Seuss on the Loose

  • Share
  • Read Later

A scene from the film 'Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas.'

The ashes of Dr. Seuss have settled in a small wooden box in La Jolla, Calif. Audrey Geisel — who is sometimes referred to simply as "the widow" — has placed them there, neatly and lovingly, on a heavy wooden hutch in the sunny foyer of the home they shared high on a hill by the ocean. They were married in 1968, long after the rest of the world had fallen in love with him, and still she keeps him close, just steps from the study where a hat-wearing cat and a Christmas-stealing Grinch and a Who-hearing Horton once scampered across the drawing board.

Theodor Seuss Geisel, who was best known as Dr. Seuss and sold up to 400 million books, would approve of his final resting place, for there was a bit of the Grinch in him. He cherished the solitude of his mountaintop retreat, and he never had children of his own. ("You make 'em, I amuse 'em," he famously said.) He doted instead on the menagerie of misfits and mischiefmakers who have populated his children's books since 1937's "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street." Unlike Walt Disney and Charles M. Schulz, Geisel kept the T-shirts and adaptations to a minimum — one fabulous exception being animator Chuck Jones' 1966 TV version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" — and kept himself and his creatures close to home.

Lately, though, Dr. Seuss is getting out more — a lot more. Since Geisel's death at age 87 in 1991, his widow has taken control of an empire long considered a sleeping giant in the licensing realm, shaken it awake and issued strict marching orders. And oh, the places Seuss is going! Even as we speak, the Cat in the Hat is ushering children through an elaborate ride at Seuss Landing, the 110-acre theme park that opened last year at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Fla. The great green spoilsport comes to life in Ron Howard's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" a big-screen adaptation costing well north of $120 million and opening Nov. 17. And on Nov. 30, Seuss's beloved elephant, Horton, will hatch his egg on a Broadway stage in "Seussical the Musical." Universal and Imagine Entertainment also have plans to put Seuss's classic cat in movie theaters, with Tim Allen wearing the hat, and a movie version of "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" is in development.

Why all this Seuss all of a sudden? For the answer, go to the top of the mountain, to the petite, 79-year-old blond, blue-eyed widow. When she met Ted Geisel in the mid-1960s, she was still married to physician Grey Dimond, with whom she had two daughters. After her divorce, and after Ted's first wife, Helen, committed suicide in 1967, Audrey and Ted were married. Until the end of his life, Audrey devoted herself to his care. "The idea was to keep the body there so it could take that mind as far as it wanted to go," says Audrey, who trained as a nurse in World War II. "I kept the Band-Aids going." After a life of playing doctor's wife, then nurse, Geisel today is empowered with the estate. She's being courted by Hollywood and has danced with Jim Carrey. By all appearances, she's having a ball.

"I've never gone out looking for anything," she says, speaking of the avalanche of adaptations and licensing. "It all comes to me." She volunteers this information to avoid the rap that she's exploiting Seuss and explains that by creating trademarks in various media, she's protecting her husband's creations. Yet some of Geisel's decisions, notably to publish some material that her notoriously perfectionist husband left unpublished, are difficult even for her to explain. "Because everyone out there wanted it," she says, "and because Random House wanted it."

But to call Geisel greedy or a pawn of corporate interests would be a mistake. Much of her income is earmarked for philanthropy, and she's driven the same gray Cadillac, with a GRINCH license plate, since 1985. And truth be told, Dr. Seuss himself wasn't averse to seeing his art in other forms. He issued some licenses when he was living. In the early 1980s, he expressed interest in seeing his work turned into video games, and at the time of his death he was writing the screen adaptation of "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

The difference now, of course, is that Dr. Seuss is no longer here to guide his work into other realms, and even the sharpest entertainers are finding the transition difficult. Before Universal's recent acquisition of "The Cat in the Hat," it foundered under Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks, despite the efforts of Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump"), who spent nearly a year composing a screenplay in rhyme. "Seussical," the $10 million musical pastiche of several Seuss stories narrated by Seuss's Cat, has also had its share of bumps on the way to Broadway. Key members of the creative team have been replaced, while lyricist Lynn Ahrens, who wrote "Ragtime" with her partner Stephen Flaherty, has faced the challenge of simulating Seuss's inimitable poetry — "trying to keep the gist of that," Ahrens says, "while trying to find different rhythms so there can be variety in the score."

Without Seuss's guiding hand on the live-action Grinch movie, producer Brian Grazer and makeup artist Rick Baker argued whether the citizens of Who-ville should look odd (Baker's choice) or cute (Grazer's), and debate raged over what shade of green the Grinch should be. Because Seuss's own illustrations in his book were too austere for a splashy holiday movie (his Whos lived in thatched huts), production designer Michael Corenblith had to comb through the entire Seuss canon to find recurring shapes and motifs on which to base the film's swirling, elaborate sets.

But even in the absence of the good doctor, the widow maintains a substantial amount of control. Aided by Karl ZoBell, vice president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and ICM agent Herb Cheyette, she reserves veto power over almost every aspect of the adaptations. To list all the movie-related merchandise hitting stores, TIME would have to forgo coverage of the election, but if you're thinking of decorating with Grinch inflatable furniture or have a taste for Oreos with green filling, you're in luck. Still, nothing is on the market without first getting a nod from the widow.

Geisel says she gave the go-ahead for the Grinch movie because the material "had been tried and tested for decades on television," but she left nothing to chance. In July 1998, Geisel's agents notified producers by letter that "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" was up for auction. In order to pitch their ideas to Geisel, the suitors ultimately had to be willing to pay $5 million for the material and hand over 4 percent of the box-office gross, 50 percent of the merchandising revenue and music-related material, and 70 percent of the income from book tie-ins. The letter also stated that "any actor submitted for the Grinch must be of comparable stature to Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman." Additionally, the estate wouldn't consider any director or writer who hadn't earned at least $1 million on a previous picture.

Geisel was courted by half a dozen entities, including 20th Century Fox, whose team featured William Morris agent turned producer Dave Phillips (who had been pursuing the project for years), as well as producer John Davis ("Dr. Dolittle") director Tom Shadyac ("The Nutty Professor") and Nicholson (who had expressed interest). But Universal, which had already made a major investment in Seuss at its theme park, came out swinging. And though revenue would have to be shared, "it was [easy] to see the ancillary opportunities," says Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider. When the studio's pitch by Grazer and director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville") didn't fly, Grazer's producing partner, Ron Howard, was recruited to woo the widow.

Howard studied Seuss's 1957 tale of the pompous, lonesome mountain creature who, for reasons never fully explained in the book, tries to ruin Christmas for the adorable citizens of Who-ville. Howard became intrigued by Cindy-Lou Who, "since she's the only Who that you see up close [in the book]," he says, and pitched Geisel a film in which the little girl would play a larger role and the Grinch's background would be fleshed out (turns out he was a troubled youth before his exile). Geisel bit, and Howard decided to sign on as director.

"We like Universal," says Geisel, explaining her choice. "We'd already worked with them, and their word was their bond." Of Howard, she adds, "I like the grown Opie." She also liked Carrey, who had asked Geisel to meet with him after the book went up for auction. Instead of shaking her hand when they met, he spun her around, held her close and made a Grinch face. She was sold. "I grew up with it," says Carrey. "In a very simple tale, Seuss tells you a lot about human behavior; he tells you a lot about prejudice, and that no one is unreachable." While Carrey set about inhabiting the character — a task that required wearing a cumbersome costume and painful contact lenses ("I defined him as a big, thick callus," says the star) — Geisel asked for numerous revisions on the screenplay, which is credited to the team of Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit").

"Eight drafts!" says Geisel. "There was much I didn't like." On her no-no list was what she calls "sexual" humor that showed up in some drafts. Like what? "Oh, creating a furball," she answers, so disgusted by the notion that she refuses to elaborate. "She was really tough on me for a year and a half," says Grazer, "and I wanted to please this woman." Finally, when Geisel saw the finished film, she spoke to the producer with tears in her eyes: "Ted would have loved it so much."

In fact, Geisel seems to be a fan of all things Seuss. She rhapsodizes about the Florida theme park, and has raved about the Broadway show. "If Ted were here," she told the cast after a workshop of "Seussical," "his heart would've grown three sizes today." But, of course, he isn't here. He's at home in La Jolla. And there, when movie stars and moguls aren't answering to the widow, she must answer to him. "He has to be here where he's always been," says Geisel, running her fingers across the loping Seussian figures carved into the wood of the hutch on which he rests. "The essence is there. He's just in a different form."

—With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles