Mel Birnkrant
"MICKEY, I HARDLY KNEW YE"
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All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
 
          Throughout my childhood, from the age of two to twenty one, the Classic image of Mickey Mouse, as he appeared, in his 1930s heyday, was nowhere to be seen.  From my present day perspective, sitting here in Mouse Heaven, surrounded by a thousand images of Classic Mickey, dating from his Golden Age, it’s hard to believe that in the course of one short year, from 1939 to 1940, the once powerful image of 1930s Mickey completely disappeared.  Therefore, the only Mickey Mouse I ever knew was the one we see below!

         
Here’s Mickey as I first met him, in 1940.  This book, called, “Here They Are” was my introduction to Mickey Mouse and Minnie.  It was also the standard means, by which kids were taught to read, beginning in the first or second grade.  This volume fell into my hands, when I was three, well before I saw Fantasia. 

          One curious thing about the illustrations in this book was the fact that the illustrator maintained Mickey’s circular head shape, while the equally sized circle that once defined his tummy had gone away.  Whoever drew these images seemed to be hanging onto the circular head with awkwardly forced tenacity.  It was not drawn intuitively, but quite possibly with the aid of a compass, or a circle guide.  In the illustration with balloons, both character's round heads, and also the baloons, are exactly the same size.
         In 1941, the picture perfect world that I was born into was suddenly transformed by the overwhelming influence of the Second World War. The conflict overseas left its mark on everything, from the toys we played with, which were mostly made of paper and kaki colored cardboard, to the iconography of Walt Disney.  Before the year was over, all the Disney Characters donned uniforms, and went off to fight the enemy.  This wonderful illustration from Coronet Magazine delivers a clear message of who was popular at Disney, in the year it was created, which was 1942.  Significantly, Donald Duck is right up front, followed by Thumper, Flower, and the Wise Old Owl, from the newly released movie, Bambi.  Bambi, himself, is hard to recognize, as he is portrayed as all grown up. While way off in the distance, barely discernible, and hugely diminished, tiny Mickey drives a tank.  His popularity was tanking too.
          I can’t resist, including, here, this inspired carving, created sixty-five years later by my dear friend, Charles Ponstingl.  Like yours truly, he grew up during Wporld War II, and to this day remains, proudly patriotic.
          The iconic volume, below, titled “The Victory March” was the most popular Disney publication of the Wartime era.  Every kid in America had one of these.  It was given away free!  As its cover clearly states, it was “suggested” by the Treasury Department of the U.S.A.  Its cleverly animated cardboard pages were overflowing with heavy handed propaganda, designed to encourage children to buy United States Saving Stamps and bonds.  Inside, the Big Bad Wolf, himself, appeared in a Nazi uniform, and activated by a tab, attacked the statue of Abe Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.  The final page included a die cut image of Donald Duck. Tucked under his wing, was an officially approved album for United States Saving Stamps, and in his hand there was an envelope that contained a genuine10-cent Stamp.

        
The book's elaborate cover shows the entire repertoire of Disney Characters as they appeared in 1942.  It amounts to an accurate barometer of who was popular and new.  The image also indicates how the characters were styled, at that moment in time.  Slickly drawn Donald Duck is right up front, with Pluto, overlapping Mickey and Minnie Mouse, looking comfortable in their new design.  They are followed by Snow White, subtly restyled as a 1940s pin-up gal.  We can also detect Dumbo, Timothy Mouse, and the Reluctant Dragon, while far off in the distance, little Bambi lags behind.
          This friendly certificate, deliciously decorated with Disney Imagery hung in our hallway, throughout the Wartime years, and beyond.  It certified that my Uncle Norman had given me a War Bond, for my fifth birthday.  The inclusion of Jose Carioca, but not Panchito, who appeared in The Three Caballeros, two years later, would indicate that this art was created around 1943, the year that the film, Saludos Amigos was shown in the USA.  It was impossible for me to travel down that hallway, without admiring this ever-present reminder of Walt Disney.  In the lower center, we see Baby Weems, the star of a short secondary segment that had been presented on the same bill as the Reluctant Dragon.  Uncle Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie are here as well.
         The iconic panel of punch out figures, below, represents the core Disney family: Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck and Pluto, as they appeared throughout the early 1940’s.  It silently speaks volumes about the state of Disney imagery immediately after the Second World War.  Mickey and Minnie Mouse were were still alive and well, although they were slowly fading, and would soon allow Donald Duck to usurp their place on center stage.
          These four figures were intended to be punched out and colored, as part of this elaborate Donald Duck Paint and Crayon Set, which was, in many respects, one of my favorite playthings.  The domestic World of Disney was, now, all about Donald Duck,  It dates from 1944.  The Three Caballeros had just been released, and I was eight years old.. 

         
Typical of all toys, made during, and immediately after the War, this ambitious set was as spectacular as Wartime toys could get.  Naturally, it was made of the very cheapest paper.  Nevertheless, in my opinion,  it was worth its weight in gold.  I was painfully aware that these images were not pure Disney.  Nonetheless, they were about as close to the Real Thing as anything that one could see anywhere, those days, other than in an actual Disney movie.  Of course, unlike the ceramic figurines on the previous page, which are the very ones I owned, my original well-worn copy of the toy below disintegrated seven decades ago: not because I colored it in, but because I traced and copied the images, time and time again.     
         Even though, the paper was cheap, and the box precariously flimsy, the set, in its entirety, was spectacular.  The company who manufactured it had thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, including crayons, paint, and even a generic cardboard slate.  The art had been picked up from here and there.  By far, the most interesting piece was the large full-sized printed sheet that filled the bottom of the box.  To one as seeped in Disney, as deeply as I was, it could be immediately recognized as the cover of the Victory March transformed, with new characters added, and others removed, to bring the image up to date.  Now, Bambi and Thumper had joined the group, and the Reluctant Dragon was replaced by Dumbo’s circus tent.  
           These folding pages stood me in good stead.  I vividly recall spending many an afternoon alone in the empty hall of Hampton School, having been excused from class to get down on my hands and knees and copy one of these images in pencil, on a huge sheet of white paper, cut from a giant roll.

          
I can still see the scene in my memory, as clearly as if it were yesterday.  The deserted hallway, stretching out on either side of me, an endless ribbon of dark red rubber linoleum, with rounded molding of what appeared to be cast marble, curving up to meet the dark green lockers.  These were lined up in long rows, and set into rough cream colored stucco walls, punctuated, every now and then, by closed classroom doors, with frosted windows.  Occasionally a janitor would interrupt me, proceeding slowly down the empty hallway, pushing an enormously wide broom, and sprinkling handfuls of red sawdust shavings on the floor before him, only to sweep them up again.  He carefully steered his broom around me. 

         
The giant sheet of paper was held down by an improvised object, resting on each corner.  If I accidentally displaced one of these, the paper would instantly attempt to roll up again.  I always started drawing in the lower left hand corner and methodically worked my way up to the upper right.  That lower left hand section would usually come out very nice, but my draftsmanship deteriorated dramatically, as I slowly moved along, and realized I was running out of time.  I continued to draw until the jarring sound of the school bell resounded through the hall.  Then, as I frantically rushed to finish, the classroom doors would open, and several hundred students would pour out into the hallway.  Many of them gathered around me to see what I had done.  The hurriedly finished drawing would then adorn a bulletin board, for the next several months.  I remember rendering Bambi, Dumbo, and the Seven Dwarfs, copied from the very scenes you see above.  I never attempted one of Mickey.  His namby-pamby image was of little interest to me.

        
Another manifestation of my ongoing obsession with Walt Disney was a series of Disney Jigsaw Puzzles, manufactured by the Jaymar Company.  There were twelve of these, in three series of four titles each, but only one puzzle featured Mickey.  The image of that one was adapted, inside the lid of the Paint Set box above.  Over the course of several years, I acquired every one, and committed them all to memory.  The die cut pieces were always the same, and some were recognizable shapes: a pipe, a bear, a boot, etc.  I had memorized the shapes, as well as the imagery.  Thus, using both hands at once, I could  assemble the puzzles upside down, and face down, as well.  An article about my puzzle working prowess appeared in the Detroit newspapers, admittedly instigated by one of my proud uncles.  It let the whole world know that little Melvyn Birnkrant, who lived on Seven Mile Road, could complete any one of these 300 piece puzzles, in just under ten minutes, at seven years old.
          One more favorite toy was a curious exercise in abstraction.  Sculpturally speaking, it was rather exciting.  It simplified six currently popular characters, and boiled them down to their bare essence.  Their basic shapes remained recognizable, without the aid of printed graphics.  It is one of the few playthings from my own era that I now display in my collection, while most of the other artifacts on this page are merely objects of nostalgia that I keep packed away.
          There was one other obscure place, where one could savor a tiny glimpse of genuine Disney magic.  And that was in this tiny viewer that sold for just one dollar.  The only place it was available was in the photography department of our nearby Sears and Roebuck store.  Every time we went there, I made a B-line for a special counter, next to the front door, where the tiny filmstrips could be purchased for 25 cents each.  Every ten inch strip of 16mm film contained sixteen precious scenes from an actual Disney movie. 
          The basic box came with a styrene plastic viewer and a single tiny length of film, featuring Mickey Mouse in one of his last 1930s shorts, “The Brave Little Taylor. ” This was the first film in the series.  All the rest were Silly Symphonies.  These miniature images offered me the opportunity to see real scenes from actual Disney Movies, and this first film was my only peek at almost Classic Mickey.  The images were so tiny, I really didn't realize how different he looked then.  On the other hand, the groovy Mickey pictured on the viewer’s package, wearing a striped tee shirt, was as far from the 1930’s Image as any 1940s mouse could get.
         Eventually, after thirteen trips to Sears, and as many bouts of begging, I acquired the entire set, the hard way, one tiny boxed strip at a time.  Here is a complete store display.  There were no copies of film number one included in the factory packed assortment, as it was assumed by the manufacturer that anyone who would be buying these already had the viewer, and thus, the film strip that came with it.
          In addition to the thirteen basic titles, there were also four larger boxes, the same size as those that held the viewer.  Each of these contained four strips of film that added up to sixty-four mind boggling images from Disney’s most successful full-length features, Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo.  These precious peeks into the World of Disney were Nirvana to me.

         
The culmination of this collection was a small plug-in projector, with which one could project the sixteen tiny images on each film strip onto a flat surface.  I taped sheets of paper to the wall and traced off many scenes.  Then, I colored these with colored pencils, and hung them up, in the spare room over the garage.  Eventually the walls were covered, and this usually unused chamber became my own little art gallery.  I was gathering my share of Disney imagery, the hard way!

         As the Second World War came to an end, Mickey's career as Disney’s Biggest Star was ending too.  The once great Mickey Mouse became a secondary character, who stepped aside to share his space on center stage with Donald Duck and Goofy.  Poor little Minnie Mouse had disappeared completely.  The Disney Studio’s annual offerings were no longer ambitious epic stories.  They became stitched together collections of short segments, beginning with two Wartime movies, celebrating South America, “Saludos Amigos” in 1942, and “The Three Caballeros” in 1944." 
          They were followed by three mediocre compilations, “Make Mine Music,”  “Fun and Fancy Free,” and “Melody Time.”  In the second of these, which featured Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Mickey Mouse was resurrected to join Donald Duck and Goofy, in a semi satisfying segment, retelling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.  In Mickey’s heyday he had met a giant several times.  In this repeat, called, "Mickey and the Beanstalk," the same old gags, like Mickey getting swallowed, were recycled.  There was still enough magic in this movie to make the Disney devotee in me happy.  The segment, in which the beanstalk grew, before our eyes, was stunning and dramatic.
          After the War, Cartoon shorts were still popular, but those produced by Walt Disney were not what they used to be.  And as I recall, there were few, if any, that featured Mickey.  Movie theaters tended to show cartoons, at marathon Saturday Matinees.  These cinematic cartoon orgies often featured ten cartoons, accompanied by a full-length movie, which was likely to be a Western, and the latest chapter of a serial.  The Disney Studio was up against heavy competition in this venue, from the likes of Walter Lance, Paramount, MGM, and Warner Brothers.  Every cartoon was announced by the dramatic appearance of each star’s face on the screen.  Every character had his signature opening image.  Mickey’s radiating visage had been a knockout, in its day, appearing in a burst of sunlight, throughout the 1930s.  But I never saw that image.  It wasn’t until I was an adult that I even knew that it existed.  Throughout my childhood, Donald's face had taken Mickey’s place. 

        
I remember these joyous matinees, as vividly as if I was ten years old again.  As each new cartoon began, the sight of each signature face would drive the audience into hysterics.  The most popular were Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, and Bugs Bunny.  When their familiar faces popped onto the screen, the audience went crazy.  They clearly knew that loads of laughs were on the way.  These images guaranteed hilarity.  And they were met with squeals of joy.
          Eventually, the glowing image of Donald Duck would fill the screen. The image thrilled me.  It was so gorgeously rendered, a radiating apparition that preceded, what I knew would be superior animation. 
          Sadly, the rest of the audience did not share my enthusiasm.  Whenever Donald’s beautifully rendered face appeared, a great groan of agony filled the air.  My peers were all of one opinion, and I can’t honestly say I disagreed with them, that Donald Duck just wasn’t funny.  Disney’s quest for realism was killing him.  Jerry could slice Tom into small pieces, and he’d pop back into shape again.  Everyone thought this surreal violence was hilarious.  But the pranks that Donald’s nephews played on their hapless uncle, and the mishaps that befell him, were realistically injurious; the audience felt Donald’s pain.

         
Throughout my teenage years, several more Disney Features appeared: “Peter Pan,” “Ichabod and Mr. Toad,” “Cinderella,” and “Alice in Wonderland.”  These considerably better movies offered just enough Magic to keep my dream of someday working for Walt Disney alive.  Meanwhile, my modest collection of Evens Shaw Disney Ceramics continued, unenthusiastically.  I acquired the two main mice from Cinderella, and left the rest of the set behind.  All the Characters from Alice in Wonderland were nice enough to buy.  But beyond that, I collected nothing, but classical LPs.

        
Nonetheless, if you’re familiar with this website, you most likely realize that, throughout my life, I’ve amassed a massive collection of Disney imagery.  Therefore, you might well wonder why I found so little to collect, while I was growing up, beyond those few ceramic figurines.  The answer to that, to be blunt, was because all the other Disney stuff was junk!  I believe the photograph below will prove my point.  As photos go, it is spectacular.  Here we see Roy Disney, surrounded by all the Disney merchandise available in 1953.  I rest my case!  The photo, which appeared in Life Magazine, is worth studying.  With the sole exception of the Evens K. Shaw figurines in the lower left, it is glaringly obvious that all the other products made that year were dreck!  Some might find this stuff interesting as nostalgia, but if one was seeking aesthetic excellence, there was nothing to collect.
           One of them, a young lady of Italian descent, named, Annette Funicello stood out from all the rest, largely because of her conspicuously budding breasts.  Although, Annette became the subject of many red-blooded American boy’s nocturnal reveries, it wasn’t her figure that I found fascinating, but rather, her abnormally large head.  Alas, poor Mickey didn’t stand a chance!  His starring role was small, at best, and largely upstaged by Anette Funicello’s chest.
          Here is the animated introduction.  Mickey's stylization is decidedly cute and childlike.  And Donald, as usual, fails to duck!  It is followed by the closing theme, delivered with the solemnity and reverence of a hymn.
         I actually saw the kids who played the Mouseketeers, in person, casually ambling down Dopy Drive, on the day of my job interview at the Disney Studio, in August 1955.
         In 1955 the Disney organization, suddenly, woke Mickey up, and cast him as the Master of Ceremonies of the Mickey Mouse Club.  They dressed him up as a drum major, although, his role on the show was minor.  It consisted of a catchy introduction and a few newly animated cameos, repeated over and over.  The rest of the cast consisted of a relentlessly upbeat host, named, Jimmy, a lumbering Br’er Bear lookalike, known as as Big Roy, who’s claim to fame was as a former Disney animator, and a stable of carefully picked Caucasian kids, referred to as the Mouseketeers.  This crew of picture perfect pre and post pubescent teens were “bread n’ butter” squeaky clean.