Maurice Sendak Plugs Wild Things at FAO Schwartz (

By:Steve Fritz
Date: Sunday, October 22, 2000

There was a major crowd of fans and autograph seekers on the second floor of the world-renown toy store New York City's F.A.O. Schwartz last week, and they were getting a touch antsy. It seems that no less than the infamous Todd McFarlane and the venerable Maurice Sendak were going to make an appearance that afternoon. MacFarlane had just released a series of action figures based on the latter's wondrous children's tale, Where The Wild Things Are. The problem was something like Hilary Clinton and/or her equally infamous husband were in town.

As the first wisps of rush hour were starting to settle down around Fifth Avenue and Central Park (F.A.O.'s home base), it shouldn't be surprising that both Sendak and McFarlane were late. The toy store's employees were starting to run around like the Headless Horseman dolls the Toddster made last year. It was a humorous sight. The fans themselves, as it turned out around 400 of them, decided to take it all in with the local mix of panache and irritation.

Just when the stores employees appeared ready to hurl themselves down the elevator shaft, McFarlane was seen entering the hallowed halls of Schwartz with his minions in tow. A tall man to begin with, Todd took the elevator to the second floor, inspected the area and only had one questions: 'Where's Maurice?'

'I'm here,' a very Noo Yawk voice shouted as the crowd parted to reveal a little man with a cane and an equally small lady in furs draped on his arm. The great Sendak walked through the opening like a diminutive Moses who had just given the Red Sea a bit of his mind.

It seemed Sendak was in the store for some time now, but no one questioned bothered to tell him where to go. In fact, the only reason he knew he was in the right place was that a pair of reporters happened to inform him of his ultimate destination before the store's personnel did. I should know, I was one of those two reporters.

Whatever the reason, Sendak's monsters appear to be as popular as ever. They made their debut as a children's book in 1963. Sendak did both the text and the highly imaginative, original illustrations. Still, if you ask him why his monsters are still so popular nearly four decades later, and he admits he's stumped.

'I don't know. I haven't got a clue. I have generations of readers now, at least three of them,' Sendak commented as he surveyed his fans. 'I suspect that a lot of adults want the toys for themselves as well as their children.

'I could only make up an answer,' he continued. 'It just seems to be a genetic thing. Kids just like to project things that are scary to them. Unknown things they can't interpret become monsters. It could be a window shade; it could be a lampit could be a mother, they turn it into a monster that they can be afraid of.'

And in Sendak's case, what scared him was also quite close to him. They ended up becoming the monsters. 'I was just doing portraits of some of my relatives. I was scared of many of them when I was a kid. As I grew up...' he shrugs, as if implying he still isn't sure why they scared him so. 'For instance, yes, there was a Tzippi; she was my aunt. She was a really obnoxious woman. On the other hand Moishe is my real name and Bernard is my middle name.'

Whatever reason for their origins, Sendak's monsters have since become universally popular. They won him the coveted Hans Christian Anderson Award for children's illustration. They have been turned into an incredibly cuddly set of plush pillow figures. There's even an opera based on them.

'It's been around for 15 years,' Sendak states about the opera. It's taking up a lot of his time as he's currently working on a recording of the piece. 'It's been performed in Russia, the U.K., Europe and the United States. We are currently cutting a record of it for Deutsche Gramophone. It features a libretto by me and music by Oliver Nussen, a great British composer who is also the conductor. It will be coming out this Christmas. There will also be a video tape of it. It's out in England and based on a performance done in 1986.

'In fact, the monsters didn't have actual names until the opera. It was brought to me by the original director that the people performing it were having a hard time knowing whose lines were whose. You couldn't just go, 'That monster says this, and this monster does that.' It was very frustrating and forced me to name them. By identifying each monster with a name it would be easier for them to remember their lines. But I kept it a secret that only insiders knew after that. It's only now that these guys have forced me to go public with the names. It was originally to help these guys identify what monster they were working on. All the drawings ended up having their names attached to them in order to stabilize production.'

By 'these guys,' Sendak was sending a compliment to the McFarlane crew. Like many children, McFarlane was one of those kids who read the book as he was growing up. According to the toy-maker supreme, it was when his daughters in turn came home with the book that he realized there was something there.

Actually, while McFarlane may be tall, skinny and totally opposite in appearance to Sendak, they really are quite similar in personality. 'You see, it's a case of he's a curmudgeon and I'm a wannabe curmudgeon,' McFarlane quipped. 'Still, when my daughters came home with the books I realized that I wasn't really weird for loving them as a kid, and there was a lot more people like me who love his work.'

And truth be told, McFarlane's love for Sendak's work is amply apparent in the final product. They are some of the finest action figures his company has ever produced. And, believe it or not, this was almost caused some friction between the two. It seemed Sendak was concerned that McFarlane was putting too much effort into his creations.

'Todd's a throwback. He's the kind of person called a craftsman,' Sendak explains. 'He's not going to do schlock. He actually upgraded me on the phone one day. I was trying to make it a simpler job for him and make the figures without as much of the detail he put into them. He insisted that such things as the scratches be in the figures. He wanted them to be more like [my versions] than even I wanted them to be. I was willing them to be quasi-Maurice, and he wouldn't accept that. No artisan ever said that to me before. That was an amazing response and one you don't hear too often anymore. So I figured I better start hanging around with him.'

Then again, it seems that Sendak expects that kind of perfection in anything he personally works on. For instance, he's also currently riding high thanks to an animated television series based on his character Little Bear which airs on CBS and Nickelodeon. CBS also did several specials based on his Really Rosie books. Kids aren't the only ones who had been pleased by his animation. Among Sendak's many awards are a series of Clio awards for television commercials he did for the Bell Atlantic telephone company. Those ads ran for several years, until Bell Atlantic changed its name to Verizon. Featuring the Wild Things, they mixed whimsy with hard sell in a manner that proved, pardon the pun, wildly successful.

'I work intensely with the animators,' Sendak recalled. 'I tore up a number of character sheets and storyboards until they get them right. I drew with them, eventually doing all the storyboards myself. I think the reason why those commercials and Little Bear work so well is because I was there.'

And even though McFarlane had flown in from his home in Arizona to do the signing, one could tell a number of the fans were also at Schwartz for Sendak. The proof was an estimated 400 people turning around and buying the figures that late afternoon, which made more than just the bean counters at F.A.O. Schwartz happy.

'Then again, why do it unless you're in it?' Sendak admits. 'I think it's a lot of fun doing animated cartoons. Todd and I are discussing doing something about that [Little Bear] too. Depending on the success of the Wild Things. We have other ideas that are just as insane. It's fun to work with such an equally demented mind.'

And judging from the reaction of the crowd, there will be many people ready to pick up those figures, too.