A Cat In The Hat Attack

The Dr. Seuss cast of characters will soon flood the market

The Cat in the Hat is coming back! And he's about to rake in cash by the stack.

For decades, Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, spurned nearly all offers to license the immensely popular characters he created, including the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, and a vast assortment of Sneetches, Yooks, and Zooks. Yet Geisel's mischievous menagerie may be second only to the better-behaved mice and dwarfs of Walt Disney Co. for their appeal to the grammar-school set--and for their bankability.

When Geisel died in 1991, his wife, Audrey, planned to uphold her husband's desire to keep his collection of unruly characters caged in their books. But over the course of the next year, a team led by her husband's longtime attorney, Karl ZoBell, and International Creative Management Inc. agent Herb Cheyette persuaded her to open the merchandising floodgates. Noting that the Dr. Seuss characters were being ripped off by counterfeiters selling hats, shirts, books, and videos, they warned that her husband's creations were in danger of falling into the public domain. If the counterfeiting continued unchecked, they said, the 75-year-old widow could lose the right to decide which products would carry the Seuss imprimatur.

So starting this fall, consumers will be hit with a slew of Seuss. On Oct. 13, Nickelodeon will air The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, a prime-time puppet series created by Jim Henson Productions Inc. Next year, DreamWorks SKG is expected to go to work on a full-length feature film based on The Cat in the Hat, to be written by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth. In 1999, MCA Inc.'s Universal unit will open Seuss Landing, a mini-theme park inside its Islands of Adventure resort in Orlando. Current plans also call for creating a line of Dr. Seuss greeting cards and art reproductions--as well as possibly staging two Broadway shows based on Geisel's work.

That's not all. Apparel maker Esprit is expanding a line that already includes baseball hats and boxer shorts, and Living Books is preparing to release five Seuss books on CD-ROM. Dr. Seuss Enterprises has in recent years taken in $7 million to $10 million annually in residual payments, primarily from books and TV specials. Cheyette declined to predict future revenues, saying partnership income is tied to licensee performance.

SATURATION RISK. Big corporate players are jumping at the chance to go into business with Dr. Seuss because what little bit of official merchandise there has been has raced off store shelves. Last Christmas, Macy's offered a $13.95 Cat in the Hat toy with each purchase of $35 or more. It sold more than 200,000 of them in three weeks--the fastest in the 10-year history of such promotions. "The Dr. Seuss characters are universally liked," says Jay Kennedy, comics editor at Hearst Corp.'s King Features Syndicate Div. "They're right up there with Charlie Brown."

The risk is that Audrey Geisel has given the nod to too many products at once. Even some of her own licensees wonder if the world will soon see too much Seuss. "There could be a danger of oversaturation," says Brian Henson, chief executive of Jim Henson Productions. "It is an unusual situation, where there are different people working with the same characters on different sorts of projects all over the place. That makes it a little confusing."

ZoBell responds that Dr. Seuss Enterprises is turning down far more projects than it accepts, including proposals to create toothbrushes, eyeglasses, lunch boxes, bicycles, and clocks. And on at least one point, Audrey Geisel won't budge: "I don't want to go into the food business. I don't want one of our little people poking out from a box of Wheat Chex," she snorts. So while you may be able to wear Green Eggs and Ham, it looks like you'll never be able to eat it.

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