All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
In an effort to organize this site, writing, taking new photographs, and finding old ones, I find that it is turning into a kind of history. That wasn’t the original intention. But, I realize that it would give a wrong impression to imply that I saw that Mickey Bank at the Paris Flea Market and became a Mickey Mouse collector overnight. I didn’t run out the next day and start buying every old Mickey Mouse in sight. The fact is, there wasn’t any! Nor did I even contemplate that possibility. I never imagined, at the time, that there were any more wonderful Mickey Mouse images to find. The possibility didn’t even cross my mind. I had yet to learn that there was once a wonderful time, in the years just before I was born, when Mickey was the King of Toys, and great imagery was not only commonplace, but the "norm". Thus, I regarded that moment of discovery at the Paris Flea Market as a one-time occasion. And, I didn’t buy another Mickey Mouse, until over six years later.
I had come to Paris to see (and do) Art, and, hopefully, have a good time. In retrospect, I realize, I did much more of the latter, than the former. And the art I saw was not found in the museums and galleries, but rather in the quaint shops, open air markets, and stalls, along the quays. It was there that I discovered the toys and trifles of yesterday; a yesterday more colorful, and wonderful than my wildest daydreams in Detroit could ever contemplate.
There were treasures everywhere; one could find them lying on the street. I discovered this tiny candy tin, literally, among the litter in the gutter. It is a fierce and powerful image that became the subject of a painting. And talk about a trip down memory lane; when I, just now, went over to the cabinet to retrieve it and wipe away the dust of half a century, I discovered my oil paint covered finger prints, still imprinted on the edges, the only remaining evidence that a young man of twenty one, once hoped to be a painter.
Unlike my childhood in Detroit, where, like those dinosaurs in "Fantasia", dragging across the barren desert, digging through the mud for water, I had to scratch and forage just to find a little magic in the 1950s world around me, in France, there was Enchantment everywhere. You could feel it, sense it, smell it in the air. And hear it! The music of the past hundred years was still on the radio. Tunes that Toulouse-Lautrec, himself, had heard at Le Moulin Rouge and Les Folies Bergère, were played in the Cafes. And Edith Piaf, singing“ La Vie en Rose” was still number one on the French Hit Parade
How incredible were the things that I discovered there? Here is an example. This amazing volume was published in 1863. It not only permits the reader to see dramatically effective ghosts, in living (or dying) color, by means of a series of hand colored optical illusion inducing illustrations, but it also explains in “scientific” terms, the most likely causes of spirit sightings in real life, which, apparently, in the era of candlelight, were commonplace phenomena.
Just along Rue Mazarine, a block away from my hotel, was the most phantasmagorical of shops, “La Librarie Labarre”. Monsieur Claude Labarre, was an Englishman, who had lived all his life in France. As a young man, he had been one of the inner circle that included, Picasso, Hemmingway, F. Scot Fitzgerald, and Henri Matisse. Along with them, he regularly frequented Saturday night soirees, at the Salon of Gertrude Stein. He was readily inclined to reminisce with a customer, who could speak English, and I spent hours in his store, eagerly listening to his stories, and marveling at the artifacts on display. The best way I can describe the contents of la Librarie Labarre would be to equate it to George Mêlées’ toy stand in le Gare Montparnasse, as portrayed in the movie “Hugo”. And each time I visited, I never left without, at least, a sheet, or two, or more, of images d’Epinal .
These fabulous hand colored, paper cut outs, required only a little skill and a lot of patience to construct a multitude of wondrous things, from fantastic toy theatres, featuring characters from the Commedia dell’ Arte, to vehicles, ships and airships, and every form and shape of building, both fantastic and historic. These beautifully drawn pages contained everything necessary to recreate the 19th Century, and before, in miniature. “Before,” included Noah’s Ark, complete with all the animals on three oversized sheets. I would pour over the many stacks of these for hours. Each Stack reached a height of several feet. My favorites were intricate mechanical paper toys, such as the Monkey Artist, Polichinelle battling the Devil, and the cat pump, or “Pompe a Chats” a 19th Century Rube Goldberg like device that literally pumps out cats. And, slowly but surely, I acquired several hundred images d’Epinal. I still have them all.
Back in the United States, some of the items we produced as "Boutique Fantastique" were based on these. I think the idea began when I made this complex music box as a Christmas gift for Eunice, the year that we were married, and living in Ann Arbor. It was essentially an image d’Epinal, one of many miniature circuses. I adapted it to a music box. My customization was incredibly complex. Three converging circles of equestrian riders moved in opposite directions, all at different speeds. While, above, a wheel of colored gelatin filters rotated. Illuminated by four small battery powered bulbs, the lighting in the box became a blaze of ever moving color that was triggered to go on and off with the music. On top of that, the miniature ringmaster even moved his tiny arm to crack his paper whip!
Also traveling with me on the Queen Mary was an entire family of antique dress maker manikins. The Mommy was the size of a circus fat lady, with a dress size over 50. The Daddy had beautifully articulated wooden hands, and stands in the corner of the big room, today, wearing Mr. Peanut’s shell and top hat, originally from the Boardwalk at Atlantic City. And the son, was a handsome lad, in spite of the fact that he had no arms or head.
And then there is my marvelous Polichinelle, who cost a whole month’s rent of 30 dollars, a sum that took me several months to pay. This figure is full of the essence of the kind of “life” that on occasion endows inanimate objects with a presence so powerful that it cannot be denied.
Can you look into his eyes and say with certainty that he is not looking back at you? He is well over 100 years old. What sights have those eyes seen in all that time? And what tales would he tell if he could speak? I have met much wiser men than I, one being the World’s greatest puppeteer, Albrecht Roser, who maintains that he, Polichinelle, and images like him, possess a soul.
In the loft on 26th Street, we worked all year, creating things that only sold at Christmas. And thus, there were some lean months in the summer. But as the Holidays approached, business picked up, and, suddenly, we had money. We celebrated this annual good fortune by throwing a lavish Thanksgiving party. And for the month that followed, we went a little crazy, buying each other Christmas presents. It was at that time of year that my collection grew. I knew just what to add to my Christmas list. And Santa, working through Eunice, was very good to me. By April, we were broke again, but Oh, the holidays were great!
When we made the giant leap to a rent controlled apartment on 28th Street, with a new loft for work, around the corner on Lexington. I could get to work, like a cat burglar, by pussy-footing, from one rooftop to the other. The former tenants were good friends. One night, during the transition, we went out to eat together in a small restaurant across the street that had only one table, and served only one group, each night. It was called “The Tomb for Dead Lovers.” The place was rather atmospheric, a fairyland of twinkling lights, decorated with exotic antiques, many of which were for sale. And there it was, among the phantasmagorical decor, my second Mickey. The price was $15 dollars. Incredibly, I left without it. Eunice secretly got it for me for Christmas. Our upstairs neighbor was outraged. “$15. for that? Ridiculous!”
Not ridiculous, Glorious! It was the Knickerbocker Composition doll, and a revelation to me. This dazzling image was like a celestial vision. It revealed the fact that there were other great Mickeys out there. The thought hadn’t occurred to me. It’s not like I had seen any.
I had been bitten by the collecting bug, at the one and only “Marché aux Puces,” the “Market of Fleas”! And, thus, when I returned to the United States, I had to travel by boat instead of plane, so I could bring all these treasures back with me. They were an incredible menagerie. Among them, was a life sized pig from a French carousel, with a mirror studded bridle, that now rides a stainless steel pole, extending from the counter top to the ceiling, and dominates our kitchen. There was also an extensive collection of Victorian Toy Theatres, and hundreds of uncolored sheets of plays.
Seeing a Marvelous Toy Theatre, when I was 10, resulted in a quest that led me to travel across the Channel to visit London, and spend two days in Pollack’s Toy Museum. The new owner, Marguerite Fawdry, was a delightful lady. In 1958, she had just acquired the Museum, and found herself in a huge unheated building in the middle of winter, with only a small electric heater, overwhelmed by the accumulated stock of 100 years of manufacturing Victorian Toy Theatres. She was in over her head, and needed all the assistance she could get. By the time those two days were over, I knew more about her inventory, than she did. And I left with a collection of hundreds of Victorian Toy Theatre sheets. Throughout the 19th century these sold for “a penny plain, or tuppence colored.” They cost nearly the same in 1958. The following year I actually mounted a production on one of these small stages for a class at the University of Michigan. Marguerite Fawdry was a spirited lady; she later visited us In NYC, gallantly climbing the five floors to our illegal loft on 26th Street, even though, she had a wooden leg.
In France, I also discovered the wonder of early optical toys, and obtained a marvelous Zoetrope (that we later reproduced as Boutique Fantastique), and the most glorious optical toy of all, the incredibly complex and amazing "Praxinoscope Theatre." In this unique invention, images, reflected in rotating mirrors, transform seamlessly, and shutter free, appearing to move and exist in three dimensional space, amid scenery that is also only a reflection. When the candle light is adjusted, just right, and both reflections are equalized, the combination is perfection, and one beholds a tiny world, populated by minute living beings. It is a world that is neither here nor there, but floats elusively in midair, somewhere in the space between the rotating device and the viewer’s eye. This experience cannot be captured by a camera. Even seeing it in person, one is inclined to ask the question: Could this be real, or is it merely an illusion? Rarer than the device, itself, is the original paper shade. Is it any wonder, operating as it does, balanced precariously, above a burning flame?
Many of the images that caught my eye in France embodied the characters of the Commedia dell’ Arte, little known in America, Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pantaloon, Pierot, Pierette, Punchinello and Polichinelle, or Punch across the English Channel. These often appeared in Shadow Theatres and other objects I continued to collect, although, they were hard to find back in the States. And they were featured in the things we made as Boutique Fantastique.
Here is a sheet based on an imagerie d’ Epinal that was part of the visible components of one of the animated music boxes we made as Boutique Fantastique. I had to redraw this from scratch, which was the only way that it could be reproduced. Then, the black lines were printed on white card stock, and colored by hand, a hundred sheets at a time, using the same method as the original, a process that involves stencils and a special brush, known as “pouchoire” in France, and utterly unknown in the United States. I just noticed that the date, in Eunice's handwriting, below, is 1962. My God! That was 50 years ago!
Eventually, things fell into place, and I realized that Comic Characters were America’s Commedia dell’ Arte! And with that realization, the Collection as it appears today, was off and running. Thus, when we moved to 28th street, I built a wall in our small apartment, to preserve and display some of the things I had been acquiring over those years, après Paris. You can see it here. This is the only existing photo that shows almost the entire wall. It was taken shortly before we moved Upstate. As you can see, I was already running out of space. You might also notice a rosy glow reflected in the glass of one of the showcases on the left. That is the reflection of a large Neon Clock.
My friend, Al Horen, who was a major figure in the early days of Mouse Collecting, discovered an original Mickey Mouse Electric Clock. It blew my mind! In this surreal masterpiece of Ingersoll ingenuity, the figure of Mickey cleverly rotates, topsy turvy, every 60 seconds. His nose is the sweep second hand. Convinced that I would never be lucky enough to find one of these small treasures, I decided to make my own, only bigger! Al, kindly, let me photograph his. I found a huge old octagonal neon clock at the 26th street Flea Market, for 15 dollars. Ah, Those were the days! Now the trick would be, getting the mouse to rotate. I cut the Mickey image out of aluminum. and glued coins in place behind him, to serve as counterweights. Powered by a separate motor of his own, Mickey still rotates perfectly to this day, and the red and blue neon tubes still combine their basic colors to magically radiate a rosy glow. Alas, the clock, itself, stopped working, years ago.
Looking back, now, I wonder where I got the energy to build that wall. I bought the wood from a city lumberyard, a few blocks away, then carried it by hand, on foot, to a public carpentry shop on the lower East Side, a few eight foot planks at a time. There, one could rent the use of power tools to cut the pieces carefully to size. They fit together to create an assortment of individual boxes. Some were measured for specific items. Others were chosen at random. The boxes were then arranged and attached to the wall of the apartment, painted and wired with hidden lights, and protected by sheets of Plexiglas. One box in particular included many of the tiny things that I acquired in France. When we moved to the country, I kept that entire box intact, with all the things inside, and installed it in the wall downstairs, just as it was in NYC. That is as good a place as any to begin our tour, with those things that bridge the gap between the early days in France and NYC, and, here, in Mouse Heaven, U.S. A.
Gazing at the photo above, I find myself lost in reverie. The tiny objects in that box are not merely objects, they are memories. Meaningless, I guess, to anyone but me; I wonder if I can convey some of the wonderment I see.
By the way, for those of you who would like to move one step closer to experiencing what it is like to see the objects in this collection in person, I will share a secret with you. Would you like to see the photographs, throughout this web site, in 3-D? This may not work for everybody; a lot depends on the size and quality of both your imagination, and your computer screen. It also requires is a willingness to suspend disbelief. But it’s worth a try: Just gaze at the photo above, then : Open your mind, and CLOSE ONE EYE! For some, the image will look as if you’re actually gazing into the showcase. Viewing these photos with one eye closed will make the showcases appear deep, and single objects that are photographed against black, will look as if they float in space.
I’ll begin with the young man in a sailor suit. That’s little me, circa 1943! Photos mounted on wood, and hand tinted commercially, were fashionable in those days. The bisque doll is an uncanny lookalike, a resemblance that Eunice pointed out to me, so I dressed him in similar attire as a Christmas present for her. Next to both of me, is a dancing poodle that we crafted as Boutique Fantastique. This miniature piece of insanity was suggested by the Henri Bendel buyer, Frank McIntosh. He insisted that it would be a best seller. It was, actually! Luxurious ladies bought these, as Christmas presents for their pets, at $150 apiece. This was the only sculpting that I did in the ten years between art school and the Outer Space Men in 1968. The petite French Poodle, dressed like Pierot, pirouetted to the tune of “C’est Si Bone”, while a blown glass balloon floated, weightlessly, above his head. Pinned to the wall, behind my own, is a perfectly cut row of paper dolls that I picked up on a Paris street. On the other side, is a stick pin of The Yellow Kid.
And above that, (This you won’t believe.) over the tiny Kewpie’s head, is a teeny tiny box that holds a pair of fleas. They are perfectly attired as a bride and groom, and nearly too small to see. I am not referring to the enormous pair of 2" inch celluloid Kewpies dressed similarly, on the right, but that minute hand crafted box to the left of them. I was told they came from Mexico.
I could continue this all day! I’ll mention a few more things, then, we'll leave. Pinned to the wall, high up on the left side, is the optical device, a 19th century advertising giveaway that I later adapted to become Tricky Mickey, one of the best selling Colorforms toys I ever made.
The Mice in the showcase are all post Paris additions, but very early acquisitions, nonetheless. Here is a fiercely beautiful pair of Mickey and Minnie bisques from Germany. These are minute in size, but monumental in their stark iconic imagery. One of the keys to appreciating the beauty of these, and all icons of any kind, lies in the viewer’s ability to willingly suspend all consciousness of size. Can you visualize these tiny idols as 10 feet tall, or imagine yourself as very small? All the images in this collection are best encountered eye to eye.
The dapper figure in the center is a celluloid windup dancing toy, suspended on a nearly invisible filament. I just realized that he is the first windup toy I ever purchased. On his back, are the wings of a real butterfly. At his feet, is a tiny Austrian bronze Mickey Mouse Orchestra. This is the only complete set I've ever seen.
To the right of these, is a tiny painted bronze of “Der Struwwelpeter” or “Slovenly Peter”, with real fur hair, kneeling in prayer. Perhaps he is praying that the nasty scissor man won’t snip off his fingers, as in that masterpiece of German humor. Next to him, is a horny little bat-winged satyr, and a Pierot tape measure.
And high above them, on the wall, is an Austrian bronze Ascension Balloon. Its tiny passengers, a mouse and a frog, are hardly bigger than the newlywed fleas. They are involved romantically.
In the lower right hand corner of the case, is a French tin lithographed bank that is a candy vending machine. The original chocolates are still inside it, much nibbled on by fleas. In the other corner, is a marvelous mechanical toy, a pot metal acrobat with artfully articulated legs, controlled by pressing buttons. He can perform amazing feats, balancing, bouncing and spinning a wooden ball with his feet. Note the remnants of gold paper tape, affixed to the ball diagonally. They are cleverly placed to both avoid the wear of kicking feet, and at the same time, allow the viewer to perceive the fact that the ball rotates. As a toy designer, I have learned to appreciate such simple things.
There is another showcase in my studio, upstairs, that also contains objects from the early days. It too is full of marvelous things that are somewhat overpowered by the spectacular clown automaton that dominates the case. He operates for a long time on one winding, looking from side to side, and sticking out his tongue, in a fashion that is almost obscene.
The showcase also contains a group of harmless novelties that represent early attempts at being naughty. They include a lovely German bisque lady, on the left, who lifts her nighty, above a crystal goblet that the heat of ones touch, on the blown glass bulb behind her, causes to bubble up and fill with yellow liquid.
Another favorite is “The Pan American Midway Dancer" It is a miracle that this fragile optical toy has survived since 1901, especially in view of the fact that the directions suggest : “To see this figure dance, open Front and Back Cover, then light a match and move same back of the picture up and down, across and in a circle, and you will see this figure go through all the motions of an Oriental dancer. Patent Applied For” .... and then, no doubt, burst into flame!
Here too is a glorious Shadow Theatre that can, among other things, replicate a dazzling multicolored fireworks display. Other early optical toys, and a beautiful Spear’s Royal Circus, with beautifully printed and embossed articulated clowns and animals, fill out the case.
Double click to edit
From here we will continue to Comic Characters. I‘ll begin with Betty Boop, for no particular reason, other than the fact that I first met her in France, and the evolution of the casual quest to discover her, in the beginning, had much to do with my becoming a Comic Character collector, in the end.