Farewell to Tom Tumbuschby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Often times, I end up writing a column because I know a little about something, but want to know more. I always hope that someone else who does know much more will write about the topic if my column sparks their memories. They never do, but I keep trying.
Researching and writing, especially about somewhat obscure things, is long, hard, frustrating work and I would much prefer to read what someone else has written about something that I am interested in than having to do it myself.
Today's column is about Thomas E. Tumbusch, the owner of Tomart Publications, who was a recognized and respected pioneer in researching Disney history and producing an accurate and extensive library of reference works about Disney memorabilia collecting. He died in early July 2016, and I have been patiently awaiting some type of tribute to him on the many Disney websites.
So far no tribute has appeared, and only the Disney History website briefly mentioned his passing.
For most of the readers of this column, the name Tom Tumbusch and his publishing company Tomart probably brings to mind his Tomart's Disneyana Guide to Pin Trading series of books that started in 2001 and has now apparently ended with its final second volume of the sixth edition appearing in 2013.
Tumbusch pretty much set the standard for the collecting and the pricing for Disney pins for most collectors, much like Steve Barrett's guide to finding Hidden Mickeys still remains the best reference for such information despite attempts by others to do the same.
At this point, that will be the last pin trading guide produced by Tomart Publications, and it will be interesting to see if someone else can fill that gap and with the same integrity and density of information that Tom was committed to supplying. At this point, it is unclear what will happen to Tom's estate that includes a warehouse of copies of his magazine and books.
Tumbusch was also responsible for other publications, including ones related to Hot Wheels, action figures, radio premiums and cereal box collectibles, Star Wars, McDonald's Happy Meal Toys, and so many other things.
I knew him primarily because of his multiple publications about Disney-related topics. They were done with professionalism and care, and I frequently look through them not just to verify information, but to simply just enjoy the images.
While I knew and respected Tumbusch and had a collection of his Disney related publications, I only met him in person three times. The last time was June 30, 2013, at the Dayton, Ohio Disneyana Fan Club multiday convention (which is always a delightful experience for those Disney fans who really love Disney and remember the friendly, family conventions of long ago) where I was a guest speaker.
I got to spend a brief afternoon at Tumbusch's overflowing-to-the-rafters Tomart warehouse where, in his cramped and cluttered front office, I bought a copy of his latest book Tomart's Disneyana Guide to Magic Kingdom Treasures (which he would have given me if I had asked but I wanted to support him and his efforts…you always have to "vote with your wallet" for something to continue), gleefully inscribing it, "From one Know-It-All to Another." He had a very sly sense of humor.
We spent several hours talking about Disney history, as well as his proudly showing me the mock-up for the latest issue of his Disneyana Update magazine that had just been sent to be published, sharing with me some of his favorite treasures he had obtained over the decades that decorated the shelves and desk of his office, the difficulties of publishing especially for a niche market and more. I should have taken notes.
Both Disney historians Didier Ghez and Bob Welbaum knew him so much better than I did, and wrote brief loving memories of him in the latest issue of the Disneyana Dispatch Newsletter (August/September 2016) about how he had impacted their lives and Disney writing.
However, they didn't touch on his own interesting story. I doubt most people knew it, so I am sharing what I know in the hopes of providing a larger perspective of the man who contributed so much to Disney fans and writers.
Tumbusch could sometimes be a crusty character who did not suffer fools well and had definite strong opinions about many things, including Disney fans, Disney collectors, and the Disney Company itself—and how it treated him and his publications. He was a staunch conservative who admired Ronald Reagan almost as much as he loved and respected Walt Disney.
He seemed like he had been around forever and would continue to be around forever. I still have no clue how he could produce as much as he did with the quality that he did with primarily just himself and a small skeleton staff doing all the work.
Bob Welbaum, a talented writer, worked closely with Tumbusch for 15 years and described the situation with the familiar saying: "A lesser man would not have succeeded and a smarter man would not have tried."
Tumbusch combined his Disney passion with his realization that there was a huge need that was not being met.
I hope this column will inspire others who knew him better to contribute their memories and those who only knew him through one or more of his publications to better understand who he was.
He was born in 1939, so he was 76 years old when he died. His early years growing up were during the period when Walt Disney was still alive and highly active:
"I became fascinated with Walt Disney at an early age. Diane Disney Miller's book (The Story of Walt Disney) was given to me shortly after it was published in 1957. My friends looked up to major baseball stars. My hero was Walt Disney," Tumbusch said. "When news of Walt Disney's death reached me, I felt a personal loss. My adventure with Walt Disney has been life long. It has been personal and influential. He has been a good friend and true."
He never met Walt. Like many people, his relationship and love began by seeing Walt on television on the weekly show. He started writing about Disney in 1973 after an encounter with Ward and Betty Kimball who were on The Phil Donahue Show to promote Christopher Finch's book, The Art of Walt Disney.
The show was taped in Dayton and Tumbusch spent time with the Kimballs, both before and after the show, and was given an invitation to visit them in California if he ever came out there. He visited them many times over the years when he went to participate in the various Disneyana club conventions and shows.
At the time of meeting the Kimballs, Tumbusch was the Dayton, Ohio, correspondent for the Variety entertainment trade paper, a job he held for 12 years, and his press card got him that backstage opportunity. Kimball enthralled him with tales of working at Disney, something Ward was able to do to others for decades.
Tumbusch was a graduate of the University of Dayton, where he was president of the University Players. He was associated with Kermit Bloomgarden Productions in New York. His interest in musical theater prompted him to write three books on the subject. Prior to starting his own publishing company, he was an account executive and vice president of the Yeck Brothers Group of advertising and direct marketing agencies.
He grew a reputation as an expert on contemporary collectibles, appearing many times on radio and television shows, as well as being consulted about nostalgia subjects by prestigious magazines and newspapers. He was an occasional contributor to Disney Magazine on classic Disney memorabilia, since he was considered the acknowledged expert in that field.
Tumbusch estimated, in an interview in the Chicago Tribune newspaper of June 27, 1993, that there were about 2,000 collectors worldwide whose 1930s Disneyana collections were valued at more than $1 million dollars.
"Novices may be overwhelmed by the scope of Disney licensed merchandise, he said. "In my first four books, there are over 20,000 items pictured, with another 40,000 listed in some way, shape or form. One thing to understand is that no one can collect it all. Demand, not age, is what creates value, and affordability is the key to collect-ability. It usually takes about 20 to 25 years before an item become highly collectible."
He pointed out that the 1934 Mickey Mouse watch was not as valuable as people thought since 6 million of them were made, a larger production run than any other Mickey watch since then.
"One of these watches in average condition probably would sell for $250 to $300," he said. "Granted, that's a big appreciation from their original price of $2.95, but that's not much compared to many other 1930s Disney pieces."
He was deeply active in both of the early Disney fan club groups, The Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club (later the Disneyana Fan Club) and was visible at their conventions. He got to know personally (and fortunately interview) many of people who worked closely with Walt, and even helped artist Bill Justice edit and publish his autobiography, Justice for Disney, in 1992.
The first time I met him in person was at a Mouse Club summer convention, where he was promoting the book with Justice. His enthusiasm that Justice was finally going to get some recognition was apparent. Tumbusch was also originally going to publish Van France's Window on Main Street autobiography as well, before France took it to another publisher. However, Tumbusch did help him edit the early drafts of the manuscript.
I first became aware of Tumbusch's work through his four volume Tomart's Illustrated Disneyana Catalog and Price Guide series of books, each released individually from 1985 through 1987. He had begun gathering photos and information a decade earlier, but only seriously started to put it all together around 1982.
He told me that his research had shown him that there were at least 50,000 active Disneyana collectors by 1985, so he felt there would be a market for the books and he could recover his costs and maybe a bit more.
His stated goal was to identify and classify the Disney merchandise material that had been produced, as well as to estimate an approximate value. He consulted several other collectors and the entire manuscript was reviewed by Disney Archivist Dave Smith, who he corresponded with frequently. Smith helped so many of us in the early days of Disney fandom without receiving any fanfare or enough appreciation.
With Mickey's Mouse 40th birthday in 1968, attention turned to collecting Mickey related memorabilia (especially the infamous wristwatch) from the 1930s. By 1978, it had become a nostalgia collecting category called Disneyana (inspired by the word Americana), thanks to a book by Cecil Munsey published in 1974 called by that same name. In 1976, there was even a Disneyana shop on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland. Soon there were other books devoted to Disney collectibles produced before 1956, which was considered the prime era for vintage Disney.
Many of the early collectors were the hardcore dealers who attended toy and antique shows across the country and participated in auctions. They disdained the casual fan who was merely interested in Disney and, in fact, the first Mouse Club conventions banned the general public from entering the dealer's room to purchase or even view items.
It was felt that a casual fan, even if he could afford something, was incapable of truly appreciating and caring for the treasure. These items, it was felt, belonged in a handful of collections of "serious collectors."
With major prices being paid for all this "junk," according to media accounts (that also were amused by people buying old comic books), counterfeiting became rampant so there was a need for a good reference and an authority to help verify items.
Of course, prices on these types of items can change quickly and frequently and previously unknown items are always being discovered as well. In addition, new merchandise was being released constantly so Tumbusch started a magazine called Tomart's Disneyana Update, in 1994, to accommodate that information, update material from his books, and to answer some of the many similar questions he received all the time from people who were being referred to him.
He had just completed issue No. 82 at the time of his death. Although it has not yet been released, it will be the final issue from Tomart of a valuable and entertaining magazine that contained material that could be found nowhere else. His warehouse contained copies of every back issue that had been published and he sold those issues at their original price as his way of encouraging collectors.
The magazine was not just a colorful display of rare merchandise images and possible prices, but he made sure to include historical background, as well. In particular, there was a multipart series on the history of Disney merchandise, with special chapters devoted to Kay Kamen and Jack Olsen.
He gathered together a group of knowledgeable contributors, like a very young Didier Ghez who had just turned 21 and started writing a series of articles about European Disneyana that continued for many years.
One of the most popular sections of the magazine was devoted to Disney pins. Tumbusch saw this fact and, with the Walt Disney World Millenium and the 100 Years of Magic celebrations, he felt it might be a good time to release a book showcasing 3,000 Disney pins that had been issued by Disney, starting in 1930. In addition, the book would help promote the fact that his on-going magazine would feature recent pin releases.
Like many of us, Tumbusch underestimated the interest in pin collecting. His final two-volume edition had more than 30,000 pins (10 times the amount featured in the original edition) and these books were sold at the Disney theme parks. The success of that book often overshadowed the other publications he produced. Like all his publications, the pin collecting books offered valuable historical information, as well as guidance to both new and seasoned pin traders.
Like so many others, he attempted to write a Walt Disney biography. Walt Disney: The American Dreamer was released by Tomart in 2008. While it is a breezy overview of 140 pages, it was a disappointment to many of us who were hoping that all the years of research and interviewing so many people who knew Walt would have produced a unique perspective peppered with previously untold stories and perspectives.
While the book is well-written and as accurate as many Walt biographies, I would have difficulty recommending it simply because there are so many other better Walt biographies out there. The book was obviously a labor of love, but does not provide any greater insight into Walt and, like so many Walt biographies, becomes a listing of his many accomplishments rather than a look at the man himself.
Sadly, Tumbusch had so much more that he wanted to contribute to the knowledge of Disney history that only he knew, but that opportunity is now silenced. However, I wanted to take some space to acknowledge what he did share over the decades and perhaps direct newer Disney fans to his work.