All images of Mickey Mouse and other Disney Characters are TM and © The Walt Disney Company.
Words and photographs are © Mel Birnkrant.
So, that was that! The deed was done! Classic Mickey Mouse had put his best foot forward, and come back! All the rest is Aftermath! And, as you know, I’m really bad at math. And thus, I have no idea how it all adds up. I’ll leave that calculation up to you, Dear Reader, and continue, nonetheless. The following, and final, chapter is a little bit of everything that happened next.
1973 proved to be an amazing year for both Mickey Mouse and me. It culminated in a "Mickey Mouse-eum," the World’s first Classic Mickey Exposition, a brilliantly mounted celebration of early Mickey memorabilia that featured my fast growing Mickey Mouse collection. It took place at Bambergers, in Newark, New Jersey, a location, as incongruous and illogical as the fact that such a show could happen, in the first place. Nonetheless, much in the same way as the humble Mickey Mouse toy that I had created, the year before, resulted in Worldwide repercussions, so did this exhibition. This was the first time that Classic Mickey Mouse was acknowledged and presented as an Art Object, worthy of collecting. It also inspired and created several future Mickey Mouse aficionados, who visited the show. Articles appeared in newspapers, across the nation.
The exhibition’s impact on my life had been immediate. Much of what was in it had remained in storage, for the three years, since we moved to the country. Now, that it had been unpacked for the show, and then, returned to me, I couldn’t bring myself to pack it up again. So, I made use of all the showcases that Bambergers had given me, and Mouse Heaven began to grow.
Meanwhile, my quest to sow the seeds of Classic Mickey, sometimes literally, as you soon shall see, and make him a part of the World again, continued. Mickey Mouse Puppetforms appeared in Colorform’s 1972 catalogue. It was the first of Many Classic Mickey Colorforms Toys to follow.
I think back on those days, with a certain wistful fondness. Then, my wits were quick and nimble, and I had no trouble thinking up angles to finagle one toy after another into those annual pages, as, slowly but surely, items of my own invention filled the Colorforms catalogue, from cover to cover. And my humble royalty grew with them to become a good living, good enough, at any rate, to enable me to continue collecting Classic Mickey and all his funny friends and comic neighbors who lived, once upon a better time, in the Golden Age of Comic Characters.
As 1972 ended and 1973 began, amidst preparations for the Bambergers Exhibition, I was working on a brand new Mickey Colorforms Toy. This one would be bigger, and, more elaborate than the previous one. As I explained, earlier, the ground rules that applied were that anything I was allowed to add to the Colorforms line needed to be something new and original, something that never crossed Harry’s mind before, in order to qualify for a modest royalty.
This next attempt was an ambitious one, called, “Pop-Up” Colorforms. It increased the contents of the box and production costs, as well, to the bursting point. But I loved what I was doing, and, apparently, so did Harry, for he was making all this stuff, in spite of the fact that, financially speaking, it may not have made sense. Once again, out of sheer enthusiasm, I undertook to do the art myself. And, as always, I was insisting that all the artwork would be based upon original Disney images from the 1930s. This time, the Disney organization didn’t complain. All the examples shown here, and pictured in the catalogue, are comps, hand drawn by me.
This was the first of several variations, and a first attempt at a cover. I’m not altogether sure why I changed it later. The final cover wasn’t that much better. I really didn’t care for either, but I did like what popped-up inside.
Here is the second cover, and a second interior, this time laminated. The cover art is pretty rough here. The final art was better. Bill Basso did the plastic pieces.
This photo was shot when I was working on the finished art. I really knocked myself out, trying to get every line just right, and emulate the thick and thins of the delicate penmanship I admired in the Blue Ribbon Pop-Up books. The final printing was a disappointment. The engraver boasted that he had taken it on himself to fatten up the lines, in order to better trap the colors. This really cooled my ardor. I never undertook doing final artwork, with the same level of enthusiasm again. Soon I tired of it completely, and found just doing comps more satisfying.
This is how the toy appeared in the Catalogue. This is a comp as well, a third one. The actual toy never appeared before a camera. On the page facing it, was another new offering, one of my favorites, “Tricky Mickey.”
Rummaging through the quaint and curious shops of Paris in 1958, I came across this trifling treasure. It was a tiny bit of genuine Magic, inconspicuous, but clever. All but the sharpest eye might have passed it by. It held the seed of an exceedingly bright idea. That seed lay dormant for over a decade. Now, fifteen years later, it blossomed. And “Tricky Mickey Magic Colorforms” was born.
The "Magic" lay in the red and green colored windows. The green is faded here. White ink on red vinyl, when seen through the red acetate window becomes invisible. But seen through a green acetate window, the red areas appear to be black while the white appears as green. Once again, I insisted on doing the art myself. I also worked out the tricks and Bill Basso translated them into stick-on plastic pieces.
At last, I got to use the jumping Mickey image from the Blue Ribbon pop-up book. And having gained more confidence, I dared to follow John Fawcett’s advice, and draw some stuff myself. So Mickey got a magician's top hat and tuxedo. Graphically speaking, of all the Mickey toys I did, this one was perhaps the most successful. There was a really great TV commercial. And the toy sold well for many years.
THE LAW SUIT
Yes, “Tricky Mickey” got sued! A small doll company in New Jersey, that had seen better days, sued Colorforms. The company was called “Uneeda”, which I think stood for “Uneeda our dolls, like Uneeda hole in the head.” They had manufactured a doll called “Triki Miki” that, at the time, was already discontinued. Nonetheless, they claimed that Colorforms has stolen their name. They also maintained that a child coming into a toy store to buy a “Triki Miki” doll might be confused, and misled into purchasing a Tricky Mickey Colorforms Set instead.
Meanwhile, we asserted that the “MICKEY” in our name, was, not only, spelled differently, but, combined with the Disney graphics, clearly pertained to “Mickey Mouse.” Uneeda countered that Disney always used the full name “Mickey Mouse,” and never just plain “Mickey.” Unfortunately for Colorforms, they were essentially correct. Unfortunately for Uneeda, Colorforms had me, “Mr. Mickey.” I knew that in the earliest days of Disney, some manufacturers didn’t get the legalities quite right, and a few rare products inadvertently appeared with labels that read just “Mickey.” Alas, I didn’t have any in my collection at the time, but I knew the whereabouts of a pair of dolls that could be procured for a certain sum of money. Harry was easily convinced that acquiring them would be worthwhile.
And so we gathered the evidence. And this is what it consisted of:
1. The Catalogue and photos from the “Bambergers Show”.
2. A gum card that just read, “MICKEY”.
3. Two Mickey Mouse dolls with decals that said “MICKEY”
4. My original first sketch for “TRICKY MICKEY”
Uneeda’s lawyer delivered his spiel. Bottom line: Even though Triki Miki was no longer for sale, she might return someday. Meanwhile, they wanted money, Now! Our toy had stolen her good name. He conjured up a heart-breaking scenario in which a poor little girl would want a Triki Miki doll, and her parents would get her a Tricky Mickey Colorforms, instead. Worse still, she wouldn’t know the difference, and Uneeda would have lost a sale.
Then it was our lawyers turn: He pointed out that the names were spelled differently etc., and then he called me to the stand. This wasn’t a jury trial. It was held before a judge. Once again, I would attempt to save Classic Mickey from oblivion. If our side lost, Tricky Mickey would be done in by an order to cease and desist!
I was bombarded with questions. I can’t remember from which side. But I do remember that it had to be established that I was a “Mickey expert”. The judge studied my photos and the Bamberger’s catalogue, and decreed, I could continue.
I did the number with the name "MICKEY." I showed him the MICKEY gum card and my two new dolls, "Exhibit 3." Oops! Did I say they were MINE? Then the opposition asked if I had ever made a doll, myself. Caught off guard I said, “Yes, 7 of them. They were called, "The Outer Space Men." They had sales that totaled over a million dollars." It worked! I was deemed to be a doll expert, as well.
Then, I showed my original sketches for Tricky Mickey, and swore that I had never heard of the Triki Miki doll, at the time I did it; which was true.
Evidence tags are still taped to them.
Then came the "Perry Mason Moment." The other side put forth the absurd premise that because there was a “doll” pictured on one of the plastic pieces, a child could confuse the Colorforms set with the Uneeda doll. I held the tiny piece aloft, and trying not to laugh said, “In my opinion, Your Honor, any child who could confuse this printed picture, on a small flat piece of plastic, with a real doll, wouldn't need a Uneeda doll: They'd need Psychiatric Care!" The judge said, “Case dismissed!”
The evidence went home with me, including the two MICKEY dolls,“Exhibit 3.”
Ironically. the ability to see a small piece of plastic as a substitute for the “real thing” is the very premise on which Colorforms is based...
One day early in 1973, I was in a Hallmark card shop when a curious little pop-up book called “The Adventures of Super Pickle” caught my eye. Meanwhile, at that very moment, clear across the country in Kansas City, Mike Strouth, the artist who had illustrated it, and his lovely loving wife Rosie, along with their 4 perfect children were living the Utopian life at Hallmark. When I picked up that book, that day, and carried it to the check out counter, their Destiny was in my hand! Mikes drawings spoke to me, and changed his life forever. This was a person I could work with.
I rushed home and excitedly called Harry. Minutes later, he, who never hesitated to pick up a phone and call anybody, from Paul Rand to Picasso, was calling Kansas City. Without ever seeing Super Pickle, himself, he hired Mike to work on a new project with me. The project involved expanding Colorform's facing in the toy store by expanding their line into activities. Many of these involved Classic Mickey. I did the comps on all of these, and Mike, working in Kansas City, did the finished art.
"Sew-ons" were, essentially, sewing cards and dress-up dolls combined. Mickey and Minnie were shamelessly adopted from the beautiful Saafield, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse Paper Dolls, circa1933.
In the world of Mickey Mouse collectibles, few objects are more desirable than the fabulous, 1934 “Mickey Mouse Waddle Book” by Blue Ribbon Books. Hidden between the beautifully illustrated pages, were fragile cardboard figures of Mickey and his friends. When punched out and assembled, they waddled down an inclined ramp, then fell apart, and soon got lost. The Waddle Book is rarely found today, complete with the original “Waddles”.
This treasure was the inspiration for the “Peg Pals,” translating the Waddle Book images into punch out pose-able figures. In this prototype, the joints are made from rubber hoses. They were specially molded “pegs” in the final toy. Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto were right out of the book. I added Horace, Clarabelle, and Goofy. These prototypes were sent to Mike in Kansas City, and he did the rest.
Here is the original Waddle Book, alongside my intentionally derivative sketch for the Mickey Mouse Peg Pals box. The mouse portion, of which was then “dropped into” the original bright colored photo, not the dull print, used here, only for position. Mike handled the entire process, type, mechanicals, everything, based only on the material you see here. He was a treasure. Working with him was a pleasure. Colorforms had struck GOLD!
Mike and I proved so compatible, and worked so well together, from afar, that, overnight, the Harry hand of Fate reached out, and plucked Mike right out of Kansas City, and moved him up to New York State, to work with me.
Below, is the catalogue sheet that included three different sets of Peg Pals. The beautiful child on the cover of the Raggedy Ann Peg Pals was Mike’s own daughter, Gretchen. Bill Basso did the figures for the Raggedy Ann set. Mike did the rest. The characters in the "Popeye Peg Pals" were based on a paper toy, called, “Hingees”. It was sold in the comic book department of drugstores for a dime in 1945. I added the Jeep.
The MICKEY MOUSE SEED SHOP
1974 proved to be a busy year For Colorforms, Mike Strouth, and me. Colorforms already had more than they could handle on their plate. Then along came this IDEA; and Harry, who was always chomping at the bit to do something totally new, thought it was great! It was also the project that sealed Mike’s Fate. Once I got the ball rolling, Mike picked it up and, literally, did it all. He also picked up stakes mid-way; beginning the project in Kansas City, he finished it in New York State.
For kids, who grew up during WWII, and even in the years that followed, Victory gardens were a big deal. Seeds were peddled in science class at school. We chose them from a Catalogue for only a few cents a variety. And then, the wait began. After what seemed like an eternity, they finally arrived in plain brown envelopes. I was so disappointed! I’d expected beautiful seed packets, like those I had admired in the stores. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the whole process of planting and waiting also proved to be painfully slow. And in the end, only the radishes seemed to grow. "The Mickey Mouse Seed Shop" was my attempt to remedy that situation for future generations. Although, it turned out to be a Giant Project, it began with the few drawings below.
Each package of seeds came with a waterproof plastic row marker that carried through the Disney theme. So, after the seeds were planted, a Disney Character remained to mark the place. While waiting for the seeds to grow, at least, a kid could look at it. And even if nothing eventually appeared, by then, he probably didn’t give a damn. There was a kind of Disney pay-off in the row marker itself.
In these early sketches, I visualized the possibility that Mickey Mouse Seeds would, essentially, be vegetables, while Minnie Mouse seeds would be mostly flowers.
Driving through the country, when I was a kid, I would occasionally see roadside vendors, shepherding flocks of wooden cut-outs, intended to decorate the garden. These never failed to fascinate me. Certain themes dominated the displays: Dutch boys and girls were popular, as were little girls in bonnets, with umbrellas or watering cans. They were a kind of wartime cottage industry. And, here and there among them, there were always comic characters. Of course, I wanted them all desperately. I was a would-be collector, even then. Now, the Mickey Mouse Seed Shop would be my chance to make up for the fact that I never got any.
Yes, a whole Mickey Mouse Garden Center; I can dream, can’t I? My plans were grandiose. This would be stocked with everything one needs for gardening, all with a Disney theme.
Below, is one many attempts at a header for the seed display. I rejected it and several others, in favor of the one farther below. This project was another manifestation of my Mickey Mouse enthusiasm. And, for one of the last times, I decided to do some of the final art. Therefore, I did the display header, my favorite part, myself. Mike, aided by a stack of Disney model sheets, and material I loaned him, did the rest.
Here is the comp for the final header. This photograph was shot on my desk, the day that it was done. I was pleased with it. In fact, protected by a Plexiglas case, it hangs high up on my studio wall today, one of the few things that I have done, over the years, that is still on display.
The Mickey Mouse Seed shop did not sell well. The plastic markers were deceptively expensive, so, these had to sell for more than ordinary seeds. That, combined with a credibility gap, made them hard to sell. When you plan to plant a garden, who would you believe, Mickey Mouse or Burpee seeds? Well, I, for one, would choose Mickey seeds, wouldn’t you? Provided a live Mickey Mouse is what they grew.
One of these seed displays was recently sold in a Hake’s Americana and Collectibles Auction. These final photos are from the on-line catalogue. The lot included this window poster too.
Around this time, I got into a correspondence with a man in Sherman Oaks California, named Ed Levin. He collected Classic Mickey, and had a shop, called, Nickelodeon that also sold it., I could never quite grasp how much of what he did was inspired by love of Disney, and how much was about money. But he was endeavoring to form a club for Mickey Mouse collectors. And, as could be expected, the Disney Organization was being uncooperative. They came down on him like a ton of bricks, saying that he couldn’t use the name Mickey, and couldn’t have a picture of him on his newsletter.
Apparently, even out in California, Disney was not fan friendly, unless, it was making them some dough, in ways that they could comprehend. Encouraging enthusiastic fans like Ed, just didn’t make cents to them. He called his club “The Mouse Club” Disney squeaked, but there was not much they could do about it. This naturally pressed my buttons, so I did what I could to help him. One way, was by sketching a logo for him that I knew would rankle Disney. Any idiot would know that it was Mickey, but legally speaking, it bore more of a resemblance to a personality on TV, at the time, who called himself the Unknown Comic. Years later, I saw my very image rendered in cloisonné, as part of a set of Mickey pins.
Ed asked me if I would make him a drawing of Mickey Mouse to display in Nickelodeon. Several artists were, apparently, contributing the same. This is the drawing that I made. It was the first and last time I ever attempted to draw Mickey on my own. The only time I broke the rule and didn’t base it on a vintage image, readymade. Its pose and image was derived, solely, from the Mickey in my mind.
1978 was the year I descended into Mickey Madness, and the last time I would ever attempt to do finished art again. In case you haven’t figured it out, by now, my true passion in life was (and is) collecting. That to me was BLISS. Working at home for Colorforms meant there was never an antique show, auction, or flea market, anywhere on the East Coast that I had to miss. As long as I met my obligations, my time was all my own. I often described what I did to earn a living as being akin to cutting grass, which is a task I’d prefer to avoid, if possible. But once I got into it, I got into it, and made it as interesting as I could. Nibbling first around the edges, I'd start a giant rectangular spiral. Then I'd gently round-off the corners to transform that rectangle into an ever shrinking circle, until, Voila! Right in the middle, the final stroke! A job well done. It was even sort of fun. But, nonetheless, I was glad when it was over.
Then, when the mowing was completed, I’d throw myself, body and soul, into collecting, while beneath my feet, and all around me, the Colorforms grass continued growing. Soon, it would call me back to work again.
The “Mickey Mouse Magic Glow Fun House,” (whatta mouthful!), was my attempt to mix both work and play. Trying to make the best Mickey Mouse toy I could, I found myself awash in a sea of 1930’s imagery again, and soon discovered I was in over my head. As I disappeared beneath the surface, I knew that it was my destiny to either sink or swim. When I resurfaced, 6 weeks later, everyone at Colorforms was fed up with me. From Stan Schwartz to Harry Kislevitz, they all proclaimed “Never Again!”
Here is the original comp for the stand-up panel. Even though, it has faded, over the years, and the marker colors have bled outrageously, it still Glows, as effectively as it did, 30 years ago.
On the top floor, I recreated a fantasy that had burned itself into my memory from my childhood, in the once fabled, now fallen, city of Detroit. Once a year, the Sonja Henie Ice Show came to town. The highlight of the evening was that magic moment, when the lights in the arena went down. And there in the pitch darkness, silhouetted against the fiery orange glow of the setting sun, Sonja, wearing only a hula skirt and a well-positioned lei, performed her signature hula-hula dance on ice, to the heart pounding strains of the “Hawaiian War Chant,” while standing, with blades flashing, on her silver tippy toes.
The floor below, was a spooky place, where the specters from Mickey’s Technicolor short, “Lonesome Ghosts” appeared. And the bottom level, was a sort of combination food court, cabaret, and pin-ball arcade.
The finished art was complicated. It required two separate pieces, one for the Fun House, itself, and another for the “transformations", which were printed on the back. Correctly die-cut shapes had to be removed from the cardboard backing, before the double-sided laminated sheet was mounted. Then, the final piece was die-cut again. All in all, it was a complex and expensive process.
The Catalogue page, below, as was often the case, showed the comp, and not the final toy. Catalogue photos were usually shot in early December of the previous year. This involved a week in NYC, setting up the shots. It was extremely boring. Everything had to be just right, because there was no Photoshop in those days, and the cost of retouching was out of sight. The box lid was usually attached to a boom, suspended in mid air above the toy. The boom arm could be cut out later, when the photo was vignetted by the engraver. These transparencies were large, 8” x 10”, and crystal clear.
At last, the final cover. By the time it was ready, Colorforms was fed up with me. A printer in Poughkeepsie had printed my finished black line on fine Strathmore paper. Then Mike Strouth tutored me in how to paint with my brand new set of bottled watercolors. Believe me, it isn’t easy. You have to keep the area wet, and work quite quickly, to make the colors come out smoothly. I never used those paints again. In fact, Mike Strouth got them, in the end.
And so, Dear Readers, this is the end. The Mickey Mouse Magic Glow Fun House was my last attempt to return Classic Mickey to the World again. Looking back on those delightful days, when Saving Mickey seemed like the most important thing on Earth to me, I’ve come to an astonishing conclusion. Forty five years ago, when I threw everything I had at the task of saving Classic Mickey from oblivion, which to me amounted to a Mission, and to the folks at Disney, a Revolution, the children of America, who were suddenly confronted with the long forbidden image of Classic Mickey, did not notice the difference!
And, I realize now, upon reflection, that this inconspicuous transition was exactly what I was hoping to achieve! And I believe that I succeeded, for the Mickey Mouse toys that I created, nearly half a century ago, based on imagery that was then thirty-five years older, still look fresh and new today.
I guess that’s really all there is to say, except, perhaps, at the risk of appearing immodest, let me be perfectly frank, or better still, perfectly Mel, and confess that I used every trick I knew, intuitively, to make my attempts at reintroducing Mickey, both, as authentic as possible, and, at the same time, feel contemporary. Somehow, I was born with a knack for doing that. The same principle is at play, here in Mouse Heaven. The stuff that I collect, in someone else’s hands, might easily look old and musty. But I do everything I can, through displays that are artistically arranged, and lit dramatically, to make these ancient artifacts appear to be alive again.
Now, half a Century later, I’ve been rewarded for my efforts, for I’m living happily, for whatever "ever after" I have left, in the company of a thousand Classic Mickeys and their friends, floating on a cloud, here in Mouse Heaven, adding to this website, every day, and dreaming my remaining years away.