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Philadelphia Brings Out the Beasts

By Theresa Everline
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I was up for a little mischief. Maybe even a rumpus. So I headed to Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum and Library. Housed in two stately adjoining townhouses on an elegant downtown street, the Rosenbach may seem an unlikely site for wildness. But wildness is in abundance there, as the Rosenbach is the repository of all the original artwork of Maurice Sendak, the celebrated illustrator and author best known for "Where the Wild Things Are."

The upcoming Oct. 16 release of the live-action film adaptation of the classic children's book renewed my interest in wolf-suit-clad Max and the fanged, grinning hairy beasts he frolics with. And the Rosenbach is showing off some of its collection of more than 10,000 Sendak preliminary sketches, final drawings, manuscripts, books and ephemera this month. As Max declares, "Let the wild rumpus start!"

The former residence of brothers A.S.W. and Philip Rosenbach, preeminent early-20th-century book and art dealers, the Rosenbach Museum has a dual purpose: to re-create the brothers' living quarters, packed with their idiosyncratic belongings and period furniture, and to display their extensive collection of rare books, manuscripts and prints in small, well-presented exhibitions.

Two current displays are devoted to Sendak, who donated his papers to the museum. Sendak collaborates regularly with the staff on programs and serves as honorary president of the Rosenbach board. "Too Many Thoughts to Chew: A Sendak Stew" is an overview of the themes of food, eating and the threat of being eaten in the author's work. I especially lingered over the original final drawings from the book "In the Night Kitchen," in which a boy nearly gets baked into a cake, and the concluding illustration of "Wild Things," with Max back in his bedroom, a bowl of soup on his night table.

That sweet scene is the final drawing in "Wild Things," but there's one more page to the book, containing only the reassuring words, "and it was still hot." That phrase serves as the title of the Rosenbach's other Sendak exhibition, "And It's Still Hot: Where the Wild Things Are." This simple one-room show tells the chronological story of the development of this perpetually best-selling book, using preliminary sketches, drafts of the text and several of the final drawings.

Right now an exhibition about "Where the Wild Things Are" might be hot, but this particular one is also short-lived. "We really can't have these illustrations out for very long," Patrick Rodgers, the Rosenbach's traveling exhibitions coordinator, explained to me. "Certain colors like the yellows have a tendency to fade easily. That's one reason this show is only up for a month."

For an even more exceptional experience, several days a week the Rosenbach offers "hands-on tours," terrific chances to examine one author's books and manuscripts up close. On my first hands-on tour, about Shakespeare, I got to hold some of the earliest editions of his plays and learned facts and anecdotes from a museum curator. During October there are three -- only three! -- hands-on tours featuring all sorts of "Wild Things" artifacts. Best is an early draft of the text that Sendak wrote in pen on notebook paper, at the bottom of which he scrawled, "Abandon!!!! Dreadful story."

The relationship between the Brooklyn-dwelling Sendak and the City of Brotherly Love's Rosenbach began in the early 1970s with a misunderstanding. Told, incorrectly, that the museum held works by Beatrix Potter, one of his idols, the author eagerly went to visit it. He found nothing by Potter, but was thrilled nevertheless to discover a slew of holdings by some of his other heroes, including William Blake and Herman Melville. Indeed, one of the first objects you encounter after entering the Rosenbach is Melville's bookcase. When this was first pointed out to me, I stopped short and said, "Really?" Later I mentioned this to a friend, who stopped short and said, "Really?" That's the kind of experience that happens again and again at the gemlike Rosenbach.

If you still desire some wildness after tearing yourself away from mischievous Max, you can explore other children's-book-related Philly sites. The extensive Please Touch Museum, housed in a soaring building constructed for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, regularly gets rave reviews for its hands-on children's exhibits. A highlight is the "Alice in Wonderland" section, where little ones can slide down the Rabbit Hole, get lost in the Hall of Doors & Mirrors (adults might want to avoid the mirror that makes you look short and fat), take part in a Mad Hatter's Tea Party and spot the Cheshire Cat grinning in a tree. (For more Lewis Carroll, the Rosenbach holds more than 600 of his letters, photos and books.)

In Philly's famed Franklin Institute, there's a Harry Potter connection. The permanent exhibit KidScience lets children follow an interactive story that teaches the qualities of light, water, earth and air. Harry Potter illustrator Mary GrandPré drew the four KidScience characters that function as guides in the exhibit's signs and graphics.

A more buttoned-down setting, the downtown Curtis Center, is the unexpected site of a dazzling creation by the Philly-born artist Maxfield Parrish, who illustrated such children's books as L. Frank Baum's 1897 "Mother Goose in Prose." The building's lobby contains a 15-by-49-foot glistening mosaic designed by Parrish and constructed by Tiffany Studios out of more than 100,000 pieces of glass. The mosaic depicts a color-saturated, storybook-worthy garden lush with trees, flowers and fountains. It left me wide-eyed, just like a little boy who encounters strange, enormous creatures romping through his bedroom one night.

Theresa Everline is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

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