Some people collect art. Others collect coins or baseball cards. But Ricky Lenart, an Uptown resident and artist, has amassed more than 10,000 teddy bears, filling every room of his three-story home at 1525 Dufossat St., behind the Latter Public Library.
Lenart decorates both to satisfy his lifelong fascination with teddy bears and to help nonprofits raise money by selling tickets for his one-hour guided tour. Between seasons, all the decorations are put into storage, but during the holidays, every square inch of the house displays at least one furry face.
“I have to really slow down,” he said of the constant drive toward acquisition. Despite a dizzying array of bears, he is always tempted to buy another when he finds a type he doesn’t already own.
“It would have been cheaper to give everyone $10,000,” Lenart said about the substantial personal investment. Just this year, he spent between $40,000-50,000 for decorations.
He and his partner, Cornel Jeansonne, have been busy for weeks, readying the Teddy Bear House for its first tour group.
“I take orders from Ricky and he tells me what to do — he’s the artist,” said Jeansonne, who recently planted 200 poinsettias in the front yard where life-size bears were lounging on the porch among gift boxes and giant candy canes.
The holiday fantasy will come together one room at a time. In the salon, old-fashioned teddy bears, playing drums and a xylophone, surround a traditional Christmas tree decorated with teddy bears.
In the hallway, two dainty bears, once elements in a 1940s department store window display, spin around on ice skates, skirts flying. In another room are tan bears with swiveling hips, snow-boarding bears, soldier bears, angel bears, drum major bears, ballerina bears, Panda bears, Raggedy Ann and Andy bears and, of course, Winnie the Pooh bears.
Every room bears a theme, including Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Teddy Bear Circus, the Teddy Bear Bakery, Blizzard at the Teddy Bear Dinner where icicles dangle from the ceiling, and the Teddy Bear Mardi Gras room, festooned with beads, doubloons and an overhead purple, gold and green crystal chandelier.
In the Sherlock Holmes “libeary,” teddy bears are posed on shelves, reading some of the 400 bear-themed mysteries. And in the attic, antique and classic bears such as Boyds bears, Muffy VanderBears, Yogi Bears, wind-up bears and Pez candy dispenser bears create a virtual bear museum. According to Lenart, tour groups’ favorite scene is that of teddy bears frolicking in a bubbly bathtub.
“It’s over the top,” said Charles Tuberville, captain of the Krewe of Armeinius, which organized the first fundraising tour two years ago. “Kids love it,” he added.
Lenart was affectionately nicknamed “Ricky Bear” in art school when he began collecting teddy bears. When he moved to New Orleans in 1984 and worked at Barbizon’s Christmas Fantasy Store at the World’s Fair, he learned more about toys and holiday merchandise from figurines to animated dolls.
He and Jeansonne have decorated their home’s exterior for 20 years, but bears soon began moving inside for winter. Lenart created the tour three years ago to benefit the Krewe of Armeinius, of which he is a member and has been king. This year, eight nonprofit groups, including the West Bank Art Guild and the Girl Scouts, will be led through the Teddy Bear House.
Teddy bear toys became fashionable 100 years ago, after President Theodore Roosevelt took a hunting trip in Mississippi and refused to shoot an old, injured bear for sport. A political newspaper cartoonist popularized the incident and Morris Michtom capitalized on it in 1903, introducing adorable Teddy bears at his Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. They’ve been a favorite children’s toy ever since.
Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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