All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Rummaging around in the crawl space, under the raised floor, in what used to be the living room, last week, I came across several boxes of ancient artifacts. These makeshift packing cases have remained sealed, since the day we moved here from New York City in 1970, forty-eight years ago. They contain many fragments of half-baked early concepts. These barely realized bits and pieces represent my first fumbling tries at toy design. They transport me back to a time when my humble attempts at creativity were in their infancy. And if I had not started this crazy web page, enumerating long lost toys, they were destined never to be seen. When the Land of Lost Toys was just beginning, I wondered if I might find a hundred. That proved to be much easier than I thought it would be. This is entry number one hundred and three.
This concept, which I simply called the Magic Flea Circus, was inspired by many experiences in my brief history. Foremost among them was a precious treasure that I discovered at the famous Paris Flea Market. It was one of mankind’s first attempts at harnessing the wonders of Static Electricity. Called the “Ano Kato,” this rare diversion dates from the Nineteenth Century. The simple DIRECTIONS read: Rub the glass with leather cushion and the electricity produced will cause the figures to move. If the figures do not move quickly, dip the leather in Amalgam. KEEP THE GLASS AND LEATHER CLEAN AND DRY. (Patent Applied for)
And here it is, miraculously complete and all original, the ANO KATO! Inside the leather pad, wrapped in a wad of light tan cotton, is a minute quantity of that mysterious substance, Amalgam. And the tiny figures are hand crafted from an ancient substance, known as elder pith. Their minute jointed arms and legs, as well as the wings of the butterfly and the segments of the snake, are held together by tiny lengths of human hair. There are also four balls of elder pith, as light as air.
Incredibly, this amazing antique still works perfectly. A few rubs of the leather pad sends the figures dancing merrily. Once they get going, one can take the leather pad away and they continue to animate.
Later still, with a little guidance from her daddy, my daughter Samantha created this masterpiece as her science project at PS 116, when she was eight years old. We discovered that tiny figures cut out of tissue paper worked nearly as well as elder pith. The patriotic graphics and the funny little tissue figures were all her own design. As was the amusing name: “Staticville USA.”
As you are discovering, many diverse elements led to my eventual attempt to create a Magic Flea Circus. One of the most important of them began on my first visit to New York City, when I was nine. At that time, a curious establishment on 42nd Street, adjacent to Times Square, caught my eye, and held it captive for many years. Known as “Hubert’s Dime Museum,” this cabinet of curiosities featured a variety of “freaks,” later known as human oddities. That was the bad news. The good news was that in the basement of this mesmerizing establishment, was “Professor William Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus.”
Several years passed, until, as a student at Pratt, I finally worked up the nerve to pay the admission, which by then, was much more than ten cents, and descend into the lower depths to see the fleas. For years, I had been itching to see the flea circus, and now, I itched all the way through it. I’m sure none of the star performers jumped onto me, but it sure felt like they did. Such is the power of suggestion.
The Ring Master was clearly not the same Professor Heckler seen in this fabulous 1930 photograph, but the props and paraphernalia were the same. I assume the fleas were many generations removed from those who performed, below.
I love this whimsical photograph and its caption:
"The fleas in this photo have been enlarged 700 times as compared with the human figure. They are shown in action poses from several of the stunts they perform in the circus."
Years later, I discovered this modest variation, called, “Comics by Static.” It’s more than a little uninspiring, both as a static electricity toy and as a comic character item. The rather coarse Directions on its bottom state: “Slap and rub firmly across the top of box with fingertips or coat sleeve repeatedly. Then Comics will dance, hop and skip. You will be amazed to see them come to life! Fingers must be absolutely dry.” Manufactured by Rapid Cutting Company, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Before I display the toy that all the above led up to, I believe I should mention my first encounter with static electricity, It also took place when I was nine. Around that time, my parents made a lame attempt to introduce me to the world of scouting. This consisted of taking me to a cub scout crafts fair, held at a local school, not mine. I guess, they thought that the comradery of boys half my size would be good for me, and might help to overcome the fact that I was chronically shy. I knew, all along, that being a cub was not for me. At nine years old, I was already as big as any full grown grizzly!
In spite of my distress, one of the exhibits, caught my attention. It was a simple cigar box, painted black inside, with a sheet of glass on top. The confined space, beneath that piece of window pane was home to a crowd of tiny tissue paper people. They were simple stick figures, all identical, the kind that one could cut out from a sheet of accordion folded paper. The small white figures stood out dramatically against the black interior, and, when rubbed the right way, they stood up and danced. I never did become a cub scout, but I also never forgot the sight of that cigar box and the magic world contained within it. The tiny paper people, living in that simple box, lived on forever in my memory.
Now, striving to survive in New York City, and find a painless way to make a living, I searched my brain for toy ideas. And the memory of that unbearable day my parents tried to make a cub of me came floating back to me. So, later on that evening, on the phone with Harry, I pitched the idea to him. By then, my head was full of additional memories about static electricity and fleas, therefore, the inhabitants of my imagined box of static electricity had been transformed into a Circus of Fleas.
This was one of many ideas I thought up, early on, that never progressed to completion. I’m afraid the concept got out of control, and escaped me. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant dream, and typical of my totally off the wall over the top early attempts at packaging. As often happened in those days, the package was far more interesting than the toy. In this case, I thought it was all right, because the package WAS the toy.
The complicated folded paper package was intended to form a circus tent; one that, alas, did not travel far beyond a sketch. The bits and pieces that you'll see below have been in a portfolio upstairs for years. They were simply not enough to merit a a mention here. Then, last week under the floor, I found the actual full color comp. That was just enough to encourage me to add it here, as Lost Toy number 103.
To put you in the mood for fleas, here is a drawing I made, at the time, for my daughter Samantha. It features a whole variety of Birnkrant Fleas, including a flea named, Samantha.
Perhaps not altogether wisely, I maintained this same level of childlike simplicity in the artwork for the actual toy. The fleas above were reduced in size to these. I visualized them as die cut from almost tissue sheets, and housed in a tiny box, held aloft and ready for a child to let them out, then, punch them out, and see them perform magically.
The small box that contained them would be held aloft dramatically by a cardboard Pyramid of Fleas
The insert above would be removed to reveal the background scene, depicting the interior of a circus tent. This was the space, in which the circus would take place.
This exceedingly rough sketch represents the exterior of the circus tent, and the proscenium through which the circus would be seen. The opening held a sheet of acetate, which, when rubbed the right way, would generate static electricity.
Here is the package back, advertising Eight Great Acts, culminating in a Grand Finale, starring the entire company.
And, here’s the package in full color. In those days, I used markers rarely. The color you see here was created with wax backed plastic overlays, cut to fit, and burnished into place.
The Magic Flea Circus, never happened. I can’t remember why, but I can speculate. Perhaps something more interesting came along. When all is said and done, the fact remains that this concept was really not that great! Nevertheless, now that I’ve reached an age, at which I’m old enough to hide my own Easter eggs, this was a nice surprise to find, under the floor, where it was placed some fifty years before.