Mel Birnkrant
MICKEY MANIA
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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.
 

          In our final years in New York City, Mickey Mouse became an ever increasing presence in my life.  The wall of collectibles in our living room had become a kind of shrine.  Our little group of collector friends congregated before it frequently, some to check out and admire the latest acquisitions, or share something new that they discovered.  Collectors dropped in, at any hour of the day or night, merely to chat and worship Mickey.  128 East 28th Street, became Mouse Central USA!  The photo, below, is all over my website, nonetheless, to keep this tale in context, here it is, just one more time.
         Meanwhile in the loft next door, I worked all day, and often late into the night, attempting to cook up toy products for Colorforms.  Harry Kislevitz had convinced me to abandon Boutique Fantastique, and spend my time playing with him. Thus, we spent several hours every day on the telephone, brainstorming.  And if an idea we discussed seemed intriguing, I would either draw it up, or fabricate a prototype.  In exchange for devoting all my working hours to Colorforms, Harry advanced me two hundred dollars a week, towards anticipated royalties, which I would eventually pay back, provided one of my ideas sold.  It was all a pleasant fantasy, a Mid-Manhattan Night’s Dream, complete with incidental music, supplied by Mel's spectacular new stereo.  The sunset concerts of Camp Interlaken had followed me to New York City.
           Behind each oversized cardboard cutout figure, there was a small folding voice box.  From each of these, there emerged a long strip of red plastic with recorded ridges on it.  This primitive gimmick had been around since the 1920s.  When someone ran their thumbnail down the strip, deceased Movie Stars would talk to them from beyond the grave.  Believe it or not, I channeled all the voices myself.  May West cooed “Come up and see me sometime.” in her most sultry tones, while Mickey Mouse, in his characteristic falsetto, chirped out “Hello Folks!”  Alas, when “Folks” was translated to the plastic strip it was not clearly enunciated, and proved to be an unfortunate choice of words.  The letters "ol" sounded more like "uc."
          This is perhaps as good a place as any to explain that there was one ground rule in my arrangement with Harry.  Strange as it may seem, any mention of Colorforms, the signature toy product of his company was forbidden.  Harry had invented Colorforms, the vinyl plastic pieces that stuck to a shiny surface.  And he was convinced that there was no idea or application involving Colorforms, nor could there ever be, that he had not thought up already.  He had tasted success with Colorforms, and now, rather than build upon it, he wanted to do something completely new.  Thus, he would entertain no further discussion on the subject.  The very mention of “Stick-Ons” was off limits.

         
Meanwhile, being that I was currently intoxicated by Classic Mickey graphics, I began incorporating his image into the toy concepts I showed Harry, as he was now a fan of Mickey too.  One of these ideas, "Talking Paper Dolls" was actually produced.  This product consisted of die cut stand up figures of Famous Hollywood Personalities.  Foremost among them was Mickey Mouse. This gave me the opportunity to use his most iconic Classic image.  I always loved this perfect representation of Classic Mickey, which I referred to as “Walk and Wave Mickey.”  Talking Paper Dolls were actually intended for the Gift trade.  Very few were made.  Even less were sold.  It was part of a line that we naively called, “Adult Toys Inc.”  Nonetheless, it was the first image of Classic Mickey offered to the public in thirty years.  Knowing some of the pitfalls that lay ahead, I am amazed it snuck past Disney. 

          Harry and I were both excited by early Mickey.  Therefore, I often adapted artwork from my growing collection of Classic Mickey graphics to illustrate a concept.  Here is an idea that harkened back to our childhood.  Even in the 1960s, the fact that these Big Little Puzzles were based on the once popular Big Little Books, in name, and size, and shape of package, would go over the heads of children of the day.  Could this idea still stand up on its own merits?
          Here’s a concept that Harry fell in love with.  He insisted that Colorform's purchasing department do all they could to assure that it priced out.  This was driving the so-called executives, at the factory in New Jersey, crazy.  Although, they never met me, they were starting to dislike me intensely.  Who the Hell was this unknown entity in Manhattan, who was generating so much extra work for them? 

         
These Mickey graphics were based on imagery from a 1934 Mickey Mouse coloring book.  I don't know why this project never happened, but the principle was later adapted to become a “Holly Hobby light-up Doll House,” and “The Mickey Mouse Magic Glow Fun House,” two elaborate Colorforms Play Sets.  Meanwhile, both Harry and I were getting used to seeing a lot of Classic Mickey.
         Around this time, I began not only collecting, but experimenting with Mickey imagery.  Years before I actually saw a 1930s Mickey Mouse Watch in person, I tried to fabricate a sort of Mickey wall clock, based on what I remembered the watches to be like when I was young.  I really didn’t like the way the project came out, so, I never hung it up.  The other day, I discovered the remains of that ill-fated endevor in the cellar.  I add it here reluctantly, just because it was my first attempt to fabricate something, based on Classic Mickey. There were more attempts to follow.  That's what this page will be about, the first Mickey stuff I made myself.
         How can I convey the sheer excitement that each new Mickey discovery generated?  Every new mouse that any member of our little congregation of Mickey Mouse collectors acquired was a major event.  And most of these treasures were the first of their kind that we had ever seen.  Along with this observation, came the often erroneous assumption that we would never see another like it again.  At least, that’s what I believed when Richard Merkin came up with an incredible pot metal Mickey, made in Germany, and sitting in an an oversized easy chair.  At that moment in time, I was convinced that it was the most marvelous Mickey image in the World, and my chances of ever getting one like it were nil.  Richard generosity loaned it to me, and I made myself a copy, reproducing it perfectly, right down to every chip in the patina.  When the job was finished, I asked Richard to pick the one he thought was his.  He studied them both intently, and then, chose the one I made.

         
As the years rolled on, more of these German Mickeys came along, and I had several opportunities to purchase a real one.  But I never saw the need, as having the image was enough for me, and in some respects, the one I made was more extraordinary.  Here are some photos I shot at the time. The year was 1967.  I long ago forgot which one is Richard’s mouse, and which is mine.
            A similar scenario took place when my friend Al Horen discovered a genuine Ingersoll Mickey Mouse Electric Clock.  This, again, was the first and only one that any of us had seen.  It absolutely blew my mind!  In this surreal masterpiece of Ingersoll ingenuity, the figure of Mickey cleverly rotates, topsy-turvy, every 60 seconds.  His nose is the sweep second hand.  I felt like I was eight years old again, staring at those Snow White figurines, through that gift shop window in Detroit, so long ago.  I wanted an Ingersol Mickey Mouse Electric Clock of my own!

         
Convinced that I would never be lucky enough to find one of these small treasures, I decided to make one, only bigger!  Al, kindly, let me photograph his. 
         I found a huge old octagonal neon clock at the 26th street Flea Market, for 15 dollars.  Ah, Those were the days! I painted the clock, itself, bright cherry red, and drew the numbers with pen and ink.  Now, the trick would be, getting the mouse to rotate.  I cut the Mickey image out of aluminum, and glued coins in place behind him, to serve as counterweights.  Powered by a separate motor, Mickey still rotates perfectly to this day, and the red and blue neon tubes still combine their basic colors to magically radiate a rosy glow.  Alas, the clock, itself, stopped working, years ago.
         1968 had been an amazing year, one, in which I spent long days, free of life’s gravity, as I floated weightlessly, buoyed up by a sea of music, in my reality-free loft at Lexington and 28th Street, creating the Outer Space Men.  My continuing quest for Comic Characters, and mainly Mickey, had rewarded me with a year that often seemed like it was Christmas, every day.  Collecting Mickey Mouse had introduced me to a like-minded circle of new friends, with whom, for once, I had something in common, a passion for Classic Mickey.  And so it was, with real Christmas on its way, in an impulsive rush of generosity, I decided to create a Mickey Mouse related Christmas present to offer a select group of special friends, who numbered only half a dozen.
          When I was a kid, a curious common novelty consistently amused me. It was standard fare in joke shops everywhere.  Originally, and for many years, it took the form of two plastic scotty dogs, one white, one black, standing on a pair of magnets.  The bases of the magnets were slightly curved, so they could rock and rotate, easily.  Manipulating one dog caused the other to react amusingly.  With a little practice, one could play around with these for hours, as the magnets both attracted and repelled each other.  But, if the magnets came a little bit too close, they would suddenly attract, and the dogs would connect, with an audible “zap.”  The interplay between these pups had subtly suggestive overtones, for those dog lovers “in the know.”  
         Around 1950, there appeared a variation on this novelty that featured Mickey Mouse and Minnie.  The item was called, “Rumba Rhythm.”  This little video I found on an eBay ad, shows how they dance. There is no telling how long it will remain on line.  But, for now, here it is!
          The following Christmas, John Fawcett gave me this spectacularly large drawing.  It pictures the magnets, labeled, Mel and Eunice.  The art also includes several actual drawings, cut from the pages of my letters to him.  This was the instant means, by which we showed each other what we acquired recently, or what we wish we did.  Coming face to face with the image of my magnets, enlarged to two feet high, was embarrassing, to say the least.  I don’t know what got into me!
ACTUAL SIZE
         The memory of these came back to me, as I was wracking my brain trying to think of a Mickey Mouse Christmas gift that my mouse collector friends would appreciate.  They represent the first and only Mickey toy I ever sculpted in 3D.  Perhaps they were a little naughty.  I sculpted them in wax and then cast nine copies in epoxy.  I kept one set of each: red, white, and black, for myself, and gave the other six sets away.  The recipients were: Richard Merkin, Kenny Kneitel, Al Horen, John Fawcett, Maurice Sendak, and Harry Kislevitz. 
          Alas, it was too late to be ashamed.  I had already completed next year’s presents, and sent them to the same six friends.  This offering, which was even naughtier than the first, consisted of a tiny hand crafted volume called the “Funny Book.”  Alas, there are pages that I can’t show here. Each page incorporated a visual trick, including Pop-Ups, transformations, and mechanical animations.
         These were the first, and only, Mickey Christmas gifts that I ever made, or gave.  And, in a matter of speaking, they came back to bite me.  I later learned that my pal, Al Horen promptly swiped the art for both of these items, and turned the magnet images into one of his best-selling pocket watches.  Then, he borrowed the elaborate final page of the Funny Book, and transformed that into an animated alarm clock.  This not only irked me, but I thought the least he could have done was give me a copy of each, which he did not.  Worse still, I learned that both Richard and Kenny sold their presents to a collector of erotica for a staggering amount of money.  One set of magnets ended up in an auction in France.  My friend Jeff Rund, who I didn’t know then, or he would have been on the Christmas list,  Purchased Richard's presents.  Jeff recently told me that he donated them to the Kinsey Institute, where, hopefully, they will remain.  John and Maurice were the only ones who kept their gifts.  Of the six recipients of these offerings, only two: Al Horen, not having heard otherwise, although, he is ten years my senior, and John Fawcett, remain.

        
How did one manage to find and collect Mickeys, in those early days?  Let me reveal the ways; there were not many.  There were only a couple of shops in Manhattan, where vintage Mickeys occasionally turned up; Kenny’s, for one, and the other being, Michael Malce and Son.  And there were also a couple of shows: The Armory, which was too elegant to have much Mickey, and Madison Square Garden.  I devised a way to get in early.  Flea Markets were just beginning to appear. 

         
My favorite way to find great stuff was to advertise in the wanted section of a monthly publication called, “Collector’s News.”  And later, there was another, “The Antique Trader.”  It came out weekly.  Both John and I advertised in these publications.  His ads stressed Felix and Mickey Mouse, and mine requested: Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop.  For several years, we were the only collectors in the nation advertising for these items.  Thanks to this, our mailboxes were stuffed with dozens of offers, every day.

        
To implement our quest, we devised a secret weapon.  This consisted of: Want Lists.  These documents became the stationary, on which we answered every offer we were sent, or passed out to dealers who might be inclined to find good things.  They were a kind of guide for them, explaining what to look for.  I created three lists; two emphasized Mickey, and the third was limited to Betty Boop.  I got them printed up, late in 1969, just as we were moving to the country.  Being that the Mouse that I was seeking had not been seen in thirty years, on the first of these, I hit the recipient over the head with Mickey’s Classic image, busting out of a pretend page from Collectors News, made up of ads that I ran in the past.
         The second, and most informative list, offered the reader an education in what to look for, when shopping for vintage Comic Characters.  It featured a little bit of everything I was seeking.  But, most importantly, it explained how to distinguish and identify a decent Mickey, based on the only criteria necessary, then, those easy to identify Pie Cut Eyes!
          All one really had to know was the simple fact that Good (old) Mickeys had PIE-CUT EYES!  And Bad (new) Mickeys had eyeballs!  That’s all there was to it!  Collecting Classic Mickey was so easy, then.  His eyes told the whole story; they were an infallible guide.  It’s all summed up in the diagram below, in which the difference between old and new is crystal clear!  Furthermore, the stunning contrast, between the harmonious abstract geometry of Classic Mickey, and the stubby clunkiness of his dumbass doppelgänger is dramatically apparent here.
          On the next page, which is really the heart of what this website is all about, I am going to take the fateful step that changed all that.  In a sense I was about to shoot myself in the foot.  Henceforth and forever, collecting Mickey Mouse would never be the same.  In spite of that, I was determined to bring the graphic masterpiece that once was Classic Mickey, back to life again.