Saturday, May 10, 2008

Winnie the Pooh

One of my fondest memories from childhood is Winnie the Pooh. Like most Americans my age I remember the Disney featurettes that were aired from time to time on television. And like many worldwide I also remember the books. It is safe to say that in a list of the influential characters in children's literature, Winnie the Pooh would rank in the top ten.

Although Winnie the Pooh's home of the Hundred Acre Wood would seem to be in England (which is, after all, where author A. A. Milne was born and lived), his origins can ultimately be found in Canada. It was during World War I that Lieutenant Harry Colebourn and other Canadian soldiers were being transported to eastern Canada, to be shipped from there to Europe. It was in White River, Ontario that Lieutenant Colebourn bought a small she-bear for $20 from a hunter. Colebourn named the bear "Winnepeg" after his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The bear was called "Winnie" for short.

Winnie accompanied Colebourn's brigade to England and she remained their mascot until they had to leave for France. It was then that Colebourn lent Winnie to the London Zoo. In December 1919, Colebourn officially gave Winnie to the zoo. At the zoo Winnie proved a popular attraction for children, among them Christopher Milne, the son of A. A. Milne. Christopher even spent time in the cage with Winnie and there is even a photograph of him feeding Winnie milk. It was not long before Colebourn took to calling his teddy bear "Winnie."

As to how Winnie became "Winnie-the-Pooh," that goes back to a swan that A. A. Milne and his son Christopher had encountered while on holiday. They referred to the swan as "Pooh the Swan." Winnie then became "the Pooh" in honour of the swan. The other characters in A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh stories were also drawn from real life. Christopher Robin was a fictionalised version of his own son, whose middle name was "Robin." Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, and Roo were all based on other stuffed animals Christopher Milne owned. Owl and Rabbit were apparently based on real animals. Even the setting of the Hundred Acre Wood had its basis in reality. It was based upon Milne's home of Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, outside of which lies an actual Five Hundred Acre Wood.

Winnie-the-Pooh (the hyphens originally being part of the name) made his first appearance in a story that London's Evening News commissioned for Christmas. Other stories would appear in other venues, such as Vanity Fair. It was on October 14, 1926 that Methuen published Winnie-the-Pooh. The book was illustrated by political cartoonist E.H. Shepard. In Milne's two poetry books published in 1927 (When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six) he included some poems mentioning Winnie-the-Pooh. A second book, The House at Pooh Corner, was published in 1928.

Winnie-the-Pooh was popular from the very beginning, but it would be the work of one man who would bring the fuzzy, little, cuddly bear to new heights of fame. It was in 1930 that American radio/television/film producer and licensing pioneer Stephen Slesinger bought the American and Canadian merchandising, recording, radio, and television rights to Winnie-the-Pooh (Slesinger may best be known as the creator of Red Ryder). It was Slesinger who would largely shape the modern image of Winnie-the-Pooh, giving him his familiar red shirt. For years the character of Winnie-the-Pooh appeared on radio, children's recordings, advertisements, and even the theatre (Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters from the Hundred Acre Wood appeared on Broadway in the Thirties as part of Sue Hastings' Marionettes). When Slesinger died, his wife, Shirley Slesinger, took over her husband's business. It would be Shirley Slesinger Lasswell who would make a move that would bring Winnie-the-Pooh even greater fame. Not only did she design much of the merchandise, everything from toys to clothing, she actually went door to door to the top department stores selling Winnie the Pooh merchandise.

Walt Disney had read the Winnie the Pooh stories to his children and it occurred to him that they would be ideal to be adapted to animation. It was then in 1961 that Stepehn Slesinger, Inc. licensed the rights to the character to Disney in exchange for royalties. That same year A. A. Milne's widow, Daphne Milne, licensed the motion picture rights to Disney. It was in 1966 that Dinsey released its first featurette based on Milne's work, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree. It was followed by other featurettes: Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too, (1974), and Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore (1983). Disney would combine the first three featurettes into the feature film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh released in 1977. Since then they have released several more Winnie the Pooh features. There have also been four different TV series, holiday specials, and even video games. Here I should point out that it was Disney who dropped the hyphens from Winnie's name.

Sadly, Disney and Stephen Slesinger Inc. would find themselves at odds over royalties on the Pooh Bear, with Stephen Slesinger Inc. alleging that Dinsey shortchanged them oon rotyalities in violation of their 1983 agreement. The lawsuit would drag on for literally years. It was in 2007 that Disney lost a bid in court to void the rights to the Winnie the Pooh and Milne's other characters held by Stephen Slesinger Inc. As a result the court could then ignore the question of who owns Winnie the Pooh and concentrate on the question of whether Stephen Slesinger Inc. was shortchanged when it came to royalties.

Winnie the Pooh has been around for nearly eighty three years now. While many today are probably most familiar with Winnie the Pooh from the Disney cartoons, A. A, Milne's books are still very popular. Winnie the Pooh was even translated into Latin by Alexander Lenard in 1960. Winnie Ille Pu remains the only book in Latin to ever hit The New York Times bestsellers list. It is estimated that Winnie the Pooh merchandise outsells Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, and Pluto merchandise combined. What started with a real bear purchased in Canada would has then become one of the most lasting and successful characters in the history of pop culture.


Toby O'B said...

'Shirley Temple's Storybook' produced an episode about Winnie the Pooh, using marionation. (I think they were the Bil Baird puppets.) The framing story had Shirley as Mrs. Milne telling the story to young Christopher (played by Teddy Eccles I believe.)

There's a boxed set of DVDs from the series which contains the episode.....

Bobby D. said...

I had a little set of the Pooh books when I was a little kid... wonder whatever became of them. Lots of fond memories of my sister reading them to me.

poppedculture said...

There is a Heritage Minutes commercial that has run here for may years about Winnie-the-Pooh's origins. We take what we can get: