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Bow wowed

Mr. Winkle, a rescued stray, is an online hit with a new book and a film role. And yes, he's real.

July 12, 2003|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

The line to meet Mr. Winkle began forming two hours before his scheduled book-signing appearance. By 7:30 p.m., it had swelled to about 500 -- an orderly queue outside Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, waiting as if for a dignitary of church or state.

But Mr. Winkle is a dog. A 5-pound dog (about the size of a large squirrel), with fluffy apricot-colored hair, bright-as-glass button eyes, a koala bear's ears and a perfectly rounded little cherry-red tongue that peeks from one side of his mouth as if it had been sewn in place for optimum adorable effect.

The truth is, Mr. Winkle looks as if he were created by some delightfully demented designer for one of those ancient European firms that make uniquely lovable yet dignified stuffed toys. In fact, the most frequent question asked by the 35 million people who've visited Mr. Winkle's Web site (www.mrwinkle.com) in the last three years is, "Are you real?"

He is. And he is clearly one of a kind. One of what kind, even the experts are unable to say. Perhaps a bit of Pomeranian, a soupcon of poodle, a blend of two, three or 10 other miniature breeds, they believe. He is clearly a diverse dog of such mixed lineage that he stands -- at under a foot tall -- for no particular breed or class, which means he can stand for all of them.

But he is not Disneyesque. If comparisons must be made, he is more Chaplinesque, says Lara Jo Regan, the dog's constant companion, manager, photographer and biographer. She has turned Mr. Winkle into an underground industry, a cult canine, a poster pooch featured in costumes -- from angel to bumble bee and ballerina -- on Mr. Winkle calendars, greeting cards, T-shirts, magnets, mugs and books.

The latest, "A Winkle in Time" (Random House), is the pair's third and most ambitious collaboration in the Mr. Winkle series. It is a salute to the "underdogs of history" and features Mr. Winkle in historically accurate costumes and settings that represent an Irish monk, an ancient African monarch, a Canadian racehorse and a French sculptor, among others. All those depicted have made great contributions but have been underappreciated by historians, Regan says. She wants her dressed-up dog (who was also underappreciated until she found him, half dead, beside a railroad track) to help right that wrong.

A Mr. Winkle movie is also in its post-production phase. Created and directed by Regan, it's filmed in grainy, soft-focus color to simulate an old silent film, with titles instead of dialogue -- and lots of music. Mr. Winkle plays a Chaplin-like hobo dog who stumbles into an old-time circus traveling in covered wagons from town to town. His hilarious yet poignant efforts to join the troupe, and to help those in it who are being mistreated, form the plot. "It's a very personal project," Regan says. "It's old-fashioned, yet timeless. It's for grown-ups and kids."

And so is Mr. Winkle, as was evident at the Barnes & Noble event. In line, waiting for Winkle to "pawtograph" books, were representatives of every age range. Regan sat at a table on which she had placed Winkle, in an igloo-shaped fabric hut, with only his head available for petting. He is so extraordinarily fragile-looking that most people simply smiled at him or touched him with one or two fingers.

Sarah Mandell, 12, visiting from Sedona, Ariz., said she'd first seen Mr. Winkle on greeting cards, then checked out his Web site and "fell head over heels in love." Senior citizen Mikie Fujimura of Monterey Park clutched a stuffed likeness of Mr. Winkle as she stepped up to meet him. Video game marketer James Tuverson waited with his wife, a teacher, and his 7-year-old daughter. "At first, I didn't believe he was real. I thought it was a joke. Or a stuffed toy. Then I went on the Web site -- and here we all are. He's even better in person than in his pictures."

Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, waited almost two hours for a signed book. She was assembling a birthday package for her mother, Nancy, and "I wanted Mr. Winkle to be a part of it," she said.

Cynics might say the Mr. Winkle phenomenon is just another case of girl meets dog, girl photographs dog, girl gets rich. What's in it for the dog?

Cynics would be wrong. Regan, 40, a Sandra Bullock look-alike, didn't need Winkle in her life to win fame and fortune. She had done that all on her own. Before Winkle, she says, "I was living the life I'd always dreamed of." She was a photojournalist who'd won a reputation -- and major awards -- for documenting the human condition for such magazines as Time, Newsweek and Life. She won the World Press Photo of the Year award for 2000 for an image in her series called "The Uncounted," which depicts the lives of Americans so poor that they are never found and counted by the U.S. Census Bureau. She was also a respected celebrity portraitist.

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