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Winkle, Winkle little star
June 16, 2003
BY MISHA DAVENPORT Staff Reporter
Just who or what is Mr. Winkle?
He's been called everything from a cat in a dog suit to a hamster with a perm. He's been on NBC's "Today" show and even did a cameo on "Sx and the City" in which he upstaged lead character Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). Mr. Winkle also is the star of a successful line of picture books that has as many adult fans as child fans. The latest, A Winkle in Time: Mr. Winkle Celebrates the Underdogs of History (Random House, $14.95), is in stores now.
More than anything else, his owner, Lara Jo Regan, would like to stress one thing: the mixed-breed she calls Mr. Winkle is not to be toyed with.
"I can't seem to do enough to convince people that Mr. Winkle is a real dog. The last time he was on the 'Today' show I got a flood of e-mails asking me where people could buy one of those stuffed animals," Regan said.
Chicagoans can decide for themselves and even get his latest book "pawtographed" when both Regan and Mr. Winkle appear at Border's Bookstore, 830 N. Michigan, from 7 to 9 p.m. today.
It's been a strange journey for Regan. Prior to adopting Mr. Winkle, she was a professional photographer who frequently contributed to national magazines, including Time and Newsweek. She picked up numerous awards, including the prestigious "Press Photo of the Year" for her shot of a Mexican immigrant family that ran in Life. Even Regan has a hard time believing she's spending so much time shooting pictures of her dog.
"Ten years ago, if anyone had told me that I would find a dog who would change the course of my career, I would have laughed. I consider myself a serious photojournalist. I document the human condition."
It was on just such an assignment in 1996 that Mr. Winkle first entered her life. Regan was on her way back to Los Angeles from Bakersfield, Calif., where she had been shooting a job for Newsweek. Desperate for both coffee and gas, Regan said she found herself lost in an unfamiliar part of town.
"I had made so many turns, I was disoriented. I started turning again when I caught the tufts of fur in my headlights. I got out of my car and he just hobbled into my arms."
Since he was an abandoned dog, it's also perhaps the reason she is hesitant to discuss what sort of mix Mr. Winkle is. According to the Web site, the last thing Mr. Winkle wants to encourage is people trying to create their own Mr. Winkle--and abandoning those experiments when they don't turn out as lovable as Regan's mutt.
At the time she found him, Mr. Winkle was anything but cute. He exhibited all the signs of a dog that had been abandoned.
"He was mangled and weird-looking. How he looks now is the product of lots of love and a makeover," Regan said.
Regan found that Mr. Winkle had a weird effect on her--and she wasn't the only one. Wherever she and Mr. Winkle would go, people's faces would light up.
"Mr. Winkle is the sizzle. Even before he was famous, when I would take him somewhere, the room would just fill with magic and no matter who we run into, Mr. Winkle brings the best of that person out," Regan said.
One dog (and it's owner) can only travel so far, though. So Regan decided to create a Web site (www.mrwinkle.com) to celebrate her beloved canine.
She began to pose her pooch, using chicken pieces as a reward for holding his pose.
"That's his scale-pay. Fresh chicken. On some level, he knows that a photo shoot equals fresh chicken, so he's like pipe cleaner. I can put him in a pose and he'll hold it for 10 frames," Regan said
What started out as a shrine, however, quickly became a phenomena. Since its inception, the Web site has had 38 million hits.
She followed up the Web site with a calendar and when that sold well, Regan successfully negotiated a book deal.
The new book features Mr. Winkle as little-known but important figures from history like German flight pioneer Otto Lilienthal and American Revolutionary war hero Nathanael Greene.
"I thought it would be a great way to inspire and educate kids--using a dog to celebrate the underdogs of history."
Regan also has been working on "Big Top Winkle," a one-hour film she's shopping around to cable and TV networks.
"It's a silent film. We tried a talking script but it just didn't work. When people spoke, it took away Mr. Winkle's mystery and magic," Regan said.