Mel Birnkrant

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        WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak,
photographs and text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant. Interview is Copyright by Plillip Weiss.
           The creation of the Wild Things dolls had turned out to be a fantasy, so far.  It felt as if we had been blessed.  Everybody loved the dolls, all four of them.  And had the story ended here, we’d all agree this would have been a happy end.  But those four dolls were all there were.  Therefore, a ton of work still lay ahead.  And then, the Wild Rumpus began! 

Bonnie had given us a set of cut out patterns.  Each individual piece was labeled to indicate what body part it represented, and to which doll it belonged.  Carefully drawn on every one, there was an all-important arrow.  For the dolls to work correctly, each pattern piece had to be printed and cut out with the grain of the fabric running in the right direction.  As fabric stretches in one direction, and in the other, it does not.

To move the project forward, Harry hired a young man named, Mike Marra.  He set him up in an office of his own at Colorforms.  It was Mike’s job to work on Wild Things.  This essentially consisted of tracing around the patterns, and positioning them on a diagram of the fabric to make the best use of the space, with each piece outlined clearly, and the arrows pointing properly.  I watched him do this, in amused astonishment, as he strung out the task to make it last nearly six months.  I could have done it in two days.  But I already had too much on my plate, and I knew that when Mike was done, the next challenge would fall on me, rendering the artwork on each piece.  So I was in no hurry to undertake that job, and Mike was giving me an extended reprieve.

When he was finally finished, the next step would be to test the accuracy of what he had accomplished.  Colorforms arranged for Mike and me to visit a stuffed toy factory in Stamford Connecticut.  This might have been the last such operation in the USA.  Even by 1980, almost all plush items were manufactured overseas.  God knows, what this place made, carnival giveaways, I believe.  Mike and I were there for three depressing days, amidst a room full of ladies and sewing machines.  Half a dozen of them were testing the patterns for the Wild Things.  And they were not coming out great!  The worst results involved the face of the Main Guy.  We kept altering the pattern, bit by bit.  And after each minor alteration, the most experienced seamstress in the place would try it again.  The dolls were multiplying by the dozens, and we were failing dismally.  The photo below shows just a few of the multitudes we made.  There were ten times more than you see here.  Bags full of misshapen Main Guys, Bird Ladies, and Bulls filled my car, each night as I drove home.
          At the end of the third day, we gave up.  So, Harry arranged for us to go back to Bonnie, who was not happy to see us.  Bonny made some deft, but minor changes, and we went back to Connecticut to try again.   This time, our efforts were met with success.  The factory happened to be just down the road from a fabulous fabric store, called Calico Corners.  I had been there several times before.  During a break, I ran over there and bought a couple yards of plush velour.  Then, I asked the doll factory to sew a perfect final sample, in this luxurious fabric.  The result was a perfect sample of the highest quality possible.  I had  in mind, a deluxe line.  Harry and I both loved the look and feel of it, but, alas, the dolls were already getting too expensive, and the cost of this upgrade would be prohibitive.  Nonetheless, I always liked this doll, even without printing.  Thus, the sample has become a friendly companion, languishing on the bentwood rocker, across the room from me, for the past thirty-five years.
          Mike Marra’s job was done.  He stayed at Colorforms for a while, doing I can’t remember what.  Then, he moved on.  When I last encountered him, he had become an independent toy inventor.  So had I.

Now, it was time for me to bite the bullet, and create the art for the printing screens.  This amounted to a monumental task, but I did it in a week.  The first step was painful; I might even say traumatic.  It meant that I would have to pick apart the one and only set of Wild Things.  The photograph below shows what I mean.  I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the Main Guy.  Therefore, using the sample Bonnie had sewn, when correcting the pattern, I drew a second copy, and disassembled that.
          Then, I traced, refined, and simplified every piece, and transferred each to the layouts that Mike Marra had made.  I’ve always felt uncomfortable with my decision to thicken and simplify the line work on the final art.  But I was afraid that if I tried to maintain the fine lines of my original prototype, the ink would clog the screen, and make production difficult.  Nonetheless, I’ve never stopped wondering if I was, in fact, underestimating the manufacturer’s capabilities.

When creating the final line, it took many tries to get Max’s face just right.  Nothing short of perfection would satisfy!
          This is the one I finally chose.
         Here is a portion of the black plate for the Bull.  There is something visually interesting about this almost abstract imagery.  I like the symmetrical way Mike laid out the pieces, and neatly added lettering.
          When the new lines drawn on acetate were glued in place, I set about cutting the color overlays. There was one for every color.  These were done, using a special film coated acetate.   The area that was to be colored was gently traced with an Xacto blade.  Then, the excess was carefully peeled away.
          Now, this completed series of plates and overlays was sent to the screen maker.  And once the many screens were made, I visited the silkscreen printer in Manhattan for a day, and supervised the printing of the fabric.  Knowing how important every detail was to Maurice, I mixed the colors myself.  And we tested each one to see what it looked like when it was dry, before we printed the final fabric. 

  Here is the result of all that labor.  There was a printed sheet for every Wild Thing,  The Main Guy being the most complicated, I am showing only him.
          Now, everything was sent to an amazing man, named, Gene Rubin.  Gene could manufacture anything, and it was always perfect.  He was the worker of miracles who made the Outer Space Men possible, some twelve years before.  Gene was, essentially, a jobber with extensive contacts and factories in the Orient.  With the Wild Things dolls in Gene’s capable hands, all we had to do was wait and rest, after a job well done by all, assured that the dolls would be great.

   By the way, here is the one and only original Wild Thing who escaped!  He’s still looking good, today.  He’s sitting, front and center, in a showcase in my studio, surrounded by a crowd of favorite things.
          At last, the project was nearly complete.  There was just one missing element, Maurice’s signature to adorn a loop of white silk ribbon that would be sewn into a seam on every doll to serve as a label.  I handed Maurice a sheet of paper, and watched in fascination, as he signed his name, repeatedly. and draw several tiny images of a Wild Thing.  The consistency, with which he did this was amazing.  And then he gave the original art to me.  Now, thirty-five years later, I adapted one of his signatures to create a title for this page.