Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of WEENIES and other
Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant and Mike Strouth are Copyright (c) KISCOM/ The OBB
A VISIT TO COLECO
The only figure that I didn’t care for much was Honey Bun. I re-sculpted her face, right then and there, in an attempt to make her prettier. Ironically, a casting of the early version turned out to be the only Honey Bun I was ever able to obtain. A few days after the meeting, I sent drawings to Harvey to see if I could help improve her look. I didn’t feel the need to do that for any of the other figures. These drawings were a curious prevue of things to come. I found myself doing the same thing, extensively, 28 years later, throughout the four years it took the Four Horsemen to sculpt The Outer Space Men.
Right from the beginning, before Coleco bought the property, I had already been working on designs for Weenies play sets. They were visualized in a series of preliminary pencil drawings for Bunville buildings. Mike incorporated several of these designs in his diorama. Later, I carried them further, visualizing them as products rather than just subject matter, and sent the drawings directly to Harvey. Now he showed me some rough mockups of play sets, and vehicles, and early packaging ideas.
The key play set was Joe’s Diner. Here is one of many pencil drawing that played a role in its design:
Harvey also made the Bunville Post Office. And I ended up with one of these, as well as the first proposed packages for both.
And this is the final full color version. The artwork is quite large. I guess, I should show it actual size. As with all the colored artwork on this site, I worked it out in pencil first, then copied it on the Minolta copier, cleaning up the background and other imperfections. Then, I colored the Minolta copy, carefully (very carefully indeed) with marking pens. It took many years of practice to master this technique. For if one of the felt tips touched a line, the black line smeared and bled, and I had to either start over again from scratch, or carefully cut and insert a patch. This Drawing was then sent to Harvey Zelman at Coleco, and he took it from there.
There were other play sets as well, Wilhemina’s house, and Willie's "Bungalow." Alas, I don’t have prototypes of those. But here are some preliminary sketches and final renderings for both.
This is Hot Doggie’s dog house. It’s relatively realistic and hints at the simple fact that Bunville could be grown simply by adding accessories that children could either make at home or borrow from mommy’s kitchen.
And here is Wilhemina’s Mustard Victorian. I liked the element of transparency. I’m savoring this trip down memory lane, rediscovering small things, like the writing on the roof that reads, “Refrigerate After Opening.”
Here’s “Wacky Weenie’s Picnic Basket Super Market.” Scanning these drawings now I am reliving memories. I see that when this drawing began I had no idea that the market would be his. Wacky got added in impulsively. My God, those were fun times, the way this concept grew spontaneously . I like that little idea of a different hat for every day, and a special one with an ice cream sundae on top for Sunday.
Here is an early an early suggestion for a shoe shaped building. I see Andy’s notes on the side. What should this become? A school? A large house? An Orphanage? Oh, a Nursery School! I scribbled in a teacher, who never became a character, and another school house variation. In the end, both were combined and Wilhemina became the teacher.
Here also are some early ideas of what he had in mind for packaging. Each Weenie would be displayed in a transparent bean. And each of these would also contain a tiny Weenie story book. I remember making prototypes of these at his request. Low and behold, a trip to the basement just now turned up a few of them.
Although, I managed to retain the handful of things you see above, they represent only a fraction of the large quantity of prototypes that Harvey made. I wish I had the rest! They continued to appear over the next few months. And many of them were begun on this exciting day in May when I met Jerry Wood and Harvey Zelman for the first time, and saw the Weenies come to life as prototypes.
It had proved to be a hectic afternoon, but fun, with Coleco sending out for lunch. We continued sculpting frantically right up until closing time. Then, bidding my new friends good bye, elated and energized, I headed back to Sturbridge. Getting there too late to change, I went directly to the Sturbridge Inn where Noel and our good friends the Olsons, Roy and Grace, were already sipping gin. They became hysterical when I walked in. In all the years we had been friends, no one had ever seen me looking respectable in a suit. Everyone was in a raucous mood. Too many drinks, and half a dinner later, we were unceremoniously escorted from the dining room.
One thing that Harvey really got into was the vehicles. He created a bun shaped auto for Willie, a mustard bottle car for Meany, and a catsup bottle fire truck for Joe Baloney. We had supplied no sketches for these. Harvey made them up himself. I thought they were incredible.
Under the hood of Willy’s vehicle was a motor made of olives and pickles!
Harvey dove right into this enthusiastically, and rendered it quite beautifully as a prototype that somehow ended up with me. He even added a “feature,” in which the spools of thread that the Weenies used as barstools would be color keyed to play music. This brings us to an issue that haunted the toy industry, and me, ever since toys began to be advertised on TV. It was no longer enough to make a toy that relied on a child’s imagination to achieve sound or animation. Everything suddenly had “do something,” something that would look or sound dramatic in a commercial. That certain something was often powered by batteries. So, Joe’s Diner became “Joe’s Musical Diner." The set also doubled as a carrying case for the Weenies.
Coleco had been working on the Weenies for several months when I was invited to visit their headquarters in West Hartford to view and approve what they were doing. I can recall the meeting was to take place in May of 1984, because it coincided with first Brimfield Flea Market of the year. Even though, my studio was covered from floor to ceiling with Weenie animation drawings, I was determined not to let the fact that I was working on the Style Book, or the meeting with Coleco, prevent me from spending the traditional week at Brimfield with my friend Noel Barrett.
I vividly recall that when Noel had arrived here for the previous September’s Brimfield, the newly finished Weenies presentation was sitting on the pedestal in the big room, complete, and waiting to be shown the following week. Noel as usual was unimpressed. He was never a big fan of anything I did except toy restorations, Maxx FX, and Tummy Ache, a game that replicated throwing up.
Now, eight months later, it was spring. The dogwoods were in bloom and Noel was here again, as the first Brimfield of 1984 was about to begin the following day. Over that eventful winter, the Weenies had been sold to Coleco, and their development was underway. I was certainly not happy that in the middle of Brimfield, I would have to leave the flea market and travel to West Hartford to visit Coleco. But I was also eager to see what they were up to. The first flea market always began on Tuesday with shows opening, one after another throughout the week. But nothing much happened there on Thursday, so, I set up the appointment for that day.
By 1984, Noel and I had upped our style, and instead of sleeping in our vehicles, we had grown accustomed to staying at the Sheridan in Sturbridge. So, I brought my business suit with me. And early Thursday morning, I left Noel still asleep, and headed 50 miles back down route 84 to West Hartford.
There, I met Coleco’s two product managers, Jerry Wood and Harvey Zelman. Harvey was gregarious and friendly, while Jerry who is more reserved in temperament gave me the distinct impression that he was reserving judgment. We discussed the Weenies property and its possibilities. Over the course of the morning, I realized that Jerry was not actually working on the Weenies. They were strictly Harvey’s baby. But Jerry was sitting in on the meeting anyway. And we all participated in an animated conversation, discussing product ideas for the Weenies.
It is not unusual in a big toy company for product managers to find themselves in competition with each other. Management encourages this. And sometimes the competition is not friendly. Each is fighting to get the largest allocation of the company’s resources invested in their project, and they hope to outdo each other as they rush toward completion. In the end, the one whose product sells best is the winner. And it’s not unusual for the loser to get fired!
Passing an open studio, I noticed a large clay sculpture that looked like the torso of a giant bug. It didn’t seem to be a secret as Jerry freely explained to me that this was the property he was working on. In production, the model would be greatly reduced in size and sit on top of a tight fitting black glove. He demonstrated a prototype. With his hand inside the glove, it became a sort of insect puppet that appeared to crawl across the table. It was cool, but creepy. Jerry added that that they were cooking up some action figures to sit atop the bugs. The project was called “Sectaurs!”
Then, Harvey showed me the sculptures for the basic bendable Weenies. They really were quite good. But they also had some problems. So, I removed my vest and jacket, rolled up my sleeves, and having done no sculpting since the Outer Space Men, eighteen years before, I found myself in a conference room with sculpting tool in hand, surrounded by six sculptors, as together we preformed cosmetic surgery on the entire cast of Weenies.
The most bizarre aspect of Coleco’s interpretation was rendering the eyes as raised rectangles, and applying them, like shingles, to the outer surface of the head. We altered all of these, so, like real eyes, they were inset instead. Some castings of the first designs had already been made and painted. Later on, a few of these came my way. I seem to have acquired a variety of variations. Here are some examples of Joe and Willie with and without the corrected eyes.