Curious George Celebrates 75 Years Of Monkey Business

Sep 28, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 9:19 am

Curious George famously managed all sorts of escapes — from policemen, firemen, zookeepers and plenty other humans who didn't like his mischief. But many readers don't know that the husband-wife team who created the inquisitive little monkey — who is celebrating his 75th birthday this year — had the most harrowing escape of all.

In 1939, artists Hans Augusto and Margret Rey were living in Paris, where they had written a book with a side character named Fifi. The Reys thought this young, inquisitive monkey deserved his own story and wrote a manuscript for The Adventures of Fifi.

But their plans were interrupted when the Nazis invaded France. As German-born Jews, the Reys had to get out of Paris, but the trains had stopped running and they didn't own a car. So Hans went to a bike shop — and found the only bike left was a tandem.

"Margret would have none of it," says Louise Borden, author of The Journey that Saved Curious George. "So Hans bought spare parts and assembled two bicycles."

The couple packed what could fit on their backs and fled for their lives on their hastily assembled bicycles. They rode for three days, sometimes sleeping outside. Eventually they were able to get on a train.

In her book, Borden recounts how, mid-escape, the Reys were stopped for questioning by a French official. Hans opened his satchel and showed him the manuscript about the curious monkey: "Ah! ... un livre pour les enfants!" he exclaimed with a smile.

The Reys made their way out of France, and then to Spain, Portugal, Brazil and eventually, New York City. Through an editor they had met in Europe, they signed a deal with publisher Houghton Mifflin. A year later, Curious George (who by now had swapped his French name for an American one) made his debut.

You can tell George's story was written a long time ago. At the outset, we are told George lives "in Africa," where he meets the Man with the Yellow Hat, who thinks to himself, "What a nice little monkey ... I would like to take him home with me." So the man — who has a gun slung over his shoulder — pops George into a bag, onto a ship, and sails across the ocean where he keeps George in his apartment in the city.

That the books are a product of the time hasn't stopped George from becoming a global icon, selling some 75 million books in more than 16 languages. The Reys wrote seven Curious George books — he takes a job, flies a kite, rides a bike, goes to the hospital, learns the alphabet and more.

Margret wrote the text of George's escapades and Hans illustrated them. Hans, who had been a soldier in the German army during World War I, was considerably older than Margret. "I did better with my pencil than with my rifle," he said. They both loved animals and trips to the zoo but had different temperaments — she was a rebel, he was a dreamer; he had a Pied Piper quality to him, while she didn't feel a strong connection to children.

"Hans was the quieter one," says Borden. "He loved philosophy. He was a linguist. Margret was a woman with sparkle and energy and she always spoke her own mind."

In 1991, Margret Rey told NPR that she and her husband had no idea what Curious George would become. "We loved monkeys and just wrote a book about a monkey," she said.

After Hans died in 1977, Margret left the Curious George brand in the hands of their publisher. That's where Curious George's big second act — as a multimillion-dollar franchise — began.

Today, George's keepers include PBS, Universal Studios and Houghton Mifflin, where a staff of about 15 people work on new George books.

Part of George's enduring appeal is that he remains a monkey, says Houghton Mifflin's Mary Wilcox — which was important to the Reys.

"Sometimes there can be a temptation to treat him as though he is like a human character," Wilcox explains. "Because many illustrated characters actually are. Mickey Mouse isn't a rodent — he's actually a person in a mouse suit so he can drive a car, he can have a conversation. So I think I'm being most respectful of their legacy when I'm saying: Nope, George doesn't talk."

A lot of George's current success also rests on Frank Welker, who, for 10 years, has been voicing George on-screen. (Welker is also the voice of the evil Megatron in Transformers, so George, he says, is a "pure delight.")

Welker says Curious George is an example of "a sweet, gentle story" coming out of a "very troubled time."

Ema Ryan Yamazaki, who is making a documentary about the Reys, grew up in Japan, reading Curious George in Japanese. "I love that little monkey," she says.

But George has an army of people taking care of him, and Yamazaki felt his creators' story needed to be told. The filmmaker feels a certain responsibility to get it right — after all, Margret Rey would insist on it.

"She really took it upon herself to continue Curious George as their child and joint creation, to make sure he outlived both of them," Yamazaki says.

There's no question that George lives on — today he's the star of a movie, an Emmy Award-winning TV series, a website, video games and, of course, many books.

Margret Rey once said, "We did only what we liked and by nice coincidence, the children liked the same thing."

Nice coincidence indeed.

Beth Novey contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Curious George looks good for his age, and he's not slowing down either. The world's best-known monkey turns 75 this year. He's the star of a movie, an Emmy-winning TV series, a website, video games and of course books. His adventures began during the second world war. And as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, his stories almost didn't happen.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You can tell those original stories by Hans and Margret Rey were written a long time ago - "Curious George Smokes A Pipe." He mentions the pretty, young nurse at the hospital. And to a lot of readers, the Man with the Yellow Hat is a poacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The man picked him up quickly and popped him into a bag. George was caught.

BLAIR: But none of that has stopped "Curious George" from becoming a global icon, selling some 75 million books in more than 16 languages. The Reys were both artists. She wrote. He drew. Both loved animals and trips to the zoo. But they were also opposites. She was prickly. He was a dreamer. Louise Borden is the author of "The Journey That Saved Curious George."

LOUISE BORDEN: Hans was the quieter one. He loved philosophy. He was a linguist. Margret was a woman with sparkle and energy, and she always spoke her own mind.

BLAIR: Here's Margret Rey talking about "Curious George" in an interview with NPR in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARGRET REY: We had no idea that George would become a character, you know? We just did a book about a monkey. We loved monkeys, and we just did a book about a monkey.

BLAIR: Curious George at first appeared as a side character in 1939 in a children's book the Reys wrote in French. They were living in Paris at the time. His name back then was Fifi, the youngest in a family of nine monkeys who befriend a giraffe. The Reys thought he deserved his own story and wrote a manuscript. But their plans were interrupted.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BLAIR: In 1940 the Nazis invaded France and were making their way to Paris.

BORDEN: The city was paralyzed. The Germans were on the outskirts, and it was pretty chaotic.

BLAIR: The Reys didn't own a car. Trains had stopped running. As Jews, they had to get out. So Hans went to a bike shop. The only thing left was a tandem.

BORDEN: And Margret would have none of it, so Hans bought spare parts and assembled two bicycles.

BLAIR: Hans Rey bought parts and assembled two bicycles the night before they fled for their lives, manuscripts in tow. They rode for three days, sometimes sleeping outside. Eventually they were able to get on a train. They made their way through Spain, then Portugal, took a boat to Brazil and finally ended up in New York. Through an editor they'd met in Europe, they signed a deal with publisher Houghton Mifflin. A year later Curious George made his debut.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is George. He lived In Africa. He was a good, little monkey and always very curious.

BLAIR: The Reys wrote seven "Curious George" books. He takes a job, rides a bike, goes to the hospital. After Hans Rey died in 1977, Margret Ray left the "Curious George" brand in the hands of their publisher, and here's where Curious George's big second act began as a multimillion dollar franchise.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CURIOUS GEORGE THEME SONG")

DR JOHN: (Singing) You never do know what's round the bend - a big adventure or a brand new friend - when you're curious like Curious George.

BLAIR: Today George's keepers include PBS, Universal Studios and still Houghton Mifflin where a staff of about 15 people work on new George books. Mary Wilcox is one of them. She says part of George's appeal is that he stays a monkey, and that was important to the Reys.

MARY WILCOX: Sometimes there can be a temptation to treat him as though he is, like, a human character because many illustrated characters actually are - you know, Mickey Mouse isn't a rodent. He's actually a person in a mouse suit, so he can drive a car, and he can have a conversation. So I feel like I am being most respectful of their legacy when I'm saying, nope, George doesn't talk.

BLAIR: A lot of George's current success also rests on Frank Welker. For 10 years, he's been voicing George on screen.

FRANK WELKER: The director will probably say, you know, George here is very disappointed (imitating disappointed monkey).

BLAIR: Welker is also the voice of the evil Megatron in "Transformers."

WELKER: (As Megatron) Megatron.

BLAIR: So George, he says, is a pure delight.

WELKER: To see such a sweet, gentle story and wonderful drawings and concept come out of a very troubled time is another kind of an interesting part of the story I think.

EMA RYAN YAMAZAKI: I grew up in Japan reading "Curious George" in Japanese. I love that little monkey.

BLAIR: And then there's the newest chapter - a documentary by Ema Ryan Yamazaki coming out next year. Yamazaki says George has an army of people taking care of them, but his creators have a story that needs to be told. She says she feels a certain responsibility to get it right. She knows Margret Rey would insist on it.

YAMAZAKI: She really took it upon herself to, like, continue "Curious George" as their child, their joint creation, to make sure he outlived both of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REY: We did only what we liked, and by a nice coincidence, they children liked the same thing.

BLAIR: Nice coincidence indeed. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.