COLLECTING COMIC CHARACTERS
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
When we made the giant leap to the apartment on 28th Street, and the loft on Lexington, a new era began for me, the era of collecting! There must have been something in the air of New York City in the mid-60s that encouraged awesome objects that predated my childhood, to begin appearing there. Comic art and artifacts that dated, from the Turn of the Century, to the glorious days of creativity that burst forth, between the two World Wars, were slowly creeping up on me. And, now, in 1964, they caught me. And I began collecting Comic Characters. A year in France had opened my eyes to the possibility that toys could, in fact, be Works of Art. Nonetheless, the wild idea that there might be other Mickey Mouse images, as wonderful as the amazing cast iron Bank that I got in the Paris Flea market, in 1958, never crossed my mind, until...
Frank and Susan Toriello, the former tenants of 128 E28th Street, who adopted us as relatives, so we could inherit their rent controlled apartment, were about to leave New York forever. On their final evening in Manhattan, the four of us went out to eat in a small restaurant across the street. It had only one table, and served only one group each night. It was called “The Tomb for Dead Lovers.” The place was rather atmospheric, a fairyland of twinkling lights, decorated with exotic antiques, many of which were for sale. And there it was, amidst the phantasmagorical decor, my second Mickey. The price was $15 dollars. Incredibly, I left without it. Eunice secretly got it for me for Christmas. Our upstairs neighbor, Haig Adishian was outraged. “$15. for that? Ridiculous!”
Not ridiculous, Glorious! It was the Knickerbocker Composition doll, and a revelation to me. This dazzling image was like a celestial vision. It revealed the fact that there were other great Mickeys out there. The thought hadn’t occurred to me. It’s not like I had seen any. Soon, piece by piece, amazing images continued to turn up, and I discovered that there was once a Golden age of Graphic Imagery, in which toys and games and a vast variety of popular iconography were more than likely to be extraordinary works of art.
In those early days, when mankind first began collecting Mickey, I enjoyed a kind of powerful anonymity, a giddy sense of delight that was derived from believing that I was the only one looking for him. Living in New York City in the 1960s, I could breeze through an antique show and know with certainty that any Mickey Mice or other comic characters, who might be found there, were, more or less, just waiting for me. It was almost like having a cloak of invisibility that enabled me to inconspicuously zoom from booth to booth, and scoop them up with impunity. Therefore, I tried to keep my passion for these underappreciated treasures a secret, lest my excitement might invite emulation, and create unwanted competition.
But there was something contagious in the air, and, in spite of my discretion, other Mickey Mouse collectors were beginning to appear. The first I met was "Richard Merkin." Richard was a painter, whose creations were heavily seeped in literary allusions and popular iconography. He was a graduate of The Rhode Island School of Design, where he continued to teach, three days a week.
Apart from Richard and myself, the cast of characters in the first days of Mouse collecting was a small one: Richard’s best friend from RISD was Max Fleischer’s grandson, Kenny Kneitel. Kenny had a curious shop, one flight up, in midtown Manhattan, called “Fandango.” He specialized in the sort of unusual merchandise that had been newly identified as “Camp.” Among the cornucopia of offbeat objects Kenny gathered, on excursions into the wilds of New Jersey, were often early Mickeys and other comic characters. Sometimes, he took me with him on those trips to the junk stores and pawn shops, located in seedy neighborhoods, just across the Hudson River. It was amazing, the wonderful things that one could find there.
The only other shop in Manhattan that carried old Mickey “merch,” as Michael called it, was “Michael Malce and Son.” It was located on Third Avenue, a few blocks from me. Michael Malce had an incredible eye for finding fabulous tchotchkies, and among them was a continuing supply of early Mickeys. Any old Mickey that Michael offered, in those delightful days, was always priced at $9. That was Michael’s standard Mickey price. From figurines to celluloid windups, it didn’t matter what the object was; the price was always “nine”.
It was in Michael’s shop that I first met Richard Merkin. And getting these $9. mice, when they popped up, became a game of musical chairs, in which Richard and I were the only players. We both tried to be the one who was there, at the very moment, each new Mickey Mouse appeared. Because Richard lived inconveniently uptown, on the West Side, and also spent three days a week teaching in Rhode Island, I was winning the Mouse Race.
Before long, there were two additional players in the game. The first, at first, was not competing, just annoying. One day, when I was hanging out at Fandango, Kenny said to me: “The thing I hate about this store, is having to put up with every asshole, who walks through the door.” While I was wondering if he meant me, he whispered hurriedly: “Listen! Here comes the worst one, now!” Like Captain Hook, who was forewarned of the approaching Crocodile by the ticking of the alarm clock it had swallowed, we heard the sound of many timepieces, echoing in the narrow hallway, and ticking louder, step by step, as the “Crock” climbed up the stairs.
And, through the door, popped Robert Lesser, a small chubby man, with Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat, who rather resembled Porky Pig. I stepped aside and tried to look disinterested and preoccupied, in a distant corner of the store, while Bob, impervious to me, bombarded Kenny with what I later learned was his standard routine. Out of his pockets, one after another, he pulled, at least, a dozen comic watches, boasting about each variation, as he dramatically showed it off. Finally, when he was out of breath, and Kenny had been suitably unimpressed, Bob stepped into the hall again, and disappeared, with the sound of ticking timepieces still ringing in our ears!
In those early days, Mickey watches were Bob’s main thing. He had visited the jewelry supply stores on Canal Street, and purchased every old Mickey Mouse watch he could find there, for a few dollars each. He then made it his mission to convince anyone, who would lend an ear, how valuable they were. Over the years, as I got to know Bob Lesser better, the very mention of a Mickey Mouse timepiece became an instant turnoff to me. “Lesser ennui” was the sole reason that I never collected character watches, enthusiastically.
One day, a Lionel Mickey Mouse handcar appeared in Michael’s store. Richard and I, both, went nuts. We had never seen one before. We later learned that it was only there because Ernie had sent it back. Michael had asked him $80. (Gasp!) And, although, the price was fine with Ernie, he said that he had one, already. Therefore, Michael offered it to Richard and me for “only” $50. That price seemed outrageous to us at the time. And so, a new pecking order was established. There were, now, three toy buyers in the game. Ernie got first crack at everything. Richard and I were offered whatever he didn’t take. Later in the week, I asked one of Eunice’s friends, to visit Michael’s store and ask how much the Mickey handcar would be to her, just a stranger off the street. The price Michael quoted her was $40. I gave her the money, and she went back and bought it for me.
There was one other collector in this story, and that was Ernie Trova, a successful artist, living in St. Louis. We never found out how Michael discovered him, but it became clear to Richard and me that everything had suddenly changed at Michael Malce and Son’s. Mickey Mice rarely appeared, there, and if they did, they were no longer $9. each. We learned that Michael was sending all the mice he got to Ernie, by the box load, sight unseen. Ernie would, inevitably, love everything, and send a check to pay the bounty.
Another day, in Michael Malce and Son's, I met an amazing man. His name was Albert Horen, and we immediately became buddies, the best of friends. No history of Mickey Mouse collecting would be complete, without including Al Horen. Alas, only the most knowledgeable of old time Disney collectors have heard of him, and few of them knew his true story, even then. But in those early days, Al played a pivotal role, in Mouse collecting, one that by its very nature, had to remain somewhat a secret. His persona is not easy to describe, but I will try. Al was a collector, a dealer, and perhaps the most persistent and inspired picker of his day. But more than all of that, he was a self-trained artist, who some would consider to be a forger. His art form was the Mickey Mouse watch!
Al’s wife, Floss, who always reminded me of Joan Blondell, would be the first to tell you that when she first met Al, he had absolutely no ambition. And she admittedly liked it that way, because she got his full attention. Then, he suddenly discovered Mickey Mouse, and became a man obsessed. Living in Philadelphia, old comic toys were everywhere, and Al was among the first to begin amassing them. Al definitely had the gift of the gab, and could have been a carnival pitchman or an old fashioned traveling salesman. To travel with him was an adventure. His van came to a screeching halt at any store, along the way that looked like it might have old merchandise, hidden away. Then Al would start his routine. He could talk his way into anybody’s storage room or attic. If they put up resistance, Al would deliver his most persuasive line: “Don’t you like money?” And minutes later, we would be digging through ancient merchandise in some quaint looking old drugstore’s cellar, where Al would inevitably find buried treasure.
He also stopped at every watch repair shop, and asked if they had any parts for repairing Mickey Mouse watches. It was amazing how many did. He would buy all they had, hands, wheels, spare dials, anything.
In his heyday, Al was pumping out Mickey timepieces by the dozens. The dials were tinted photographs, but the hands were always the real thing. Al developed the making of fictitious comic character timepieces into an inspired art form. He found a source on Broadway where he could purchase unlimited quantities of modern English pocket watches for a few dollars each. The cases and movements had been fabricated from the very tools that Ingersoll used in the 1930s, and they were virtually identical. Al developed all kinds of creative variations on already existing watches, and he invented new designs as well. Some would calls these “fakes,” but others, like myself, regarded them as works of art.
Looking through a drawer just now I found one of Al’s creations, an oversized pocket watch, attached to a wrist band. I wore this watch for many years. The bright red pants that Al colored by hand are faded now, but, amazingly, the watch still runs.
Thinking about this era, uncovers many ancient memories. I am remembering an episode that I would call, "Ken’s Revenge." Bob Lesser had, as usual, been spreading fictitious rumors. This time, he claimed that Kenny Kneitel couldn’t pay his bills, and thus, his shop Fandango was going out of business. When word of this got back to Kenney, he was incensed, and wracked his brain to come up with an exquisitely insidious plan to reap revenge. Al had a brother, Michael. And while Albert was not a professional artist, his brother Michael was. As a talented illustrator, Michael could make fake timepieces with results that were impeccable, and, unless the case was opened, undetectable.
Kenny in his travels, searching for merchandise for Fandango, had discovered a small Art Deco desk clock. It happened to be in the color that many Mickey Mouse clocks had in common, a sickly shade of olive green. And this was Kenny's diabolical scheme: He commissioned Michael Horen to transform the generic desk clock into a Mickey Mouse timepiece. Then, Kenny sold it to Bob, for a king’s ransom. Bob fell for the forgery, gratefully.
I tried to convince Kenny that this was not revenge, but quite the contrary! And that he would, in fact, be doing Bob a favor. Bob didn’t care if the clock was genuine or not, as long as he could brag about it, and pretend it was. Bob later pictured this bogus desk clock in his book, “ A Celebration of Comic Art and Merchandise” proclaiming that it was the rarest of all Mickey Mouse timepieces. That’s how legends are created! The myth was further perpetrated when Michael’s fabrication was later included in Heidi and Gilman's book, " The Mickey Mouse Watch."
Al Horen was an honest man. The watches he created, and recreated, were always inexpensive, and he never sold them as anything other than reproductions. He never attempted to pass them off as the "real thing." Unfortunately, unscrupulous dealers bought them from Al, and resold them as genuine antiques. Soon Disney was on his tail. They asked everybody, including me, if we knew who was making these “fake timepieces.” Everybody knew, and everybody liked Al. Therefore, no one would tell. As might be expected, it was Bob Lesser, a major mischief maker, who, cloaking his disclosure in faint praise, eventually, blew Al’s cover. By then, the fad had passed, and it really didn’t matter, and the mysterious Al Horen had become legend.
Years later, the Walt Disney Company and Fossil produced a special edition pocket watch, based on one of Al’s designs, for which they gave him praise and credit. This was one of Al’s most popular original designs. It was adapted from the classic drawing of Mickey and Minnie that appeared on the cover of the first Mickey Mouse Big Little Book, on the left. The Fossil watch is on the right.
Here is an extremely rare photograph. I dont believe that Al has ever seen it. But I’m sure that he would not object to my my sharing it here. It represents an impressive accomplishment, inspired by boundless enthusiasm. I shot it at his apartment, forty-five years ago, on the day I traveled to Philadelphia to get a pair of Mickey and Minnie Marionettes that are featured in Greetings from Mouse Heaven. Was this Al’s collection, or merely his inventory, a staggering stockpile of merchandise? I couldn’t decide; neither could Al. Sooner or later, everything was for sale, except to me. Al refused to sell me anything. He said our friendship was too close for him to ask me for money. Nonetheless, Ernie Trova could send his emissary, Jim Schmidt to Philly, and Al would sell him anything. What Al was really saying was that he would not ask me the kind of prices that he could get from Ernie.
Whenever Al found an interesting old timepiece, or curious clock case, in his travels, he would allow it inspire him to create the perfect design to fit. One delightful example is this RCA victor folding travel clock. On the dial is a perfect image of Nipper, and the numerals combine to create an elegant design. Al also came up with a unique solution to enhance elements of the dial with accents of gold. The total effect is magical, and, even though, it is not old, this unique timepiece is “original,” a one of a kind, work of art by Albert Horen.
Al was the first to discover a genuine Mickey Mouse Electric Clock. It blew my mind! In this surreal masterpiece of Ingersoll ingenuity, the figure of Mickey cleverly rotates, topsy turvy, every 60 seconds. His nose is the sweep second hand.
Convinced that I would never be lucky enough to find one of these small treasures, I decided to make my own, only bigger! Al, kindly, let me photograph his. I found a huge old octagonal neon clock at the 26th street Flea Market, for 15 dollars. Ah, Those were the days! Now, the trick would be, getting the mouse to rotate. I cut the Mickey image out of aluminum, and glued coins in place behind him, to serve as counterweights. Powered by a separate motor of his own, Mickey still rotates perfectly to this day, and the red and blue neon tubes still combine their basic colors to magically radiate a rosy glow. Alas, the clock, itself, stopped working, years ago.
Around this time “Life Magazine” stepped onto the scene. That coming October was going to be Mickey’s 40th birthday. And Life wanted to do a story about collecting Mickey. Somehow, they got the names of four of us, Ernie Trova, Robert Lesser, Richard Merkin, and yours truly. That article became a turning point for me. With this article in Life Magazine, in October, 1968, my Life as a Mickey Mouse Collector began officially. Up until that time, I had a tendency to find the fact that I collected Mickey Mouse to be a bit embarrassing. And I saw my passion for collecting Disney as evidence that my lame attempts at growing up were failing dismally. But this article changed everything. The change was subtle, at the time, but, in retrospect, I realize that its gentle impact was Life altering. Perhaps that’s why it’s called Life Magazine.
I had been slowly putting together the wall in our small apartment, on which to display my growing toy collection. The box that would be dedicated to Mickey was still empty, but lined with patriotic paper. My modest menagerie of Mickey Mouse was scattered all over the house.
When Life called about the article, I was flattered and Amazed! Who ME? “Moi” in Life Magazine? Although, I didn’t think my collection was newsworthy, like an eager puppy, I gladly said, “OK!” I remember, it was a Friday. They wanted to send a photographer on Monday! Therefore, I spent the weekend digging up anything I had that resembled Mickey, and arranged it in that empty showcase. I frantically faked it out, with every mouse in the house, some of which were nearly new. And when the photographer arrived on Monday, my Mickey Mouse display was ready!
Richard, on the other hand, took a different tack. To begin with, he wouldn’t let Life in his place. Instead, he rather reluctantly loaned them a few things. Then, Richard asked, “How much are you going to pay me?” When they answered, “Nothing!”, he blew his stack and wanted his stuff back. Later, when a small image of Mickey from his collection that Life had photographed, already, appeared in the article, behind a few new Mickey watches, Richard got really angry, and threatened to sue Life Magazine. As a result of this unpleasant episode, Richard decreed that he “would never collect Mickey Mouse again!” And, cutting off his nose to spite his face, he never did! Therefore, this article, which proved to be a kind of beginning for me, became “The End” for him.
Ernie appeared in the article, from afar, with a photo of a Mickey doll and radio, sent from St. Louis, and the notable quote that “Mickey is the most important visual symbol of the 20th Century, right up there with the Nazi Swastika and Coca Cola!”
Meanwhile, Bob Lesser loaned Life a dozen timepieces that had, most likely, cost him $5. each, and they photographed them on a hunk of cheese. Then, Bob seized the opportunity to do what his collecting was all about: he called it “Building Equity under his collection,” and stated that the group of twelve watches was worth $5,000. So, any idiot who could divide by 12 could do the math and figure out that Mickey Mouse watches must be worth, at least, $400. each. Thanks Bob! Mission accomplished! Mouse prices began to rise, from that moment on.
Here is the article! The date of the issue was October 25, 1968. It led off with the photograph of my humble collection, with Ernie’s 1926, pre-Mickey “MICKY”, blown up to many times its actual size, (and importance) and dubbed in to look like it was standing on the top of my modest display, which was pitiful, by the way. When I look at the photograph, today, I find it embarrassing and laughable, in spite of the fact that there was little else on Earth quite like it, at the time.
Several months later, driving through New Jersey, I noticed an antique mall and dropped in. One dealer had a small gathering of Mickey items, many of which I’d never seen. And, there, above the showcase, was taped, the first page of the article from Life Magazine. The prices he was asking were obscene! When I made a comment to that effect, he pointed to the picture of my collection, and said, “Do you realize what these things are going for, these days?”
It was because of episodes like the one, above, that I approached future offers of publicity reluctantly, and set a Rule that I adhered to unfailingly: Henceforth, I refused to be a part of any article, in print, or on TV, that mentioned money. This resulted in my turning down many an opportunity. When the author or producer, inevitably, said to me: “But, that’s what our readers find interesting”, or, “That’s what our viewers want to see!” I replied, “That’s fine, but do it with another collector, not me!
As the saying goes, “We grow too soon old, and too late wise.” Thus, in retrospect, I realize that of all the bad decisions I made in my life, one of the stupidest was to shun publicity. Looking back over the years, it’s become clear that every time I succumbed to notoriety, beginning with this mention in Life Magazine, something nice happened to me. Within a week after the Life article appeared, I heard from both John Fawcett and Maurice Sendak. And thus, began, two Life-long friendships that have meant the world to me.