Mad about Madeline: 60 Years of Mischief

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. . . they left the house at half past nine, in rain or shine, the smallest one was Madeline....
June 1, 1999

In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. . . they left the house at half past nine, in rain or shine, the smallest one was Madeline.

And it was with this simple rhyme, created by Ludwig Bemelmans, that Madeline was born. Madeline is the story of a small, brave girl who constantly gets herself and her classmates in and out of trouble, much to the dismay of the protective nun Miss Clavel. Bemelmans,who passed away in 1962, wrote six stories about Madeline, which have delighted young and old all over the world for the last sixty years.

Bemelmans named Madeline after his wife, but he insisted the inspiration for her character is from a combination of several people. Madeline’s micheviousness comes from himself and his daughter, Barbara, but her background is derived from stories his mother told him about going to a convent school. Many of Madeline’s adventures, however, seem to come from his own travel experiences. He set the stories in Paris because he fell in love with France after spending a summer there.

In his first book, Madeline ends up in the hospital with appendicitis. Bemelmans, too, was in a French hospital after a biking accident. He recalled the incident in an article that appeared in Young Wings, in 1953.

‘In the room next to mine was a little girl who had her appendix out. In the ceiling over my bed was a crack ‘that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit,” he said. ‘That’s the way I rhymed it, a year later, on the back of the menu at Pete’s Tavern for my first Madeline.’

Born in Austria in 1898, the rebellious Bemelmans came to America after being expelled from several schools. Bemelmans’ parents gave him the option of reform school or going to America, and he chose the latter.

Bemelmans quickly found work as a waiter when he arrived in New York City in 1914. But he was considered a little eccentric and was soon fired for wearing one yellow and one white shoe while on the job.

During World War I, Bemelmans enlisted in the Army where he earned the reputation of being a prankster. Those experiences are the subject of his hilarious memoir entitled My War with the United States. Upon returning to New York, Bemelmans dabbled in the hotel and restaurant industry. But throughout his varied work experiences in America, he maintained an interest in art, paying for lessons when he could afford them.

By 1934, Bemelmans was part owner of New York’s Hapsburg House restaurant and traveled extensively. It was also at this time when he began earning a name for himself as an artist and met May Massee, a well-respected children’s book editor at Viking Press. Viking published his first children’s book, Hansi, in 1934 which was then followed by several moderately successful children’s stories.

But it was in 1939, after writing Madeline, that Bemelmans began earning a reputation as an illustrator and children’s book author. Several publishing houses felt the story might be too sophisticated for young readers, but it was ultimately published by Simon & Schuster. Viking eventually bought the rights to the first book and went on to publish five more Madeline books: Madeline’s Rescue, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline and the Gypsies, Madeline in London and Madeline’s Christmas. Madeline’s Rescue received the coveted Caldecott Medal-the highest honor in children’s books. After Jaqueline Kennedy wrote him that her daughter Caroline loved his books, he began a correspondance with the first lady. He encouraged her to write and the letter-writing relationship turned into a friendship with Kennedy and Aristotle Onasis. Madeline’s Christmas, which Bemelmans called the richest of all his books, originally ran in McCall’s magazine in 1956. Viking published it as a book in 1985.

‘I remember rollerskating into my father’s studio as a kid and breaking his typewriter,’ recalls daughter Barbara Bemelmans. ‘As a child you take for granted what your parents did and I never really knew until I was older just how special my father was.’

The artwork in his books is as equally memorable as the stories. Bemelmans used his artistic talent by creating illustrations for the books that brought out the best of Paris. One of his most famous is a picture of Madeline, dressed in a blue coat and yellow felt hat, with the Eiffel Tower in the background. The colorful, simple drawings are timeless and more than hold their own against the modern and stylistic images found in today’s children’s books.

As Bemelmans’ popularity as an author and artist grew, he began contributing covers and articles to magazines including Vogue, The New Yorker, Fortune and Harper’s Bazaar. During this time, he also held company with New York’s literary elite, including ‘The 20th Century author, Charlie McArthur and Holiday magazine editor Ted Patrick. His adult books include Tell Them it was Wonderful and Hotel Splendide. Viking remains the principle publisher of Bemelmans’ adult and children’s books.

On October 1, 1962, Ludwig Bemelmans died in New York City. His creativity and personality still live on in his drawings, his stories and in the brave character of Madeline, his most famous creation.

In honor of Bemelmans, his grandson, John Marciano, 29, has written a book about him and his work entitled Bemelmans: The Life and Art of Madeline’s Creator The coffee table book, a collector’s item, which will feature many previously unseen paintings, stories and photographs from his life, will be released this October by Viking.

‘We joke in our family that John is the reincarnation of his grandfather,’ says daughter Barbara Bemelmans. ‘His mannerisms and his artistic talent remind my mother and me of my father.’

Scholastic books is also releasing a new Madeline story in October. Madeline in America and Other Holiday Tales, will feature a previously unreleased Madeline piece written by Bemelmans as well as two additional titles, ‘The Count and the Cobbler’ and ‘Sunshine’.

‘My only regret is that my father isn’t here to enjoy the rewards of his work,’ says Barbara Bemelmans. ‘He loved life and I’m sure he’d use his success to buy fine cars and travel all over the world.’

No little girl should ever go without a birthday party, even if she is turning 60. 1999 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of the first Madeline book, and in honor of Madeline’s anniversary, DIC Entertainment, Penguin Putnam and Eden have created a birthday party promotion. Specialty retailers are invited to have a birthday party for Madeline at their stores anytime during 1999. Once they sign up to host a party they receive a special birthday party kit.

The kit/party planner includes everything from nametag templates and a limited edition anniversary poster to line art for games and activities for kids. Children are invited to bring presents which are being donated to Kids in Distressed Situations. The not-for profit organization, comprised of leading manufacturers and retailers of children’s products, helps children in less fortunate situations.

FAO Schwarz’ anchor store on Fifth Avenue in New York hosted the first Madeline party in January with its 38 other locations doing the same throughout the month. Zany Brainy, Noodle Kidoodle, and Imaginarium as well as hundreds of specialty toy stores have all signed on to host parties. Over 2,000 parties are expected to take place across America this year.

‘It’s been a wonderful way to celebrate Madeline’s anniversary and to help others,’ says Rae-Hope Putney, program coordinator at the Lincoln Children’s Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. ‘Our children just loved the event. It felt like we were celebrating for a real little girl.’

On April 10, the museum hosted over 250 parents and kids at its Saturday afternoon Madeline party. With the live-action Madeline film playing in the background, the two-hour event featured a sing-a-long, book reading and the cutting of a great big cake. Students from a local French club taught the children to sing in French and bilingual storytellers were on hand to read to them.

The museum gift shop sells Madeline products, and many of the children came wearing Madeline t-shirts, says Putney. The afternoon’s activities included making Eiffel Towers with toothpicks and marshmallows as well as crafting a Madeline hat. The children also received certificates honoring their attendance.

‘Madeline is a familiar character for both parents and children,’ says Putney. ‘That’s what makes her so special and that’s what made her birthday party fun for the families who attended.’

DIC Entertainment in Burbank, California, has had the licensing and merchandising rights for Madeline since 1988, but it’s really been in the last couple of years that the products have taken off at retail. There are currently over 30 licencees on board, with products including dolls, puzzles, porcelain tea sets, stationery items and much more. Madeline products are generally available at specialty and high-end retailers, says MJ Chisholm, vp licensing and merchandising at DIC Entertainment.

‘Madeline is a very special character and we want to keep her that way by only having products that are true to her incredible character and that are of the highest quality,’ says Chisholm.

The 1998 release of the live-action Madeline movie from Tri-Star pictures has been instrumental in creating additional awareness for the property and in giving a push to the product lines. The film, which stars Academy award winner Francis MacDormand as Miss Clavel, uses incidents from all six books in the plot.

‘[Madeline] is the kind of person little girls and grown women alike aspire to be–brave, fun, independent,’ says Chisholm.

Over ten million copies of the six Madeline books have sold worldwide. Simon & Schuster originally published the first, but Viking Press took on the property, including buying the first book rights, afterwards. Since then Madeline has been translated into French, Japanese, German and, most recently, Polish. Her sense of adventure and independence is something that has easily transcended borders. All six titles sell consistently well. In 1993 Viking also introduced a Mad About Madeline hardcover. The book is a compilation of all Bemelmans’ stories, plus an introduction by Anna Quindlen, a short biography and family pictures. A Book of the Month Club edition sold over one hundred thousand copies of the hardcover.

‘Mad about Madeline has been very successful for us,’ says Regina Hayes, publisher at Viking Children’s Books,’It seems like adults were not only buying the books for girls, but as keepsakes of this character from their childhood.’

Buena Vista will also do a direct to video Madeline release in August. There is also a Madeline animated television show produced by DIC which is on the Disney Channel and Toon Disney and there is also a full-length direct to video movie called Madeline Lost in Paris coming out August 3rd from Buena Vista.

Perhaps the most popular licensed item at retail is the 15-inch rag doll. The red-haired doll was created by Eden of New York, which markets over 15 licensed characters including another classic, Beatrix Potter. Madeline dolls contain special design details that give them a classic look. For example, they have appendix scars, a detail that makes reference to Bemelman’s first book where Madeline develops appendicitis. This rag doll is dressed in the familiar hat and blue coat with black shoes. Additional outfits, like a tiger halloween costume and a skater have been created to give her more play-value for the target four- to eight-year-olds.

Eden also makes an eight-inch poseable doll which can be used with accessory kits, such as a soccer playset. Both have doll carry cases, one fits the rag doll and its outfits while the other carries two eight inch dolls.

For Madeline’s 60th anniversary, Eden has created a collectable 18-inch rag doll dressed in a navy blue velvet dress. The package also contains a 1999 special edition Madeline medallion.

‘Her collectibility as a classic character and parental nostalgia have had an impact on the types of Madeline products that are out there,’ says Beth Lorentz, marketing manager at Midwest of Cannon Falls. The company began making Madeline products last fall, which include three different porcelain hinged boxes and a miniature tea set.

‘The classic look of the porcelain items and the detailing in the artwork have given the character longevity in the marketplace,’ adds Lorentz.

USAOPOLY is one of the newest licencees, signing on with Madeline in May. The San Diego-based company licences specialty versions of Hasbro games and toys. This fall across the United States, it is launching a special Scrabble JR. version of Madeline. Targeting five- to eight-year-old kids, words like ‘Eiffel Tower’ will already be on the board, which helps teach kids to spell.

This is the first time USAOPOLY has used a licenced character for the Scrabble JR. game. They will soon follow with a Curious George version.

The game will come with French/English activity flash cards as well as scoring tokens in the shape of little yellow hats.

‘Madeline is wonderful character,’ says Maggie Matthews, director of marketing at USAOPOLY. ‘It’s a great twist to combine a classic game and a classic character and we expect children will really enjoy it.’ It’s also been a busy year for Birthday Express. The Kirkland, Washington-based company creates birthday party goods using a variety of licences. It picked up the Madeline property last year and this year is helping to supply products for the Madeline 60th Anniversary parties that have been taking place across the country. It’s initial styling on the birthday supplies featured Madeline with her friends surrounding a birthday cake. With the success of that line, the company plans to introduce additional favors which target two-to eight-year-old girls.

Internationally, Madeline is less well-known at this point. ‘It’s an area we are concentrating on and we’re in the process now of putting together our international plans which will be introduced in the fourth quarter of this year and in the first quarter of 2000,’ says DIC’s MJ Chisholm. ‘Madeline’s appeal is univeral so we expect she will become as popular throughout the world as she is in the United States.’

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