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Teddy Bears Bring Out the Kid in Adults

December 16, 1990|BETTY FREEMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Freeman is a Sherman Oaks writer.

What hobby brings love, profit and a world of make-believe? Teddy bears.

Teddy collectors make bears, sell bears and save to buy particular bears they love. One couple paid the biggest price ever--$86,350--for an early 1900 Steiff bear.

Rosemary and Paul Volpp had no idea the bidding would go that high at the 1989 Sotheby auction in London. In celebration of their 42 years of marriage, they named the precious beauty "Happy Anniversary."

Rosemary says, "Her shining eyes begged me to take her home." Now "Happy" is a member of the 4,000-bear Volpp collection in Buena Park and will be a featured model in their beautifully illustrated bear books.

The German-made Steiff, according to collectors, is the Rolls-Royce of bears. Antiques and some bears created by artists do increase in value, but that's not the reason most people collect bears. People collect things that bring warm memories, and bears have an almost human appeal.

The smile can be wimpy, the eyes too close together and the coat matted. Someone will buy him because "he needs me."

Today bear-mania has touched half a million people, and the hobby ranks fourth in the United States, after coins, stamps and dolls.

"Bears are not just art, but heart," said Ron Block from Edinburgh Imports in Calabasas. "They are an extension of yourself, something to love. I know two women who make bears for handicapped children, furry pets that duplicate the child's own disability. Policemen, firefighters and doctors use teddy bears to comfort worried kids."

Block and his German wife, Elke--a Steiff bear collector--own a warehouse filled with glass eyeballs, joints, fur fabrics and anything else you need to make bears. Their artist customers come from all over the United States.

In 1983, Ann Baxter, a Glendale collector, met with 13 bear lovers and founded Bear Enthusiast's All 'Round--B.E.A.R.-- Collectors Club. Now it has more than 400 members. On the first Wednesday of each month, bear lovers travel from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, Buena Park and other communities for a dinner meeting in Burbank.

As you walk into the banquet room, the furry stars are everywhere, bedecked in ruffles, funny hats, a new tuxedo. Most of the owners are adults, and many even have grown children, perhaps grandchildren. A jovial member admits, "Bears wake up the little kid in us, and give us a chance to play make-believe."

A hum of voices sounds. "We drove a thousand miles out of our way to find the Baltimore Bear Shop." . . . "In Vermont the Hugging Bear Inn is having their annual bear wedding." . . . "What do you think about this panda? Are the markings right?"

In one corner of the room, bears compete in miniature scenes suiting the theme of the month. The winner is a rakish fellow in red striped pajamas, waiting impatiently for a primping cinnamon bride dressed in a silk and lace peignoir.

Monthly raffles support two of the club's favorite charities: Five Acres, a home for abused children, and Para Los Ninos, a day-care center for Skid Row children. The ninos have received 85 bears, and at Five Acres a big birthday Bruin grants wishes for all the children, from ages 2 to 18.

"Bears are the great equalizers," Ann Baxter says. "Housewives, plumbers, professors, nurses--we are all alike when we share something we love." Then she adds more pensively, "People need a time to share happiness."

In spring and fall, B.E.A.R. sponsors a fair at Glendale Civic Auditorium, with more than 100 booths of bears. Each exhibiting artist has a personal style or mark. A Steiff bear has a button in the left ear. You can recognize Cindy Martin's bears because of their long, floppy limbs and high-bridged noses.

Touch the fur. Is it real mink? It could be mohair. Most bear makers choose from furs and a variety of synthetics. Clothes, furniture, even toys for bears can be found at the fair.

One client, a businessman from New York, bought "Poinsettia" from Carol Jarosik, a bear artist from Agoura Hills. The white ultra-plush bear with her red satin bow was packed in a plastic bag. The red-flowered paw pads poked out of the handles, and bright gray eyes peered over the top.

"Don't cover her face," instructed Carol gently. "She doesn't like it."

"No need to worry." The man's bald head bent over the little bear. He gave her a gentle pat. "I have 600 more at home. Bears cover every baseboard in my house."

Carol understood. Her own house is one big hug of bears, not only those she has made, with hand-painted paw pads, but hundreds she and her husband, Tony, have collected. Bears peek around the stair rails or ride in a tall pram with lavender velvet cushions. Mabel--a rotund beige softy--languishes in the family rocker.

"She came to visit and decided to stay." Carol nods lovingly at the bear, whose blue satin pillbox hat is held by a tiny hatpin. A crocheted collar protects her shoulders, and a satin evening bag dangles from one paw.

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