Monday, March 3, 2014

My Day with Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak in 1985

me in the early 80s

Maurice Sendak 

was coming 

to Doubleday Bookshop! 

It had taken me months to arrange. I knew that Mr. Sendak did not like to do book signings, so I had asked my sales rep to invite him to come to the store to just sign copies of his books for me to sell--no crowds, no hassle. I heard from the rep that Mr. Sendak was delighted with the idea and would schedule a time that would be convenient for him. I think it was several months before I heard anything else about it. Then one day I received a call that said that Mr. Sendak would be available right away--like the next day!--to come to the store. 

He came to the 3rd floor of the Doubleday Bookshop (the one that used to be on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street) late one morning and signed books for the store. 

Mr. Sendak explained that the reason he was able to come to the store that day was because he had to make a trip to Seattle for the premiere of the ballet he had designed, Nutcracker. He came in to New York City to catch a plane. The ballet’s opening night was December 13, 1983 so he would have visited with me early in December of that year.

The sales rep left us at the store and Mr. Sendak said that he had some time before he needed to grab a taxi to the airport and did I know of a café close by at which we could get some lunch? He did not have time for a restaurant, so I suggested that we walk a block away to a great atrium with a food stand and some casual seating.

About the only thing that I remember of what he said to me that day was that he was terrified of flying—hated it—and was very nervous about his flight to Seattle. He was very appreciative of my company and said that it helped take his mind off of the flight. He was very gracious and unassuming. I had a lovely time with him and have always been grateful for the chance to have him all to myself.

Maurice Sendak had been my favorite children's book illustrator since I first encountered "Where the Wild Things Are" at the college bookstore where I worked in the early 70s.  I was eleven years old when that book first came out, so I was not at an age to be looking at many picture books. But when I first saw those amazing wild things I was an instant, ardent devotee. His colors were rich and impressive--the beautiful quality of the drawn line behind the color--the incredible characterization of Max and the beasts--the brilliant imagination of the story--the psychological depth that carried Max through transformations of anger and fear to calm and contentment. It is still one of the most incredible books ever produced. 

In ten years he had developed as an artist from his clever, but simplistic work for "A Very Special House" to the amazingly sophisticated artistry of "Where the Wild Things Are."

"A Very Special House" by Ruth Krauss, 1953

"Where the Wild Things Are" 1963

Since Maurice Sendak visited me in NYC at the time of his Nutcracker Ballet Premiere, I decided to include some articles and photos of the ballet and the book that he created as well.

Ballet poster

Here is a short film about the conception and production of Nutcracker with both Kent Stowell and Maurice Sendak. It was aired as a tribute to Maurice Sendak at the time of his death:

mouse statuary for Nutcracker

Maurice Sendak, creative force behind PNB's 'Nutcracker,' dies

Posted on May 8, 2012 at 7:51 AM
Updated Monday, Nov 25 at 6:57 PM

SEATTLE – The man who brought children delight with his book “Where the Wild Things Are” and one of the designing forces behind Pacific Northwest Ballet’s beloved “Nutcracker" has died.

Maurice Sendak died early Tuesday in Danbury, Conn. at age 83, four days after suffering a stroke.

When approached by PNB to stage a brand new "Nutcracker," Sendak paused.

"We sat down to lunch and he said "I'm not even sure I like ballet!" recalled then-artistic director Kent Stowell. "And I said, "It doesn't matter. It's about doing something really interesting that's worthwhile."

The Sendak "Nutcracker" debuted in 1983, bringing the author/illustrator's daring and often dark vision to the stage.

Working with Sendak was collegial. Lighting designer Rico Chiarelli says Sendak didn't hesitate to get in the thick of things and work with the scenery crews, costumers and prop designers.

"He was a joy to work with," said Chiarelli.

Stowell smiles as he recalls how Sendak often ruminated on his own demise.

 "At that time, he says, "Now I must warn you, I've had a heart attack and I might not even make it through this process!”  I said, "We'll get you through it. Of course he said that to everybody, every year since 30 years ago!"

at the premiere

This season's "Nutcracker" will mark the 30th anniversary of Sendak's collaboration with Pacific Northwest Ballet. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker
Most ballet companies' Nutcrackers are very loosely based on a greatly simplified version of the Hoffman story.  

One of the noteworthy aspects of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker was that Stowell and Sendak went back to the original source, re-introducing the story of Princess Pirlipate into the ballet, and eliminating both the land of sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy.   

Kent Stowell began contemplating creating a new production of Nutcracker as early as 1980. Francia Russell suggested children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose genre-breaking picture books were bestsellers. Sendak, who illustrated scores of books and eventually wrote more than a dozen, was awarded the 1964 Caldecott for Where The Wild Things Are. In The Night Kitchen was a 1971 Caldecott Honor Book. As parents of three children born between 1966 and 1974, Stowell and Russell were familiar with Sendak's books. 

The Tiger
Stowell approached Sendak about the project in early 1981, proposing that they examine the familiar tale and do something new. Sendak later remembered, "There was nothing in Nutcracker, other than the score, that interested me at first. Everything that made Nutcracker a traditional holiday delight (humungous Christmas tree and fatuous Candyland) depressed me. And what, for goodness sake, would Nutcracker be without them? A good deal, Kent and I discovered." 

        By Paula Becker, June 16, 2012 for

Hugh Bigney in Nutcracker

Hugh Bigney as Herr Drosselmeier

Hugh Bigney, the dancer/actor who played the role of Herr Drosselmeier in the ballet and film, was an acquaintance of mine in college before he joined PNB. The only picture of him that I could find online, other than the Nutcracker photos, was one of him as winner of a coveted Scottish dance prize.

Hugh Bigney

one of the opening scenes

Fun facts
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s  ‘Nutcracker’

Source: E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1816)
Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Op. 71, 1891-1892)
Designer: Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are,” “In the Night Kitchen”)
Choreographer: Kent Stowell
First performance: Dec. 13, 1983, at Seattle Center Opera House (now McCaw Hall)
Number of times performed: About 1,100
Number of children in the cast: 85 per show
Number of costumes: 200-plus
Number of pointe shoes worn out per “Nutcracker” season: About 500
Height of Christmas tree: Constructed by Boeing engineers in a flight hangar, this set piece “grows” from 14 to 28 feet in height during each show
Spinoffs: Two: A 1984 New York Times best-selling book, “Nutcracker,” illustrated by Maurice Sendak; and a feature-length film version in 1986

End of run: 2014 season. A new ballet design by illustrator Ian Falconer ("Olivia") and classic choreography by George Balanchine will replace the Sendak/Stowell version in 2015.

Source: Pacific Northwest Ballet

Follow this link to a Nutcracker activity page:

Follow this link to the film version of the ballet: 

title page, British edition

end pages

interior art

I have often said, facetiously, that if I were not a religious man, Sendak would have to be my deity.

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