A rabbit's 100th birthday brings in tons of lettuce

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

June 08, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Contrary to what the Chinese calendar might say, this is the year of the rabbit.

At least it is in England, in about a score of other countries around the world and in the hearts of rabbit lovers everywhere.

Rabbit lovers, that is, not in the culinary or gustatory sense. Rather in the literary, metaphorical, allegorical, historical, even hopeful sense.

Peter Rabbit is a hundred years old this year. That's an ancient age for a rabbit, even for an imaginary one in a book. But Peter is a different breed of bunny entirely. Unlike Bugs, he is not flip of lip, nor much up to date. How could he be? The retiring and rustic woman who created him around 1893, Beatrix Potter, would never have countenanced rude behavior, and she died in 1943.

But Peter lives on, and will live forever, or so long as there are books and children able to read them, children whose minds can be captured by animal stories in which no creature is ever hit on the head with a mallet, blasted by an Elmer Fuddian shotgun, exiled aloft on a rocket or shattered into smithereens against a wall of rock, as happens so often to that poor coyote at the hands of the Road Runner.

Which is not to say things never happen in Peter Rabbit stories. Deborah Hooper, a marketing agent for Penguin (it owns Frederick Warne & Co., which publishes the books), and who didn't read the tales of the renowned rabbit when she was a child ("I had a very northern, very working class childhood") has since briefed herself on the his many adventures, and insists there is much action and drama there.

"Peter's daddy got put into a pie," she pointed out. "That's a big adventure for a 3-year-old."

And was Peter's daddy eaten?

"That was left to the imagination."

What a thought.

"Then there was the time Peter lost his clothes in the garden . . ."

Who said Peter Rabbit was not up to date?

The Beatrix Potter Society here and other organizations and individuals with interests, commercial or affectionate, in the durable rabbit are making much of the centenary.

Beatrix Potter societies all over the world have been animated by the occasion. These are everywhere, a few in strange and unexpected places, such as Philadelphia, where rabbits are rare, and Australia, where they are the opposite of rare and are often shot on sight.

There are shows, exhibitions, lec- tures. Commemorative stamps are issued. The BBC is doing specials. Harrod's had a sale. Peter and his friends, unassuming creatures like Jemima Puddleduck and Benjamin Bunny, are evident in shops on elegant Regent Street.

There are exhibits in Edinburgh and Cambridge. Bookstores are promoting Britain's best-loved bunny. W.H. Smith's has a costumed Peter Rabbit touring its shops. So does Dillon's, which is pushing special editions of Miss Potter's stories, including a reproduction copy of the first Peter Rabbit book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." It is cloth-bound and comes in its own little box.

Ms. Hooper says the books are "doing very, very well," but declines to give profit figures. All we can assume is that profits are very, very large. A lot of money has been made over the decades for a lot of people by this unemphatic figment of Miss Potter's imagination.

According to Nicholas Durbridge, who handles the merchandising of Peter Rabbit for Frederick Warne & Co. -- the ceramics, soft toys, stationary, wall paper, bed linens and thousands of other products with his image and name on them -- Peter "is to the United Kingdom what Mickey Mouse is to the U.S. as far as licensing is concerned."

He estimates retail sales around the world of only the products -- not the books -- runs to about $220 million a year.

That's a lot of lettuce for one rabbit.

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