All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
This is a story I have told before, on the pages about my years at Colorforms. So, I’m not sure how to treat it here. Should I elaborate on what I’ve already written, or shorten it? Maybe I should simply copy and paste it? Perhaps I’ll do a little of all three.
The Outer Space Men turned out to be an astronomical success. With a royalty of 5% I was able to reimburse Colorforms for all the money they had advanced me for the previous three years, and still have fifteen thousand dollars left, to invest, in its entirety, as the down payment on an enormous old schoolhouse in the country. The building, itself, was huge and stately, but totally without amenities; and, as we didn’t realize, until winter arrived, it was also without heat! Nonetheless, this huge red brick white elephant was, as Harry Kislevitz, who got over his agoraphobia, described it, “Pregnant with Possibilities.”
Meanwhile, the Outer Space Men were done in by an anticlimactic moon landing, and a dock strike that caused them to come crashing down to Earth again, demolishing my hopes and dreams. I think they died, on the very day we walked through the front door of our new home to be. So, here we were, marooned up in the country, camping out in the World’s Biggest Fixer Upper, with no money to fix it up with. I had no choice but to borrow a phrase from a toy commercial, and “Stick with Colorforms!”
Thus, in July of 1970 I set up a studio in my newly acquired dank dark cellar. On the sweltering summer days, I enjoyed the cool damp air down there. Throughout the summer and the following fall, with the slightest hint of guidance from Harry, like “Why don’t you try some pre-school items!” I’d wrack my brain for bright ideas, and over the course of six lackadaisical days, sketch out, at least, a baker’s dozen. Then, on the seventh day, I’d travel to Harry’s house in New Jersey, where, amid the hubbub of 6 kids, popping in and out, “Hey Pop can I have five dollars?” I’d show him what I had come up with. Inevitably, he’d like a few ideas. And thus, the wheels would begin rolling on another pie in the sky project. Along the way, we acquired patents on a variety of items, and even actually produced a few.
As the year came to an end, and the autumn days grew colder, moisture seeped incessantly up through the concrete cellar floor. Even with a pot belly stove, blazing beside me, working in the basement proved to be bone chilling. So, my “desk”, two sawhorses and a wooden door, was moved upstairs to the unfinished first floor. My first project there was an attempt to clean up the mess made by two doll ladies that Harry had hired to design a Betty Boop doll. Moved by my love affair with Mickey, Harry decided he needed to have his own thing. So, after meeting Ms. Boop for the first time, in a cartoon I gave him, he decided he would court Betty Boop. The doll these loony ladies made was a disaster. So, Harry hollered for me to save her. The photo below is is not a finished product, it's only a handmade comp, cobbled together by yours truly. But Colorforms did actually manufacture this doll, the first appearance of Betty since the 1930s.
No one was looking for a doll from Colorforms, and in 1970, nobody knew Betty Boop. Like Classic Mickey, she had disappeared in 1940. Consequently, the doll didn't sell. Nonetheless, it did open the floodgates, and issued in the tsunami of Betty Boop products that flood the market, today. On the wall behind her, you can see my original sketch for a variation that I called, "Baby Boop." The fact that Fleischer never created a Betty Boop baby always seemed like an oversight to me. So, I decided to give it a try. And Harry financed the project, to the extent that several dozen samples were made in vinyl. They languish in my basement, now.
As 1971 began, Harry and I continued to aimlessly meander the crooked streets and back alleys of Toyland. It's difficult to remember what, if anything, we accomplished. One thing I do recall was called the "Finger of Fate." It was a sort of Ouija Board variation, in which a floating hand was held aloft magnetically within a (styrene) crystal ball. We even got a patent on it. A questioner's fingertips, resting gently on the mystic rim, would send metaphysical vibrations to the disembodied hand. Its extended index finger would then point out the future, which at that moment, looked grim.
But that summer, something amazing happened, a simple twist of Fate that amounted to a Revolution. Suddenly, a door that had, hitherto, been closed to me, was accidentally opened, and when I eagerly stepped through it, my life was changed forever. Having run through several Sales Managers, and killing one off in the process, Harry now hired another. Then, after being an agoraphobic prisoner of his house for years, he suddenly went on a vacation. What shall I work on while you’re away? I inquired. “Go in to Colorforms and meet the New Sales Manager,” he replied, “AND DO WHATEVER HE TELLS YOU TO!”
And so I met Stanly Schwartz, a force to be reckoned with. There behind his desk he sat, larger than life, a powerful presence, with a bombastic bone-shaking baritone voice, and fists of ham. He asked me to explain who I was, and what I did. When I finished my sheepish dissertation, I added that for the previous week, I had been on Vacation. “Vacation form WHAT?” he boomed out, sneering judiciously! He had a way with words that was blunt, honest and intimidating. Clearly this relationship was off to a bad start. Stan was as unimpressed with me, as I was terrified of him.
Now, I told Stanly that Harry had requested that I should work on anything that he, the New Sales Manager suggested. His answer was swift and definitive: “WORK ON COLORFORMS!” he said! Oh my God! The door, at last, was open! Even though, I knew I was being naughty, not to explain to him that Colorforms was forbidden territory, I seized the opportunity, and happily headed home. A week later, I reappeared at a meeting with both Harry and Stan together. In my hand, I held three concepts that Harry, awestruck, readily admitted he had never seen, or thought about before. He was amazed and excited, and vowed to produce all three.
Thus, began a whole new phase of my association with Colorforms. But, how was I to be remunerated? What kind of royalty would be fit? Because so much of the appeal was due to the Colorforms, themselves, the 5% I had been getting was clearly out of the question. Grateful for anything I could get, I quickly cut a lousy deal. I was never a good businessman, being essentially allergic to money, at least, until the rising cost of comic characters made making some a necessity.
Colorforms stick-ons were Harry’s great achievement. He really didn’t want to share. It was bad enough that most Stick-ons were based on licensed characters. That meant there was an added 5% royalty already, which was the same as I had been getting on my items, i.e. The Outer Space Men. Furthermore, the general public would be amazed if they knew how small toy profits often are. Thus, while Colorforms was making a living for Harry and his employees, the actual profits at the end of the year were considered good if they were 1%. That’s what he offered me, a 1% royalty on every Colorforms I added "my touch" to. Oh, and as before, at my own suggestion, my help with the artwork and design on any of “my” items would be included free.
The only one of the three prototypes I still have is this: “Puppetforms.” To demonstrate the principle, I used Raggedy Ann and Andy. The die-cut moving figures were to be dressed up in Colorforms clothes, and animated by the knobs below.
With a little urging form yours truly, (Who Me?) Raggedy Ann was changed to Mickey Mouse. Bill Basso was chosen to do the first two toys. But, at my insistence, the Mickey Mouse one fell to me. This was my chance to pay homage to, and reintroduce the 1930s Classic Mickey that I loved and collected. And it was also an important breakthrough, my first opportunity to actually design a Colorforms toy, after six years with the company, throughout which the subject was forbidden! I would dive into the project with a passion.
In 1971, the licensed merchandise that the Disney organization spewed out was crap. This is what a typical Mickey Mouse Colorforms toy looked like, before me. Believe it or not, this monstrosity had been created by my good friend, Bill Basso who designed the Finger of Fate, and helped me with the packaging on the Outer Space Men. Well, what could one expect? Bill was working from the official Disney character model sheets. No doubt, the folks at the Disney Merchandising Division thought this was terriffic!
Because I was aware that Mickey had never been allowed to be seen in his original incarnation, with pie-cut eyes and circular anatomy, since 1939, I urged Harry to clear it with Disney, before I set out on my journey to recreate the Golden Age. So, he called up Disney, and spoke to Al Konetzni. Al had no idea what the Hell Harry was talking about, so, he said “Sure, go ahead!” And so, I set about it, the hallowed task of bringing Classic Mickey back again.
As 1971 ended, Mickey had taken over my desk, and my life as well. The basic rule that guided me required that every aspect of the toy I was creating had to be be unerringly authentic. In the process of finding the perfect reference for every aspect of the design, I committed my entire collection of early Disney graphics to memory. And I assembled the toy, in much the same way that Dr. Frankenstein fabricated his creation, harvesting a head here, a body there, and hands and feet from everywhere. I felt like I’d struck gold, whenever I came across an image that I could use in its entirety.
Looking over my shoulder, my friend, and fellow collector, John Fawcett, said, “Why are you doing that, Birnkrant? You know you can just draw it” No, drawing it myself wouldn’t do. Everything had to be unerringly true, dating from the 1930s. The toy was put together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, every piece, a piece of history, affectionately assembled. And when I’d finally stitched all these pieces together, I cloaked the final assemblage in a coat of many colors, hoping to endow this ancient imagery with a timeless look that felt contemporary.
The box lid started out with a favorite image of Mickey from the cover of the 1933 "Pop-up Mickey Mouse" by Blue Ribbon Books Inc. The Mickey lettering was adapted from this cover too. I was never quite satisfied with the design. It really didn’t tell the story. I don’t remember the time frame, but, somehow, the actual comp below made in into the 1972 Colorforms Catalogue. There must have been a tight deadline.
Like a terrier puppy, tenaciously tugging on a slipper, I couldn’t let it go. Dissatisfaction with the cover gnawed on my mind incessantly. Finally, I discovered this small image of Mickey on the lid of an aluminum tea set, in the 1935 Kay Kamen Mickey Mouse Catalogue that I'd photographed at Disney, and decided it would make a better cover.
Now, all I had to do was find the perfect matching Minnie. I felt like a Disney Dating service. Eventually, I discovered her, and tested the new characters together, on the rough paste-up sketch, below.
Creating this toy turned out to be a high intensity mixture of agony and ecstasy. It felt like my entire life had been little more than a rehearsal for this feat. I was determined to squeeze in all the early Disney characters that blossomed in the Golden Age. Naturally, Mickey and Minnie were center stage, while the box seats, which I reluctantly had to draw myself, were chock full of Disney dignitaries: The The Three Little Pigs played in the orchestra, along with "Dippy the Goof," on his way to becoming "Goofy." The other box was occupied by Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, two stars that shone brightly, throughout Mickey’s heyday. And, alas, even before that time was over, began to fade. Soon after that, poor Minnie did the same. I even managed to hide the Big Bad Wolf and Long Billed Donald, backstage. For this brief moment, they would live again.
In all honesty, I secretly feared that this affectionate attempt to recreate the the Golden Age of Classic Mickey might be hopelessly foolhardy. Would children of the 1970s really embrace a version of Micky Mouse that, even I, a thirty-three year old kid, who grew up obsessed with Disney, had never seen, throughout my lifetime? Nonetheless, both Harry and I had grown accustomed to Classic Mickey. And thus, this 1930s imagery seemed natural to us, and even commonplace, the essence of the way things ought to be. So, hoping for the best, I carried on enthusiastically. Here is the final comp, now badly faded. It still hangs in a Plexiglas frame above my desk, today.
Now I was ready to embark on creating the finished art. Having never attempted anything like this before, it would be an exciting challenge. Early on, in my adventure with Colorforms, I had done the final art for a couple of Batman toys that never saw the light of day, and one Green Hornet toy. But that was it! All my work, since then, was limited to preliminary comps, photography, sculpting, and constructing dioramas for the Outer Space Men. So, executing finished art for Mickey was really venturing into new territory.
Naturally, I overdid it! The final art was twice the size it needed to be. I drew the black lines, actual size, in pen and ink. Then, huge blowups were made, and I colored these with a material called Cello-tack that, now, no doubt, is obsolete. It consisted of transparent sheets of colored plastic with a wax backing. Each color had to be cut to fit, then burnished down to adhere to the image. The finished result was sheer perfection, crystal clear, and super clean. These enormous boards were spectacular, to say the least. I felt sure they’d knock the socks off Disney.
Here is the final art for the puppets and the stage, believe it or not, reduced to fit on this page. The figures of Mickey and Minnie would be die cut from the opening of the proscenium. It will be neccessary to scroll horizontally to see the whole thing. But, rather than reducing it, I chose to offer a sense of the impact that the finished art conveyed.
This is the background. I can still trace all the details back to the original vintage Disney art, from which they came. Even the single line that denotes buildings was borrowed from a Mickey Mouse coloring toy. Only the few touches of Art Deco can be attributed to me. I added them reluctantly.
This is the panel for the booklet. It offers suggestions how to dress the characters in their Colorforms plastic outfits. Some of these were my own invention, like Uncle Sam and Charlie Chaplin, but, wherever possible, they were based on the outfits that the Mickey and Minnie actually wore in some of their most famous movies: "Two Gun Mickey," "Mickey’s Gala Premiere," and "Ye Olden Days."
This is the printed booklet, actual size. The finished art for some of this is missing.
And this is the final art for the cover. The velum cover sheet conveys some of the flavor of my original instructions to the engraver. To lift it, just watch.
Here are the Colorforms plastic Stick-On outfits, both my original hand drawn comp, and the actual production pieces. These are silkscreened on colored vinyl and die cut. Before and After almost look identical.
Many elements of finished art are required to make a Colorforms toy. The assortment that you just saw, above, is far from complete. Alas, some of the main components are missing. I’m sure they are hiding, somewhere in this schoolhouse. These missing elements include the all-important, and exceedingly complex, “Paste-ups and Mechanicals.” These supplied the type, which was presented in black and white, on acetate. Then, there were tissue overlays, marked up to specify the colors, along with swatches for the engraver to match. In those days, the colors for the borders, lettering, and logos had to be stripped in manually. A separate mechanical was required for every sheet, including the cover, the Booklet, and the stage. Then, the engraver brought all these diverse elements together to creates the films, from which the printing plates were made. The end result of all of this effort can be seen, below, in the form of the printed box wrap for the cover. Nowadays, all of the above is easily accomplished on the computer. But forty-five years ago, it had to all be done by hand.
Now weeks of intense labor were finally over. I had been aiming for perfection, and for once in my life, I felt that I’d achieved it. So, with relief and elation, I gathered up all the many components, and carefully arranged them, in the very portfolio I had used, fifteen years before, on the day I went for that interview at Disney, and drove to Harry's home, in River Edge, New Jersey. This was a joyful journey. I had poured my heart and soul into this project, and I saw it as the culmination of of a lifetime, inspired by a love of Disney. This was my chance to give something back. Furthermore, I knew that Harry would absolutely love what I had done.
When I pulled up at Harry’s house, the Colorform’s messenger was already waiting in the driveway. I went inside and and handed the portfolio to Harry. He laid it flat on the enormous Nakashima dining table that dominated his living room, and eagerly unzipped it. As he excitedly studied one board, after another, his reaction was all I’d hoped that it would be, and more. I felt as if I was looking back in time at my young self, when I was eight years old, unwrapping my most cherished birthday present, that amazing set of Snow White figurines. Harry did absolutely love it, and then some!
Then, I helped him carefully pack it up again, arranging everything just right. And we gave it to the messenger to carry across the river to Disney Merchandising for approval, while Harry and I waited patiently for its arrival. About an hour later, the phone rang. And then, the Horror began! Harry lifted the receiver, expecting to hear praise and accolades. It was Jack Smith. He absolutely HATED IT!
For the next hour I sat there, agonizing, while Harry pleaded for its life. He must have said “Puleeeeeze”, at least two dozen times. Harry could accomplish anything over the telephone, God knows, with just one phone call he managed to change my life, so many years ago. Now my heart was breaking, as I heard him begging and bargaining. "Jack if you let us do this, well license the Aristocats. Well do a Bed Knobs and Broomsticks Play Set. Colorforms will even make a dress up doll of the Barefoot Executive monkey if you will let us produce this toy. Puleeeeeeze let us do this!" He also pointed out the fact that he had run this proposal by Al Konetzni, before he invested a lot of money on creating it, and Al had said that it would be OK. Meanwhile, Jack was telling Harry that this primitive outdated Mickey was forbidden. Disney would turn over in his grave! Finally, I heard Harry say. “Jack, Colorforms has given Disney thousands of dollars in royalties, over the years, and in all that time, I’ve never asked you for a favor. I’m begging you for one, now.”
To my amazement, Jack finally said, “OK.” grudgingly, but added, “When they see this in California, The Shit Will Hit the Fan!" Being Mickey's biggest "fan", I thought that he meant me!
That wasn’t the end of it. A few days later, a secretary in the office, with the latest character model sheet, in hand, called to say, “Pluto looks funny.” And the battle began, all over again. Then, later still, when they discovered long-billed Donald, hiding in the wings, we had to fight a final round… and, ultimately, Won! Ironically, Disney had no problem with the Big Bad Wolf in drag.
So that was it! That brutal hour on the telephone had totally altered Disney History! Once and forever, Classic Mickey was unleashed! The chains of mediocrity that, in the mistaken name of progress, held him prisoner for thirty years, were broken.
Nonetheless, I had undertaken this project with a certain trepidation. I knew that as a Mickey Mouse collector, I was not doing myself a favor. Up till then, distinguishing an old Mickey from a new one, had been easy. Pie-Cut Eyes were the key. I could pursue my passion for collecting Mickey Mouse, even on the telephone. Speaking to a would-be seller, I only had to ask them to describe Mickey's eyes. Now, because of yours truly, Mickey Mouse collecting would never be the same. And I had no one to blame, but me. On the other hand, I knew that thought was selfish. Deep in my heart, I was more interested in sharing. And, furthermore, I felt that, sooner or later, Classic Micky Mouse would be rediscovered, anyway. Someone would do it, eventually, so it might as well be me. Even then, I could hardly envision the revolution that my seemingly insignificant Colorforms set was unleashing.
A year later, I was required to visit Disney Merchandising’s offices, again. I can’t remember why. Perhaps, it was to seek approval, in person, for the new Mickey toy I was proposing. I was also going to meet the new Art Director, Jim Tanaka. Lou Lispi had retired.
I’ll never forget the moment that I stepped off the elevator at 477 Madison Avenue, and entered the offices of Disney Merchandising, once again. The wood paneled reception area was empty, devoid of any decorations, with the sole exception of a solitary showcase. To my amazement, it contained only one item, my Mickey Mouse Puppetforms, attractively displayed, and dramatically illuminated by a single spotlight! My heart skipped a beat. What an astonishing surprise! And the irony of it did not escape me!
Moments later, I met Jim Tanaka, a charming man. Jim informed me that everyone at Disney loved my Classic Mickey Colorforms Set! Yes, a charming man, indeed! Jim and I instantly became best friends. In fact, he offered me a job, designing an elaborate Disney Calendar for the following year. It would incorporate ALL the Classic 1930s Disney Characters. My Mickey toy had set them free! The thought of that was overwhelming. There were not enough body parts in my Disney morgue to fill twelve complicated pages. I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. Besides, it would have taken me twelve months to do it. In the end, Jim did the calendar himself. The results were somewhat funky, but also fun and charming. And it glowed in the dark.
In the future, every time I visited the Character Merchandising Division, Jim give me a present. On one occasion, he showed me an amazing album that held all the thumbnail sketches, together with the script for a 1930s Mickey Mouse cartoon. He said he wished he could give it to me, but if he did, he’d get in trouble. Then, he showed me a stack of random animation cels, and invited me to choose whichever one I wanted. Whatta guy!
On this occasion, the first after the Colorforms toy, I also spoke with Al Konetzni. He, apparently, had forgotten all about the Lars doll incident, and I was his best buddy, once again. He was thrilled with what had happened, in the wake of my Mickey Mouse toy, squeaking through. I had given him a whole new licensed property to peddle, and he was pushing it on everybody!
Just before Lou Lispi left Disney, he had given Al a painting. This image hung in his office, for a while. After Al retired, it was auctioned by Ted Hake. Al included a letter, verifying its authenticity. The painting on the left, was one of the last pieces of art Lou ever did. Lou had adapted it from the vintage Mickey Poster on the right.
The original poster was generic, and relatively late. At that point in Mickey's history, he had lost the pie-cuts in his eyes, and they remained solid ovals, but they had not yet acquired whites. Based on this, I’d date the poster from 1937, or 1938. Now that old fashioned Mickey was no longer forbidden, the image in Lou Lispi’s painting became the basis of Al’s new licensing program. He called it, “MOD MICKEY.” Soon, that image, which, by the way, I always hated, began to appear everywhere! Al proudly told me that he managed to license Mod Mickey to a sweat shirt company, and they sold fifty thousand pieces, overnight. So, that was what my efforts had accomplished, this Mod-iocre Mickey had been unleashed onto the World. I could see my mission was not over.
As 1972 was ending, my new career, inventing Colorforms variations, and reintroducing Classic Mickey was Just beginning. It would continue for the next fifteen years.