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Pooh's Pot of Gold

December 21, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the center of things is the bear. Edward Bear. A.k.a. Winnie-the-Pooh. A small bear, of very little brain, with a sticky substance abuse problem, and yet a certain charisma. He gathered about him a clan of disparate creatures--a piglet, a donkey, a rabbit, two kangaroos, an owl. The purpose: adventure. They all ostensibly answered to the Man, the Big Guy in short pants, Christopher Robin, but it was the bear who called the shots. In his own rum-tum-tiddle-um-tum way, he ran the Hundred Acre Wood.

But that wasn't enough. It's never enough. Eventually, he'd cut a deal. Eventually, he headed to the Coast. On Uncle Walt's dime. And now?

Forget the mouse. The bear owns this town.

A trip through any toy store, any department store, tells the tale. Or at least the licensing / copyrighting of a tale. Where once there was nothing, or but a few plush toy Poohs, slightly orange with the red monikered crop top, there are now racks of Pooh, walls of Pooh, rooms of Pooh. And Piglet, and Tigger and all the denizens of the wooded acres that grew within A.A. Milne's imagination.

There are dolls and toys and games, bedding and clothes and chairs, watches and earrings and backpacks, pillows and throw rugs and piggy banks, soap dispensers and toothbrush holders and personal hygiene products. Most of which come in two guises--Pooh, the vivid Disney drawn characterization, and the more sedate and traditional Classic Pooh.

And these days there are, despite the nondenominational nature of the original characters, Santa Pooh gift bags, tags and paper, Christmas stockings, Christmas throws and more ornaments than you could fit on the Rockefeller Center tree. There's even the Hanukkah Party Pooh.

Surely, Ramadan Pooh and Kwanzaa Pooh are not far behind.

"Pooh belongs to everybody," says John Singh, spokesman for the Disney Consumer Products Division. "He can be anything you want him to be. It's totally appropriate for him to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hanukkah or the Fourth of July."

That's a lot to expect from a British citizen well into his 70s. Endure the Fourth of July perhaps. But celebrate it?

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The Mouse Is Down for the Count

The numbers say no matter what Pooh does, he does it big. In October, Winnie-the-Pooh was the No. 2 licensed toy line, behind only Barbie. Ed Roth at the NPD Group, a marketing research firm in New York, says he expects it will finish in the top five at year's end--the first year it would do so--with such heavy hitters as Hot Wheels and Lego.

"It'll probably end up with 2% or 2.2% of the market," Roth says. "That may sound small, but it translates to about $400 million. And that's just the toys."

Where do Disney's standard characters rank? No. 16. Which explains why the next new ride at Disneyland, scheduled to open next summer, will be the Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh. Which explains why there are whispers among those who know that the bear, in fact, has replaced the mouse, that the mouse is down for the count.

How did a mild-mannered literary bear and his friends, plucked from the sylvan simplicity of the English countryside, manage to invade the shelf space of seasoned industry pros like Big Bird and Mickey?

"Pooh is a very lovable character," says Charles Riotto, executive director of the Licensing Industry Merchandising Assn. "He's soft and cuddly, which parents are attracted to. And many mothers today grew up with him, so you've got the nostalgia factor. And, of course, the property managers have done a terrific job."

The property managers are, of course, Disney. And their courtship of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends was a persistent one, beginning sometime in the 1940s when, according to Robert Tieman, manager of the Walt Disney archives, Walt himself began sporadic negotiations with the A.A. Milne estate. It was complicated--Dutton Publishing owned some rights, as did Milne's widow and his gentlemen's club, so it wasn't until 1964 that Disney was able to acquire film and merchandising.

The first thing Disney did was redraw Ernest H. Shepard's pen-and-ink characters in a more child-friendly and colorful way. The second thing was to grant Sears, then Sears, Roebuck & Co., 30-year exclusive merchandising rights. Originally, Walt had planned to make a full-length Pooh movie, but because of story problems--the books are episodic rather than narrative--and Walt's fear that Americans weren't familiar enough with the tales, he decided to make a series of featurettes, which debuted in 1966 with "Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree." Narrated by Sebastian Cabot with the furry-voiced Sterling Holloway as the bear in question, these films introduced a generation to the heffalump-hunting, bee-tree raiding, umbrella-riding creatures.

In the meantime, Sears had gone ahead with a line of plush toys and pajamas, making Winnie-the-Pooh the first Disney character for which the merchandise preceded the film.

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