THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I picked up an old book today that I haven’t looked at, for over fifty years. When I opened the well-worn cover, I was surprised to discover that my hands were shaking. Was this unexpected motion due to old age, or emotion? I believe it was the latter. Memories, pressed between the pages for half a century, were, suddenly, set free.
I had purchased this book at the Doubleday book store, on Detroit’s Livernois Avenue, when I was thirteen. It is called "The Thirteen Clocks", and it was written by James Thurber. The story is a charming Fairytale, suitable for adults and children of all ages. And this modest little volume became the inspiration for a puppet show that took place four years later. This high school production, and the puppet I created, for the occasion, ultimately, unlocked the door to the fulfillment of my childhood dream.
That dream, as everyone, who knew me, knew, was to “Work for Walt Disney”. To many, including me, it seemed like a farfetched fantasy. But my art teacher and mentor, James Siddal, took it seriously, and did everything he could to talk me out of it. That would not prove easy; four years of his arguing, hadn’t moved me. “Mel, Disney is a thousand people, all trying to make their combined efforts look like the work of one, Walt Disney, who takes all the credit! You will be just a small name, among many, that flashes momentarily across the screen.”
“I don’t care if my name doesn’t appear anywhere! I just want to be there!” I replied.
And that, in fact, had been the case, since I was three. There were two profound influences on my young life, and both took place in darkened theatres. The first was my first movie, which, as the year was 1940, must have been” Pinocchio”. I had no concept of what I was seeing, beyond the fact that, there, in the darkness, was a gigantic doorway that seemed to lead into Another World, a World vastly more Wonderful than the humdrum one around me. I longed to step through that doorway, and would have done so, if I was able, right there and then, never to return again, with no regrets. I have been trying to get through that doorway, in one way or another, ever since.
Each year, a new Disney, film would appear. And as soon as I was old enough to attend a movie, without my parents with me, (to my embarrassment and agony, my father snored all the way through Fantasia), they would drop me off at the theatre for the first showing with both my lunch and dinner in paper bags, and I would live in that Magic land, beyond the screen, for an entire day. I didn’t care what the film was about; I just loved the look of it. 24 great works of art, flashing past my eyes each second; how many times did I need to see the movie, in order to savor every one?
A second revelation hit me, when I was ten. At Hampton Elementary school we occasionally saw movies. These were usually educational films. Some, to my delight, were produced by Disney. There was even one, in which The Seven Dwarfs fought malaria mosquitoes. These showings would take place in shifts in the auditorium, usually on Fridays. By the end of the day, the entire school would have seen the film. One Friday, there was a double bill, two films by Bil Baird! They were made for the telephone company to teach good manners when using a party line. The first was called “Party Lines” and the second “Adventures in Telezonia”.
These films opened my eyes! The marionettes were beautifully made. Their faces were so artfully animated that they, actually, seemed to change expression. And the puppets moved in a unique and agile way, as if they were weightless, and alive. I was mesmerized. So much so, that when the classes changed, I did a brave and brazen thing. On sudden impulse, as my class filed out of the auditorium, I felt compelled to stay behind and hide between the rows of seats. Then, I popped up again, and took a seat, as the next group filed in. I saw the films three times, that day. Nobody in my class, missed me.
After that, at home and camp, I often attempted to make puppets. Later, Bill and Cora Baird and their marionettes appeared regularly on TV. There was a show called “Life with Snarky Parker”. I loved the puppet’s abstract styling. They had a look that was unique, and as distinctive as Disney, but different. And, technically, they were amazing. The shows were often slow and corny, and, in spite of my fascination with the puppets, excruciatingly boring. But I endured these shortcomings, gladly, to gaze in admiration at the exquisitely made puppets. Bil Baird’s marionettes made Howdy Doody look like Doody!
Now, fast forward seven years to 1955, which was my senior year at Mumford High. That year, Mr. Siddal’s Art Club, decided we would create a puppet show. I wonder why? The story “we” chose to adapt was one that no one in the group had read, or heard of, except me. So I was chosen to write James Thurber personally, and ask permission to transform his “Thirteen Clocks” into a puppet show. He said OK! And by some miracle, I ended up in the lead role, creating and manipulating (did I say manipulating?) the lead character, The Duke.
P.S. I also did the scenery and chose the music too. The other members of the club, each made a puppet, and operated it in the show. Some of the other cast members were rather crude, especially, when seen beside The Duke!
I dove into this project with gusto. This was my chance to be Bil Baird. I believe Thurber was blind by the time he wrote The Thirteen Clocks, so he could not illustrate it himself, in his inimitable style. Therefore, the book was illustrated by Marc Simont, who offered little more than a glimpse of the main character. I found this frustrating, at the time. But, on the other hand, this gave me latitude to interject my own interpretation, in which I tried to emulate the stylized look of Bil Baird, as much as I was able. Because the character wore a patch, moveable eyes were off the table, but I managed to animate his eyebrows, which was a feature that I much admired in Baird.
I had a book on making puppets that I had cherished and studied religiously, over the years. The marionettes it taught how to make were quite pedestrian in nature. This became the guide for all the puppets the club created. There was no way that we could emulate the secret stringing that brought Baird’s characters to life. Therefore, our puppet’s animation was quite ordinary, but, at least The Duke could move his eyebrows.
Here are the few illustrations Thurber’s book offered me to work from, followed by my own interpretation.
The production itself was really great! We filled the huge Mumford auditorium for two showings. And some real talent went into the writing and the prerecorded acting. The Mumford Drama department was excellent and quite professional. One classmate, in particular, Merwin Goldsmith, was a fantastic actor. He went on to a career on Broadway, Movies and TV. Merwin was, of course, in every school play Mumford produced, but because, even in high school, he resembled a somewhat corpulent man of middle age, he rarely played the lead. Nonetheless, whatever character role he assumed, like Lisa Doolittle’s dad in Pygmalion, he never failed to steal the show. Merwin lent his voice to the Duke in our production, which went a long way to helping it succeed.
Articles appeared in the Detroit papers. And other places, as far away as Eugene Oregon and Yonkers NY, as well. I have posted one below. No need to say more; the accurately written article says it all.
As that final year of school began, our would-be graduating class was given a Math Exam. Of course, I failed it miserably! Therefore, I would have to take a remedial course in math, and remain in Mumford High, until I passed. This was Devastating! It meant that in order to take the remedial class I would have to drop the least significant, to others, of all my classes, but the most meaningful to me, ART! And so, it was, I went into see my counselor, Mr. Alvey, who I had never met or spoken to before. I was shaking with emotion, prepared to beg and plead.
There are no words to adequately convey the impact of that meeting. After a lifetime of aspiring and dreaming, in a few stunning minutes, my life sustaining fantasy was about to become reality.
I explained to Mr. Alvey that I had failed the math exam, and I was, not only, bad at math, but always would be. He pulled out and perused my record: “Algebra -D! If you are so bad at math, how did you get an A in Geometry?”
I explained that was, because “the teacher was amazing. I not only got an A, but she gave me that grade, in spite of the fact that I had failed every exam. On the other hand, I was often the only one in class who could do the logic flawlessly, step by step. But I couldn’t add simple numbers like 5 and 7, without making a mistake, and I always came up with the wrong answer, in the end.”
Then, I passionately proclaimed that “Art Class means everything to me, and I will never need math, anyway, to do what I want to do in life.”
“What do you want to do in life?” he asked.
The question hit me like a ton of bricks. It was so bluntly put. I could hear that I was almost stuttering as I uttered the words, “I want to work for Walt Disney!”
“Where are they located?” he inquired, while, at the same time, he was reaching for the phone.
In a voice that resembled Porky Pig, I muttered “Bu- Bu-Bu -Burbank California”, while his finger was dialing 411.
“Burbank information, please…..Yes, I would like the number of the Walt Disney Studios!” He reached for a pencil and paper and wrote the number down. If a 17 year old could have a coronary, I was about to have one, then. He hung up the phone, and, instantly, picked it up again, in order to dial the number.
As I held my breath, he introduced himself to the person on the other end, and explained that he was a high school counselor. Then he said “We have a young man here who is talented. He would like to work for Disney. Could I arrange for an interview?” In the course of the back and forth that followed, he glanced up at me and asked, “Can you go to California?”
“Yes! Oh, Yes! We are going there this August!” Half the Birnkrant family had migrated to LA. My parents and I had planned to visit there, during the upcoming summer vacation. Surely, Fate was on my side, that day.
And so, an actual appointment was arranged. “Oh, and, by the way, bring a portfolio of your work!”
How many emotions can a person experience in one second? 24, like the frames in an animated cartoon? I am sure I was establishing a record: Elation, Relief, (at getting out of that math course) Gratitude to Mr. Alvey, Fear of failure, (I knew I had nothing impressive to put in a portfolio) Excitement, Weightlessness (a rare feeling for me) and all these emotions took a back seat to the overwhelming euphoria of sensing that I was standing on the brink of fulfilling my short life’s Lifelong Dream.
In the busy months that followed, I scrambled to assemble something that might pass as a portfolio. A time arrives, from time to time, when something happens to shift the gears inside one's brain, and, suddenly, they see their life for what it is, and isn’t. And at the moment of that phone call, that is what was happening to me. Sometimes fish, feeling rambunctious, jump high enough out of the water, to look down, momentarily, and realize how small the pond they rule in, really is. And that, too, is what was happening, for the first of many times to follow. I looked down and perceived that the world of Mumford High was merely a small bucket, or more appropriately, a tea cup, no, make that a thimble-full of water, compared to the vast ocean that was Disney! This was my chance of a lifetime! Could I rise to the occasion? Would I sink or swim?
Meanwhile, upon hearing the “good news”, Mr. Siddal went into panic mode. He upped his efforts to dissuade me, and finally, one day, something that he said got through to me. One of his anti-Disney rants hit home. “How can you stand the eyelashes?” he asked.
“What eyelashes?” I replied.
“The long seductive eyelashes, fluttering on every goldfish, bird and bunny!”
I remember the moment; we were standing in the art room, at the time. Once he had gotten my attention, he continued to deliver an impassioned dissertation, pointing out the cloying cupids with their little bare behinds, shaped like valentines, and every element of the cute and cutesy side of Disney.
As I stood there in this setting, so matter of fact and ordinary, a doorway opened up to me and revealed the saccharine sweetness, and cloying cuteness of Walt Disney. I really hadn’t zeroed in on it before. Everything about Disney looked OK to me, when I was little, and now, in later life, I was focusing on other things: great bat winged creatures, perched atop Bald Mountain, the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus, Zeus, Vulcan, and Dianna, flying horses, drunken donkeys, who were, admittedly, vulgar and corny. But I could gladly step into that World of Magic, in spite of the eyelashes and lipstick, on everything, from butterflies to Bambi, and Centaurettes who looked like bare chested bobby soxers. And I was intent on becoming a stately Centaur, or a horny little Satyr, stomping on the grapes, or even jolly rotund Backus, guzzling wine, and ignoring all the rest
And so, I buried this newly noticed element of cuteness in the deepest recesses of my mind, where it fermented, while I desperately dug through the refuse of my history, seeking scraps of debris, out of which I tried to weave a convincing visual story, one that would show me to be worthy to devote my life to Disney.
I purchased a portfolio, and began to fill it up, which wasn’t easy! I even borrowed some artwork that I had given to my girlfriend for her birthday. I included a Christmas seal design, featuring the star of Bethlehem that won a contest and was published, as well as a greeting card design that won another prize. I figured this was a good move, as both had religious themes that conveyed my touch and go flirtation with Christianity. And I knew that the Disney Studios had a reputation that was not exactly oriented towards kosher. The card was also a good addition, as it was rendered in the modern look of U.P.A. cartoons, and the abstract BS style that hid the fact I couldn’t draw.
But more was needed. I realized that much of my early artwork would, actually, work against me. Seeing it anew, I didn’t dare include it. Therefore, one project that I undertook, for the occasion, was to render one of the sets I had designed for the Thirteen Clocks, in miniature, like a scene in a toy theatre. Then, I painted it in the realistic style of the backgrounds that one saw in Disney films. I tried to convey lighting effects, as if the street lights were glowing, and the entire scene was bathed in blue-white moonlight. I managed to succeed, to some degree; and I really enjoyed doing it, as attempting this level of realism was something new to me. I also engineered it to operate like a Pop-Up Book, so the stage could fold down flat to be transported in the portfolio. Then, when set upon a table, it popped right up, on its own, to stand alone.
Last of all, I Disconnected the Duke’s head, almost as an afterthought, and took it with me to California. The two strings that animated the face were left in place. Bringing that head with me proved to be a good thing, for that, more than anything, turned out to be the reason that they hired me.
My parents and I had driven across country to California, when I was nine. I really didn’t like Las Angeles much, at the time. And I liked it even less, now that I was seventeen. I found LA to be a cross between phony and ugly; parched hills covered in dry shrubbery that looked like tumbleweeds, punctuated by an occasional palm tree, and dotted with a million swimming pools, amazing to see, especially, from the air. One would think that I would love LA, for everything seemed to be manmade and covered in a thin veneer of fantasy. Even at Disneyland, which we got to see a few weeks after it opened officially, the magic seemed to be only skin deep.
We visited our many relatives. All they spoke and thought about was what to eat, and where to go for dinner. On the night before my interview was scheduled to take place, there was a gala family get-together, in honor of our visit, and, more importantly, to celibrate my uncle's birthday. It took place at the Beverly Hills home of my multi zillionaire Uncle Michael and Aunt Cecele.
Their mansion was a Maximum Security Mount Olympus, complete with an Olympian sized pool, in the style of the Acropolis. It was guarded by a battery of flashing lights, dials, and switches that resembled the control panel of a Jumbo Jet, parked beside my Uncle's bed. There were buttons that opened and closed the huge white wrought iron gates, and switches to electrify the barbed wire that wove between the pointed stakes, atop the high stone walls. Other devices could call the Police, manually, or automatically, quietly or with ear splitting noise. And last of all, there were the bells and buzzers that summoned a small army of hot and cold running servants. "Upstairs Downstairs" in that house, referred to two complete sets of servants, maids, and butlers for each floor.
I remember visiting there, before, when I was nine. On that memorable occasion, great gobs of snot were dripping down my cousin, Michael Junior's adorable little face. This did not seem to bother anybody, least of all Michael Jr. who was about 3, at the time. But, it bothered my mother! So, she caught the attention of a passing domestic, and asked the young lady, who was attired in a genuine French Maid’s uniform: black miniskirt, white apron, doily on her head, the works, to fetch a "Kleenex" and wipe the kid's nose.
"Sorry, Mam…I can't" she replied,. "I'm the downstairs maid. And that's the Governess' job. And, this is her day off!" Ironically, Michael Jr. grew up to become, just what he was then: "a snot-nosed kid". And, such an abysmal student that Michael Senior had to donate a multimillion dollar dormitory to the local university, just to get him admitted. In the end, I believe he flunked out, anyway. If you search the web, you will find references to "Birnkrant Hall" at USC.
So here is yours truly, at age seventeen, standing beside my Uncle Michael’s pool, on the Eve of my Walt Disney Interview. I always dressed like an idiot, throughout high school. Here I am wearing a decorative diagram that illustrates how to butcher meat, which is photographic proof that one can't make this stuff up.
The following day, August 29, 1955, was my interview. I can’t recall who interviewed me, but half way through it, he got up and brought somebody else into the room to meet me, and see my work. It was not, alas, Walt Disney. They agreed that they should hire me. I was to start, as everybody did, as an inbetweener. Inbetweeners fill in the gaps in the animation cycle, between the drawings by the head animator and the assistant animator. Anyway, that’s where everybody starts. It is like a rite of passage. But they made it clear that they saw other possibilities for me. And it was the decapitated head of the Duke that led them there. They disclosed the information that Disney was just beginning to develop what would be called animatronics, and they could envision me in that department.
Then, they took me on a tour of the studio, and gave me a pile of papers to fill out at home, to bring with me when I appeared to begin working. I explained that I been accepted by the University of Michigan, and I had to decide what to do next. School began in a few weeks. Should I accept the job that they were offering … or…(I was thinking) … go to college and return to Disney, after I furthered my education? They told me there would be a job for me, whenever I was ready. Deep in my heart, I knew that I would never be. I knew that I would not come back again.
It was so strange that when I finally saw the Disney Studios in person, saw the throngs of workmen, trudging to the commissary, tin lunch boxes in hand, it reminded me of nothing quite as much as our school trip to the Ford factory. And I could feel the dream that had sustained and nourished me, throughout my often lonely childhood, dematerializing. It wasn’t crashing, but, more or less, evaporating. The fading vapors rose and gathered, momentarily, to form a small cloud that briefly hovered in the air above me; then, propelled by the gentle breeze of a thousand eyelashes, fluttering, slowly floated away, and ceased to be.