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The Bear of Little Brain and Big Bucks
Canada's most successful and lucrative entertainment export of all time is not Mike Myers, Anne of Green Gables or even Shania Twain. It is the memory of a tiny orphaned black bear cub purchased on the platform of a Northern Ontario railway station 89 years ago.
This week a judge in Los Angeles gave Claire Milne permission to take her fight for control of a truly amazing literary and film phenomenon, Winnie the Pooh, to an Appeal Court. If there is a ruling in her favour, Milne could finally regain for her family the merchandising rights to 'The bear of little brain' - 74 years after her grandfather, author A.A. Milne, sold them to his New York-based agent for $1,000.
At stake is an estimated $1 billion in annual sales of Pooh merchandise, which, combined with another $2 billion in book, television and movie income, has made the billion-dollar bear Disney's most successful character - far ahead of Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.
And it all began with a chance meeting on the platform of the station at White River, Ont. in August 1914. Lieut. Harry Colebourn, a veterinary officer with the Fort Garry Horse, was travelling from Winnipeg to Valcartier, Quebec, to enrol in the Army Veterinary Corps. When his train stopped at White River he took a walk and, much to the surprise of his fellow travellers, returned with a female black bear cub. He had bought the orphaned animal for $20.
The cub accompanied Colebourn to Quebec, where it acquired the name Winnipeg and became the unofficial mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. When the brigade shipped out to Europe the bear went with it and spent the next few months in England. In December 1914, as the troops prepared to move to France, Colebourn wisely decided the battlefield was no place for a bear cub and persuaded the London Zoo to look after it - for a few weeks.
The animal remained at the zoo throughout the war and by the time Colebourn returned to repatriate it, 'Winnie' had become a favourite with staff and visitors, particularly children. Realising that the bear was content in her new home, Colebourn wisely decided to leave her there.
One regular visitor was Christopher Robin Milne, whose father was also serving in France. Winnie was the boy's favourite animal at the zoo - he named his own teddy bear after it - and to brighten up the grim war years A.A. Milne began writing whimsical stories about Christopher Robin, Winnie (whom he changed into a male) and their adventures in a woodland area near the Milnes' country home in Sussex.
Winnie the Pooh was published in October 1926, and was quickly followed by two more books. Winnie was an instant hit with old and young alike. The books have never been out of print and have been translated into almost every language.
The British editions alone have sold over 20 million copies (with sales in Canada and the U.S. easily doubling that number), but success wasn't finished with Colebourn's bear.
The Pooh books were favourites of Walt Disney's daughters, which inspired the world's favourite animator to bring Pooh to film in a 1966 cartoon. In 1977 Disney released The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the first feature-length animated film starring the little bear. Spurred by the astonishing success of the same film when it was re-released almost 20 years later, Disney made two more successful Pooh films.
According to the company, the films and subsequent video sales have made the bear the most popular animated character of all time. A Pooh fan club (there are many) has estimated the bear's earnings since 1926 at close to $20 billion!
At the end of the war Colebourn, now a major, went home to Winnipeg, but he returned often to see his old friend at the London Zoo until she died in 1934. Colebourn continued to serve the needs of animals in the military and as a civilian veterinarian until his death in 1947.
He never made a cent out of Winnie.
In 1999 a party of officers and men from the Fort Garry Horse visited London Zoo and unveiled a bronze sculpture of Colebourn and Winnie.
A copy of the statue also stands in the Winnipeg Zoo, honouring the world's most famous bear and arguably the most successful Canadian entertainer of all time.
By PAUL STANWAY -- Edmonton Sun, November 1, 2003