Saturday, 21 February 2015

Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958

Though over a decade old, Disneyana: Classic Collectibles 1928-1958 by Robert Heide and John Gilman is nonetheless an important book for those interested in Disney's early years. The title tells you what you get, and it has been a perfect companion for me in my continued examination of Mickey Mouse's life outside of film (begun with the compilations of the Mickey newspaper strip written and illustrated by Floyd Gottfredson).

Disneyana is not merely a catalogue or price guide to vintage Disney collectibles. Heide and Gilman begin with recounting how interest in vintage Disney collectibles surged around Mickey's 50th birthday, thanks in no small part to the collection of Mel Birnkrant being enshrined as "Mickey Mouse-eum" in a department store in Newark, New Jersey. This exhibition opened people's eyes to the aesthetic, nostalgic, and financial value of clocks, dolls, watches, bisques, and other trinkets from the Thirties and Forties, adorned with the grinning rodent. After this, the book reverts to a look at how Disney merchandising developed, in its social context.

We're treated to a retelling of Mickey's origin story, followed by a chapter on the original Mickey Mouse Club. Created in 1929 by Harry Woodlin for the Fox Dome Theatre in Ocean Park, California, this original Mickey Mouse Club was a cartoon matinee club for gregarious, all-American youngsters. Clubs of this sort, based around a character with some drawing power like a Mickey Mouse or a Popeye the Sailor Man, were popular with both kids and theatre owners. The kids loved the opportunity to see their animated hero and win prizes, while the owners loved the radically increased patronage and profits they brought with them. Within a year, 150 theatres organized Mickey Mouse Clubs with some 200,000 members. By 1932, the number of members inflated to a million kids spread over 800 theatres. The first piece of original music produced by the Walt Disney Studios was the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, Minnie's Yoo Hoo. Some of the first Mickey merchandise were cheap freebies used to entice membership in the Mickey Mouse Club and attendance at the theatre of choice.

A selection of original Mickey Mouse Club materials. Click to embiggen.
Trade ad for the Mickey Mouse Club.
Blank membership card for the Carteri Theatre branch.
Pinback membership button. These buttons could also be
inscribed with the name of the theatre hosting the club.
A slightly unsettling meeting of the Mickey Mouse Club.

The popularity of Mickey and the new Silly Symphonies series helped Walt to weather the onset of the Great Depression. Towards the end of 1929, Walt Disney Productions was split into four subordinate companies for film production, film recording, real estate holdings, and a licencing division. In 1930, the Mickey Mouse newspaper strip began. Later that same year, a plethora of goods were licenced by George Borgfeldt included tin toys and tea sets produced and imported from around the world. Discontented with the quality of these goods, Disney hired the sharply-dressed and smooth-tongued Kay Kamen in 1932, and Disney's merchandising empire entered its first Golden Age.

Kamen, who had earned respect with his marketing of the Our Gang film series, formalized Disney's merchandising department, setting up everything from uniformity of artwork to offices for network sales. With the proper groundwork laid, they could begin licencing things like the first Mickey Mouse watch by Ingersoll in 1933, the Mickey Mouse Magazine in 1934, Charlotte Clark Mickey cloth dolls (which were first made in 1930 but the licence continued and expanded in Kamen's reign, available both as finished dolls and a sewing pattern for at-home construction), the Mickey Mouse Handcar toy by Lionel in 1934 (which was credited with saving the company), and more.

Some of the most interesting topics in Disneyana are those artefacts of bygone times that seem so unusual today. For example, Mickey Mouse starred in the very first promotional campaign for bread. Certainly we have all seen a commercial for one or another brand of sliced bread, but it seems strange to think about how, at one time, the concept of buying bread was relatively new. In the depths of the Great Depression, it was also a tenuous business. Mickey Mouse did his best to help with his "Globe Trotters" club. Members could proudly wear their button and with every loaf of bread their parents bought, they would receive a set of trading cards to paste onto their full-colour map of the planet. This 1936 campaign was followed by Snow White bread in 1938 and Pinocchio bread in 1939. For the latter, bakers could set-up a paper display of "Pinocchio's Circus" in their windows, and members of the club would receive a "Ringmaster's Guide Book" and a Ringmaster hat, then collect trading cards of Pinocchio doing circus tricks.

Collectibles from the Mickey Mouse Globe Trotters campaign. Click to embiggen.
Ad for the campaign, inscribed with Meyer Milk.
The world map one receives with club membership, inscribed with Mitchell's Milk.
The weekly story and cards to cut out and add to your map.
Membership application card.
Two pin back buttons for members, inscribed to different bakeries.

Heide and Gilman spend a good deal of the book discussing and showing photos of the amazing variety of Mickey Mouse goods available to buyers in the Thirties and Forties, from writing desks to wind-up toys to toothbrush holders to illustrated books to vinyl records of special music. They also devote chapters to Donald Duck's ascendancy, the sensational Three Little Pigs, various other Silly Symphony characters (like Elmer Elephant), the first feature films, the war years, and a closing chapter on the Baby Boom years with the Mickey Mouse Club TV show, Davy Crockett, Zorro, and so forth.

Sometimes the reading gets a little tedious, especially when the authors are describing merchandise for which they do not supply a photograph. Other times the photo would have sufficed on its own, without a couple paragraphs of text alongside it. I would imagine that it's a careful balancing act to have enough information to satisfy those who are interested in the merchandise itself while not boring those with a more casual curiousity. For the most part, Heide and Gilman succeed, and did extremely well in their setting the social background behind what things like the original Mickey Mouse Club was or why the Three Little Pigs were so popular.        

Disneyana is another one of the must-buy books for those who are interested in how Disney began and Mickey Mouse rose to fame.

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