, tapping on the glass, along with the carousel pig I got in France, suspended on a stainless steel pole, made the task more bearable.
At the end of the hall, adjacent to the new kitchen, was a small room that measured 10’ X 12’. Sister Magdalena, and we too, had used it as a kitchen. Before Sister moved in, when the schoolhouse was still a school, it served as the “punishment room.” Now Bill Maxwell undertook the punishing task of busting through the outer brick wall to install an enormous floor to ceiling insulated glass window, ten feet wide by eight feet tall. This undertaking was monumental. The window glass, alone, weighed several hundred pounds. He also cut a doorway through the adjacent brick wall to connect this small room, which became a dinette, to the kitchen. Here we see it as the finished dinette, with the Eero Saarinen table we brought with us from Manhattan, and the Tiffany type shade that Bob Grosvenor found for five dollars, and gave us for a wedding present, in 1959. The effect is that there is no wall there at all, and the house is open to the wooded hills behind the house.
The year was now 1978. We had been living in the school house for eight years. Bill Maxwell had been making his magic here, for three of those years, since 1975. Up to this time, everything he did consisted of improvements to the parts of the schoolhouse, in which we lived. “Mouse Heaven,” meaning, a fitting format for displaying my collection, was yet to begin. During the previous year, my studio was moved upstairs, and Bill installed two accordion doors to close off the big room where I used to work. This room now became just a space to store my collection, along with the odd accumulation of makeshift display cases that had been acquired, haphazardly, over the previous eight years.
This moment in time was captured by Americana Magazine, in the ambitious photograph below. It reveals the state of the big room that would soon become the essence of Mouse Heaven, as well as the, then, current state of Eunice and myself, the good points and the flaws. It marks a turning point. Now that my family had a comfortable place to live, from that point forward, Bill and I would address ourselves to displaying the collection. In other words, I would, henceforth, spend my time and money on making Mouse Heaven heavenly.
The photo above discloses the fact that late in 1978, the original schoolhouse windows of the big room were still there. They would have to be bricked up, eventually, but for now, we ignored them, and began work on what I later came to call, “The Great Wall.” Looking through a stack of papers the other day, I discovered the very first drawing that I made in an effort to visualize what the wall that was intended to display the heart of my collection would be like. The drawing is a rough one, but, after all, it was never intended to be seen by anyone but Bill and myself. And, indeed, it never was, until today. Rough, though this first sketch may have been, I am amazed to see that the essence of what the finished wall would be was there already. Over the coming weeks, Bill and I would to perfect this rough concept, and turn the promise of this drawing into reality.
The drawing also calculated the size the overhanging structure above. The position of the beams were a given, so the shelf that would hold the animated Old King Cole displays would have to offer enough space to permit them to clear the beams. This overhang would also contain recessed lighting. On the floor, below, I visualized a slightly raised platform, that would later be carpeted. I had learned from experience with a similar, but smaller wall in NYC, that I was not immune from dropping things, and thanks to the lush carpet on the floor, many a fragile collectible was saved. Working from this sketch alone, Bill dove right in and constructed the overhang and the raised floor below, while I addressed myself to the units that would go in-between. And this was my second sketch:
Working with Bill Maxwell was a dream! Unlike the smart-assed argumentative brat that I had hired, briefly, years before, to help me with the second floor, in all the years I worked with Bill, which was well over twenty, we never had an argument, or uttered an unpleasant word. Bill had a disarmingly charming way of preventing my ignorant mistakes from taking place. He’d simply say, “Mel, what would you think of doing it this way?” Of course, I knew that he was always right on everything! Therefore, unlike the Frank Sinatra song: I Did It HIS Way!
The Great wall was monumentally complex. There were certain objects that I knew, beforehand, it needed to accommodate. A lineup of 85 Germen nodders required a shelf of a length, which was a distance I could calculate. And so, I ran around the house measuring collectibles, and trying to visualize where they would go. In the end, I realized that some of the shelves would need to be seen in reality to decide. Therefore, the wall would be approached by constructing five units, a large one in the center, one on each end, and two in-between. I carefully drew plans and diagrams for each of these, and wrote in the dimensions. While Bill was building them, I stood by and watched. He never minded, in the least, if upon seeing what I had visualized on paper, in reality, I changed my mind, and made some alterations midstream. Here, is a typical drawing of one of the five units, I drew a diagram, like this, for every cabinet in the house. And I hung around to make sure I liked how it was coming out.
I was so excited about the building of the Wall that I felt compelled to take a lot of photographs, in a variety of random formats, slides, snapshots, and Polaroids. I’ll try to gather them into slideshows. The mixed formats make this difficult. First, will be those that show the building of the individual units when we were working out the placement of the shelves. At this point we had advanced half way along. This pair of Polaroids could almost be joined together. Oh, I just did! One shows a corner of the newly constructed wall, with the overhang fully visible. Horace Horsecollar sits on the shelf, just to verify the size.
Once the individual units were in place, Bill would move the facings of the shelves, until they intuitively looked right. Each upper edge had a panel to hide the incandescent lights. Track lighting was used throughout, installed by yours truly. This had to be done while the construction was still underway.
This was because much of the wiring had to be strung, before the cabinets were set in place. The other Polaroid shows all the stuff in the room, moved out of the way, while I sat and surveyed.
Here we see the elements of the wall at the very beginning of construction. Three of the main units are, more or less, complete, as we slowly moved along, from left to right. These were exciting times. Bill and I were having fun! Creating this complex masterpiece of unconventional cabinetry, was like solving a giant crossword puzzle. First we filled in the answers we knew, the easy ones. Then, as the puzzle grew, the wall, itself, whispered to us what to do. Incidentally, in these slides, you will notice objects sitting here and there, as we were trying them out for size; and with every move more answers arrived, as this monumental crossword puzzle materialized, before our eyes.
You might also notice that Bill has covered over three windows. These remained visible on the outside, for a while. Eventually, they would be bricked over, and the eight original windows that once filled this classroom of the Dutches Junction schoolhouse with Mickey fading sunlight, would be whittled down to just two dramatically tall ones, in the corner of the room.
When all the carpentry was finished, Bill did something that to me seemed utterly amazing. No wonder I felt compelled to take so many photographs. He arrived at the schoolhouse, early one morning, with a carload of spray equipment, impressive air compressors, rubber hoses, and half a dozen gallons of white lacquer.
He, then, proceeded to spray the entire wall, and everything else in sight, bright white. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a favorite tale by H. P. Lovecraft, in which the citizens of Dunwich render an invisible monster visible by spraying it with paint. And so it was That William Maxwell tamed the monster he’d created, with a pristine perfect patina of semi-gloss white. This series of photographs, which I will attempt to combine into a single slide show, reveal some details I'd forgotten.
Along with the Great Wall, Bill had also constructed several pedestals, including the enormous one that was actually a humongous 800 pound sub-woofer we fabricated for the stereo. This also doubled as a pedestal, upon which the two carousel figures of Mickey and Minnie could be displayed. Bill also painted the two humble wooden boxes that housed my precious studio monitors to match everything else. That’s what we see him working on in several of the Photos. Many of them show Bill sanding down the painted pieces between coats. In some, the floor is covered in white powder.
Bill loved working at Mouse Heaven. The crazy things I asked him to create were always challenging, unlike the mundane tasks of commonplace carpentry the world called upon him to execute elsewhere, in the realm of everyday reality. The great wall, and, in fact, the entire schoolhouse offered him a once in a lifetime chance to create a masterpiece. Bill not only rose to the occasion, he excelled and exceeded it! And, so, The Great Wall was finished, pure white and perfect.
From here on, it was up to me to install the electricity. Some folks consider the Mouse Heaven collection impressive. What they don't realize is that hidden, out of sight, is an equally impressive collection of incandescent lights, four watts, seven watts, and tiny twenty-five watt spotlights.
And when all of that that was finished, the fun part arrived. Here we see the big room all cleaned up, as I began to decide where every object in the collection was going to reside. If building the wall had been like creating a crossword puzzle. Now it was up to me to solve it, properly filling every space and getting everything in the right place. Some areas were easy; others took many months to figure out.
And, here we see the wall approximately one year, and lots of Plexiglas, later. Covering the enclosures with complex sheets of Plexiglas was another job for yours truly. I measured all the cases carefully, and with the measurements in hand, I traveled to Industrial Plastic supply, on Canal Street in the city, and I hung out there all day, as they cut the sheets to size for me. Then, back in the country, I trimmed and sanded all the edges, and glued the sheets together, when necessary. Some cases required only a flat sheet, but others had wrap-around sides, and others were free standing. Over time, I got quite good at doing Plexiglas. By then, all the spaces were filled in, at least, temporarily. I say temporarily, because the wall was always changing, even to this day.
Whenever new objects arrived, I had to find a place to cram them in. It wasn’t long before I realized that I needed more cabinets, lots of them! So, while I was filling up the cabinetry of the Great Wall, Bill was busy building more, throughout the house.
Meanwhile, just as I was running out of space in Mouse Heaven, I find that I am out of space right here. When I began this recollection of the making of Mouse Heaven, I thought I could do the subject justice, on one web page. But, as I went along, it became clear that this would be impossible. This page is really like an interview, I am writing it, and building it, spontaneously, as I go along, adding one memory and picture at a time. And all of this is growing bigger, and taking longer than I thought. So, I will end this page right here, as my web building program is fighting back at me. The next page will reveal how Bill and I continued to make Mouse Heaven, creating display cases, across the room, outdoors, upstairs, and in the hall.