All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Your comments got me thinking, remembering certain turning points, in my life, small moments that no one present at the time, would even notice.
Back in Detroit my friend Bucky and I would often brain-storm for hours, trying to come up with diabolical schemes to frighten others. Our favorite target was his mother. She had a taste for the occult, and like my friend Kenneth Anger, she too was a follower of Alistair Crowley, America’s foremost 40’s Warlock. And she possessed an amazing book, a huge volume, leather bound, and scary, called, “The Seven Secrets of the Western World”. Bucky was not allowed to touch it.
Needless to say, the Eighth Secret of West Seven Mile Road was the fact that we secretly drank deeply of its mysterious contents, whenever she went out. They included everything one would ever want to know about the Lost Continent of Atlantis, beautifully illustrated. We learned, to our amazement, that there were flying machines there. The book also explained, with a clever tissue overlay, that Sir Francis Bacon was really William Shakespeare. And it contained the necessary incantations to summons all the most popular Demons, complete with spine tingling illustrations and dire WARNINGS, accompanied by detailed diagrams, disclosing how to draw protective pentagrams, in which to safely stand.
It also revealed the secret meanings of the symbolism of Masonry. I remember stunning one visitor to my parent's home, who was a Mason, by reciting forbidden knowledge known to almost no one, let alone a 10 year old!
Anyway, the plan that Bucky and I cooked up this time to scare his Mommy, was based on the movie, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Bucky had seen it; I had not. But he described it in graphic detail, and swore that when the final portrait was revealed, just for a few seconds, it was so terrifying that he imagined he could suddenly see it in full color, this, in a movie that was black and white. I believed him, and longed to see the movie too. Alas, I had only read the Classic Comic.
Years later, I learned, with my own eyes, that Bucky was right. What he, himself, thought he might have just imagined, incredibly, was true. Those 30 seconds of the movie, when the final portrait is revealed, were actually filmed in terrifying Technicolor!
And so, our idea for the day was that he would give his mother the present of her portrait, masterfully, but secretly, drawn by yours truly. Then he’d sneak it out of the house, every now and then, and I would alter it a little, until, over the weeks that followed, ever so slowly, it it would become….The Picture of Dorian Gray!
Several days later, Bucky appeared with his mother’s photograph in a standing picture frame. I got my seldom used box of pastels out and began! Oh My GOD! The realization hit me that I couldn’t do it! I wasn’t good enough to draw it! The only portrait I had ever done before was one of my dog Snauzer! My draftsmanship looked worse than Dorian Gray! Oh well. Never mind! But I never forgot it, that shameful feeling of artistic inadequacy. The Idea had exceeded my ability!
Ten years and several art schools, later, I found myself at my first and only job. Well, second really, if one counts three days working for Cecelia Staples, the lush, who made the Christmas windows for Macy’s and Lord and Taylor’s. A week later I got a job with Austin Display. The Owner was a benevolent God-like being, kind fatherly, and wise. Norbert Austin, was his name. He was German, and spoke with an accent like Henry Kissinger, and resembled him in some ways as well. I admired him immensely. I remember he had a painting that dominated his office, quite beautifully done, but the subject matter was dark and depressing, an ancient man, visibly ill, slumped over in a wheelchair.
One day I asked him about it. Why did he have it in his office? Didn't it depress him? His answer taught me another lesson. “It reminds me how lucky I am.” he replied.
Well, sooner or later, I’ll get to the point of this story. There were four of us artists on the staff. I got to know them in passing, only, as each morning I would pass the lofty studio where the other three worked together, and descend into the basement to a small room, where I worked alone… with a radio I brought from home.
Our job was to create designs and then turn them into reality, all done by hand, our own, aided by the ability to dig freely into a bottomless reservoir of materials and supplies. The one-of-a-kind prototypes that we created were put on display in the Austin Showroom, which occupied one entire floor of the building above. And, if any were ordered, they would be replicated by a small army of craftsmen and craftswomen, who occupied two more floors of the huge warehouse like building, on West 19th street in Manhattan.
Mr. Austin traveled extensively throughout Europe, annually, photographing displays, and store windows. And, once a year, he would invite the design staff, the four of us, to his home in Westchester for lunch, which was Germanic and fantastic. After lunch, the living room was darkened and we saw the slide show. I was new to all this, having only worked there a few months.
The premise was that we were to give voice to any bright display ideas that each slide generated, and suggest how they could be adapted to something Austin could produce. What about this? What about that? What if this became that? There could be a so forth and a so on! Etc.! Meanwhile, Mr. Austin jotted the ideas down on a paper. As you might guess, my mouth was “going 50 miles an hour”, as my Mother used to say. And at the end of the day, the list was extensive.
Then we turned the lights on and discussed the various ideas. When an idea was agreed to be worthy, to my utter amazement, Mr. Austin turned to the originator of each particular idea, including me, and said, “DO IT!”
OH S**T! It had never occurred to me that I was the one who would have to execute every idea I suggested! It was Dorian Gray all over again!
But unlike when I was 10, to my surprise, I somehow managed it! And so, a pattern was set up that came to characterize my life. I never quite learned not to speak, before I though out the ramifications of what I was suggesting, and felt secure that I was capable of doing it myself. Time and again, I’ve shot my mouth off, without thinking, and voiced an idea that was beyond my ability. Nonetheless, somehow, often, more out of desperation than inspiration, I’ve always managed to muddle through.
The Outer Space Men was just such an idea; so was Baby Face. When it came to the OSM I figured I would only have to draw them from three angles, never dreaming that I would end up sculpting them too. The same with Baby Face. My plan was to somehow fake out 3 dolls, just enough to sell the concept, never suspecting that I would need to teach myself how to use a hot waxer and do the final waxes, not only for the first three dolls, but 35 more to follow.
And so I learned, sometimes the hard way, that we all might have hidden abilities that we would never know are there, unless Fate, or our own big mouth, compels us to discover them. And many people go through life never knowing what they know, because the right questions are never asked.
Thus, as a Toy Inventor, I came to the conclusion, that we ourselves must ask the questions, and not wait around for Fate to ask them for us. And I learned not to hold back and hesitate, or skimp on an idea, even if I end up having to execute it myself. I may discover that I can do it. And if I'm not up to it, what’s the worst thing that can happen? ... The Picture of Dorian Gray, again.