SAFETY HARBOR — Until last year, not many people knew that Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, loved hats. Sure, the Cat in the Hat wears one. So do many Dr. Seuss characters. But Geisel himself had a secret room behind a bookshelf where he stashed hundreds of hats.
Now, a national tour called "Hats Off to Dr. Seuss" has brought 26 of those — his helmets, bedazzled sun hats and plumed fedoras — to Syd Entel Galleries and Susan Benjamin's Glass Art Etc., in Safety Harbor. The fun begins Saturday evening with an opening reception.
"We have represented the Dr. Seuss Art Collection for many years, and have done a couple of shows of Seuss' works," said Susan Benjamin. "But when this particular exhibit was offered to us, I was so excited."
Seuss' original collection had 528 hats. Twenty-six are part of the tour. According to Bill Dreyer, a Dr. Seuss expert and the Dr. Seuss art collection curator, they brought creative inspiration and joy to Geisel. He plopped them on his head or those of close friends and family to stir up a bit of excitement at parties. He also used them as inspiration in writing and illustrating his children's books. From the feathered hat Bartholomew Cubbins wears to the red-and-white-striped hat in the famous Cat in the Hat, each brought Geisel joy.
The hat collection national tour itself was created in honor of the 75th anniversary of Seuss' second book, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, which was published in 1938. The tour began in February 2013 with the first showing at the New York Public Library and will have been shown at 16 stops when it's over. The run at Syd Entel Galleries begins Saturday and goes through Jan. 25.
Dreyer spent years becoming an expert on Seuss and understands why so many people love Seuss' hats, books and art. His love for the artwork began when he attended the first showing of Seuss' art in New York in 1997.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Dreyer. "I had been in the art world for 10 years and saw this collection that literally no one had heard about or knew of. I was taken by the collection and felt I had to work with it. For the past 14 years, all I've done is work with and represent the art of Dr. Seuss."
He has also been able to visit the home of Audrey Geisel, the artist's widow, who still lives with her husband's hat collection and his secret paintings hung on the walls of their home in the La Jolla section of San Diego.
"Like everyone else, I wasn't aware that he (Geisel) painted and sculpted at night," said Dreyer. "He found writing children's books to be hard work and labored over every word on every page. He wrote and rewrote his children's books. They were labors of love.
"But his wife said the one thing he loved to do for relaxation at night was to paint. There was no commercial influence in his secret midnight paintings; this was his own personal imagination and creativity coming out onto the canvas without any influences."
Limited-edition prints of Geisel's paintings will be available for sale at Syd Entel Galleries.
Geisel, who died in 1991, began collecting hats in the 1920s before he was known as Dr. Seuss. The collection is bringing smiles to people's faces, starting with everyone at the Syd Entel Galleries.
"I've heard many stories of Dr. Seuss' large collection of crazy hats," Benjamin said. "We're excited to have it come to us. I'm excited to see the collection for the first time and thought it would be a fun exhibit to bring to the public. It's a very valuable and quite unusual collection."