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Tony as a Teacup, Bigger Than Life

No one can resist the charms of Mr. Winkle, 'the cutest dog in the universe,' who has his own calendar, poster and Web site.

September 22, 2000|DENNIS ARP | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first thing you should know about Mr. Winkle is that you are powerless to resist his otherworldly charms.

Lara Jo Regan knows that better than anyone. Technically, she is his owner, but she freely admits she is thoroughly in his thrall.

"I never thought I'd feel this crazy about a nonhuman creature," Regan said. "But he's so great that I can't keep him in obscurity. I'm just a conduit to share him with the world."

That's why Regan, 38, has cut back on her assignments as a freelance editorial photographer for Time, Newsweek and other magazines to produce a calendar, a poster and a Web site (http://www.mrwinkle.com), all devoted to "the cutest dog in the universe."

Of course, that assumes he really is just a dog.

Regan, who lives in Los Feliz, allows that Mr. Winkle might be part teacup Chihuahua or part teacup poodle, but she knows that a mere teacup can't contain the Winkle mystique. Regan is only half-kidding when she says he might just as easily be an alien life force or, as one friend suggested, a manifestation of the divinity.

"There is a religious quality to the way people encounter him," she said.

For the five years since she happened on an injured Mr. Winkle in an industrial part of town and then nursed him back to health, Regan has seen crowds gather just about every time she takes him out. The little guy has charisma to burn, she said.

First, there's his diminutive size. People can't believe that, at 5 pounds, Mr. Winkle is fully formed. Then there's his squirrel-like tail, and his bright-red tongue, which hangs perpetually limp from his elfin mouth. Even when he eats, it never seems to go all the way back in. Plus, he has a bouncy, off-balance walk that makes him look battery-powered. Except when he's really, really happy. Then he prances like a tiny Lipizzan stallion.

Add eyes the size of pennies and you've got a package with magnetic pull.

"When people see us from a distance, they think I must be deranged," Regan said. "It looks like I'm taking this stuffed animal for a walk. But then they get closer, and Winkle-mania takes hold. His cuteness is really too much for one person to take."

Mr. Winkle's first public appearance since the launch of his merchandise line and Web site was at the recent street fair in Los Feliz. People lined up just to watch him sit in his little bed atop a table. Regan sold 35 calendars at $14.95 each.

In picking a theme for the calendar, "What is Mr. Winkle?," Regan played off the mystery of his origin. He is photographed in a variety of guises--as a science experiment in April (wearing on his head an upside-down colander with electrified wires shooting out of it), an alien on a spaceship in November, a blissful winged angel in December.

All the images spring from comments Regan has heard about Mr. Winkle. "People tend to see in him exactly what they want to see," Regan said. On the Web site, you can check out the merchandise or see a short film of Mr. Winkle prancing about. Click the right link and he zips across the screen on a flying saucer. Click again and he pants and barks (actually, it's Regan who barks, since the only sound Mr. Winkle makes is more like a squeak.)

Regan said she spent a big chunk of her savings bankrolling the calendar, posters and site. She didn't want to go through a publishing house because she wanted to keep creative control. (Plus, of course, she'll get to keep more of the profits if any materialize.)

Regan is already working on the photos for the 2002 calendar and hopes eventually to incorporate all the images into a children's book with guess who as its hero.

As if conquering the publishing world weren't a big enough goal, there's the feature film front. A writer-producer who has a deal with Disney has talked with Regan about a possible Mr. Winkle project. It would be part live action, part animation and part Japanese cartoon, she said.

But Regan sees Mr. Winkle in something more Chaplin-esque. "As with all great comedians," she said, "there's an essential sadness to him."

She knows she should be getting back to her real work, like her gallery project "American Street," which is a house-by-house chronicle of the diversity in her own neighborhood.

But instead she's spritzing water on the dangling tongue of Mr. Winkle so it will glisten in her photo of him as a demon. "I feel like I've been given a gift," she said. "Not to share it would be wrong."

Plus, she added, time may be running out. "I can't be sure how long Winkle will be around before the mother ship beams him back up."

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