Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of WEENIES and other
Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant and Mike Strouth are Copyright (c) KISCOM/ The OBB
CREATING THE CHARACTERS
Meanwhile, the next step was up to me. It took place, simultaneously, with all of the above. Thus, one element complimented the other as we explored Bunville together. Somewhere in the deepest recesses of my memory, I had never stopped wondering what my life might have been like if I had accepted that job at Disney that I was offered when I was seventeen. One reason that I didn’t take it was because the thing that I had hoped to do there was design the characters. But I learned at the job interview that the Character Model Department had been eliminated by 1955. And, since then, each specialized animator designed his own individual character. Now, 30 years later, I was about to get my chance to be a one man Character Model Department, singlehandedly designing all the Bunville Weenies.
Although, I didn’t realize it at the time, I was soon going to have to play the role of animator too. But for now, I would only be required to produce one single iconic drawing of each character. So, I eagerly set about transforming the ugly hot dog creatures I had pictured for Plasticine into appealing comic characters.
The simple shape of a frankfurter didn’t offer much to work with. But its very limitations were liberating as they narrowed down the possibilities for originality to a few elements that could be designed to seem unique. The nose was a no-brainer; I’d just stick with the hot dog shape, only smaller. The eyes offered perhaps the only opportunity to come up with something new. God knows, I had seen every kind of eye ever created in my quest for comic imagery. Was there any way that I could be original? Well, the only kind of eyes I’d never seen were square ones.
Square eyes with square pupils, sort of like piano keys! Did I dare to be so daring? I did! And they also happened to sit comfortably in the long straight Weenie shape. The mouths would be standard animation issue. And the hands were borrowed from Mickey Mouse. With fingers already shaped like sausages, Mickey’s hands might look even more appropriate on Weenies than they did on him. The feet afforded another opportunity to do something modestly unique. Thus, most feet, except for those of the ladies who wore high heeled shoes, like Minnie, would be simple hot dog shapes.
One additional chance remained to add a frankfurter feature, the tied-off ends! Although, unattractive in reality, here they became adorable little heart shaped Weenie tails, and matching topknots on their heads most often hidden by their hats.
Can I be perfectly Frank? Although, I never discussed this with my partners, I was fully aware that there were Freudian undercurrents here. Without going into further detail, suffice it to say that if the appeal of the Washington Monument is any example, Weenies had the potential of being monumental!
So, here is the very first drawing of our cast of characters. It looks embarrassing to me, today. Some further perfecting was clearly necessary. Nonetheless, the Weenies were “getting there,” the essence of them, anyway. I might also point out that at this stage there were only eight.
And, as these drawings indicate, the square eyes were not there in the beginning. In my first attempts the eyes were oval shaped. Ironically, the breakthrough that showed the way was “Machiny.” His square robotic eyes were clearly the way to go for everybody. You might also note that Machiny, Texas, and Wilhemina were demonstrating how to correct another mistake. One that I would characterize as negative body language. Willie, Beanie, and the Teenie Weenies were all bending forward; a posture that is neither upbeat, nor positive. Nobody likes a limp Weenie. Or as my mother used to say, “Put your shoulders back and stand up straight!” Willie later took my Mom’s advice. For me, it was too late.
Beanie had heels on his shoes, and Hot Doggie had spots on his body, two more unattractive details. Speaking of “de” tails, the few that can be detected here were still just tufts of Weenie butt. They had not yet become the cute little heart shaped tails we learned to love.
Willie’s top hat and tuxedo are a mystery. What was I thinking? Mr. Peanut? Yes, Mr. Peanut, indeed! Digging through the endless piles of papers that have been stored here for thirty years, I just now discovered the very first sketches of Willie Weenie. They were merely doodles, visual notes I, no doubt, made in one of the first meetings with Adam and Andy. And, either because I’m anal retentive or just too lazy to throw anything away, these very first images of Willie Weenie remain. I’d been collecting Mr. Peanut right from the beginning of my collecting daze, and it appears that I was channeling his spirit when my pencil first touched paper, visualizing Willie Weenie.
Oh My God! I can’t believe I actually found it, the very first true appearance of Willie, the way he would look, eventually, in the final version. That’s the actual drawing, small, insignificant, and modest, sort of like Willie himself, and in full color. I can’t remember if the check marks were put there by myself or KISCOM, but I do know that they signified approval. Meanwhile, Meany Weenie makes his first appearance here as well. He inquires: “If you’re not going to be using that tuxedo, cane, and top hat, may I borrow them?” Willie and Mr. Peanut say, "OK!", fully aware that they will never get them back again.
And so, Dear Reader, you can see as simple as the Weenies appear to be, creating them was not easy. A lot of "not so hot" dogs were "cooked up" along the way. And in the end, these drawings illustrate the wisdom of what Otto Von Bismark had to say: Weenies “Are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”
These drawings are the actual ones, from which the final characters were derived. When a drawing looked like it might be “right,” I colored it in. If Andy and Adam liked it, too, we put a check by it. The first try at Joe Baloney is on the right. But the one on the left is the one we liked!
This early pencil sketch of Wilhemina looked like it might be heading in the right direction. I traced an overlay to refine it further. Notice that she acquired a bow between one drawing and the other. Her final look was getting closer; all the elements were here. I liked this enough to color it, but it didn’t win a check!
Waldo began with this pencil drawing. He came very naturally. The
final version, the one I colored in was on the same page. That’s how quick he
happened. And the first drawing of Hot Doggie that we liked is on the right. I
love this character! He is pure geometry, even simpler in design than Snoopy,
and a lot more active!
As this bunch of drawings shows, I worked very hard on trying to get Willie right. I was also teaching myself to draw again at the same time. Adapting other peoples licensed propertied at Colorforms for twenty years, didn’t require much draftsmanship. These are some of the many approaches I tried. I was trying to distill him down to an iconic image that captured the essence of appeal.
At the same time, my goal was to perfect a parody of Mickey Mouse’s iconic pose, the familiar image that throughout my life as a collector I always referred to as “Walk and Wave.” Overlay after overlay, I polished his image. I think I achieved it in the end. Here he is, Willie Weenie in person, ready for his close up!