THE DOLLS ARRIVE
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak,
photographs and text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant.
To begin this page on a positive note: Here we see Maurice, posing with the finished dolls, as he would often come to do, time and again, over the years. He finally got his Wild Things dolls. And, although, he doesnt show it here, he was happy!
The process of manufacturing the dolls had not gone smoothly. I had inadvertently handed Gene’s Rubin’s factories a nightmare. When I conceived the Wild Things Dolls, nothing like them had ever been manufactured before. The key word is “manufactured.” I didn't realize this, as I had seen many dolls printed on fabric, dating back to the turn of the century, like this doll of Foxy Grandpa from 1902. But these were sold as flat sheets of printed cloth, picturing the front and back. They were intended to be cut-out with scissors, sewn together, and stuffed with cotton by the person who purchased the printed sheet. In other words, they were intended to be homemade, cut sewn and stuffed, one at a time, at home.
But when dolls are manufactured in quantities, the maker needs to stack up a pile of fabric, many pieces deep, and cut them all out at one time. Our printed fabric made this impossible, as the unseen lower sheets would shift. As a result, it looked like each doll would have to be cut out individually. This made the process expensive, too costly to manufacture the dolls in quantity. There was also another challenge, getting the two halves of the split faces to match up. Somehow, Gene's factories figured out a way to overcome both these problems, in the end. And other printed dolls and stuffed animals have become fairly commonplace, since then.
After a wait of several months, a couple hundred samples of the finished Wild Things arrived at Colorform's factory in New Jersey. I drove down to see them, and took several cases of them home with me. All of us were very pleased, but no one more so than Maurice. He loved them! In fact, they remain the only Wild Thing product that Maurice has ever fully approved of to this day!
Unfortunately, the lazy crew at Colorforms hated these 18 inch monstrosities from overseas. Like all of Harry's pet projects, including the Outer Space Men, stuff like this just meant more work for them. And, like the Outer Space Men they made every effort to discourage them. Harry insisted that the dolls be shown at Toy Fair, against the sales manager’s objections. Meanwhile, I had designed the Colorforms showroom, and did it on a shoestring. The entire place was painted black, so the imperfections didn't show. The display shelves consisted of brightly colored planks of wood, resting on the rungs of two painted wooden ladders that were attached from floor to ceiling. There were at least a dozen of these stations, throughout the showroom. And hanging from the ladders, on all of them, were Wild Things. Toy buyers did not come to Colorforms to purchase dolls. And the few who even noticed the Wild Things, just thought they were part of the display. But, Brentano’s buyer noticed them, and fell in love with them.
And so, most of the dolls sold were sold at Brentano’s, for $30.00 each. Their Fifth Avenue store held a grand introduction on Tuesday December 2, at noon. It featured Maurice, in person, and the cast of “Really Rosie,” performing “Chicken Soup!” As this ad in the New York Times explained: “Quantities were limited.”
These few hundred first dolls were all there were. They are very rare. Although, the original designs managed to survive to be manufactured by others, Wild Things dolls of this original size were never made again.
This particular catalogue, not only featured the Wild Things dolls, for $30. apiece, it also offered cardboard servants, maids and butlers for only $15. each. These were for people wanted to enhance their lives with a touch of class, but couldn’t afford to hire the real thing. More elegant, still, was the 'Knock ‘em Dead Spring Action Insect Shooter,' "for those who want to say goodbye to pesky ‘skeeters’ and other pests, without having to get up out of their chair. Just aim, fire, and squash bugs flat!" It comes in a tortoise-toned presentation case, "perfect for slap-happy executives." All this for only $7.50! What a lovely thing to share the page with Wild Things! From the way they laid up the ad, it looks like the bull is holding this charming item in his oversized hand.
Compared to Brentano's debut of the Wild Things on Fifth Avenue in New York City, this catalogue was not exactly a class act! I hoped Maurice would never see this ad. In the end, it mattered little.
The Colorforms Wild Things dolls came, and went, without making a ripple, never appearing in the nation’s toy stores. In spite of that, Maurice got dolls he loved, at last, and even though, they didn't sell, he was glad to have them for himself. Whenever he posed for a photograph, in the years that followed, the Wild Things dolls were likely to be in the picture.
If the project had proved successful, we planned to produce an additional line of Wild Things dolls in a smaller size, so, they could sell for a much lower price. Gene’s factory sent us these samples, half the size of the originals. And Gene assured me that I would not need to do the art a second time. The artwork that I had done for the originals could be reduced, or for that matter, enlarged to any size.
Meanwhile, my friendship with Maurice continued, unabated. With the Wild Things project now behind us, Mickey Mouse, once again, became the main topic of conversation. Whenever I discovered a Mickey Mouse toy that I already had, and knew Maurice would like, I passed it on to him. Or if an interesting Mickey item was coming up at auction, and I already had it, or even if I did not, but knew that it would go for more than I could afford, I’d alert Maurice to it, and he would, more often than not, bid on it and win it.
Time was Maurice’s most precious commodity. He treasured every minute, perhaps because of his heart attack at 34. And he often spoke of death and dying, as if it was sneaking up behind him. His most fiercely guarded time was that, which he set aside, each day, to work at his drawing board. While he was doing artwork he’d listen to TV soap operas, or music on the radio. Grand opera? More often than not, he’d play recordings, mostly Mozart. And he never answered the telephone! He’d listen to the answering machine, and not wishing to waste a minute, ignore it. Whenever we were visiting, I’d see him do that, time and again. But, incredibly, he always picked up the phone for me, no matter what he was doing when I called. I only had to tell him it was Mel, and say the Magic Word, which, of course, was,“Mickey Mouse!”
One day, several years later, Maurice called me to say that a woman by the name of Connie Boucher had contacted him, and wanted to manufacture dolls of the Wild Things. And, as I had designed the only dolls he liked, he asked if I would be so kind as to attend a meeting in NYC with himself, his lawyer, and Connie Boucher to advise her on how to proceed.
Connie Boucher was notorious in the toy industry. The cunning deal that she had struck with Charles Schulz was legendary. In 1962, this former San Francisco window dresser sought his permission to produce a calendar, featuring Peanuts Characters. The following year, she published a tiny book called “Happiness is a Warm Puppy.” It became a runaway bestseller, and overnight Connie's company, Determined Productions was up and running.
This enormous Bull became the doll of choice to be seen in photographs with Maurice.
I knew all of this, first hand, because I was there, in 1973, for all the inner conflict when Colorforms daringly decided to license Snoopy, in spite of the double royalty. Of course, this meant that they couldn’t afford to advertise any of the Peanuts Play Sets on TV, which would have quadrupled sales and Shulz’s royalty. Thank you, Connie!
As a favor to Maurice, I gathered together all the Wild Things material I could find, and on the appointed morning, I drove the 60 miles to New York City. The meeting took place in Greenwich Village. Connie Boucher proved to be everything I imagined she would be. Disney never created a more unappealing villain. She was dumpy, grumpy, ill-tempered, and downright mean. Even worse than Ms. Boucher, was her assistant, an enormous, grossly overweight, pompous and flamboyant drama queen, with several flashy rings on every finger, and a pair of golden earrings in his ears. The two of them together were truly scary. They were more menacing than Wild Things!
For Maurice’s sake, I told them everything I could remember that might help them with the Wild Things, including, and most importantly, Gene Rubin’s name. Connie listened impatiently, while her side-kick yawned theatrically. I finished my little dissertation by offering them the use of my original art to make new screens if need be. Then, they thanked me unenthusastically, and invited me to leave, as it was getting late, and they were getting hungry, and were in a hurry to take Maurice and his lawyer out to eat. So I, more or less, slunk off with my tail between my legs. And that was the end of my role, in the creation of the Wild Things.
Why did I say the deal was cunning? Simply because Schulz ignorantly assigned her the rights to everything, every conceivable category. History credits Connie as the person who introduced the Peanuts characters to licensing. The fact is, she slowed the process up. If any company wanted to license Snoopy, she held Schulz to the crazy contract, doggedly. Henceforth, no manufacturer could license any Peanuts characters in any catagory, without giving Schulz the usual royalty of 5% and another 5% to Connie. So, in the days when every license, from Disney to Barbie cost a manufacturer a 5% royalty, Peanuts cost the few reluctant manufacturers who dared to take it on, a whopping 10%, half of which went straight to Connie, and she became a millionaire.
Wehenever I venture into the children’s book section of Barnes and Nobel, these days, I see new variations on the exact Wild Things dolls I made. They come in a variety of sizes, sometimes, in fancy packaging with a book included. And I was surprised to realize that when the Wild Things film appeared, the Wild Things dolls that I did were not updated to match the dreary melancholy creatures in the movie. The dolls that I designed some thirty-five years ago, still remained the, one and only, official Wild Things.
Just the other day, I came across a group of the original designs that are being sold as puppets. They are simply my dolls, with enough stuffing removed to allow kids to get their hand inside.
Here is a fascinating photo I found on line. It depicts a bunch of Wild Things dolls, filling the racks of FAO Schwarz in NYC. Ironically, FAO Schwarz was where Maurice’s career began. While he was working there as a window trimmer, which was his first job, and studying the Art Students League at night, he met an editor from Harper & Row who asked him to illustrate a children's book. And so, his Career as an Illustrator began. In 2010, when this photograph was taken, his career had come full circle.
I am truly thankful that the Wild Thing dolls that I designed survived. Nonetheless, for reasons I don’t need a shrink to analyze, I never felt inclined to purchase any Determined Productions Wild Things toys. Every time I came across them in a store, my emotions were: 50% pissed off, and 50% pride. Thus, over the past thirty years, the only Wild Things that I felt compelled to buy were these amazing figures, sculpted by Tod MacFarlane Toys in 2004. Maurice liked them too. It’s easy to see why.
And I also felt I had to own the clever Wild Things umbrella, below. Beneath it, sits the very set of Wild Things dolls that I picked up at Colorforms, on the first day they arrived in the USA, thirty-five years ago. Considering that they've been sitting here, for more than a quarter century, they’re still looking pretty good, and remarkably clean. I wish I could say the same for me.
This story had a happy ending for Connie and Maurice. It turned out that Gene Rubin was still in business, and his factories still had everything they needed to reproduce my original designs exactly. They had all the original Birnkrant-Erickison patterns, fabric, and my artwork for the silkscreens. All Determined Productions had to do was place an order, and they were in business instantly! And so it was that my designs survived, and continued to be produced, by one company, or another, right up to the present time. Some appear to have been made by a company called, Crocodile Creek. Ironically, the Wild Things dolls are the longest living product I ever designed! That’s the good news! The bad is the fact that I never earned a cent for this accomplishment!
Determined Production's Wild Things were produced in many sizes, mostly smaller than the originals, and some, quite tiny. Dolls of the original 18" size were never made again. They also Supersized the Bull.