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^By PAULA STORY= ^Associated Press Writer=

(AP)

Who in Who-ville would have guessed it? Pretending he hated, hated, hated Christmas all along.

Mr. Grinch, that grimacing, grim, green character with the heart two sizes too small, is slithering his way into the season of consumerism with a line of ornaments, socks, stuffed toys and hats.

What would the late creator Theodor Geisel say of a Christmas Grinch that comes from a store? His widow, Audrey, says it's something he'd adore.

"Even he foresaw that everyone would try to utilize and bring it forth in the ways that pleased them," she said. "It was then that I didn't have a choice. I had to go into the business... to protect all the Seussian critters."

Penned in 1957, How the Grinch Stole Christmas was the product of the author's loathe of holiday greed. He embodied it in a pinch-faced Mr. Grinch, who stole all the presents and trappings in Who-ville until Cindy-Lou Who prompted his change of heart.

Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, never cared to market the characters from his 47 children's stories. He simply wanted to write from his San Diego County home, his widow said.

However, before his death in 1991, Geisel told his wife that she was responsible for taking care of his characters. The Grinch could not prevent Christmas from coming, but Geisel could protect what became of his work.

"You keep a firm control as if they really were your children," said Geisel's 77-year-old widow, who heads Dr. Seuss Enterprises. "I don't want the Cat in a bad part of town, so to speak."

The Grinch, The Cat in the Hat, the Lorax and a stable of other characters were licensed a few years ago to prevent them from falling into the public domain, she said.

Since then, she's had more offers than she can count -- everything from breakfast cereal to backpacks -- for the rights to use Seuss characters, but she's selective.

The Grinch is making a slow appearance -- from his face on America Online as a link to a Christmas shopping site and Macy's selling silk Grinch neck ties, to Hallmark using him as their holiday hook.

Audrey Geisel is puzzled about "the remarkable acceptance of the Grinch," but she theorized that maybe it was because "people want something a little more, say, naughty."

Part of the popularity simply stems from availability, said Martin Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, a New York-based business publication.

"It's popular because she's permitted it to be," Brochstein said. "The characters themselves have always been around us."

Besides, the Grinch moral is the perfect fit for an annual Christmas message -- a lot like Scrooge, he said.

"It's almost part of the everyday lexicon," Brochstein said. "But part of the appeal is that the Seuss characters have nt been widely licensed."

That may change. Audrey Geisel has given permission for the story to appear on stage and screen, which could lead to more toys.

Jim Carrey will play the Grinch in a Universal Pictures movie directed by Ron Howard that's set to hit theaters by Christmas 2000.

Carrey informed her of his intention to play the character even while the studios haggled over who would get the rights, for which Universal paid a reported $5 million.

However, the real issue has never been money, Geisel's widow said. It's people identifying with her husband's story and the true meaning of Christmas.

"Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! 'Maybe Christmas,' he thought, 'doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas ... perhaps... means a little bit more!"' Geisel wrote.

(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)