Mel Birnkrant's
Mel Birnkrant's
All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
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         This ancient artifact carries me back, across the barrier of time. It represents one of my very first attempts at toy design.  I had just met Harry Kislevitz, at the time, met him on the phone, that is.  It would be four years before we met, in person, face to face.  In retrospect, I realize that the situation was uniquely strange, as he lived only half an hour away, across the river, in River Edge New Jersey.  Nonetheless, our marathon conversations seemed perfectly natural to me.  Harry had an uncanny way of making everything OK.  And thus, we spent hours every day, and sometimes late into the night, inventing and discussing toy design.

Harry had a fascination for concepts that were basic. The first Colorforms toy with its basic geometric shapes, and simple straight forward play, were evidence of that. Therefore, a name that we came up with intrigued him.  We had no idea what the toy would be, but we knew it would be called, “The Shadow Toy.”  By this time, we had already tried an item that projected realistic ghosts, called, “The Scary Light.”  Of course, it failed dismally.  It would be many years before Harry realized that, with his lousy sales force, who never bothered to even show the things we made, nothing we came up with could succeed.  It wasn’t until we did the Outer Space Men, and Harry offered his salesman an ultimatum, “Sell this, or leave!” that something we made was successful.

What you see below was my first attempt to utilize the cardboard flashlight we invented for the Scary Light, and adapt it to project a beam of light that displayed a multitude of shadows, fantastic and recognizable.  We chose Fairy Tales as a theme.  And still seeped in the iconography of “Boutique Fantastique,” I tried to give it a feeling of being an early optical toy, slightly Victorian and antique.
          The package was intended to be like no package I had ever seen, a complicated die cut extravaganza, with figures that stood out from the card and cast preprinted shadows on the background,  One could only see that background, from an angle.

Here are two attempts to simplify the package.  The first is the same card as before, but with the figures removed, so that only their shadows remain.  In this version, the shadows would dominate, and the colors would be black and white. Next to it, is an even simpler approach,  Here the die cut card would be replaced by folded tray, and the theme would be slimmed down to a few iconic images. 
          In all these items, the shadows would be printed on an acetate cylinder that could be rotated to place the various images before a hole in the tube from which a beam of light was projected. The bare bulb actually cast a well-defined shadow.
          The Shadow Toy, both, did and didn’t happen. Suddenly, the hand of Fate intervened, and passing over me, it cast a well-defined familiar shadow, known as the Bat Signal!  Both Harry and I were blown away by this masterpiece of Pop Kitsch, the instant it appeared on TV.  So, suddenly, "The Shadow Toy" became "The Batman Shadow Light!" 

Would you believe that I still have the tiny sketch on the right.  I whipped it out in a few seconds.  This inspired scribble held the essence of what the finished product would be like. Turning this moment of sudden inspiration into a finished toy was anything but easy for me.  I had never done much finished art before.  It was a bit like pulling teeth, and took me several weeks.  The end result can be seen below.  On the left, is my first full color sketch.  Over time, I learned that a handmade comp, like this, is called, “a prototype.”  The finished product is on the right.  This is an actual production sample, printed and die-cut. Only two of these exist. Alas, the toy was never manufactured, mainly because, POW!  BAM!  The Batman craze was over, overnight, and with it went the Shadow Light!