Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Breyer Kitten

Since I am out of town on Breyer business (of course!) and the Wi-Fi at the hotel can be a little unpredictable (and overtaxed) I’ll be running a couple of slightly edited reruns from past Samplers here. First up – the ever-popular Creepy Meow!

Breyer released four different Dog molds in the 1950s alone; for a time it even described itself in toy directories as a “Dog and Horse Figurine” manufacturer. But it wasn’t until 1966 that Breyer decided to give felines their due, releasing the now notorious Breyer Kitten, aka The Creepy Meow.

As with other models before it, Breyer had some painting issues with their initial releases, in both the rendering and the naming. The coloring of the #335 Siamese Kitten was mostly correct, but the markings on the face tended to resemble a scruffy hobo beard, rather than an elegant mask. Some even came with strangely pinked lips, which added to the effect.

The “Calico” was not a true Calico at all, but a Red Mackerel Tabby. The hand-airbrushed tabby markings on the Calico varied widely, from a few stray stripes to almost zebra-like patterning.

Other significant variations of these two Kittens also exist. The eyes, in particular: typically the Calico came with green, and the Siamese blue, but that was sometimes reversed. The paint itself was not consistent, either: the eye paint on earlier releases had a distinct pearly sheen – a feature unique to the mold in the 1960s – but later examples did not.

The Siamese version of the Kitten was discontinued in 1970, and the Calico followed suit in 1973. They didn’t reappear in the Breyer line until 1994, with the release of the Red Tabby Cleopatra and the Gray Tabby Leonardo.

I am partially to blame for the Kitten’s return in the 1990s; when Reeves had contacted me in 1992 about some matters of Breyer History, they also seemed keenly interested in taking some photos of my Calico Kitten for reference! When “Cleo” and “Leo” showed up a couple years later, I thought of them as kittens of my own Kitten. (And yes, that very Kitten pictured above is the very same one! How I got him was a funny story in and of itself – and for another day.)

Along with most of the other Pet molds released around the same time, both of these newer Kittens were discontinued in 1995. The mold reappeared in 1996 as a portrait model of the President Clinton’s cat Socks. But again, there were painting issues: the Tuxedo pattern of “Socks” bore only a passing resemblance to the actual cat.

A few years later, the first official Special Run of the Kitten appeared at the 2000 BreyerFest, a 750-piece run named “Patches”. She was a real Calico this time, with black and red striped tabby patches over a white body.

The fidelity of her paint job did not help her sales, and leftover Kittens haunted the BreyerFest sales area for years afterwards. It was during this time period that the mold earned its nickname “The Creepy Meow”, as newer or less savvy hobbyists would sometimes find themselves confronted and/or menaced by the model’s slightly disturbing (and almost human) stare.

In spite of the failure at BreyerFest, the Kitten mold was given one more go as the Christmas Kitten “Tom Foolery” in 2003. This tuxedo cat – in a significantly different pattern from Socks – came with kelly green eyes, a jaunty little Santa cap and a set of holiday lights to get tangled up in.

The Kitten mold disappeared again after that; by then the Companion Animal cats had insinuated themselves in the hearts and minds of collectors, who at last had the in-scale barn cats they had been clamoring for. I know I didn’t expect to see the Kitten return for a good while, even as a “Vintage-style” release.

And then it happened: the mold made a surprise reappearance in 2012 during the now-infamous Breyer web site “Vault Sale”. Unlike most of the other items in that sale, including the Special Run Bull Logan, the Lynx Point Siamese Kitten Angel lingered on the web site for several days before the 50-piece run finally sold out.

Aside from its unblinking, unflinching stare, it is the scale issue that many hobbyists find most offputting about the Kitten: it is not to scale with any other model in the Breyer line. While most Traditional horses hover around the 1:9 scale, the Kitten may be the only Breyer mold that approaches 1:1 scale, or life size. It towers over most of the dogs, and looks gigantic next to most of the horses.

Why so big? Many early Breyer molds were freely adapted from molds made by other manufacturers, and scale was not as big a concern then. What did matter was size: the Kitten – although huge in scale – was roughly the same size as the other Dog molds, and therefore could be sold at a similar price point. On Breyer pricelists from the late 1960s, the Kitten’s wholesale price ($1.35) was identical to the Boxer and the Bloodhound/Bassett Hound!

As far as I know, the Kitten was an entirely new creation of sculptor and moldmaker Chris Hess, and not adapted from any other sculpture; at least I have not found any evidence to suggest otherwise. Though some have derided the mold for being awkward or ill-proportioned, anyone who has shared a house with one or more cats knows otherwise.

The Kitten has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years and well-painted examples, variations, and test colors have been commanding unusually strong prices. Even the Vault Sale Angel is a pricey thing to find now.

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