We all love those Disney souvenirs. No matter where you look, you’ll find Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and every other character everywhere in the parks. In addition, there are treasures from Disney animated and live action movies and all items in between. Any article with the Disney moniker is fair game. And they are not just in the parks. Malls, shopping centers and even online, licensed Disney merchandise are everywhere. But this was not always the way it was. When Walt and Roy first started the Disney Brothers studios, they were a small Mom and Pop organization. Walt was a story man and animator. And the company was always short of monies. He and Roy did not think about the revenue that marketing Mickey and Minnie could bring.
As the studio became more popular, the first use of a Disney created character was the image of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but this was mainly for publicity. Walt first recognized the financial possibilities of licensing his product was in late 1929. He was in New York at the time, negotiating with Pat Powers when a man approached him in the lobby of the hotel and offered him $300 for permission to use the likeness of Mickey Mouse on school writing tablets. Walt said…”As usual, Roy and I needed money, so I took the Three Hundred.”
The first contract for Disney licensed merchandise was on February 3, 1930 when Roy signed on with the George Borgfeldt Company to sell…”Figures and Toys of various materials embodying designs of comic mice known as Minnie and Mickey Mouse”. The Disney Company would receive 2 ½ percent royalties on items of 50cents or less, 5 percent for more expensive items. Borgfeldt’s first license was to a Swiss firm for Mickey and Minnie handkerchiefs. There was a problem with the Borgfeldt Co.* they had a history of associations with carnivals and circuses, and hence their quality of merchandise was poor, cheaply made with cheap labor and materials. But at the time, the Disney studio was a small and struggling organization. It could not police the quality of the merchandise nor the many unlicensed articles that appeared on the market*.
The man who came to the rescue was Kay Kamen. Herman Samuel Kominetzky was born on January 27t, 1982 in Baltimore Maryland. He was the youngest of four children born to Lena and Henry Kominetzky, Russian immigrants. Kay had a rough go of it as a kid. He dropped out of school at 17, and even served time in Pennsylvania reformatory. But by 1917, he turned himself around, got married and started as a salesman for a Mink hat company in Nebraska. Kay was a wonderful salesman and with his sense of humor and caring personality, made a name for himself. By the time he signed on with Walt and Roy, he had an extensive background in marketing and merchandising.
By the 1920’s Kay moved to Kansas City and began work for Havens, Cartridge and Blair, a promotional company. In fact, he had such a winning formula; the company was renamed “Kamen-Blair.” He even marketed merchandise for the then famous “Our Gang” comedies. It was in 1932 that Kay decided he would call the Disney Brothers with a proposition. He called Walt and Walt agreed to meet and talk the next time he came to California. After the conversation, Kay cashed in his life savings, and had the monies sewn in his jacket, got on a train to LA. He was so worried about someone stealing his jacket, he stayed awaked on the train for two days.*
When Kay arrived in Walt’s office, he began talking about control of the merchandise, the quality and image, etc. Walt liked what he heard and called Roy into the office. Kay told the Brothers…”If you bring me on board”, and he proceeded to talk the monies out of his jacket, placed it on the desk and continued…”That money is yours right now”. “Every dollar I make on merchandise from now on will be 50/50”* Walt pulled Roy to the window to discuss the proposition, both agreeing on Kay’s proposition, turned back and Kay was sound asleep, because he stayed awake for those two days!*
On July 1st, 1932 Kay and the Disney Brothers signed a contract. And Kay was a man of his work. He started out running and never looked back. Roy once said…”We are not toymakers, we are a film Company” and they were very content to have Kay handle this end of the business. Kay Kaymen once said this about himself…”I’m the ugliest man in the world!” But Kay used this to his advantage. He always dressed very well, and he never came across like a sharpie or a con man. He was a true down-home kind of guy*. Another reason for his remarkable success is that he always followed up on his products with the licensed venders. As he began licensing manufacturers not covered by the Borgfeldt agreement, he and Lou Lispi who was an art director assisting Kay, made it a point to make people and venders feel good. Anyone visiting his office (A sign on the door read…’Kay Kamen: “The Walt Disney Enterprises’) always felt important and welcome.
After signing a contract with a vender, Kay would call and personally speak with them, talking about the merchandise. Then a few days later, Lou would arrive and draw the characters the way they should be on the product. This practice made the manufactures feel a part of the team and that Kay was there to help them. In only four years, Kay and his methods generated over $35 million for the Disney Company, and this was at the height of the Depression. Kay also made sure only quality merchandise hit the stores and would immediately cancel deals with manufacturers who did not meet his standards. He was the watchdog that guarded Disney’s merchandise. During the Christmas season in 1933, over 50 department stores had Disney characters in their storefront windows. More than 6 million dollars in themed merchandise was sold. By 1934, 200 stores had Disney themed window displays.
By this time, Walt knew Kay had what it took to handle this important income generating business. He gave Kay Carte Blanche on all decisions. Kay and his methods not only literally “saved” the Disney Company with this much needed influx of cash; he helped the economy by creating hundreds of jobs and saved at least three companies from going bankrupt. It was these additional monies that helped Walt make the payroll and also helped fund his first full length feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
One of Kay’s major coup’s during this time was the Mickey Mouse watch. Kay submitted the idea to the Ingersoll-Waterbury Company, and through financing deals with Sears and Roebuck, he guaranteed that the watches were promoted during the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Macy’s Department store sold over 11,000 watches in a single day, and more than 2 million watches were sold from June 1933 to 1934. Another milestone in the industry was the very first movie sound track released in history, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” again attributed to Kay*.
After the premiere and phenomenal success of “Snow White” Kay already was marketing the movie’s characters. By 1938, more than 2 million dollars worth of Snow White merchandise was sold. Over 117 manufacturers were licensed by Kay to produce the characters from the film. Because of his hard and dedicated work, Kay and the Disney Brothers had a wonderful and warm friendship. But this magical relationship was not to last. Kay and his wife Kate had traveled to Paris to talk business with Armand Bigle, vice-president of merchandising for Disney in Europe. On the way back, the plane crashed in the Azores, Killing Kay and all aboard.
After his death, the Kay Kamen organization was transformed over to Walt Disney Productions by Walt. Kay’s method of doing business was never changed. Kay will always be remembered as charming, thoughtful and polite. Walt and Roy not only lost a dear friend, but a valued and trusted business partner.
*Contributed by Disney Author and Historian, Jim Korkis. I thank him for his time, friendship and for the interview!