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Fed Up with Being Kept in Books, Maurice Sendak's Scary Wild Things Get Loose on the Stage and Toy Counters

updated 12/02/1985 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 01:00AM

Suddenly the children turned into wild things. Squealing and clapping, they grabbed their dolls and waved them in the air like tiny totems, miniature replicas of the monstrous, 12-foot-high creatures cavorting onstage. They were watching Where the Wild Things Are, a fantasy musical at the Minnesota Opera based on Maurice Sendak's classic tale of the same name. Sendak, 57, one of America's best-loved illustrators and writers, had designed the sets and costumes and written the libretto for Oliver Knussen's 45-minute opera; the American premiere in September enchanted critics as it has enraptured its audience of children.

For years, Sendak's potent, sometimes dark and fantastic vision of childhood has captured the imagination of young fans, and this fall the evidence of that is more tangible than ever. Wild Things fever is raging through the land, fueled not only by Sendak's delightful opera but also by the appearance in stores coast to coast of Wild Things dolls. (They range in price according to size from $13.50 to $159.95.) "I relish the fantasy of Wild Things driving Cabbage Patch dolls bananas," Sendak says with a chuckle. "Maybe next year you will have to send Cabbage Patch Kids to a mental clinic. Anything to get those ugly creatures out of the house." Grrrrr.

Besides checking on the health of his monsters, Sendak is keeping busy doing what he has always done—making new books. Over the years he has illustrated more than 80 of them, including his famous trilogy: Where the Wild Things Are (1963), In the Night Kitchen (1970) and Outside Over There (1981). And now, with an estimated 20 million of his books in print, two more works, both illustrated by the master, are on the way. Using in part his celebrated production designs for the Janacek opera which were destroyed in a fire, Sendak has illustrated The Cunning Little Vixen, a Czech fable by Rudolf Tesnohlidek (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $19.95) and In Grandpa's House, a quiet collection of reminiscences and fairy tales by his father, Philip Sendak (Harper & Row, $9.95).

In addition to his prodigious book credits, Sendak has a long history of affection for opera. A buff since childhood, Sendak was handed what he calls a lifeline to his love in 1981, when director Frank Corsaro invited him to collaborate on Mozart's The Magic Flute for the Houston Grand Opera. "I was terrified," Sendak recalls. "If I failed I would have been desolate. But I was very lucky. It worked out." He has since designed sets and costumes for five other operas, including The Cunning Little Vixen, The Love for Three Oranges and Higglety Pigglety Pop. Ahead, fans, are Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges and L'Heure Espanole and Mozart's unfinished The Goose of Cairo, both for the Kansas City Lyric Opera. Explaining his fascination, Sendak biographer Selma G. Lanes has written, "The operatic stage loomed like the ideal outsized animated popup book, a place where his haunting vision of childhood could attain a magical, living dimension."

That haunting vision springs from Sendak's experiences as a sickly boy in Brooklyn. "I remember all the nourishing feelings of being indoors, in heated rooms, looking outside at the rain falling. I remember sensing the presence of my mother in the kitchen. You could feel the heat radiating out of that room, which was partly kitchen heat and partly her heat."

Sendak, his older brother, Jack, and his sister, Natalie, shared the same room. "Now it would be verboten," Sendak says. "We were inseparable. My brother and I shared abed. My sister slept in another." The trio also created a productive little workshop. Maurice drew, Jack made up stories and Natalie fashioned the book bindings. The children's final masterpiece was a short story called "They Were Inseparable," about a brother and a sister who were passionately in love. Maurice did the drawings on shirt cardboards.

Today Maurice works in a peaceful study in his Connecticut home. Art books and collections of Mickey Mouse memorabilia crowd the shelves around him. Sendak's constant companions—he has never married—are lo, a golden retriever named after the Greek maiden Zeus turned into a heifer, and Runge, a German shepherd named in honor of the 18th-century painter Philipp Otto Runge. His favorite time of the day is bedtime. With his dogs nearby (they turn up as faithful friends in the pages of his books), he will switch on the night-light and reach for a book, often a Thoreau or a Jane Austen. Never one by Maurice Sendak. "Heavens," he says, "why would I ever want to do that?"

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