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Big Battle for a Silly Old Bear

Who owns the honey pot? An 81-year-old widow is taking on Disney in a fight over Winnie the Pooh and a $1-billion-a-year empire.

July 05, 2002|MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time--well, actually 78 years ago--a British playwright named Alan Alexander Milne scribbled some lighthearted verses about a boy and his constant companion, a dimwitted bear who couldn't get enough honey.

Winnie the Pooh was an immediate sensation. Milne spent the rest of his life trying to escape the suffocating shadow of his cuddly creation. Even today, people can't get enough of that silly old bear--or his honey.

Pooh has become a $1 billion-a-year industry for Walt Disney Co., which acquired rights to the Milne characters in 1961. Disney has put Pooh and his forest friends in movies and computer software, on its ABC television network and on videotapes and DVDs. There's Pooh fruit juice and Tigger telephones. Pooh Beanie Babies dressed in satiny feng shui robes and leather-like black biker jackets. Piglet cookie jars. Pooh chopsticks. A toaster that plays a Pooh jingle while toasting bread in a pattern that resembles the bear's face.

At Tokyo Disneyland, visitors wait two hours to ride Pooh's Honey Hunt--the park's most popular attraction.

Last year, Disney paid $352 million to buy the remaining Pooh rights from various Milne heirs in England. Yet there remains one threat to the entertainment giant's Pooh empire. Her name is Shirley Slesinger Lasswell.

Lasswell is an 81-year-old widow who lives in Beverly Hills and gets around in a chauffeured silver Mercedes with a 3-foot Pooh doll buckled in beside her. Lasswell and her daughter inherited merchandising rights to Milne's characters half a century ago from Lasswell's first husband, a literary agent.

In 1961, Lasswell turned those rights over to Disney for a share of the merchandising revenue. Since then, she and her daughter, Patricia Slesinger, have collected $66 million in Pooh riches. But they are unhappy. They contend that Disney has cheated them out of at least $200 million in royalties and are asking a court to terminate their Disney contract so they can shop their Pooh rights to other companies.

Their 11-year-old lawsuit, one of the longest-running sagas in Los Angeles Superior Court, is set for trial in March.

For Disney, the stakes are enormous. The company recently warned shareholders that "damages could total as much as several hundred million dollars and adversely impact ... any future exploitation" of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore.

It has been a nasty fight. In the early 1990s, Disney workers shredded boxes of old files sought by Lasswell and her daughter, including one labeled "Winnie the Pooh, Legal Problems." Disney says the papers were irrelevant, but a judge last year fined the company $90,000 and ruled that the jury would be told about the destruction of evidence if the case was to go to trial.

Both sides agree that Lasswell and her daughter are entitled to Disney royalties on a wide range of Pooh products. The dispute centers on whether their rights extend to videotapes, DVDs and computer software featuring the Milne menagerie.

Disney's lead attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, dismisses the case as "overreaching" and "rooted in greed."

Lasswell resents the suggestion that she and her daughter are gold diggers: "We're not grab, grab, grab. We're low-key people," she said.

Back in the '50s, Lasswell marketed upscale Pooh toys and children's clothing to department stores, helping to revive the franchise years before Disney became involved. Lasswell believes that she has been key to developing the Pooh brand.

"We wouldn't be spending all these millions on lawyers all of these years if we just wanted more money," she said. "We just want what we're entitled to: no more, no less."

A Boy's Stuffed Toys

A.A. Milne was one of Britain's most popular playwrights in the early 1920s. At one point, five of his comedies were playing at the same time in London and New York.

In 1920, Milne and his wife, Daphne, had their only child, Christopher Robin Milne. They gave him stuffed toys, including a bear, a tiger, a kangaroo and a donkey whose neck grew limp from the boy's affection. Mother and child would play together, creating stories and voices for the animals. Milne used this as inspiration for a 1924 poem about a boy and his teddy bear, and he later created the cast of "Winnie-the-Pooh," published in 1926. The book's hero was a boy named Christopher Robin.

The "bear of little brain" and his playmates had personalities and enduring charm. The simple line drawings of Ernest H. Shepard brought the characters to life. The four Pooh books have sold more than 50 million copies in 33 languages.

Milne was smothered by Pooh's success. He fretted about being typecast as a children's writer and grew uneasy about using his son's name in the stories.

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