When you're one of the world's best-known children's authors, there's a certain amount of pressure to maintain a squeaky-clean persona and avoid any hint of adult sensibilities. Theodor Seuss Geisel -- a.k.a. Dr. Seuss -- had another, more adult side to him. But when it surfaced, it didn't alienate his fans. Instead, they were treated to more of the same delights they'd enjoyed during Dr. Seuss's illustrious career.
"I think he always felt the Cat in the Hat was his alter ego," says Bill Dreyer, curator of "The Art of Dr. Seuss," a national touring exhibition celebrating Dr. Seuss's hundredth birthday that hits Houston this week. The show contains serigraphs and lithographs from a previous touring exhibit called "The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss," plus more than 200 pieces of rare Seuss artwork: sculpture, watercolors, paintings, drawings and cartoons.
Both Geisel's more adult works and ones from his children's-author career will be on view. Many of the adult works emphasize Geisel's cunning sense of humor (in one painting, a bird-woman in a coffin says to a friend on the phone, "I'd love to go to the party, but I'm absolutely dead"). Dreyer believes that Geisel felt a conflict between the two facets of his output, and that many of the exhibit's images weren't intended to be shown until after Geisel's death.
Of course, the adult humor has always been present, even in Geisel's children's books. Adults just know where to look. "There's a great artwork called Cat from the Wrong Side of the Tracks -- again, the bad cat -- it's a cat smoking a cigarette, playing pool in a pool hall, and on the cat's tie is a naked cat," says Dreyer. "It's just a little sly, wry, adult humor he brings to a lot of what he does in his artwork."
"Ted Geisel was just a wonderfully warm, friendly, funny, creative man," says Dreyer. "I always like to tell people about his incredible prankster side. Just to give you an example: He lived in New York in his twenties and thirties, and he actually broke into a friend's apartment when the friend was out of town for the week, and he filled up this guy's bathtub with gelatin, sliced fruit and about 12 goldfish, and then opened the window, because it was wintertime. And the guy comes home to a bathtub full of sliced-fruit-and-fish Jell-O. That's the kind of guy he was.
"I think people are realizing that there were many facets to the man Theodore Seuss Geisel, and we highlight the different careers that he had," says Dreyer. Many people are unaware that Geisel started as a little-known editorial cartoonist in the 1920s. When he openly spoofed a popular bug spray, Flit, the advertisers for Flit hired Geisel to sell their product, and as a result, the Flit bug spray ad became the first to use humor. That was in 1927. That cartoon is included in the exhibit. "It's got this little girl and a boy in the front yard, and the papa's hanging out the window saying, 'What's going on out there?' " says Dreyer. "And the little girl says, 'Don't worry, Papa, Willie just swallowed a bug, and I'm having him gargle with Flit.' You certainly couldn't advertise like that today."