Now, a new era began. And this rambling narrative finally arrives at Boutique Fantastique. The name was derived from the ballet, “La Boutique Fantasque.” Its libretto told the tale of a fantastic toy shop, in which the toys all came to life at night, and danced to the music of Rossini, compiled and orchestrated by Respighi. Somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my mind, I dreamed of someday being the proprietor of such an establishment, an enchanted toy shop, where the toys had a life of their own. And, even though, the modest items that we made as Boutique Fantastique were a humble way to make a living, they were also the beginning of a lifelong journey that, although, it never quite reached that impossible goal, nonetheless, came close.
This page begins with a photograph that represents a moment, later on, when we had progressed to having "reps" in the Gift Building, and we dared to be so bold as to run an ad in a gift trade publication, hoping to create some interest in the things we made. This was the photo that was used for that occasion. In those days, before Photoshop, every imperfection showed. The images floating in the air were sketches for a series of stained glass ornaments that we began, just as our years of living in fear in the Old Loft were coming to an end. The doll, sitting on Polichinelle’s knee is the one that Eunice and I discovered together, a few weeks after we met, five years before, in gay Paree.
The first products that Boutique Fantastique made were called “Looking Glass Pictures.” They originated from the discovery of some gold foil embossed oval frames that were imported from Germany by Austen Display.
The golden frames were quite appealing. Their traditional design harkened back to the previous century, and posed the question: What could one do with these? The answer came in the form of Looking Glass Pictures, featuring the classic John Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland. I always believed these were the best illustrations ever made. They captured the characters perfectly. Although, countless artists have attempted to illustrate Alice, over the past century, why they would bother has always been a mystery to me. No subsequent attempt has even remotely equaled these.
So we ordered wooden boxes, four dovetailed sides with a heavy cardboard back. They were made to order to fit the embossed gold paper frames. Then, I adapted five of the Alice characters, those that I sensed to be the most appealing. This odd number, displayed my inexperience in merchandising. Six would have made more sense. So, when one ordered a dozen, they got two of each. But we doubled up on Alice and the White Rabbit. Next, working in Ellen Kunsel’s Brooklyn darkroom, I dissected each character into levels that, when assembled, would create a three dimensional effect, and adapted a background for each that curved inside the box. This is one of the printed sheets:
Elements of each figure were hand colored by “Pochoir,” a stencil method common in France that I taught myself to master. I had one pochoir brush that I bought in France. I used it to color every one of the hundreds of hand colored things we made. I was never able to find a stencil brush that worked the same in the USA. I still have it today!
The boxes were hand wrapped in gold and white fleur de lys paper, which we tinted pink. The back of each, consisted of a panel of white paper, a fabric hanger, and a label. The label read, Boutique Fantastique, copyright 1961. Son of a gun! I must have begun these sooner than I realized. The cardboard spacers were cut by hand on a guillotine, and had to be exact to hold the glass flat. We ordered the glass cut to size in quantities. Each piece of glass was covered in residue from the cutting machine, and had to be cleaned. Making these was work intensive. But I found this life of manual labor to be rewarding, psychologically, if not monetarily.
The process of producing this simple product was a crash course in pricing, sourcing, and manufacturing. Although, our funds were limited, our willingness to invest our time and energy knew no bounds. We ordered boxes, precut glass, and illustration board in relatively large quantities, as large as we could afford. Printing a thousand black and white copies of each scene was not expensive. The watercolors used to tint the prints came in small bottles, and were guaranteed to never fade. The fact that each character was cut out and colored by hand gave the Looking Glass Pictures a handmade quality that enabled them to retail for the outrageous price of $5. each! Seeing we only got half of that, and materials were deducted from our half, we were working for pennies. Pennies that, nonetheless, seemed to be Heaven sent.
With a set of looking Glass Pictures in a portfolio, I cleaned myself up, and ventured out to sell them. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. But I soon learned that because these things were made in limited quantities, no chain of stores, or stores with branches could carry them. Therefore, I found myself seeing the buyers at Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman, and Lord and Taylor. These names meant nothing to me, other that the fact that they bought our stuff, when stores like Macys, and Eunice’s favorite shop, Bloomingdales, could not.
Here is a photo of our friend from Pratt, Warren Gluckman, outside Bergdorf Goodman. The Looking Glass Pictures are featured in their front window. Inspired by what we were doing, Warren created a charming childlike line of greeting cards. Eunice and I spent several days in Brooklyn, helping him silkscreen them. He sold them to a number of good stores, including Bergdorf’s, but found out the hard way that cards were not a good idea. Whether you are Hallmark, or just Warren Gluckman, card buyers want a whole new line of cards each year. Warren sold many cards that first year, but still had many more left over
Boutique Fantastique was such an honest humble way to make a living. I found it so easy to comprehend, and so rewarding. When someone in Manhattan ordered our shadow boxes, I'd deliver them in person. Years later, when I was inventing toys, a royalty check might arrive in the mail. The cause and effect was missing; it was just a number on a check. No matter what the sum, it meant little to me, like an allowance that I did not feel I earned. Making, selling, and delivering the trifles that we produced as Boutique Fantastique, and working hard for pennies; that was happiness to me!
One wonderful aspect of this endeavor was the fact that Eunice could work with me. She had attended art school, at some point in her history, and was a good craftsman, much better than I was at many tasks. She embraced this opportunity enthusiastically. Working together also offered another benefit; Samantha was now eligible to attend a wonderful day care for children of working mothers, located just a few blocks away. So, Eunice took her there every day, where she could enjoy the companionship of children her own age.
The next item that we made came about in a somewhat mysterious and dramatic way. One afternoon, I visited the Cooper Union Museum. They had amazing treasures in their archives, some of which were so exciting that I one day hoped to replicate them. The curator allowed me to photograph some things: a set of anamorphic pictures that revealed a secret image, when reflected in a circular mirror, and a wonderful device that convincingly conveyed a fireworks display. Among the assorted objects, I noticed a small box with a glass front. Inside it, was a paper figure of a man, sipping a glass of wine. I asked the curator what it was. He said it was a “sand toy,” and added that, alas, it didn’t work. I casually picked it up, and it immediately began to move. The little figure lifted the paper glass to his lips, and appeared to take repeated sips. The curator couldn’t believe his eyes. He told me that the object had been in the collection for many years, and he had never seen it operate. I handed it to him. It stopped! He played with it, shaking it, turning it upside down, and nothing happened. I picked it up again and it instantly came to life. The curator was amazed, but I was not. He was discovering something that I had realized all my life, I had a kind of Magic Touch.
This now became a comedy routine, with the box, sitting on the table between us, he only had to place his hand on it to make it stop. But when I did the same, it would begin to move again. I offered to repair it, so it would work for everyone, even him. More astonishing than the aura of magic in the air, was the fact that he replied “OK!” After all, I was just a stranger off the street. But because I seemed an unexplainable affinity for this elusive object, he entrusted it to me. I had no idea what was inside, either that box, or myself, that made it operate. But I knew instinctively that if anyone could fix it, that anyone was me.
And so, I took the sand toy home with me, opened it up, discovered what the mechanism was like, and diagrammed it carefully. The repair was an easy one, just a small adjustment. Then, I replaced the gold braid that sealed the box with some that was almost identical that I got from Austen Display, and returned the sand toy to the curator of Cooper Union Museum, hoping it would work for him. It did!
I decided we could make these things, using the wooden boxes that we already had. Feeling that a dancing figure would be more exciting than a man sipping wine, I proceeded to adapt imagery from the Victorian Toy Theater. By combining elements of various background scenes, I was able to create a proscenium. Then, I drew two jointed figures of Harlequin and Columbine, based on toy theater characters. This achieved the illusion that the artwork was authentic. As a final touch, Eunice, in her quaint Victorian penmanship, wrote a label for the back that read: “This Magic Box, sometimes known as ‘Harlequin’s Magic Box’ is an exact replica of one presented to him by his beloved Columbine on Dec,26th, 1838, and was completely handmade by Boutique Fantastique.” Would you believe that? We did! We were living in a dream.
Replicating the metal and paper mechanism inside each one of these was insane. I did all the coloring and cut out the tiny figures with an Xacto blade, while Eunice strung each one by a method I invented. Instead of the traditional knotted string, we used a thin piece of wire, twisted to form a spring on either end to hold each joint together. Then, each figure had to be individually adjusted, until it danced perfectly. Inserting my finger nails behind each coil of wire, could make the joint looser or tighter. The legs had to be cut exactly, for if one limb was a fraction longer the the other, the figure would not dance properly. Every tiny figure had a unique personality. Some danced immediately; others required my attention for as much as half an hour, before it would cooperate. I worried with each one that, like the sand toy at the Cooper Union, it might only dance for me.
The boxes were wrapped in marbleized paper. This became another foray into wild and ancient craziness. Marbleized paper was still made in France when I was there, and I had a few sheets of it. It was often used as the endpapers in custom book binding. There was no place to purchase it in the USA, at least, not affordably. So, I set out on a quest that found me spending a week in the rare book department of the new York Public Library, studying secret formulas and ancient techniques for marbleizing paper. The process involved large trays of a mixture of rabbit skin glue and glycerin. Oil colors were floated on the surface of this semi gelatinous mixture, and gently swirled about with giant combs. When the pattern looked right, a sheet of paper was laid on top, and it supposedly picked up a perfect print of the image floating on the glue. Then, the glue was washed away, and the sheet was set out to dry. I tracked down all the supplies, some of which were not easy to find, and bought a giant photo developing tray. Then, we set out to marbleize a year’s supply of paper to wrap the Magic Boxes. What a MESS! Glue was all over everything! At first, the floors were slippery. Then, as the mixture dried we found our feet we were glued in place. Later, the artist Peter Max contacted us in a roundabout way, and asked if I would give him secret of marbleizing paper. My answer was, "No Way!" I’d worked too hard to learn it. I instructed his emissary to tell him where to go, i.e. the public library.
Eventually, we upped our game, and our price. The sand toys retailed for $20 each. We raised that sum to $30, and replaced their often erratic sand operated mechanisms with genuine Swiss music movements. I ordered these directly from Reuge in Switzerland, through their New York representatives, a charming and somewhat eccentric German couple, who were extremely kind to me. Their tiny office in lower Manhattan was modest, but welcoming. They went out of their way to help me grasp the basic concepts of music movements, and supplied extensive lists, from which to choose the perfect tunes.
Reuge music movements were the highest quality made, and were available with mechanisms that could make the figures dance. They had to be purchased in some quantity, as they were assembled to order. Fine music box movements are a fascinating subject. I was amazed at the things that I found out about them. For instance, the comb that contains the notes is not like a set of piano keys, one size fits all. Instead, each comb is unique; it contains only the notes that are actually used in each particular tune. A tiny piece of feather is glued to the bottom of each note on the comb. Thus, when the cylinder turns around, and its prongs touch the metal comb, they won’t create a buzzing sound.
Soon, we introduced a couple of new styles. One was this “Petit Theatre Guignol,” the French equivalent of a Punch and Judy Show. It was adapted from an Image d’Epinal.
Our most successful music boxes were a series of fan dancers. The art for these, with its slightly comic flair was authentically Art Nouveau. I based their style on an exceedingly rare Turn of the Century parody of the typical Image d’Epinal construction toy. The original, below, might well be the only example known. It was printed on heavy paper, and tipped into the risqué French magazine, “Le Rire,” circa 1904. This clever piece of make believe constructs a charming brothel, called,” La Boite Secrete de Nevers.” When a crank is turned, a parade of customers climb the stairs to choose from the stable of girls, who willingly display their wares, while the Madame oversees the proceedings, and the elderly proprietors of the establishment read the evening papers, in the bourgeois comfort of their adjacent sitting room. The girls, themselves, and their gentlemen admirers are less than an inch tall. I enlarged and borrowed their tiny images for our fan dancer music box, “Le Petit Theatre de Momartre”
Elements of the decor were used to create the proscenium and the background scene. All the pieces necessary to make three different versions were combined on one printed sheet. And each sheet was hand colored by yours truly. The curtains were pochoired in many different colors to add uniqueness and variety. The framed sheet, below, was one of the first. The added figures were early variations. I was still working out the colors.
Purchasing and dying matched pairs of feathers in many colors was also an adventure. I dyed them, using bottled watercolors, then dried and fluffed them up with a hair dryer. Last of all, the boxes were wrapped in a variety colored papers. The papers, prosceniums, and feathers were mixed and matched to give each music box a unique, one of a kind, look. There were three sizes of fan dancers to choose from, thin, medium, and large. Each one did a lively jig, coyly maneuvering her feather fans to the tinkling of "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay," a tune that I knew in my youth as, “It’s Howdy Doody Time!”
Our ultimate music box was The Grand Theatre Guignol. It was adapted from a spectacularly large Image d’Epinal. In order to extract the black line from the colored image, I had to completely redraw it. Therefore, I built a makeshift camera obscura. This consisted of a table with an opening that held a sheet of glass. The original Epinal print was placed in an old opaque projector, several feet away. This projected its image onto a 45 degree angled mirror, below the table. Then, I traced the projected image off the glass. Afterwards, the oversized tracing was reduced and printed. Then each stark white page was tinted to give it a feeling of age, and hand colored by pochoir. Like the fan dancers, each sheet contained the elements to make three different variations.
The finished music boxes are shown here, life size. The first depicted Polichinelle, fighting the Devil. The second variation featured Pierrot and Pierrot, and the third was Harlequin and Columbine. The double-sized music movements were spectacular. They played an elaborate and well-orchestrated rendition of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust. Each movement had a moving platform, adapted to animate two figures. These extravagant music boxes retailed for $75 each.
Recently, our good friend James Gurney expressed an interest in recording some of the tunes our music boxes played. I asked if he would mind recording them as videos instead, videos that I might use on a web page to show how the music boxes worked. He embraced the idea, and it became the video below, which he posted on his amazing daily blog. I hadn’t anticipated being on the video myself. But, that’s the way that it turned out. Thanks James!
I have often asked myself why I write these recollections that nobody reads. And I guess the answer is: Reliving these bygone days makes me feel young again. Of course, it’s only an illusion, and a momentary one at best. Nonetheless, at times like this, the vast iceberg of frozen memories that occupies my head begins to thaw a little bit, and, word by word, they drip onto the page. And thus, as charming as this video is, it is also a note of stark reality that brings me to the present day, and reminds me of my age
Here is a photograph of Eunice, looking very businesslike, and showing the production line. A quantity of Grand Theatre Guignol interiors fill the shelves. This is another of the few rare photos that convey what the Old Loft was really like.
Eunice not only helped on the production line, she also did the billing and bookkeeping. Hers was an efficient office. That typewriter was "eye wash." Neither one of us could type.
Around this time, Eunice and Samantha went on a Sunday outing to Coney Island with Al Thaler. They came back with a Chihuahua. Samantha was deliriously happy with her new puppy. Twenty-five years later, when I was sculpting the Baby Face dolls, I didn’t refer to reference material. I just knew, intuitively, how they should appear. I felt that their imagery was sort of floating in the air. Years after that, upon discovering this photograph, I realized where the look of Baby Face came from. This doll that Galoob named Penny looks like she just got a puppy!
We named him, “Misty.” With apologies to Dakota Staton, the dog was never stationary. He drove everybody crazy, and had an annoying habit of walking up to people’s faces, and sneezing! After several hectic weeks of canine antics, even Samantha wanted to see the back of him. I mean, see the back of him, walking out the door, not pooping on the floor! So, we gave Misty to the a pharmacist around the corner on Second Avenue. Eunice managed to convince him that Misty was a rare breed of Chihuahua, potentially worth a fortune. He was as thrilled to get Misty as we were to get rid of him. Rambunctious puppies, and five flights of stairs constitute many an inconvenient poop.
One of our favorite customers was the Golden Griffin Bookstore, near Bloomingdales on 57th Street. Its Dynamic owner, Basil Vlavianos and his charming daughter, Zeta became good friends. Mr. Vlavianos had the rights to import and publish Images d’Epinal in the USA. He had visited Epinal, years before, and was now importing prints, like those that I had acquired in France, for one hundred franks apiece, and selling them at New York Gift Shows for four dollars each. I remember helping him and Zita set up their booth. The Golden Griffin also did a limited amount of publishing. Around that time, a series of oversized coloring books, published by Determined Productions were quite popular. We proposed presenting Images d’Epinal in a similar large format. Basil hired me to design two books. One would construct the Eifel Tower, and the other would feature rare jumping jacks, known as “Pantins,” from the archives at Epinal. I carried the designs to completion, but the books never happened. It was a crazy project, after all, too obscure to ever have had wide appeal.
Here is my design area, with that work in progress. My desk, since Pratt, was always an unfinished wooden door, resting on two saw horses. This mini design studio was located in the corner, outside of the partition that I had built to survive the sometimes heatless nights of winter. It was behind this makeshift room divider that we escaped a near catastrophe.
I guess one never knows how they will react in a crisis, until one actually occurs. And so it was that in the middle of one hot and humid summer night, I learned the answer. Throughout the days of summer, the sun beat down on our uninsulated roof, and the temperature in the loft below was sweltering. We kept the top half of all the windows open, hoping to capture a rare breath of cooler air. The sole exceptions to this rule were the two windows in the center of our sleeping area. Because these led directly to the fire escape, we kept them closed and locked at all times. On either side of these, there were two additional windows that we left open at the top, in the area where we slept. One overlooked Samantha’s new child sized bed, and the other was located at the very foot of our own queen-sized mattress and box springs on legs, which was housed behind the secret panel that we opened wide at night, and shut to hide the bed by day.
On this particular night, there was no way to combat the temperature, except by lying motionless, without clothes or covers, trying not to move a muscle, as the slightest exertion encouraged perspiration. If one lay perfectly still, they might even detect the hint of a cool breeze floating through the top of the window at our feet. We eventually, escaped the heat by drifting off to sleep.
Sometime, in the middle of the night, when both Eunice and I were sleeping soundly, I unexpectedly opened my eyes to see a man, just a few feet away from me, climbing through the top half of our bedroom window, directly overhead. He was seconds away from landing on our bed
Fast as lightening, the Relax-A-Cizor monster sprang up! And, roaring, like a raging lion, he lunged toward the intruder, whose upper body was already in the room. My instantaneous intention was to push him out, again. When, all at once, mid-lunge, I stopped! Like a vicious bulldog who had reached the end of his restraining chain, my conscience yanked me back again. As I suddenly realized that I was about to commit a murder! If I had actually completed the shove that I intended, the felon would have fallen five stories to his death. And, if I’d had more time to think, I would have also realized that, even though, I would be acting in self-defense, the police would, nonetheless, discover that we were living in the loft illegally, and our life, as we knew it, would cease to be.
Meanwhile, the startled would-be burglar, instantly withdrew himself, and boldly leapt from our window ledge to the distant fire escape. God knows how he got from there to our window, in the first place. I thought for a second that he had saved me the trouble of killing him by not quite making it back again. But, inches away from certain death, he managed to grab the iron railing with one hand, and pull himself onto the fire escape again. Then, like a shot out of a cannon, he scrambled up the ladder, catapulted over the building’s edge, and landed with a thud, on the roof above. His footsteps shook the ceiling, as he fled.
So, what did the Relax-A-Cizor bear do, then? Without stopping to get dressed, he sped into the hall, bounded up the stairs, and burst through the door onto the roof. When he got there, what did he intend to do? To this day, I haven’t got the slightest clue! Identify the burglar, I guess. The role of superhero had gone to my head. Adrenaline was flowing through my veins. And I was not the slightest bit afraid.
But there was nothing to be seen on that vast plateau of emptiness in the middle of Manhattan, except me in my birthday suit. The intruder had already disappeared from view. I deduced that he ran through one of the doors on an adjacent roof, from whence, no doubt, he came. I would have liked to think he realized that he had awakened a ferocious beast, whose fierce and furious reaction surprised both himself and me! And therefore, he would not come back again. As far as I could tell, he never did. There was nothing we could do about this incident, except hope for the best, and not call the police.
Meanwhile, Boutique Fantastique was growing. Our friend John Ferguson whom I met at Austen Display, and went into business on his own, was enjoying considerable success; more that we were, anyway. He was making pleasant decorative items, the kind that many people wanted, while we were making esoteric make believe and "out of it" antiques. John had a whole stable of workers; some had left Austin Display to work for him. Now, he introduced us to his “reps,” Ross Haber. They had an impressive showroom at 225 Fifth Avenue, the Gift Building. And they became our reps as well. They displayed and took orders on the things we made, for which they charged a commission of 20%.
We also had three part-time helpers, three charming young ladies, still in high school. They were sisters, Anna, Maria, and Raphaella González. They worked along side us, every day, for several hours after school. Their job was applying the marbleized paper to the boxes. These were such fun times. The girls grew up, got married, and had families. All these years later, we still hear from them at Christmas.
Being in business, such as it was, had its ups and downs. They were often one in the same. My friend from the university of Michigan, David Newman, who later co-authored “Superman,” and “Bonnie and Clyde” was working for Esquire, at the time. Damn, that’s another friend, my age, I just looked up to find out that he died in 2003. As a favor to me, David managed to get two of our items into the “Last Minute Gifts” section of the Christmas issue of the magazine. That was the good news! The bad was the fact that the music box was all but hidden. And would you believe they photographed the sand toy, upside down? You can’t make this stuff up! Here is the proof, two small sections of two full page photographs. This was an early example of an irony that I would come to see, time and again, as I pursued a career in toy inventing, the fact that Good News and Bad often arrive, hand in hand.
That Christmas we sent out Christmas cards to all our customers. The card design was actually a transformation “trick” from the Victorian Toy Theater. Like everything we did, it was fabricated and colored by hand.
Our special project for the final year in the Old Loft was a miniature masterpiece of pure insanity. Frank MacIntosh, the buyer at Henri Bendel had convinced me that if a made a dancing poodle, as a Bendel exclusive for that coming Christmas, they would sell like crazy. And he promised that Bendel would promote them. So I ordered 100 music movements from Reuge, with a mechanism that was intended to animate a tiny ballerina. I tried to choose a tune that would be appropriate for a French poodle. The song I chose was, “C’est Si Bone.”
Then I rummaged through my box of tools, and found one that I hadn’t used in seven years, my inexplicable ability to sculpt. Soon I was rendering a petit poodle in wax, complete with all his tiny teeth. I made a Silastic mold, and cast 100 puppies in epoxy. Then, numerous trips to the fur district resulted in obtaining a warren's worth of tiny rabbit pelts, and bits of curly lamb’s wool. Each miniature Poodle held aloft a blown glass balloon. The shorthaired portion of its body was covered in white flock. And, last of all, each wore a satin clown’s hat, with two black pompoms on the top, and had a pleated ruffle around his neck. Then, Frank MacIntosh escorted me to Salmagundi fabric, where we chose what he considered to be suitably elegant velvet ribbon and gold braid to decorate the base. Making each poodle dance, and do a perfect pirouette, then, change direction, required a lot of Magic Touch. I played with every music box, until it came to life.
Here is Bendel’s catalogue for that year, a tiny thing, in which every page was a drawing. Our Poodle was rendered with amazing accuracy. The same art appeared in the new York Times. And, believe it or not, they sold! Frank informed me that affluent ladies were buying them as Christmas Presents for their pets.
Here also is a letter from the President of Bendel herself, Geraldine Stuts, thanking Mr. Birnkrandt for working on their Christmas Book with them. And wishing us a Merry Christmas, 1965. By then, we had left the Old Loft behind.
Between salaries and commissions, we were selling more, and earning less. And we were also investing in the materials we needed to produce new items. We also got an accountant, a charming man who had been an inspector for the IRS all his life. He had an office in the Empire State building. I visited him there one time, but he loved to come to our loft to do the books and taxes; sometimes he brought his lady friend. I learned so much from him. His philosophy of life, he summed up in one often repeated Latin slogan: “Noli illegitimi carborundum!” It meant “Don’t let the bastards wear you down!”
In the springtime, sales slowed up. By mid-summer, they were almost nonexistent. There were some hard times. I remember one year, in which we bought real food for Samantha, but Eunice and I lived on a powdered diet food, called, Metrical, because both of us could live on it for a whole week, for only seven dollars each. But, starting in September, sales began to pick up again, and, suddenly, we were making money, shipping orders daily, and purchasing Christmas presents, as the holidays approached.
Every Thanksgiving, we celebrated our good fortune by throwing a gala Thanksgiving party that got more elaborate every year. I made vast quantities of eggnog, using a recipe from the Esquire cookbook, starting from scratch, and adding rum and whisky. It was delicious, and wickedly fattening. Each year, the crowd grew larger. In 1963, we really outdid ourselves with a guest list of twenty five. We invited old friends and new, including our elegant reps Ross and Haber from 225 Fifth Avenue, who surprised us by accepting our invitation, and all our friends from Pratt. The preparations for this event were elaborate, and Eunice outdid herself, preparing everything in our primitive kitchen. The fire escape became an extension of our minute refrigerator for the occasion. Several days before the event, Eunice came home with the turkey, as big a Butterball as we could cram into our pitifully small oven.
She also bought a canister of an American product, new to her, one apparently not available in England. It was called “Meat Tenderizer.” “You can’t put that on turkey!” I cried. “Oh yes I can!” she replied. The argument grew heated, and, in the end, overriding my opinion, she sprinkled vast quantities of Meat Tenderizer on the raw turkey, and put it in the refrigerator to wait for Thanksgiving, which was still three days away. Early Thanksgiving morning, she put the turkey in the oven. As the day progressed, something started to smell strange. A more accurate description would be: something started to “Stink!” The rapidly intensifying odor that emanated from the oven was reminiscent of week old roadkill, or perhaps, a newly exhumed grave. We opened the oven door to behold what used to be a turkey. What we saw, instead, was a perfectly clean carcass of bare bones, sitting in a bubbling puddle of liquefied putrescence!
So here we were, with 25 guests, due in an hour, expecting a turkey dinner. I had just flushed the liquid portion of the foul smelling foul down the toilet in the hall, and was tossing the bare bones in the garbage, holding my nose, when Harley arrived. Five minutes later, we were zooming through the city in Harley’s bright red MG sports car, discovering that there was nothing open on Thanksgiving morning. There was no place to purchase anything, let alone a Thanksgiving turkey, ready for a party.
While the Macys parade was traveling down Broadway, Harley and I were a block away, searching Seventh Avenue, when, suddenly, we saw it! There in the front window of an upscale deli, we beheld what must have been the World’s Biggest Turkey. It was clearly for display purposes only, sitting on a massive silver tray, and elaborately decorated with fancy fruits and parsley. At first glance, I didn’t think that it was real. But the place was open, which, in itself, was a miracle, so, Harley stopped the car in front, and I literally ran in. I was willing to embrace anything they could supply, including Thanksgiving corned beef. I can’t believe I really said “How much is that turkey in the window?” Not that price mattered; I was prepared to pay anything to save the day. To my amazement, they were all too glad to sell their turkey day display! And, minutes later, out I went with it, smiling from ear to ear. It might have weighed 50 pounds or more, and, like yours truly, it was almost too big to fit in Harley's car.
By the way, it was delicious! We served it at room temperature, without tenderizer. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that Eunice never used meat tenderizer again. Harley and the hand of Fate had saved the day! The party was a great success. It was also the last. Our time in the Old Loft came to an end, before Thanksgiving came again.
Last week, I was in the basement, looking through a box of ancient checks to see if Mid-Town Electric Supply spelled their name with, or without, a hyphen, when a single cancelled check literally jumped out at me. It was made out to the “Carnegie Deli” for $33.60, on November 28, 1963. Oh My God! The date was that notorious Thanksgiving Day! And this was the very check I wrote for that amazing turkey! And even more surprising was learning that it came from the world famous Carnegie Deli. That name meant nothing to me then. Now, suddenly, I feel like our turkey might have been a celebrity!
Another major product we made in the old loft was “The Great Zoetrope.” It was an accurate reproduction of an early optical toy that I found in France. This fascinating device foretold the advent of both animation and the moving pictures, years before they were invented. The elements that went into reproducing the Great Zoetrope were numerous, as it was far more complex than meets the eye. The main component was a cylinder with 13 slots, evenly spaced. Thus, it had to be die cut flat, then, formed into a cylinder. I ordered wooden hoops, made to size, from a company that made embroidery hoops, which might be impossible to find in anything but plastic today. These gave structure to the cylinder. A round disk was inserted in the bottom, and a hat box lid was ordered from a hatbox company to fit the top. Wood turned bases were ordered separately. I sprayed them black in a makeshift cardboard spraying booth, set up in the loft. A steel rod with a point on one end, and screw treads on the other, was made to order, and that was just the beginning! There was a printed label for the base, and a die cut shipping stabilizer. The movie strips were printed on two sheets, one of which had red accents added. Then, I painted in all the other colors by hand, and sliced the large sheets into 30" long strips, with a ruler and a razor blade.
This strange little folder was created to promote it. God knows, what I was thinking! It folded over and the strip pulled out, at which point it could stand up. We sent these to all our former customers. I guess, it helped to sell the first 600. A designer friend looked at this and said: "I’ve never seen something like this before, you must know something I don’t know!" I couldn’t decide, then or now, if that was a compliment, or just his sarcastic way of implying that I didn’t know what I was doing. If that is what he was saying, in retrospect, I must agree.
We ordered enough materials to make a limited edition of a thousand numbered pieces; and sold 600, right away. When Colorforms discovered me, they purchased the remaining inventory of 400 pieces, and the rest is history.
Here is a another short video made by James Gurney. It features "Pierrot le Puppy" doing his pirouette. He manages to reverse direction and turn the other way, not an easy thing to do. Then, Jim pans up to reveal the dancer’s pink blown glass balloon.
We created one other item, as Boutique Fantastique, in the Old Loft. For lack of a catchy name, it was just called “stained glass ornaments.” Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by theatrical gelatins, the sheets of water soluble material that are used in panels, set over spotlights to create colored lighting effects. One could buy a tiny sample book, for just a dollar that offered small swatches of all the different shades. I was forever trying to think up another use for these amazing sheets of vibrant color. I had also discovered that when airplane cement dried on a transparent surface, it formed bubbles and imperfections that resembled handmade glass. Now, I put these two elements together, and "invented" a method of making ornaments that looked like stained glass.
The ornaments began as a series of heavily outlined images that represented the leading. These were then die cut, in relatively optimistic quantities. Each ornament required two matching pieces, a front and back, die cut of heavy cardboard that had been lined with glossy black flint paper. Colored gelatins, precut to size, were glued in place on the inner surface of the bottom piece, using a white adhesive called, “Sobo.” When all the areas of the bottom half were filled with color, the entire gelatin surface was coated with a thick layer of airplane cement. A small metal hanger was positioned in the wet glue, and then, the upper die cut piece was placed on top. Once the airplane cement was dry, the effect really did resemble stained glass. The cardboard “leading,” on the other hand, was fat and clunky, and therefore, not convincing. But, in spite of that, when the finished ornaments were seen with light behind them, the effect of the blazing bright colors was quite appealing.
Making stained glass out of airplane glue might qualify as the worst idea I ever had. It required vast quantities of airplane cement, of the variety that was later used for an activity, known as, “sniffing glue.” Who knew? I purchased it in gallon cans, and could run through several gallons in a day. When the ornaments were laid on trays to dry, the entire loft was filled with fumes. But in as much as glue sniffing was not invented yet, everyone got a splitting headache, but nobody got "high."
Around this time, our years in The Old Loft were coming to an end. Somehow, we had survived, without being discovered, after all. But we did have one close call. One day, a firetruck parked on the street outside, and several firemen spent a long time, inspecting the first few floors, below. Then, as we quaked with fear, and Samantha, thank God, was in day care, we heard them coming up the stairs. And so, it actually occurred, the moment that we had dreaded all these years, the heart stopping sound of forceful pounding on the door ... of the vacant loft on the fourth floor! An ominously Gestapo like voice announced, “Fire Department!” We heard them repeat it one more time, and then, after some muffled conversation, they ascended to the fifth floor, and did the same at our front door.
Minutes before, I had been mentally prepared to let them in, repeatedly rehearsing in my head, everything I planned to say. But, now, in light of what had just taken place, I abruptly changed my mind. An option that had not occurred to me, suddenly, became a possibility! Why wouldn't they give up, and leave, like they did downstairs, if we appeared to not be here?
Although, we were terrified, we did not answer! Silence! Were they listening? Would our beating hearts give us away? Then, they pounded on the door, once more, much louder that before! We held our breath. We heard them mumble something, and open the bathroom door. Oh No! Would the fact that there was toilet paper there give us away? Then, the walked along the hall, and pounded on the second door, one that as far as we knew, was permanently nailed shut. I wondered if that, too, would constitute a violation. Then, the firemen stomped up the final flight of stairs, and out onto the roof. Their heavy footsteps sounded like the crack of doom, resounding through the loft that we called home. We heard them examining the fire escape. Would they climb down? Thank God, they did not! Instead, they came down the stairs again. One stopped to use the toilet, but didn't flush. And then, they left. For several weeks, thereafter, we expected them to come back again. They never did!
And so, an era ended. This final photo, the last I'd ever shoot in black and white, captures that moment in time. Soon, these shelves would be dismantled, and their contents, reassembled in a rent controlled apartment on 28th Street. In this farewell appearance, my hair was growing thinner, my body growing thicker, and the humble beginnings of the toy collection that would one day be Mouse Heaven, was slowly growing bigger. Among this gathering of precious memories, the cast iron Mickey bank stood smiling, and waiting for the day when he would rule my life.