GROWING UP "DISNEY"
All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
Unbeknownst to little me, Fate had been preparing me for the mission of saving Mickey, all my life, beginning in 1940, when I was only three. In that far distant era, there was no TV, and few children as young as I had ever seen a moving image. Kids were taken to their first movie when their parents deemed that they were ready. The occasion was considered a landmark event, right up there in importance with getting a first haircut, or taking one’s first baby steps. It would often be initiated by the release of a new film by Walt Disney. My own first visit to the movies turned out to be far more than an occasion; it was a revelation!
Up till then, my universe extended only as far as I could see, from east to west, along my quiet street in Berkley, Michigan, a tiny northern suburb of the then great Motor City. Between our house and the street, there was a sidewalk. I often stood out there for hours, contemplating that ribbon of concrete, studying its cracks, and lines, and the blades of grass that sprouted in-between. I wondered where it might lead, and what miracles or nightmares could be hiding beyond the vanishing points, at which the sidewalk narrowed and disappeared into Infinity. All the while, I was searching for "something," I knew not what. But I felt certain that, any moment, it would appear on the horizon, first as a tiny dot, and then, it would grow bigger, to reveal its identity as it moved towards me. That something never did arrive. I asked myself if this was all there was to life.
Then, one day, “like a bolt out of the blue,” my folks took me to see Pinocchio! We entered an enormous darkened room that was overflowing with children of all ages, squealing with excitement. I’d never seen so many people in one place before, and I was more than a little bit afraid. Then, to my astonishment, the huge blank wall before us melted away, to become a giant doorway. And through that magic portal, I beheld a world far more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen before.
All at once, the air was filled with music, as held aloft on waves of song, the entire room took flight, and transported us through the midnight sky, high above a fairytale village, bathed in Technicolor moonlight.
And I heard the friendly voice of Jiminy Cricket, melodiously inviting me to wish upon a star. Profoundly awestruck, for the first time in my life, I wished, with all my heart and might that I could step through that magic doorway, and leave the gray and colorless world I knew behind me, to live, forever after, on the other side. Thus, for ninety glorious minutes that seemed like an eternity, I felt incredibly alive! That unknown "something" I had been waiting for, all my life, had finally arrived!
It wasn’t the story that I found fascinating. It was simply the look of it, the breathtaking beauty of the styling, color, and design. Like a stranger, arriving in a foreign land to find that he already knows the language, my eyes needed no translator to understand the visual language that these stylized beings verbalized. And speak to me they did, powerfully and silently. Their exquisitely drawn simplicity conveyed the visual message that they were alive!
Little did my parents realize that the simple act of taking their kid to his first movie would determine his entire destiny. Ever since that life altering matinee, I began searching for a way to pass through that enchanted doorway.
Although, I never stopped trying to capture a little bit of Disney magic in my all too ordinary life, I soon realized that the Disney Studios were not helping me. There was simply no vestige of the wonderment I had experienced through the doorway of the silver screen, in the stark wartime reality that surrounded me. With a few exceptions that, somehow, managed to sustain me, real Disney imagery was nowhere to be seen. One of these exceptions was a 1942 book by Robert D. Feild, called, “The Art of Walt Disney.”
I first encountered this imposing volume at the home of a playmate’s teenaged sister, living down the street from me. She had borrowed it from the Detroit Public Library. And, being something of an artist, she had rendered what seemed to me to be a perfect copy of the most wondrous illustration in the book, a scene from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. It depicted Pinocchio, on stage, with the provocative French marionette, alluring to me, even then. I thought this large impressive work of art was the most wonderful thing that I had ever seen. It was, at that moment, beholding my young neighbor’s magnificent painting that I realized, I must, one day, become an artist.
Thus, beginning then, a future that embodied Art, Disney, and even France, lay ahead of me. Here too began a burning desire to own that book, which I pursued for the next eleven years. If that very volume still sits on the shelves of the Detroit Library today, the checkout card will display my name, repeatedly, from 1942 to 1953, when I finally found a copy of my own. Throughout those early years, that treasured tome spent more time at home with me than it did at the library. And I spent hour after hour pouring over the mesmerizing images, long before I learned to read.
Another rare exception to the scarcity of delicious Disney Imagery was the fabulous "Fantasia Cut-out Book.” It was the cardboard key that would ultimately unlock the world of Classical music to me. Ironically, if I was to ever manage to step through that elusive silver screen to live in the enchanted World of Disney, the Mythological countryside, portrayed in Disney’s vision of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony is where I’d choose to be. This elysian paradise was amazingly well replicated by this paper plaything, the most wonderful treasure I ever got my hands on for a dime.
This wondrous cardboard novelty appeared in the local Five and Ten Cent Store, well before the film was released. It would be nearly a year, before I would actually see the movie. Nonetheless, this ten cent's worth of destiny worked its timeless magic on me.
Therefore, by the age of four, I became a Disney connoisseur, painfully aware of the difference between the dreadfully redrawn Disney imagery that filled the pages of children’s literature and the glorious visions of enchantment that one could only experience through the doorway of the silver screen. And so, it was the Disney movies that I relied upon to sustain me, as with each passing year, a new Disney film would appear. This was the Golden Age of Disney’s best full-length feature movies, Pinocchio, Fantasia, which was not really for kiddies, Bambi, and Dumbo. And every kid in America measured how grown up they were by which of these last two features they were able to sit through, without bursting into tears. And then, in 1944, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the one great Disney film I’d missed, was rereleased! And with that final dose of animated ecstasy, my initiation as as a lifelong disciple of Walt Disney was complete. Sadly, over the ensuing years, I became slowly aware that it was all downhill from there.
Nonetheless, I clung to my once great love of Disney with the fierce tenacity of a true devotee. And as soon as I was old enough to attend a movie, without my parents with me, (To my embarrassment and agony, my father snored, all through Fantasia) they would drop me off at the theater for the first showing, early in the morning, with both my lunch and dinner in two paper bags. And I would live in that enchanted land beyond the screen for an entire day. It didn’t matter what the film was about, or that fact that it was increasingly far from great, I just loved the look of it. Twenty-four amazing works of art, flashing past my eyes each second; I felt obliged to see the movie many times, in an attempt to appreciate and savor every frame.
As World War Two was ending, we moved from our modest home in Berkley to a bigger better one, on Seven Mile Road, in the City. And I was bigger, if not better, too, as I entered the second grade at Hampton Elementary School.
There, I soon became the kid that everybody understood would one day work for Disney. Throughout elementary school, on talent days, my act was to stand before the blackboard, and quickly sketch any comic character the class could name. Some of the drawings were not so great, but they could never stump me.
Meanwhile, finding any imagery that even remotely equaled an actual Disney movie, in the so-called Real World around me was a near impossibility. But I did the best I could! At school we had a class called “Library.” It consisted of sitting in the library for an hour every day, for the next six years. Throughout that time, I stared at the pages of just one book, repeatedly. I doubt I ever read the story. I just looked at the pictures. Ah, but, what pictures they were! This was the only example there was to be seen, throughout the 1940s, of genuine Disney imagery, reproduced from an actual Disney movie. The book contained real frame captures and preliminary drawings, used in the creation of the film. These exquisite sketches were actually done by the Disney Studio, in preparation for Pinocchio.
The element that fascinated me about these drawings was their spontaneous freshness, and the fact that one could clearly see the lightly sketched in structure, upon which the characters were constructed. This underlying geometry enabled these two dimensional images to look like they existed in three dimensional space. I never tired of studying these sketches, for I felt like I was discovering the secret process, by which the illusion of life, itself, could be created.
Although, the actual scenes from the movie had been subtly, and somewhat awkwardly, touched up, they still held magic for me. These were genuine glimpses into the enchanted world beyond the screen, in spite of the spidery black outlines, added so artlessly; I tried to erase them in my mind.
Meanwhile, early on, I had been bitten by the collecting bug, And, naturally, the objects I collected were directly related to Walt Disney. Beginning at the age of five, I became obsessed with collecting Disney ceramic figurines, made by Evens K. Shaw of American Pottery. These came closer than anything made, in those days, to looking like the Disney imagery that one saw only in the movies. Piece by piece, I got them all, even though, they were not all great. Bambi and his friends were OK, But the Dumbo series was badly painted, in shades of pink and gray. And Fantasia was far from fantastic, but I had them anyway. Ironically, the one that I liked least of all was Mickey. Then again, there were a few, such as Pinocchio, on his way to school that drove me crazy with its sheer beauty.
Meanwhile, whenever my parents and I went for a ride, my nose was pressed to the car window, certain I would see Disney Figurines on display in every store we passed. It never happened. By seven, I realized that only one gift shop in Detroit carried them! And, whenever new ones were produced, they ordered just one of each.
Approaching my eighth birthday, I contracted my first, and worst, case of acute Collector’s Anxiety. Passing that store, one day, I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the window. They took my breath away. These were nearly good enough to have been done by the Disney character model department. Transfigured, I began my charm campaign. I had grasped the “catch more flies with honey” theory, early on. Or, at least, I thought I was being sweet and charming; actually, I drove my parents crazy. That set of Disney figurines was all I thought about, all I talked about, all I dreamt about! I wanted those amazing images with a passion that exceeded any desire I had ever known, to date. And I was certain, even though, as my parents pointed out, they were too expensive, that they were destined to be mine, anyway.
Then disaster struck! Several days later, we went downtown, close enough to where I could run a couple blocks to take a look at my heart’s desire in the window of that shop. As I got nearer, my heart sank, and I went into shock. I could see, from half a block away, that they were gone! And I knew they were the only set that would ever appear in Detroit. I was inconsolable. I cried myself to sleep that night, and for several nights, thereafter.
With my birthday two weeks away, I was convinced that my heart would break, by the time that day arrived. Finally, my parents could stand it no longer, and took pity on me. One night, they led me from my tear soaked bed to the hall closet, and pointed out, well out of reach on a high shelf, a plain brown corrugated carton, a big one! “There they are!” they said, “safely waiting for your birthday. But. you can’t have them until then, Now, please calm down. and go back to bed!”
Immediately, a tidal wave of happiness washed over me, and lifted my spirits right up to that high shelf, where I deposited my heart, beside the eight fragile figurines, for safe keeping, waiting for my eighth birthday. I have never forgotten that feeling, that moment when I was catapulted, from the depths of despair to the heights of elation. It was a state of exquisite exaltation that I sought to replicate, again and again, in later years. The pattern for my collecting passion was being formed, right there and then.
Was the wait, from that point on, until my birthday, agony? Absolutely Not! It was delicious! During those two weeks, I learned to feast upon the joys of expectation, savoring every morsel of anticipation. And when the day arrived, the glorious figures that I lovingly unwrapped, one at a time, were everything I hoped they’d be. Snow White with her huge hollow yellow dress, so fragile, her face so pleasant, with big brown eyes, perfectly painted. And every dwarf was sculpted to perfection. All had glittering foil labels, each with the character’s name incised. There was nothing not to like about this, once in a lifetime, birthday present.
It’s easy to see that as a kid, I was totally obsessed with Disney. That magic world, beyond the screen was everything to me. I lived and breathed Walt Disney. And I dreamed that when I grew up, I’d, one day, work for Disney. Alas, I never did! Grow up, I mean. Nor, did I ever work for Disney; even though, at the record-breaking age of seventeen, the Disney Studio hired me.
Curiously, my fascination with Walt Disney had nothing to do with Mickey. My youthful love affair with Disney was entirely visual. And only happened fully in the movies, that glorious dawn to dusk matinee that I lived for once a year. Even then, the story and the Character’s personalities meant little to me. I simply liked the way it the whole thing looked. Compared to the amazing Technicolor world that existed, only in a Disney movie, the real world was uninteresting to me. I also loved the way the characters were styled. They embodied a lifelike quality, even when they were not in motion. The art of animation was never the source of my fascination. As I studied the pages of “The Art of Walt Disney," I pictured my role at the Disney Studio, not as an animator, but rather, as a character creator.
And Mickey Mouse, when I first met him, was not particularly exciting. Naturally, I got the message that he was considered a “VIP” by Disney, but he was just another character to me. That amazing image that I now refer to as Classic Mickey was long gone when I came onto the scene. And thus, throughout the first twenty one years of my Walt Disney inspired life, I could say, with honesty: “Mickey, I hardly knew ye.”
And I had, briefly, what may have been the rarest Shaw figurine ever made, Jiminy Cricket. I never saw or heard of another turning up. He wasn’t that attractive. He was as tall as Pinocchio, a fact that, at the time, seemed strange, and he was cast in an ugly color of green clay. I came home from school one day, and it took me all of two minutes to realize that Jiminy had disappeared. The mystery of what became of him was never solved. Eventually, I came to believe that our new maid, “Lizzy” might have broken him, and foolishly thrown the pieces away. She was a crazy lady, anyway, who could out flutter Butterfly McQueen, and was so superstitious that, every night, she looked for the Bogey Man, first in the closet, and then, under the bed, before she went to sleep.