The Doctor Is Still In
Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel’s first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” was published in 1937; in the year 2000, nine years after his death, the ageless appeal of his whimsical world is selling seats on Broadway (“Seussical”) and at the movies (“The Grinch”).
Yet most of Geisel’s legacy is on paper: nearly four dozen books and countless sketches, drawings, editorial cartoons and commercial art. And, although Geisel left his own extensive collection to UC San Diego, a handful of serious fans have put together significant Seuss collections of their own. One of the largest of these, encompassing mostly small works created by Geisel between the 1920s and the early 1990s, belongs to James Otis, 38, an independent documentary filmmaker, resident of Geisel’s adopted hometown of La Jolla, and father of two (he is married to Muppet creator Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa, president of Henson Pictures).
Some 70 pieces from Otis’ collection can be seen--and bought--at the Storyopolis bookstore and gallery in Los Angeles now through the end of January. Modest at first glance, the exhibition features rare, small pen-and-ink drawings and pencil sketches of quirky Seuss characters that includes top-hatted cats from “The Cat in the Hat,” eggs from “Green Eggs and Ham,” the sad-eyed Lorax, Horton the elephant, the fish in “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” and lesser known characters. Otis also has Seuss puzzles, games and other memorabilia on display.
Prices range from $250 for a Seuss signature to $15,000 for a colorful Grinch. (Otis, also a Charles Schulz collector, is exhibiting 40 pieces by the “Peanuts” creator too.)
Otis’ passion for the art of Dr. Seuss is matched only by his treasure-hunting passion for seeking it out: His plans for the sale’s proceeds? More Seuss works, of course.
Question: Just how large is your collection?
Answer: I’ve never really counted the pieces. I recently purchased two more in New York at an auction and sold a smaller one to buy another cartoon in another auction. So it’s a bit of buying and selling. And I love to trade with other Seuss collectors. I have, oh, a few hundred of his actual original artworks.
Q: When did your interest in Dr. Seuss begin?
A: When I was a child. I was born and raised in La Jolla, [and] my mom would take us to the bookstore where he would read his books and do some signings. So I remember him as a very interesting, quiet guy who had these beautiful stories. I loved his drawings, and as time went on, I learned a great deal more about his wonderful, lyrical words.
Q: When did you become a collector?
A: In the late 1980s, I guess. I’d done much more specific research on his art and all the wonderful things he drew and wrote for, so it just kind of grew on me over the last 10, 12 years. The majority of my collection is sketches and drawings that he did at book signings, at libraries, at museum events. Not only do I collect his sketches and his drawings, but also any of the published work you can find.
Q: What was the first piece in your collection?
A: I don’t remember the very first piece, [but] the one that stuck with me the longest [was] a Cat in the Hat. It was a beautiful black-and-white sketch presentation drawing that he did at, I think, a book fair. It was about 6 to 8 inches tall, fine, fine detail in black and white. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.
Q: How about the oldest?
A: I have his yearbook from Dartmouth--he did some wonderful illustrations [in the early 1920s]. And I have something from his high school, a pamphlet that he did some illustrations for. That’s probably the oldest. And he did a bunch of wonderful stuff for PM [from 1941 to ’43], a magazine out of New York. He was very political in those cartoons, against Hitler and fascism and so forth. He also worked for oil companies, insecticide companies--I have some original artwork from his Flit [insect spray] ads. (A playful child’s puzzle that Seuss designed for Esso Gasoline is in the Storyopolis exhibition.)
Q: The most valuable?
A: A color, full-body Grinch. It’s worth upward of between $16,000 and $20,000.
Q: How do you acquire the work?
A: I go to auctions all over the world. [Also] the growth of eBay [the online auction service] has changed collecting. You can go into 10 antique stores and find one or two Seuss items perhaps; now on eBay, they’re everywhere. It’s very exciting. Seuss did so much--he advertised for whiskey, he did loads of editorials, book art, everything.
Q: Is there an authentication process?
A: Absolutely. Especially with eBay. You have to be very, very careful. There haven’t been any large problem with Seuss yet, but with many artists, a lot of fakes come up. I send [the pieces] to one or two different galleries in New York, where they authenticate the paper, the ink, the years that they were done, and they track back to the person who got them, where they got them, check out the lineage. All wonderful art has a life of its own, and the story of how you got it is sometimes as interesting as the actual art--part of the joy of collecting is making sure the piece is real.
Q: What are some of your other favorites?
A: A beautiful sketch of Mr. Brown [from “Hop on Pop”], a colorful, sweet picture. A full-body Horton that’s just fantastic, fine detail in black and white. I’ve got a lovely Lorax . . . but what would be my favorite? That’s hard. There are so many.
Q: Is collecting a full-time job?
A: I do it three to four hours a day. Collecting Seuss is No. 1; for Schulz, I just collect his drawings and sketches and some of his Sunday and daily panels. It’s not full-time, but I love it. And now [laughing] I’m reading to my children [a son, age 3, and a daughter, 4 months] all of [Dr. Seuss’] books each night and playing the games and watching the videos.
I’m going to be sending 70 [more] pieces in a tour around the country for three years. I’m putting that together now.
Q: How do you explain the lasting appeal?
A: The sketches were so precious--his wonderful, whimsical style; he was able to incorporate amazing illustrations with fantastic words, and so many of the books have deep moral messages: even “The Grinch” [expresses] a big anti-materialism sentiment, and sometimes people miss that.
One of the great things that Seuss did was to help children understand that imagination was much more than words. That the imagination of a funny moment can sometimes teach you more than a serious work. His timelessness, his use of colors, his characters . . . you can just fall away in all that stuff. I do love his work.
* The Art of Dr. Seuss, Storyopolis, 116 N. Robertson, Plaza A, Los Angeles, through Jan. 31. Gallery hours: Mondays-Saturdays, 10 to 6 p.m.; Sundays, 11 to 4 p.m. Closed New Year’s Day. Information about the exhibition or the gallery’s other Dr. Seuss collections: (800) 95TALES. General information: (310) 358-2500.