Political Dr. Seuss

Fascinating Documentary Illuminates the Life and Work of the Best-Selling and Most Influential Children's Writer of Our Time, the Enigmatic Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss

Film by Ron Lamothe Airs Nationally on “Independent Lens,” ITVS's Acclaimed Series on PBS, Tuesday, October 26, 2004 at 10 P.M. (check local listings)

Fill 54 Created with Sketch. PDF Download

Mary Lugo 770/623-8190 lugo@negia.net
Cara White 843/881-1480 carapub@aol.com
Randall Cole 415/356-8383 x254 randall_cole@itvs.org
Wilson Ling 415/356-8383 x231 wilson_ling@itvs.org 

Program companion website: www.pbs.org/politicaldrseuss 

“In the end, what drove Ted, I think, was to be useful to the world. He sent those wacky warriors he created out to wage the battles of the underdog, with whom he always felt a kinship—the battles against illiteracy, against environmental ruin, against greed, against conformity, against the arms race. He taught generations of children that it was fine to be different, and it was even better to do good, but that it all should have some fun about it.”
—Neil Morgan, co-author, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel 

“The best slogan I can think of to leave for the U.S.A. would be ‘We can and we've got to do better than this.'”
—Dr. Seuss 

(San Francisco, CA)—One of Theodor Geisel's superior officers during World War II once described him in an evaluation as a “personable zealot.” An oxymoron? Perhaps, but those two words come as close as any to characterizing exactly who he was. Ron Lamothe's revealing portrait traces the evolution of Geisel's art and political philosophy and shows how Seuss deftly combined his delightful, otherworldly creations with moral parables, teaching children not only to be better readers but better people as well. THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS will air nationally on the acclaimed PBS series Independent Lens on Tuesday, October 26, 2004 at 10 P.M. (check local listings). 

Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), the man known to the world as the famous Dr. Seuss, was an enigma. Both an idealist and a curmudgeon, Geisel spent much of his life trying to improve a society he knew was inherently flawed. He had a keen eye for hypocrites, bullies and demagogues, and ridiculed them whenever he got the chance. He was a man of strong opinions and deep convictions, though shy and unassuming in demeanor. Among friends he was quite charming, and was famous for his practical jokes. And yet he guarded his privacy dearly, and seldom made public appearances. He was the best-selling children's book author of all time, though he never had children of his own, and once admitted that “in mass, they terrify me.” 

Dreamer or Cynic? Grandfather or Grinch? It seems that Dr. Seuss was all of these things and more, a complex, talented and passionate man who struggled to remain hopeful in spite of the “dissemination of stupidity” he saw all around him. Above all, Dr. Seuss and his work was intrinsically political. This master of “logical insanity,” as he called it, the author of such fanciful tales as Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat, devoted much of his considerable talent and influence to advocating political and social change. From condemning isolationism and attacking anti-Semitism to his later work for literacy, the environment, and against the arms race, Dr. Seuss's most popular works reflect his passion for fairness, democracy and tolerance. 

But this is a side of Seuss rarely discussed. Most Americans don't know, for example, that during World War II he drew editorial cartoons for the left-wing New York newspaper PM, or that he made army propaganda films with Frank Capra. How many readers know that Yertle the Turtle was modeled on the rise of Hitler? Or that Horton Hears a Who! is a parable about the American postwar occupation of Japan? Indeed, Dr. Seuss's true genius may lie in the fact that all of this was done with such humor and finesse, that few realized he was being political at all. 

THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS traces Geisel's life from his boyhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, through his final days living atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla, California. In-depth interviews with his widow Audrey, his biographers Judith and Neil Morgan (Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel) and Richard H. Minear (Dr. Seuss Goes to War), his long-time Random House publisher Robert Bernstein and editor Michael Frith, and historian Michael Kazin—not to mention Geisel's own words through voice-over—bring the man to life. 

THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS includes a great deal of previously unseen material such as illustration drafts, family photographs and rare television appearances. The film explores Geisel's little-known World War II era cartoons for PM and his educational and propaganda film work with Frank Capra's Signal Corps including the Private Snafu films he made with Chuck Jones, and Design for Death, his Academy Award-winning documentary on Japan, which is seen here for the first time since its original theatrical release in 1947. 

Also explored are Seuss's postwar allegorical children's books (Horton Hears a Who!, Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches) as well as his more overtly political works of the 1970s and 80s, The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book. One of Seuss's greatest achievements was his work in children's literacy in the 1950s and 60s, when the delightfully subversive The Cat in the Hat replaced boring old Dick and Jane and inspired an entire generation of enthusiastic young readers (and perhaps planted the seeds for the counter-culture as well). What emerges is not only an intriguing portrait of a largely unknown side of Geisel, but also a fascinating lens through which to view the complex political and social history of the 20th Century. 

The program's interactive companion website www.pbs.org/politicaldrseuss features detailed information about the film, including an interview with the filmmaker, cast and crew bios, as well as links and resources pertaining to the film's subject matter. The site also features a scrapbook of his work, a history of political cartooning and a “talkback” section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film and more. 

* * * 

Producer/Writer/Director/Editor/Narrator: Ron Lamothe
Directors of Photography: Stephen McCarthy, Neal Brown
Additional Videography: Greg Davis, Ron Lamothe
Sound: Andy Turrett, Steve Jankowski, Len Schmitz
Original Music: Mark Zaki 

On Air Participants 
Robert L. Bernstein was the chief executive of Random House for more than a quarter century, and was Dr. Seuss's publisher and good friend between 1957-1989. Bernstein is also the founder and was the longtime chair of Human Rights Watch. 

Michael Frith was an editor at Random House between 1962-1975, and worked closely with Dr. Seuss on the Beginner Book series. He later went on to serve as the executive vice-president and creative director of Jim Henson Productions, and was the originator of the 1980s Muppet television show Fraggle Rock. Most recently, as a co-founder of Sirius Thinking, an educational entertainment company, Frith served as the creative force behind the PBS program Between the Lions. 

Audrey Geisel is the widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel. 

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. He has written such books as America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (1999; co-author, Maurice Isserman), The Populist Persuasion: An American History (1995) and Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era (1989). In “The Seussian Left,” a Dissent review he wrote on Richard Minear's book (Dr. Seuss Goes To War), he counted Theodor Geisel—for his broad and continuing appeal, not to mention his many political messages—as among the greatest figures in the history of the American Left. 

Elaine Tyler May is professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, and was a secondary advisor to the film. May is an acclaimed student of American social history and popular culture with a long-standing interest in Dr. Seuss. She is the author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1989), Pushing the Limits: American Women 1940-1961 (1998) and co-editor of ‘Here, There, and Everywhere': The Foreign Policy of American Popular Culture (2000). 

Richard Minear of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst served as the film's chief humanities scholar. He is the author of Dr. Seuss Goes To War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (1999), perhaps the first book to put Dr. Seuss and his works in a political context. His interests—in addition to his work in Japanese intellectual history and his translations of Japanese wartime literature—include the study of American images of Japan and the Pacific War. 

Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan are California journalists. His eleven books include Westward Tilt and The California Syndrome; her first book, California, with Dewitt Jones, appeared in 1989. Jointly the Morgans have written many articles for National Geographic and other magazines. Judith Morgan's travel column has appeared worldwide through the Copley News Service since 1975. Neil Morgan has written a column in San Diego for nearly fifty years and served as editor of the San Diego Tribune until 1992. On the Morgans' first date in 1963, Neil introduced Judith to his neighbor, Ted Geisel, and the three remained friends until Ted's death in 1991. This husband and wife team was personally chosen by Theodor Geisel to write his official biography, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, which was first published in 1995. 

Donald E. Pease is a professor of English at Dartmouth College, Seuss's alma mater. He served as the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities from 1990-1996, and is an expert on how Theodor Geisel's life, particularly his Dartmouth experience, affected his writings as Dr. Seuss. Pease has lectured nationwide on “The Life and Humor of Theodor Geisel,” and has not only a thorough understanding of Geisel's background, but also a keen knowledge of how Dr. Seuss constructed childhood, and how his books contributed to the ethos of the 1960s. 

About the Filmmaker 
Ron Lamothe (Producer/Writer/Director/Editor/Narrator) was born in 1968 and grew up in the small New England town of Lunenburg, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. in 1990 from Tufts University, where he studied clinical psychology and political science. Lamothe traveled across Africa from Morocco to Tanzania in 1990-91. Upon his return, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he taught history and English for three years at DeMatha Catholic High School. After a sojourn in Prague in 1995, he relocated to Leverett, Massachusetts, and enrolled as a graduate student in history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In addition to receiving a Master's degree in 2000, Lamothe spent four years in the U. Mass. Academic Instructional Media Services department as a producer, videographer and editor. In 1999, he also worked as a researcher and associate producer for Florentine Films/Hott Productions. Most recently, Lamothe and Terra Incognita Films have moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he now lives with his wife Karen and two daughters, Madeleine and Parker. He is currently a Dean's Fellow and Ph.D. candidate in African history at Boston University.

Ron Lamothe on the Genesis of THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS 
THE POLITICAL DR. SEUSS was born of a conversation I had in 2000 with University of Massachusetts historian Richard H. Minear. Minear had recently published Dr. Seuss Goes To War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel, and was one of the first to cast Dr. Seuss and his works in a “political” light. I suggested that this little known side of Dr. Seuss would make for an interesting documentary, and we talked about cutting something together for use in one of his classes. Before I knew it, I was applying for humanities grants and had visions of a PBS broadcast. And so it was—like many a Dr. Seuss tale that begins rather humbly and then quickly grows out of control—that the classroom piece on Dr. Seuss's PM cartoons ballooned into a feature-length biography. Of course, and again, like a typical Dr. Seuss story, there were plenty of obstacles along the way—legal mazes and financial hurdles as labyrinthine, even Orwellian at times, as anything the good Doctor might have dreamed up! In the end, however, like Horton with the Whos, and like most first-time filmmakers, it was a story about perseverance. Almost four years into the project, my filmic Yopp! was finally heard, and the documentary was acquired by Independent Lens. 

About Independent Lens 
Independent Lens is a weekly series airing Tuesday nights at 10 P.M. on PBS. The acclaimed anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of their independent producers. Independent Lens features unforgettable stories about a unique individual, community or moment in history, which prompted Nancy Franklin to write in The New Yorker: “Watching Independent Lens... is like going into an independent bookstore-you don't always find what you were looking for but you often find something you didn't even know you wanted.” Presented by ITVS, the series is supported by interactive companion websites, and national publicity and community outreach campaigns. Further information about the series is available at www.pbs.org/independent lens. Independent Lens is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS, and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding provided by PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

About ITVS 
Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the weekly series Independent Lens on Tuesday nights at 10 P.M. on PBS. ITVS is a miracle of public policy created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television, bringing TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. More information about ITVS can be obtained by visiting www.itvs.org. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American People. 

About PBS 
PBS is a private, nonprofit media enterprise that serves the nation's 349 public noncommercial television stations, reaching nearly 90 million people each week. Bringing diverse viewpoints to television and the Internet, PBS provides high-quality documentary and dramatic entertainment, and consistently dominates the most prestigious award competitions. PBS is the leading provider of educational materials for K-12 teachers, and offers a broad array of educational services for adult learners. PBS' premier kids' TV programming and Web site, PBS KIDS Online (pbskids.org), continue to be parents' and teachers' most trusted learning environments for children. More information about PBS is available at pbs.org, the leading dot-org Web site on the Internet. PBS is headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia. 

* * *

Posted on August 3, 2004