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By David Menconi

In the mid-1990s, Bob Chase ’91 was working in film production, and he’d done enough projects to see how much pre-production artwork the process generated. He’d always been a fan of the whimsically surreal illustrations of Dr. Seuss, the late children’s-book icon Theodor Geisel, and he wondered if there were similar artifacts connected to Horton Hears a Who! or Green Eggs and Ham. So, in a fit of “very green ambition,” Chase decided to find out. It took a few years in those days before social media, but Chase was able to track down Geisel’s widow, Audrey, and wrangle a meeting.

“No one was stopping me, so I figured I might as well because I didn’t know enough not to try,” Chase says with a laugh. “And it turned out that Audrey Geisel liked the way I thought about presenting his work.

“She’d been approached by a lot of people who wanted to exploit things Seuss had done, but I came to her saying that we should give him his due alongside Norman Rockwell. I asked her, ‘Shouldn’t he be hanging next to the other greats of the 20th century?’ ”

“At heart,
Seuss was a surrealist.

Bob Chase ’91
“Oh me! Oh my!” Bob Chase ’91 outside “The Art of Dr. Seuss” at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

 

Soon after that, Chase stepped into his next career, overseeing the estate of Dr. Seuss. It’s a job that uses all aspects of the customized, three-pronged Miami degree in marketing, art, and film production that Chase earned in 1991.

Along with assembling books and prints based on Seuss’ artwork to sell, Chase organizes exhibitions such as the retrospective of Geisel’s life and career that will show at the San Diego Natural History Museum in the artist’s hometown starting in December 2014.

Another production is “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!,” a traveling exhibit of the hundreds of hats Geisel collected during his lifetime. Launched to mark last year’s 75th anniversary of 1938’s The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the exhibit will show in cities across the country through the spring of 2015. And yes, it includes a real-life red-and-white striped stovepipe hat just like the one from Seuss’ 1957 classic The Cat in the Hat.

“Seeing that one always stops people dead in their tracks,” Chase says. “The truth is that nobody knows which came first, the hat in his collection or his drawing of it because there’s no documentation. But it’s amazing to see it for real.”

Chase got his first look at that hat when he visited “the house that Seuss built,” the San Diego estate where Geisel lived and worked. Geisel bought an old military tower on a La Jolla mountaintop and built a house around it, with the top of the tower serving as his studio. He died in 1991 at age 87, but his widow still lives in the house and gave Chase a tour on that first visit.

“It’s a beautiful spot, and full of all kinds of Seussian touches,” Chase says. “He kept a secret closet behind a big bookshelf. It was this James Bond kind of thing where you’d pull a book out and it would open up, full of hats and paintings and things he’d done over a 70-year period. Seeing that, my jaw just hit the floor because it was like a vault of American pop culture.”

Nearly a quarter-century after his death, Seuss remains as popular as ever, with 1971’s The Lorax, 1957’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, and The Cat in the Hat all undergoing new big-screen productions in recent years. But it’s not the movie versions that speak to kids as well as adults so much as Seuss’ original, inspired creations.

“Seuss occupies a really unique space culturally,” Chase says. “I’d liken him to Walt Disney, who was about entertainment through and through, plus a little morality. Seuss was about entertainment plus learning in a highly interactive way: kids sitting with their parents and learning how to read, which is a very connective moment for everyone. That’s happened over four generations of people now, and I think Seuss is embedded into people’s psyches at a deeper level because of it. His images are powerfully nostalgic in sort of the same way that cooking smells might bring back memories of your parents’ kitchen.

“He was a great artist, too,” Chase adds. “He just chose a different path. At heart, Seuss was a surrealist. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was in Europe in the 1920s when the first surrealist exhibits were executed. He took those tenets and applied them to a much broader audience. And that audience is still there and still growing.”

 


David Menconi has been music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., since 1991. He has also written for Spin, The New York Times, and Billboard. His most recent book was Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown (2012, University of Texas Press).

For more about the art of Dr. Seuss, go to drseussart.com.