All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
Although, The Disney Studios was located in Burbank California, the “Walt Disney Productions Character Merchandising Division” has always been based in New York City. It was there that all the merchandising deals were cut, and many of the licensed products were designed. Colorforms was one of the rare exceptions, who supplied the original art for their own products. Of course, before anything could be produced, the art, the content, and the copyright notices had to be approved by the art and legal departments in NYC. By the time I visited their offices, it was a well-known fact that the art on Disney products had deteriorated, and, quality wise, it seemed like anyone could get away with anything, as long as they adhered to deteriorating aesthetic guidelines of the constantly updated model sheets that determined the official look of 1960s Disney Merchandise. And it was also rumored to be the case that any small company could get a license to make just about anything for a 5% royalty, provided the product category wasn’t already licensed to another company, and the would-be manufacturer put down five thousand dollars as an advance and guarantee.
Over the years, Colorforms had licensed and manufactured many Disney products. Therefore, Harry Kislevitz had developed a great relationship with them. And, whenever a new Disney Property appeared, Colorforms usually licensed it. Many of these products caught my eye, early on, when we were living in a loft on 26th Street. The art on Colorform’s Disney toys was always quite well done, and usually more faithful to the original than any of the other 1960s Disney toys one saw. Apart from that, the Colorforms toys were affordable. At just one dollar, I often bought them for our daughter. I later learned that many of these items had been designed by my soon to be new friend, Bill Basso.
Throughout the first four years of my unique relationship with Harry Kislevitz, I never met him, even though, he lived, just across the Hudson River, in New Jersey. Nonetheless, we conversed over the phone, for several hours every day. Being that he suffered from Agoraphobia, at the time, and was unable to leave his home, Harry increasingly lived vicariously, through me. I became his eyes in New York City. Some years, I even did his Christmas shopping. Over time, he became intrigued by my enthusiasm for collecting Mickey, and decided that he’d like try it too. Thus, whenever I discovered a vintage Mickey Mouse that I had already, and didn’t see as something I could afford to purchase to trade with another collector, I would pass it on to Harry. As I have never been a dealer, and had no interest in becoming one, I refused to make a profit by reselling things to Harry, so I merely put him in contact with the sellers, and he would purchase the item from them, directly. And so, as time went by, Harry was becoming a Mickey Mouse aficionado.
Thus, when I learned that the Walt Disney Productions Character Merchandising Division had copies of the original Kay Kamen catalogues that pictured all the Disney products, manufactured in the 1930s, I implored Harry to ask them if I could visit their offices and photograph the catalogues. Harry gladly pulled some strings, and enthusiastically set it up for me. And so, it came to be that I spent two days, sometime around 1966, at the offices of the Disney Character Merchandising Division, at 477 Madison Avenue, in New York City.
I was beside myself with glee. At that moment, I was fully swept up in the new found fervor of collecting Mickey, and every object that I found was new to me. To actually visit Disney’s New York Office with permission to not only see, but photograph the catalogues that pictured most of the Disney products made in the USA, throughout the 1930s, was a mind boggling thrill for me. By the way, the six catalogue covers, below, succinctly chronicle Classic Mickey's tragic downfall. Beginning with the perfect iconic image, on the cover of 1934, he begins to lose his geometric form, with each successive year, until he ends up as the flat and formless creature we see on the cover of the first catalogue to appear after the War. And I photographed every page of every one of these, except that last one.
The ability to glimpse the inner workings of Walt Disney Merchandising was also an unexpectedly eye opening experience for me. It was a mega dose of hard cold Disney reality, in which I got a sour taste of what it might have been like to work for the Walt Disney Company. I had sometimes wondered if I had made the right decision, passing up that job with Disney when I was a teen. So mixed with the euphoria of seeing the vintage catalogues, which was a near-orgasmic thrill for me, I also was also keenly aware of what it felt like being there at the New York Branch of Disney. The answer was: "Unsettling!"
One of the few luxuries that remained from my privileged childhood was a decent Leica camera. I later acquired a copying attachment that held the camera aloft, and pointing downward, above a table top on four telescoping legs. Placed above a book or picture, this device would enable the camera to capture a perfect picture of the page. The great 1930s graphics and exciting products that these pages revealed were mind boggling.
I wish I had not been so engrossed in these incredible catalogue pages that I failed to shoot any other photos of the Disney offices, and the people that I met there. But I did manage to lift my camera once, and shoot a photo of the art department. I did this, not to record the wonderment of Disney, but rather to capture the sterile cold florescent reality of the epicenter of creativity, from which the uninspiring products that Disney Licensing created emanated. This photo shows what it would really be like to work there. The anonymous artist, in the far corner, might be Jim Tanaka, an exceedingly nice man, who would, one day, become the art director. I would have the pleasure of meeting, Jim, several years later.
Everyone at Walt Disney Production's midtown office was exceedingly nice to me. I was offered a quiet space out of the way, where I could set up my copying device and plug in the two gooseneck lights I carried with me. And thus, for two work-intensive days, I copied every page of every Disney merchandise Catalogue, from the first in 1934 to the last one that might interest me, around 1940. Intermittently, I was able to meet and speak with some of the employees, as well as three memorable “VIPs”
These three individuals burned themselves into my memory; two of them, especially. The first of this trio was awesome: the long time art director "Lou Lispi." Lou, who had been a good friend of Kay Kaymen, was the art director at Disney Merchandising, right from its beginning, in 1932. Throughout the past thirty years, Lou had been responsible for creating some of the greatest Classic Mickey items ever made. He recalled the days of the beautiful Blue Ribbon Books, and the awesome Lionel Mickey Mouse Circus Train. The incredible, and all original, graphics that decorated the lithographed tin carriages, and paper circus tent of this legendary Holy Grail of Mickey Mouse collectibles had apparently been created by Lou Lispi.
Lou also shared with me his modest, but mind boggling, personal collection of Disney artifacts. The one item that utterly blew me away was the Desmo Mickey Mouse car radiator mascot, pictured at the top of this page. This exquisite chrome plated image of Mickey was made in England. It is beautifully designed, with a sweeping tail, flowing majestically. And it stood on a turned ebony base. I had never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that anything, as spectacular as this could possibly exist. Of course, I photographed it. At that mind boggling moment, it struck me as the most awesomely beautiful Mickey Mouse Collectible I'd ever seen.
He also had three unique Disney Studio maquettes of The Three Caballeros. And also a true curiosity, a pair of figures from the same series, depicting Mickey and Minnie in South of the Border attire. These offered the tantalizing possibility that, at one time, they too were considered as being included in the movie. Lou explained to me the he had personally painted these. I thought, rather brilliantly. I loved the touch of decorating Jose Carioca’s base with the signature pattern of the sidewalks of Rio De Genaro that he danced upon, so elegantly, in “Saludos Amigos.”
Lou also also showed me a stunning series of five or six related Italian figurines of Donald Duck. They were beautifully sculpted, each one in a slightly different pose. When I returned there six years later, I was told these had been stolen. Later still, I acquired one from the same series, from Ted Hake. I am sure it was not one of Lou’s, as the one that Ted sold me had a broken neck that was nicely repaired. Ted knew that this defect would make the price go low if he put it in his auction, so, he sold it directly to me, aware that the flaw would deter me less than anybody. I always collected for the sake of the imagery, rather than value or rarity, and the restoration would not bother me.
Meeting Lou was a rare treat. I regarded him with the awe that one would experience in the presence of a deity. I was not destined see him again. When I returned several years later, he had retired. I later learned that an antique dealer bought his collection and sold the radiator ornament to my friend Henry Mazzeo. Henry erroneously insisted that the rare original paint had been applied by Lou, and promptly stripped it off. In the half century that followed, a few of these have turned up; I myself got two, but none as good as Lou’s.
The second Disney dignitary I met, was, by far, the most complex, and in a bizarre way, the most fascinating. His larger than life personality was grotesquely gregarious and overbearing. I am speaking of the legendary, Al Konetzni. Al was the epitome of a faithful Disney employee and Moonie. A perennial Mouseketeer, his mouse ears, which he was quick to point out he had helped create, were always within reach; and he was still living in that era. Anyone reading this can envision what he was like if they are old enough to remember Jack Parr’s sidekick Ed Mc-Mahon, Andy Griffith, or even Lyndon Johnson. Al was like a great big eager hound dog, fiercely faithful to his master, Walt Disney. Imagine a huge puppy, tail wagging and eager to please, provided you are willing to license “The Apple Dumpling Gang,” in order to get Mickey, and if you are not, he might well bare his fangs and bite.
Al’s ultimate claim to fame took place in 1961, when he convinced a manufacturer to create a Disney lunch box in the configuration of a school bus. To have a conversation with him meant hearing about this accomplishment, repeatedly. His second great achievement was conceptualizing Mickey and Donald night lights. These got frequent mentions too. These products were to Al what radium was to Madame Curie. And he never tired of boasting about them. Al Konetzni must have been doing something right, for he lived to the ripe old age of 100, in a condo not far from Disneyworld, where he was trotted out and honored frequently. Here is a photograph of Al, still looking good, on his 100th birthday, and still showing off that lunchbox.
Over the two days I spent at Disney Merchandising, I spoke to Al a lot. It was through this interplay that I got a glimpse of what life was really like, working for Walt Disney. On the other hand, Al was mystified by the very idea of anyone wanting to collect early Mickey, and therefore, he was equally interested in talking to me; and he picked my brain, incessantly.
Al began working for Disney as an artist, in 1952. Like yours truly, he had attended Pratt Institute. His style epitomized the essence of the 1950s. But his impassioned role at Disney Merchandising was now as go-between and pitchman, pushing all the latest Disney properties, relentlessly. He was either maintaining loyalty, or genuinely could not differentiate between the varying quality of Disney Properties. As a negotiator he was a pain. I witnessed Colorforms trying to deal with his heavy-handed tyranny, over the years. Bottom line, if Colorforms wanted to make a Mickey product, Al insisted that they license something else as well, anything from "Bed Knobs and Broomsticks" to Fred MacMurray, in "The Shaggy D. A." He believed that anything that Disney did was equally great!
This was the era when to enthusiasts, like me, the Disney Organization was considered scary. They brought the hammer of retribution down on anybody that they felt might be infringing on their copyrights. It was even illegal to own or show a Disney movie, in the privacy of one’s own home. And it was rumored that the Disney Police could bust in, mid-showing, and confiscate the movie and the projector too. The undercurrent I picked up, through overhearing conversations at Disney that day, assured me that those rumors were, most likely, true.
On the first day that I spent at Disney, the place was in a tizzy. There was flurry of excitement in the air. Walt Disney Productions had just acquired the rights to A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Meanwhile, there happened to be a charity in new York City, called the Women’s Exchange. This was a place where sweet little old ladies sewed, knitted and crocheted, small articles that they put on sale there, to raise money for charity. Disney discovered that these criminals had been sewing dolls, based on A. A. Milne’s original version of Pooh. The “Simplicity” sewing patterns they used had been available for years. Now, the rights to Pooh suddenly belonged to Disney. And the entire crew at Disney Merchandising were plotting to carry out a raid, one that included the police! They were eagerly arranging to storm the Women’s Exchange, and take their Poohs away. Clearly, these chartable senior citizens had no idea that the dolls they had been handcrafting for years, had suddenly become illegal. Meanwhile, Al and his pals were planning this operation with such sinister self-righteous gusto, that I couldn’t help believing they were evil!
Another remark that Al tossed out made a telling impression on me. We were standing by the artist pool, and I noticed that one young man was attempting to enlarge a rather interesting Mickey Mouse poster that was pictured in a magazine, on the desk beside him. The enormously large copy he was struggling to complete was obviously work-intensive, and it wasn’t coming out that great. I quietly whispered to Al: “Why is he doing that by hand? Wouldn’t a Photostat be faster and more accurate?”
Looking at me incredulously, Al said, with undisguised contempt for the young artist, “Are you kidding? Photostats are expensive! We’re paying these guys next to nothing!”
In all fairness, I must say that, in spite of the negative vibes I was picking up, Al was very nice to me, and treated me like I was his buddy. Over the two days I spent there, he got very chummy. He was intrigued by the fact that I was collected old style Mickey. He seemed to be incapable of understanding why. Clearly, he had no clue of what Disney, and especially Mickey Mouse had been all about, before he joined the company in 1952.
What amazed me about our ongoing conversation, which, in the end, on Al's part, digressed into an angry rant, was the fact that collecting old Disney stuff not only mystified Al Konetzni, it made him downright mad! He suggested that it should be prohibited. I kid you not! He felt it was outrageous that items Disney sold for pennies in the 1930s were actually selling now for up to a hundred dollars. This, in his opinion, was infuriating, and he was incensed that Disney wasn’t getting their share of these preposterous profits! He was convinced that if Disney couldn’t put a stop to this, they should, at least, try to cash in on it. How could Disney Merchandising get their piece of the action?
I watched, over the years, as the Disney organiztion finally figured out how to solve this problem, by pumping out vast quantities of artificial collectibles. But, at this point in time, Al Konetzni and his compatriots at Disney, saw collecting Mickey as merely an infringement on their copyrights. Furthermore, he couldn’t understand why anyone would favor that crude old early Mickey over the exquisitely updated version that he knew and loved, from the days he helped to perpetrate it, in the crappy merchandise he generated for the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club.
The third VIP I met that day at Disney Merchandising, was truly frightening. Writing this, right now, an insight suddenly occurs to me: These three individuals were like the three ghostly apparitions that Ebenezer Scrooge encountered, on one Dickens of a Christmas Eve. The first, Lou Lispi was the Ghost of Disney Past, living remnant of a distant era. Al Konetzni, was the Spirit of Disney Present, gregarious, irrepressible and insensitive. The third specter, as in the Dickens story, was the most terrifying of the three. His name was “Jack Smith” and he was obviously the Big Boss at Disney Merchandising. It was clear that all the others, there, bowed down to, and lived in fear of him. Jack Smith held court in an office that was curiously free of any hint of Disney. His cold demeanor was stern and humorless. His appearance was hard and angular. And his thin lips never cracked a smile. Above all, this Ghost of Disney Future reminded me of a stereotypical movie Nazi. I steered clear of him intuitively, little dreaming that our paths would cross again, and this ominous specter would return to haunt me, five years in the Disney Future.
But I didn’t have to wait five years, until I, once again, encountered Al Konetzni. I spoke to him on the phone a year later. At the time, I had ordered several dozen Lars Disney Dolls from Italy. This was a major investment for me, both financially and emotionally. All of these had been made to order for me. And some were based on drawings that I'd sent to the factory. When I got notice that they arrived, I drove my newly acquired VW station wagon to the pier in Lower Manhattan to pick them up. They were in a huge wooden case that, in size and shape, resembled a coffin. The customs inspector ordered me to open it up. With his help, and a crowbar, we pried the cover off. He reached inside and pulled out a Clarabelle Cow doll; took a disdainful look at it, and tossed it back again. Then, he pulled out a Mickey Mouse, and said, “Hey! Aren’t these Disney characters? You can’t import these! It’s against the law!”
I immediately went into shock! Then, I made a BIG mistake! Here I was, at the customs office, shaking with emotion, and, out of desperation, I decided to call “my buddy,” Al Konetzni.
This proved to be the worst thing I could have done. I called him, right there, from a pay phone, and told him what was happening. He immediately flew into a RAGE, and this is what he yelled at me: “Wait a minute! Who the Hell do you think you are? You can’t do that! You can’t order those dolls! It’s against the law!” He was steaming! “Just walk away and leave them!” He was screaming! “I don’t think Lars even has the license to sell dolls in the United States! I’m going to check this out!” He was about to burst a blood vessel; my heart was, also, breaking. As I hung up the receiver, I could still hear him shouting, “SEND THEM BACK!!!
So I left the open crate at the pier, and went home, without the dolls. There was nothing I could do about it... except turn to my friend, employer, and fledgling mouse collector, Harry Kislevitz, and ask if he could help me. Harry was amazing. He once telephoned Pablo Picasso and asked, “Pablo, I like the baby you have in such and such a painting. Could I manufacturer it as a doll?” In spite of the fact he couldn’t leave his home, there was nothing that Harry couldn’t, or wouldn’t do, over the telephone. So, we worked out a scheme, in which he would contact the customs people, tell them that he was opening a toy museum, and assure them that the dolls were never intended to be sold, and that they were here for his museum exhibit only. In exchange for this, I agreed to give Harry half the dolls. And that’s exactly what happened. It took about eight weeks before everything was cleared. The Colorforms van, picked up the crate from customs, and delivered half the dolls to me, and the other half to Harry.
From what I was later able to piece together, Al Konetzni, who never learned what happened to my dolls, contacted Lars and the sacred the “merda” out of its owner, Mr. Segardo. He frightened him to the point that, in the future, Lars would not sell Disney dolls to Americans, even if they went to Italy in person to get them. So, that was basically the end of Lars dolls coming to this country. My enthusiasm for them, and Al Konetzni, had resulted in their banishment.