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A wildly imaginative illustrator and author, Dr. Seuss is easily the most beloved figure in American children's literature. As a young man, he found success in advertising and eventually moved on to books, unveiling his kid-centric debut, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937. His 1940 story, the elephant-starring tale Horton Hatches the Egg, became a "Merrie Melodies" (Warner Bros., 1931-1969) animated short two years later, marking the first of many times that his work would get translated to the screen. After World War II, Seuss tackled kid-oriented fare with verve, even releasing two of his most famous books, The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! within months during 1957. The latter became a perennially popular 1966 animated TV special, and various Seuss adaptations followed, even as he continued to publish new stories. About a decade after Seuss' death in 1991, a number of big-budget feature-film versions of his books began to surface, leading to a revival of sorts, though his oddly clever narratives have never truly gone out of style. A Massachusetts native, Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel and raised in Springfield. The son and grandson of brewers...
A wildly imaginative illustrator and author, Dr. Seuss is easily the most beloved figure in American children's literature. As a young man, he found success in advertising and eventually moved on to books, unveiling his kid-centric debut, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, in 1937. His 1940 story, the elephant-starring tale Horton Hatches the Egg, became a "Merrie Melodies" (Warner Bros., 1931-1969) animated short two years later, marking the first of many times that his work would get translated to the screen. After World War II, Seuss tackled kid-oriented fare with verve, even releasing two of his most famous books, The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! within months during 1957. The latter became a perennially popular 1966 animated TV special, and various Seuss adaptations followed, even as he continued to publish new stories. About a decade after Seuss' death in 1991, a number of big-budget feature-film versions of his books began to surface, leading to a revival of sorts, though his oddly clever narratives have never truly gone out of style.
A Massachusetts native, Dr. Seuss was born Theodor Seuss Geisel and raised in Springfield. The son and grandson of brewers with German roots, Geisel, affectionately known as Ted, got into trouble for drinking while attending Dartmouth College, which led to his using his middle name for a pseudonym as an aspiring cartoonist. He developed his playfully strange aesthetic in earnest while at Dartmouth and went on to postgraduate work at Oxford, where he abandoned an advanced literature degree in favor of marrying his classmate Helen Palmer. Returning to the United States to pursue his artwork, Seuss solidified his signature whimsical style and soon found employment in advertising. In 1928, he created an incredibly popular campaign for Flit insect spray, with "Quick, Henry, the Flit!" becoming an inescapable catchphrase.
Though ads proved to be Seuss' main source of income for years, he was determined to find success as an author and book illustrator, finally managing that feat when And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was published in 1937, after a slew of initial rejections. The story drew heavily on his youth in Springfield and provided a formative glimpse of Seuss' hyper-imaginative approach to storytelling. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins followed the next year, and both Seuss's art and writing grew more refined and ambitious with the charming fantasy tale. In 1940, he introduced the thoughtful elephant character Horton with the book Horton Hatches the Egg, which also featured his lively, good-humored poetry, a key element of much of his subsequent work.
As America came closer to involvement in World War II, Seuss' literary output halted, but, in 1942, a "Merrie Melodies" cartoon of Horton Hatches the Egg, was released, proving to be a fine fusion of the classic Warner Bros. animated look and the author's own sensibilities. Meanwhile, Seuss shifted his focus to the war effort, expressing his views as a liberal Democrat in political cartoons and going on to write training films for the U.S. Army. Many of these animated shorts also featured the talents of "Looney Tunes" mainstays Mel Blanc and Chuck Jones. Arguably Seuss' biggest wartime contribution, however, was his writing (credited as Geisel) on the documentary "Design for Death" (1947), which was co-penned by his wife and focused on the occupation of Japan. The film went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Following the war, Seuss and his wife settled down in the upscale California coastal community of LaJolla, and this change of setting away from familiar East Coast territory seemed to suit him well, with a series of new children's books quickly popping up. Among these were McElligot's Pool (1947), the 500 Hats sequel Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1949), and the animal-centric If I Ran the Zoo (1950), all of which were awarded the Caldecott Honor, the runner-up to the prestigious Caldecott Medal. During this era, the Seuss concept of the sound-effects-speaking "Gerald McBoing Boing" (1950) became an Academy Award-winning animated short, and he wrote the live-action musical movie "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" (1953), which landed as a huge flop that he later disowned.
Comfortably back in the land of pages, Seuss revisited Horton in Horton Hears a Who! (1954), which followed the amiable pachyderm as he stood up for the little guy, in this case the tiny Whos of Whoville, who would soon appear again in the author's lore. During the late 1950s, Seuss began to hit his artistic peak, starting with The Cat in the Hat (1957). Aimed at young children, the story introduced the title trickster, a human-like feline eager to upend the staid lives of two homebound kids. It wound up becoming a massive success, leading to the development of the "Beginner Books" series, which targeted childhood reading development. Later that year, Seuss offered up a holiday gift in the form of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, a Yuletide tale that featured the return of the Whos, and, of course, the scheming, celebration-hating Grinch, one of the greatest antagonists in children's literature.
Subsequent Seuss publishing triumphs included the episodic and silly One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) and Green Eggs and Ham (1960), in which the determined Sam-I-Am cajoles the narrator into trying his odd culinary offering. These and many other Seuss books of the 1960s often steered clear of a larger narrative in favor of simple wordplay and wonderfully weird scenarios, a set-up that invited even the most restless youngsters to stay engaged. It also gave him a chance to showcase his endless varieties of bizarre creatures, from the can-opening Zans to the pugilistic bugs in a tweetle beetle battle.
While rhyming wackiness continued in Seuss' books, "Looney Tunes" mastermind Chuck Jones, an old friend and collaborator from World War II, opted to transform How the Grinch Stole Christmas! into an animated television special, recruiting cinema legend Boris Karloff to both narrate the newly expanded story and provide the voice of the seemingly merciless green Grinch. The resulting song-filled production, produced in part by one "Ted Geisel," brought Seuss' tale to the small screen with both his verve and his disarming melancholy intact, going on to become an venerable holiday classic.
Meanwhile Seuss' presumably carefree real life involved considerable drama. While his wife, Helen, had been long suffering from various illnesses, including cancer, Seuss had begun an affair with Audrey Diamond. Helen committed suicide in the fall of 1967, and he married Audrey the next year. While Helen was a creative collaborator and an author in her own right during her healthier years, Audrey later became the guardian of Seuss' legacy.
During the 1970s, Seuss' books became less groundbreaking and more comfortably reassuring while retaining his trademarked playfulness, with titles such as Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! (1975) and I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! (1978). His most notable book of the decade was inarguably The Lorax (1971), a cautionary story with a very intentional and explicit environmental message. The tale was swiftly made into another cartoon TV special, one in a series that Seuss made with producers Friz Freleng and David H. DePatie. Prior to that he had unveiled a well-received television take on Horton Hears a Who! with Jones, but his partnership with Freleng and DePatie carried on longer, leading to Emmy nominations and wins for "Halloween Is Grinch Night" (1977) and "The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat" (1982), both of which were penned by Seuss exclusively for TV.
The 1980s found the elderly Seuss understandably less active, though he still managed to garner attention for The Butter Battle Book (1984), a timely tale that echoed the real-world situation of the Cold War and its increasingly tense arms race. In 1989, a television special of the story, helmed by renowned animation director Ralph Bakshi and narrated by Charles Durning, aired with a Seuss teleplay; it proved to be one of the last projects the author worked on. In 1991, the year after his final book, the fittingly thoughtful Oh, the Places You'll Go! (1990), Seuss died of throat cancer at age 87.
With his widow, Audrey, in charge of his estate, Seuss received numerous posthumous honors. In 1994, the TV movie "In Search of Dr. Seuss," featuring Kathy Najimy and starring Matt Frewer as the Cat in the Hat, was released, leading to various accolades. The next year, both the TV special and book of "Daisy-Head Maysie" (1995) arrived, though neither quite lived up to previous Seuss offerings, despite best intentions. Soon thereafter, the puppet-filled television series "The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss" (Nickelodeon, 1996-97) combined his characters with Jim Henson's Muppet production values, but the show never got far off the ground.
Aside from the 1999 opening of Seuss Landing, a section of Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida, things remained relatively quiet in the Seuss world until 2000. In November of that year, "Seussical," a Broadway production featuring many of his stories and characters, opened, and Ron Howard's live-action feature-length "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" movie also debuted. The latter, starring Jim Carrey in heavy makeup, received so-so reviews but was a box-office hit, setting the stage for a similar take on The Cat in the Hat. The resulting 2003 film, however, was a complete debacle, with star Mike Myers coming off as both creepy and crass, prompting Audrey Geisel to wisely rule out any future live-action Seuss productions.
In 2008, Blue Sky Studios, the animation company behind the blockbuster "Ice Age" movies, released the CGI feature version of Horton Hears a Who!, which included Carrey as the gleefully goofy Horton and Steve Carell as the hapless mayor of Whoville. Although the movie indulged in numerous contemporary pop-culture references and presented various elements not in the book, it retained Seuss' unmistakable energy and nodded to his ever-curving visuals, making it an admirable adaptation. A film version of The Lorax followed in 2012, with Danny DeVito voicing the mustachioed title character, but its bright visuals didn't quite make up for a misguided interpretation of the tale.
During this era, another attempt at an ongoing Seuss-related TV series finally succeeded with PBS's "The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!" (2010- ). Featuring Martin Short as the voice of the Cat, the lively animated show turned its focus to science and nature, pleasantly retaining Seuss' sense of wonder. That wide-eyed view of the world was largely why his works endured and even thrived far beyond his own lifetime. Given Seuss' remarkably lasting appeal, it will be only a matter of time before the next colorful adaptation comes along.
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