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For Those Who Love, Love, Love That ‘Eloise’

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Times Staff Writer

Her name is Eloise. She is 6. She is a city child. She lives at the Plaza Hotel. She has a “rawther” British nanny, a dog named Weenie that looks like a cat and a turtle named Skipperdee that eats raisins and wears sneakers. Her favorite expressions are “Oh, my Lord!” and “For Lord’s sake.” She uses words beginning with “S” to describe what she does and likes to say words three times in a row for emphasis.

And now Eloise is making her TV movie debut.

“Eloise at the Plaza,” premiering Sunday on ABC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney,” is the first of two “Eloise” movies set to air this year. “Eloise at Christmastime” will be shown during the holidays. And the script is nearly finished for “Eloise in Paris.” Production on the third film has to begin soon because Sofia Vassilieva, who plays the irrepressible Eloise, is 10 and growing, and won’t be able to pass for a 6-year-old much longer.

Vassilieva found it easy to play Eloise because they have a lot in common. “We both like to be happy all the time,” she says, happily. “We both like helping and we both kind of like to fight the bad guys.”

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The actress is an only child, just like Eloise, and also has a dog. But she doesn’t have a turtle. “I don’t have a nanny,” she adds. “I have a mom. [Eloise] has a nanny, but doesn’t really have a mom because her mom is off all the time. She lives in a hotel and I live in a house.”

Eloise was the creation of Kay Thompson, the tall, svelte singer, composer and choreographer who is best known for her role as the fashion magazine editor in the 1957 musical “Funny Face.” During a nightclub tour in 1948, Thompson was late for a rehearsal. When asked why she was tardy, she replied: “I’m Eloise. I am 6.” She began entertaining her fellow performers with the muses of this little girl who endlessly roamed the hotel in search of adventure. In 1954, Thompson was introduced to illustrator Hilary Knight, and the following year the two published “Kay Thompson’s Eloise: a Book for Precocious Grown-Ups.”

On Thanksgiving Day 1956, CBS’ “Playhouse 90” presented a much-ballyhooed version of “Eloise,” which featured Thompson as herself. Though she even wrote the songs for the production, it was critically lambasted and Thompson vowed never to sell the film rights to her beloved heroine. But after Thompson died in 1998, her estate made the film rights available.

Executive producer Denise Di Novi is thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to bring “Eloise” to life, having been a fan since she was a little girl.

“She is one of those characters who transcends time and places, like Charlie Brown,” says Di Novi. “She has such joy of life and such a sense of humor, and she is just so unique. There has never been any other character like her. I think she will exist forever. Characters based on fads and trends get stale very quickly. Eloise will remain popular for the next hundred years.”

In “Eloise at the Plaza,” the long-suffering hotel manager Mr. Salomone (Jeffrey Tambor) is busy preparing for a grand debutante ball as well as the visit of a prince. He pleads with Eloise not to meddle in the affairs, but she’s determined to get the prince to take her to the ball. In her spare time, Eloise devises a plan to bring together her matronly Nanny (Julie Andrews) and their handsome neighbor, Sir Wilkes (Kenneth Welsh).

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Screenwriter Janet Brownell says that she had to create a story for “Eloise at the Plaza” because the book doesn’t have a traditional plot, per se. “The book is sort of a day in her life,” says Brownell. She decided to use the book as the first act of the movie and then revolve the rest of the film around the ball and the prince’s visit. “Hopefully, kids will recognize the book, but now there is a story,” she says. Brownell also created new characters, such as the shy Sir Wilkes, to flesh out the movie. “We needed something for Nanny to do because in the book she is just sort of there for lunch,” says Brownell. “That is a story line that will continue through all three movies.”

Brownell even toured the Plaza in New York City with an ABC executive. Scenes set in the famous hotel’s laundry room and on the rooftop came about from the visit. “The woman who was taking us through and showing us this incredible suite on the top floor said the prince of Morocco had just been there and they had to change the entire room for the prince. That is how the details for the prince came through,” he says.

Capturing the flavor of Thompson’s dialogue was easy because, says Brownell, “the language in the book is so specific. There are Eloiseisms, and for that reason, the dialogue fell into place.”

“The Wonderful World of Disney: Eloise at the Plaza” can be seen Sunday at 7 p.m. on ABC. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for young children).

Cover photograph by Bob D’Amico.

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