In the history of book properties, brands and licensing, Kay Thompson's Eloise, first published in 1955, stands as a prototype for success. By 1963 more than a million copies of the book and its three sequels had been sold; the Plaza Hotel in New York City, Eloise's fictional home, had established an Eloise Room; Eloise spawned dolls, wardrobe lines and recordings, as well as a 1956 television special.
Such promotional activity, and the Eloise-mania that it spurred, was soon quelled by author Kay Thompson, who was as volatile and contradictory as her creation. Although Thompson agreed to keep Eloise in print, she preferred that the three sequels not be reprinted, thus creating an active market for used copies. The out-of-print status of Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime and Eloise in Moscow not only made it difficult for fans to find copies, but kept the book's illustrator, Hilary Knight, from profiting from their collaboration.
Thompson's death last July, however, has changed all that. Rights to the Eloise property, at Thompson's request, are now being administered by her estate, managed by Thompson's sister and nephew, and they are allowing Simon &Schuster, Thompson's original publisher, to reissue the unavailable titles.
To kick off the reissue program, next month S&S will release a new edition of the first book, called Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition, which includes a 18-page scrapbook overview of Eloise's history by Marie Brenner. In addition, Eloise in Paris will be reissued. In the fall, readers will find once again find Eloise at Christmastime (first published by Random House) in bookstores, and, next spring, Eloise in Moscow.
Over the years, demand for these out-of-print titles has increased to the point that rare book dealers can get hundreds of dollars for first editions in good condition. "The books are very collectible, especially the Christmas book," said Carol Docheff, a book dealer in Lafayette, Calif. "I get many requests for first editions of all of the books. Depending on the title and condition, prices range from $200 to $500 a copy."
According to Leo Landry at The Children's Bookshop in Brookline, Mass., customers frequently request the other books and are disappointed to find out they are unavailable. As for Eloise, Landry says it sells steadily from year to year, and he predicts the reissues will likely boost sales of the original.
With a $250,000 Eloise marketing budget for 1999, S&S is currently hammering out details for a national postcard giveaway at Au Bon Pain eateries, licensing agreements for merchandise such as dolls and clothing, and even a lipstick shade named for Eloise. For booksellers, there are child-size standees, a 12-copy floor display, Eloise masks (shipped in packs of 10 with the floor display), an Eloise poster (modeled after an earlier edition seen in the film You've Got Mail, which sparked numerous requests to S&S's children's marketing department), and a limited tour for Knight.
Despite the various licensing and merchandising efforts, Eloise as a character will be promoted first and foremost through the books, according
|AN EXPANDED Eloise and a reissue of Eloise in Paris hit stores next month. |
to Brenda Bowen, publisher of S&S's children's division. "People know Eloise because of the first book, which has been in print since 1955," she said. "The portrait of her at the Plaza has also helped to keep her alive. We now have a chance to reach a broader audience and we are starting in the bookstore. Our whole campaign is book-based."
Beyond the Books
Nevertheless, a top priority for S&S and Thompson's estate is negotiating for film rights. In February, Rick Richter, president of S&S Children's Publishing, announced that an agreement had been reached with Thompson's estate and Knight, which included not only the book program and merchandise rights, but world dramatic rights. Numerous film companies, large and small, are vying for film and television rights, and even the Plaza has entered the bidding. The Plaza's management hopes to keep it "a New York project," according to Rose Ganguzza, director of press and media relations for the hotel. "We have formed a creative team of New York writers, art directors and producers," she said. "The writing has to be two-leveled-Eloise is not just a children's book. It has great appeal for adults. Eloise was Kay's alter ego -- she frequently slipped into the Eloise character, and we want to preserve that."
In addition to developing a film script, the Plaza plans to reopen the Eloise Room, which has been closed since 1973, as well as create an Eloise boutique that will carry such merchandise as designer dresses, musical jewelry boxes, bathrobes and a bath collection. These items will be offered for sale in a catalogue, to be launched in the fall. The hotel will also offer an Eloise menu for children, featuring S'mores, sundaes and tea sandwiches, among other child-friendly foods, as well as a Plaza edition of Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition in a linen binding, signed by Knight, and a slipcased edition of the three sequels.
In keeping with Thompson's wishes, Janette Young, associate rights director at S&S, said that Eloise licenses will be carefully controlled. Thompson's estate, Knight and S&S have retained final approval on all items and promotions. "Kay was very protective of this property," Knight explained. "The fact that she turned [the rights] over to her family is remarkable. Kay felt that the book [Eloise] stood on its own and didn't need promotion. [But] today, promotion is vital for a book." Like Bowen, Knight said there is now an opportunity for a much larger audience of children to read the books, and he believes that might would have pleased Thompson.
There will be an exclusive, limited license with FAO Schwarz, Young stated. "However, we will not let Eloise out into mass outlets at this time." David Nigli, executive v-p of merchandising at FAO Schwarz, said that the store's license will allow for window displays, a boutique containing dolls, furniture and plush, and the launch date for their Eloise line is October. One of the store's fall catalogues, featuring a cover designed by Knight, will include these items, Nigli said.
Bowen described Knight's overall contribution to S&S's campaign and the process of putting together the scrapbook portion of Eloise: The Absolutely Essential Edition as a "labor of love." She said that over the years Knight had collected photographs, letters and drawings documenting his association with Thompson. Many of these were reproduced in the scrapbook to reveal how Eloise developed as a personality and served as an alter ego for Thompson.
In the scrapbook's text, Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner combines a personal account of Eloise's effect on her as a child ("...to this day I cannot pass a mailbox without a desire to douse it with a pitcher of water") with a look at Eloise's evolution and the period that was her milieu. Photographs of Thompson during her career as a conductor/arranger in Hollywood and of her protegé Judy Garland are juxtaposed with book jackets and Knight's illustrations and sketches. Knight's career from art student to Thompson's collaborator is also recounted.
An Unlikely Pairing
The close collaborative relationship between Thompson and Knight was the result of a fortuitous introduction by a mutual friend. Both were involved in the arts, but Thompson's public role as an entertainer was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Knight's as a young illustrator in the early stages of his career.
Born Katherine Fink in St. Louis in 1909, Thompson was a musical prodigy whose talent was encouraged by her father, a jeweler. She worked for MGM in Hollywood and, later, had a nightclub act in New York City and eventually at the Persian Room at the Plaza. After she came to New York, Eloise as a character began to take shape in her mind; however, she only started to record Eloise's antics when urged by D.D. Ryan, the wife of financier John Ryan and a former editor at Harper's Bazaar. In 1954, Ryan introduced Thompson to 27-year-old Knight, who lived in Ryan's building, and thus a collaboration was born.
The book, published a year later, was an immediate success, which Knight attributes to the fact that it was targeted to adults and received a lot of press, including "a big send-off in Life." According to Knight, "Kay always saw it as a book for adults. Had it been a children's book, it would not have had the same impact. It did make its way into children's, and that's why it has survived."
With S&S's reissue program and associated marketing efforts, Eloise's appearance on licensed merchandise and in a movie may be what Bowen described as "icing" on the cake. Still, in the coming year many more children -- and adults -- will make the acquaintance of Eloise, the feisty little girl who lives at the Plaza, now that she's been released from the printed page.