Dr. Suess' "Martini Bird" figures prominently in the Fingerhut Gallery, where visitors come in for a look at the gallery's new installation "Hats Off to Dr. Suess!" on Thursday. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / May 16, 2013)

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Dr. Seuss kept two secrets under lock and key — his hat and art collections.

Born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Mass., he became a household name and national icon for his colorful illustrations and jaunty rhymes. But only his wife Audrey and their closest friends knew about Seuss' clandestine art or the whereabouts of his hats — hidden in a library closet of their La Jolla estate.

The "Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!" touring exhibition is making a pitstop in Fingerhut Gallery of Laguna Beach from Friday through June 2. Viewers can survey 26 hats, from a collection of more than 150, as well as limited-edition reproductions of Seuss' original artwork.

Bill Dreyer, 52, curator for the show, will fly in from Chicago for opening-day festivities from 6 to 9 p.m., at which time he will unveil the little-known collections.

"Some of my favorite moments are when people come to the exhibition with crazy, wonderful, wacky Seussian hats on," he said. "People come in thinking they know a lot about Dr. Seuss, and they learn about the 'secret art' and this other dimension of his artwork that they never knew about, that they'd never seen before, and they really are completely delighted."

Seuss often worked late into the night creating paintings and sculptures over a 70-year period. While these elaborately imagined concoctions were conceived for his personal enjoyment, and were rarely, if ever, viewed during Seuss' lifetime, they reveal the artist's "more grown-up side," he said.

"This body of work expresses a very personal side of Ted Geisel, which is how he was known among his friends and colleagues," Dreyer said. "They fully reveal his artistic legacy."

Dreyer, who has been involved in the art world for 43 years, found himself in New York City's International Art Exposition in 1997. There, he happened across the "Art of Dr. Seuss" exhibition, which, with the support of Seuss' widow, was being showcased for the first time.

Completely taken by the talent on display, Dreyer made an on-the-spot decision to one day work with the collection. He came on board the Chase Art Companies three years later and has curated the exhibition ever since.

Of the nearly 40 pieces of art featured at the Fingerhut Gallery, Dreyer harbors a soft spot for the "Cat from the Wrong Side of the Tracks" — an image of a cat down to its eighth life, sporting a tie with a naked feline printed on it, smoking a cigarette and playing pool — and the 11-piece "La Jolla Birdwoman" series, which poked "good-natured fun" at local socialites.

"So you have this wonderful adult humor in some ways that was really hidden away from the public," Dreyer said. "It was almost like walking into a treasure trove when Mrs. Audrey Geisel unveiled this collection of artwork to the world and let people see what he'd been painting."

The exhibition also celebrates the 75th anniversary of Seuss' "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins," which was the second of his 44 volumes. The La Jolla resident's hat collection, housed in an old-fashioned steamer trunk, began its 16-stop national tour in February at the New York Public Library. Laguna Beach residents, too, will have the chance to view headgear that the artist began collecting in the 1920s.

Marie Covell, director of the Fingerhut Gallery, is keen to investigate the relationship between Seuss' books, hats and art.

"After sharing the art of Dr. Seuss for over 13 years, I am excited to see the hats as they give us a deeper understanding of the genius of Dr. Seuss," she said. "How often could this happen — an opportunity to get up close and personal with works that will surely someday find their way into museums?"

While some hats were gifted to Seuss, others were picked up during his travels in more than 30 countries, evidenced by the presence of Peruvian and Himalayan designs, alongside a Nazi field marshal hat, a fire brigade helmet from New South Wales, Australia, and even one from a German concentration camp.

Seuss snagged the hat from "The Cat in the Hat" after the story had been published, Dreyer explained.

These hats, once obtained, didn't only occupy hanging space in a cupboard — they were used as icebreakers and to jimmy Seuss out of creative jams, Dreyer said. If the couple invited friends over and the evening seemed a bit drab, he donned a hat to shake things up.

According to Dreyer, Audrey said, "When you put perfectly ridiculous chapeaux on people's heads at a rather formal dinner party, the evening takes care of itself."

The curator also explained that four-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jeff Gordon has autographed some prints of the "Would You? Could You? In a Car?" image from "Green Eggs and Ham." Funds earned from the sale of these $375 pictures will benefit pediatric cancer research — an initiative titled "The Hats Off to Hope!" and co-organized by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Chase Art Companies, Random House Children's Books and the Jeff Gordon Children's Foundation.

Covell, a fan of "The Lorax," lauds the way Seuss communicated ideas without polarizing readers, citing "The Butter Battle Book" as an example.

"His ideals are the same ideals that inspire the people of Laguna Beach," she said. "I hope all of our neighbors will drop by to learn more about his art and the man."

Dreyer, who has crisscrossed the country with "Hats off to Dr. Seuss!", has thoroughly enjoyed seeing its impact on people aged from 2 to 92.

"People come in with wonderful childhood memories of specific books and artworks, and I love seeing how they respond so positively to his work, no matter their age," Dreyer said. "Dr. Seuss' gift, I think, to the American public is creativity, inventiveness and literacy."

If You Go

What: Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!

Where: Fingerhut Gallery, 210A Forest Ave., Laguna Beach

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 17 till June 2; gallery closed for a private show from 6 to 9 p.m. May 18

Cost: Free

Information: http://www.fingerhutart.com or (949) 376-6410