Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of WEENIES and other
Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant and Mike Strouth are Copyright (c) KISCOM/ The OBB
The Cabbage Patch Kids had been a phenomenal success. Their impact cascaded through the toy
industry, like a giant tidal wave that swept away all competition. And Coleco was riding high atop its crest!
The entire World was waiting eagerly to see what amazing new property this seemingly unstoppable toy
company would come up with next. The mystery was scheduled to be revealed, by invitation only, at a
grand and glorious Top Secret Licensing Event, to be held at the Helmsley Palace in New York City. And
anyone who was anybody in the toy, gift, clothing, publishing, and electronics industry was invited to a
private showing. Appointments were set up for one packed house performance after another, continuing
from dawn to dusk over the course of several days.
Cheryl Stoebenau was conducting the entire presentation, and she was flying high. This was a far
cry from her prestigious days at Hallmark, where, like a traveling salesman, she performed her one-woman
dog and pony show for just one company at a time. On this occasion, the whole World of potential
licensees would be beating a pathway to her door, and waiting in line while she held court in a luxurious
suite high in the elegant Helmsley Palace where each attendee would be eager to see and possibly get
their piece of Coleco's “Next Big Thing.”
Several months before the event, which was scheduled to take place the week of July 30, 1984,
this letter arrived. Reading the title, I can’t help but laugh a little. I had forgotten the secret code name for
the Weenies. It seems ironic, in light of current events, that Coleco called it “PROJECT REDSKIN.” I
wonder if Willie Weenie and his Bunville buddies would be offended by that name today.
As you can see, the numbered list of Cheryl’s needs, of which there were thirteen, was ambitious, to
say the least. Number 10 on the list hit Mike Strouth, like a ton of bricks. This stuff was essentially all in his
domain. Fortunately, the nonstop flow of Colorforms assignments that Mike needed to complete had
mysteriously slowed down to a trickle for the first time in ten years, and he suddenly found himself with the
free time that he needed to address his attention to the Weenies. The resulting product boards that he
created were, needless to say, spectacular and for once they were right on time to meet the deadline. I
might add that as soon a Mike's part of the presentation was finished, he was miraculously bombarded with
a ton of freelance work again.
When Cheryl’s letter arrived, my parts of the presentation were well underway. The Style Book, with
its 150 drawings was complete, all except for a cover, which I immediately undertook to create. And my
share of the product boards were done as well. The one big element that was still missing, and that, which
topped the list as number one in importance, was "Die cut characters with Easel Backs." The second item
that Cheryl had requested was an environment for the die cut characters. But that for some reason had
been crossed off of the list. I put it right back on again. As I envisioned the presentation, the die cut
characters themselves would build their own implied environment, piece by piece.
And so, I set out to create what I hoped would be a spectacular Display. And in the process, my life
had come full circle. I felt like I was stepping back in time to where the journey of my so-called career had
its beginning, working in 1960, for Austin Display in new York City.
The first order of business was to create an appropriate piece of art. There had never been an
iconic image with all the Weenies posed together. So, I contrived the rather extravagant scene you see
below. It had a white background then. Anything else would have been a major undertaking. The same
image appears above as the title of this page. The more dramatic black background was added,
instantaneously, with the single click of a mouse on the computer, thirty years later
Then, I rendered an iconic drawing of each individual character, oversized, with thickened lines, white bases, and cutting lines, lightly defined.
Next, I colored the drawings and mounted them proportionally, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, to use up every inch of space on two large illustration boards, and a third one for the logo. These were sent out to a photo lab, where two enormous full color photographic enlargements of each were made, and mounted on white foam core.
Later in the week, they were delivered here. And I spent the next few days, carefully cutting them out with an Xacto blade. Then my carpenter, Bill Maxwell and I constructed perfectly tailored wooden bases to hold the individual figures. Each base was a different customized size, finished and sanded to perfection, like everything that Bill made, here in Mouse Heaven. And then, they were spray painted white. The logo was held aloft from a very heavy base, (we experimented to get it right) on two steel rods with a single additional rod for for levitating Beanie Weenie.
One of these spectacular extravaganzas was intended for the upcoming Licensing Presentation, and the other was planned to enhance the Coleco Showroom when the Weenies were introduced at Toy Fair, in the springtime of the following year.
When the displays were ready, with no time to spare, as Coleco was sending a truck to pick them up the following day, I set one of them up, in the only empty and vaguely well-lit place I could find, and took a photo. I wish I had a better one. I wish I had a better camera! I wish I had a blank wall in the house! But, for better or worse, here is that photograph. I see the finished Style Book cover also got into the picture.
Always the art director, my hand written instructions were scribbled on the back of one of the boards. These Colored enlargements were exceedingly expensive. God forbid that they should mess up the color. "Red Skins Forever!"
We stayed away the second day, as that was the day that Colorforms appointment was scheduled to take place. I later learned that on that day, even though I wasn’t there, I got busted anyway. Colorforms knew that Weenies was Adam and Andy’s property, but they didn’t know that I was involved. At least, not until a certain A-hole, who Harry had hired to sit in Adam's seat at Colorforms, recognized my Magic Marker handwriting on the back of every board. I believe Mike escaped detection. Although, because, like me, he was an independent entity and not an employee, it was none of their business anyway.
Of course, this intrigue was only going to get more complex if Colorforms licensed the Weenies, which, under normal circumstances, they would have been clamouring to do. Getting the Cabbage Patch license had been a tremendous coup for Colorforms. They were still adding new Cabbage Patch sets to the line each year. So there was really no way they could get away with not licensing the Weenies. The anticipated situation of Mike doing the artwork and me art directing, while both of us were pretending that the Weenies were not ours, held potential for many comic possibilities. And then, when the sets were done, we’d have to send them to ourselves to obtain our own approval!
Naturally, the obnoxious creep who busted me must have immediately told Harry. Certainly everyone else at Colorforms soon made it clear to me they knew. But to my utter astonishment, Harry never said a word about it to me. As I wasn’t an employee he couldn’t very well fire me. Furthermore, as the Weenies were his two son’s property he could take a certain pride and solace in his oft stated philosophy that: “Acorns don’t fall far from the tree!”
The Helmsley Palace Presentation proved to be a Great Success! By the time was over, there were 30 Manufacturers on board. And each one of them had paid Coleco an impressive cash advance. Artwork for everything from slippers to sleeping bags began pouring in for my approval. I still have some of the submitted samples.
Last night, I discovered one that I think would be better shown two pages hence as it is a little creepy for this chapter that attempts, with arguably limited success, to convey the events of happier days. Not that the samples below aren’t a little creepy too. Nonetheless, they represent some of the most amusing and amazing of all the prototypes that we were shown. They arrived in a large box with a drawing of a hot dog on the end. Inside, was this extensive line of bedroom slippers. These are so great, so detailed, and so impractical! It really is a shame that they were merely slippers. The effort and enthusiasm displayed in the execution of these wacky designs would have sent me over the moon with delight if it had been applied to a set of dolls, instead! They are so naive and well intentioned it would be a shame to make corrections. Unfortunately, as things worked out, I didn’t need to.
Once the Helmsley Palace Licensing Event was over, Mike took a break to address himself to freelance work again. While over the next four months, I continued to spend a lot of time on Weenies. I never expected to get involved in writing a TV Special, but as you will see in the next chapter, that happened too. And, although, one might find it hard to believe I still had Colorforms work to do. Throughout that time, a frequent highlight was seeing the product designs, and work in progress from the many manufacturers who had licensed Weenies. They arrived at the schoolhouse for my approval, several times a week.
On occasion, I actually designed a few of these products myself. There were some great things coming out. One of my favorites was a series of watches by Armitron, several electronic wrist watches and a wall clock. This was my chance to recreate the Mickey Mouse watch for a new generation. Unfortunately in this new age of digital technology the standard Mickey watch was not about to happen, but I was able to do something better, a sculptural watch of Hot Doggie and also one of Willie Weenie. Both had moving eyes that at the touch of a button told the time. Here is the artwork, from the first sketches to the finished design.
And the traditional Mickey Mouse watch design with die cut hands got to live again in the form of a Weenie Wall Clock. I assembled the comp, using the imagery I created for the cover of the Style Book, and Mike did the finished mechanicals. Apart from the Mickey hands, the dial itself was inspired by the relatively rare 1937 Snow White alarm clock, produced in France by Bayard. The thing I always loved about this clock was the way each number was accompanied by a character from the movie. This is a typical example of how the images I collected served as inspiration for the toys that I designed.
The final artwork is not a lot to look at. As it depends on an engraver to strip in the large areas of flat color. These days, it would be easy to complete this art on a computer. I am tempted to actually make a clock like this myself. You could do that too. Starting with a basic round clock, no doubt easily available, everything you'd need to transform it into a Weenies clock is shown below.
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Putting this stuff back into its original envelope just now, I noticed some papers, hiding in the very
bottom. This one is the original note that was sent to Armitron via Coleco, describing, the concept for the
Hot Doggie watch, and explaining how it worked in detail.
Another is a sketch of the proposed combination toy and watch. It attempts to illustrate the description above.
Attached to the back of it by a rusted paper clip is another drawing that I totally forgot. I guess, Armitron rejected it. The Joe Baloney Snoring Alarm Clock.
This discovery reminds me that in spite of all that you see here, so much of the huge volume of Weenie stuff has been lost over the years. Much of it might still be hiding here. Ridiculous objects like the Joe Baloney clock make me wonder what the world might have been like if the Weenies had managed to succeed. By the way, the postmark on the envelope, in which this was sent back to me, reads November 7th 1984. That too, tells a story.... to be continued...
This diagram shows the size and how the clock would look with the hands in place. The tissue overlay indicates where the colors are to be stripped in.
This is the die drawing for the hands, it is also the art for the small amount of printed details.
Here is the camera ready finished art for the full color elements. The overlay indicates where the mechanical colors should be stripped in, and specifies what they should be. The original art is very large. It has been reduced to fit in here.
Last of all, is the art and die cutting diagram for the front of the box. This is shown smaller here than the finished product would be.
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Now, Andy, Adam, Mike, and I had met our obligation, and we were ready when the Licensing Presentation Day arrived. One can speculate about what might have been expected to be the best day of one’s life. But, for me this occasion was just a complex combination of dread and mixed emotions. This is probably how an author feels, on the opening night of a his first play, trying to read the audience reaction and fearing what the reviews might say the following day. Eunice was there to offer moral support. There was no way she would miss this day! But I am not good on such occasions. Thus, throughout the presentation, I tried to remain inconspicuous, and keep out of the way.
Mike, on the other hand, was up for the occasion. He always was a gregarious and outgoing kind of guy and he was enjoying every minute of it, chatting with everyone and bursting with pride. I overheard him several times, explaining how he did the Weenies. Meanwhile, Adam and Andy were working the room and making contacts left and right. And Harvey Zelman was strutting around, like the head rooster in the hen house. This was clearly his day to crow!
Cheryl Stoebenau was in her element! She was really good as the Master of Ceremonies. Behind her pixyish veneer was just a hint of the dominatrix as she beguilingly made it clear that she was in control, and this elegant occasion was her very own “Really Big Show.”
The suite consisted of two large rooms: One was sort of the social area with tables overflowing with lavish assortment of drinks and snacks in the form of a buffet. This was, after all, The Helmsley Palace, and the lavish spread that they put out was fit for Royalty, a King, maybe, or even Leona, the “Queen of Mean!” The room was packed with the kind of faces that made me hate the toy business. I had the same uneasy feeling that I often experienced, riding in the elevator at Toy Fair.
The second room was set up like a theater with several rows of rented chairs and also lots of standing room that was soon full. Mike, Eunice, and I stood along the back wall.
Some details have eluded me, thinking about the occasion, over the past few days. I find myself receiving half remembered glimpses of a full sized real life hot dog cart, parked in the far corner of the room, and a genuine New York Hot dog vendor handing out cannibalistic treats. Did that really happen or was it simply something that I saw on the rather vulgar video that Harvey had made, and proudly played on cue, on a relatively large TV? Either way, in person, or only featured on the tape, I thought any association to the kind of weenies that one actually eats was in bad taste and out of place.
Along the front wall, there were three eight foot tables set end to end and covered in long white tablecloths. On the central one, was the floor plan that I had drawn on illustration boards to enable the elements of the display to be placed perfectly. Each space was outlined and labeled with the character’s name. The central area was filled already by the large white base with two three foot long rods, pointing upward to hold the logo aloft, at the right time. The logo had two wood blocks attached to its back, into which the rods would fit. The two adjacent tables were covered in a jungle of well placed wire stands.
And now, the time was here! The audience had filled the chairs, and all the standing room as well. Cheryl stood, front and center, with an assistant on either side of her. Harvey was behind a fourth table, along the right side of the room, on which the TV set was placed, I think, adjacent to the hot dog stand.
And so, the show began! Cheryl greeted everybody as a hush fell over the audience. Then, she delivered her presentation with the dignified air of Shakespearean oration interspersed with the harsh hard sell of a barker at the carnival. “Welcome to Bunville” she said, “the home of the WEENIES!” A gasp of surprise rose from the audience. (So that was IT? Weenies?) With perfect timing Cheryl’s assistant reached under the tablecloth and pulled out the large logo. Cheryl held it aloft, momentarily letting it sink in, then handed it off to her other assistant, who managed with considerable difficulty, to get it placed atop the two rods of the display.
Meanwhile, the first assistant had dragged out the Willie Weenie cut out and handed it to Cheryl, who told the audience who he was, reciting, word for word, the lines that she had memorized from our presentation boards. (I was impressed) Then, the second assistant took Willie and put him on his carefully marked position on the table, while the other handed Cheryl, Wilhemina. And so it went, as each character was introduced, they were placed in position, until the whole display appeared, in all its glory. I must say, it was a spectacular performance. And the four of us, Adam, Andy, Mike, and I were hugely pleased that this well fed crowd was giggling at many of our names and captions.
When the display was fully assembled and all the characters were introduced, Cheryl displayed an actual size photocopy of Mike's Bunville diorama, which was met with much approval, and set it in the middle of one of the side tables. Then she began on the product boards. All of them were numbered and titled on the reverse side in my big black magic marker lettering, so she could tell what board she was holding up, and describe it, without needing to look at the front. Then, she'd hand it to one of her assistants who put it on display. One after another, these were placed into the empty wire easels that awaited them on either side, until the whole expanse of all three tables was filled with Weenies. Next, all eyes turned to Harvey Zelman who dramatically introduced and played his video. Throughout Cheryl’s presentation, he had been inconspicuously reaching behind his table and bringing out the prototypes that his department had created. These included a bunch of figures and vehicles as well as Joe's Diner and other Play Sets. In spite of the crudeness and innuendo of some aspects of the video, the whole effect was, indeed, quite wonderful, even stunning! Many of those present had failed to notice that Harvey had been quietly filling the side table with actual Weenies products while Cheryl was speaking. So, when they turned to see the tape they were utterly amazed.
Then, Cheryl brought out several large marketing charts, which she placed on a standing easel, and delivered the hard sell in full carnival pitchman mode. She talked TV, advertising dollars, projected sales, and retail trends. And when she was done, perhaps because they were just glad that it was over, the audience broke into a round of loud applause.
Milling through the crowd as they filed out, Mike and I tried to judge their reaction. I sensed that some folks “got it” and others were merely mystified. Having lived with Weenies intimately for a year, we had forgotten that the concept was somewhat audacious. At least, it was in 1984. Now that the World has met a wiener named Anthony, who had the audacity to run for mayor, nothing can shock us anymore.
While the crew from Coleco was cleaning up and resetting the stage for the next performance, there were several throughout the day, Mike and I snuck down to the Palace grounds to have a smoke, and Eunice took our picture. Then, Mike took a photograph of Eunice and me. So, here we are together in the courtyard of the Helmsley Palace on what turned out to be a lovely day.
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