An international tribute to our favorite stuffed animals: teddy bears

Hundreds of lovable teddy bears have taken over the Denver Museum of Natural History for the month of May. The ''Teddy Bear Affair,'' a tribute to that most popular and beloved stuffed animal, features more than 1,000 teddies in an array of colors, ages, sizes, and nationalities. These include Miss Abearica (complete with rhinestone tiara), Paddington, Smokey, Winnie-the-Pooh, and, of course, the Teddy Roosevelt bear.

''We've gotten a terrific response,'' says Sue Evans-Olson, the museum's temporary curator of teddy bears. ''People are really enthusiastic about their teddy bears. Their stories are great, and, believe me, they want to tell them.''

Some bears have come from celebrities. Others belong to residents of the Rocky Mountain region, who have been invited to compete in a nine-category contest.

One obviously homemade and well-loved bear was donated by actress Sally Struthers. A note attached explained that the bear was made for her by her boyfriend when she was in seventh grade. She added: ''I'm happy to loan him to you, bup get him home as sokn as possible.''

Other celebrity bears have been lent by Jonathan Winters, Elke Sommer, Barbara Mandrell, Barbara Stanwyck, Ted Knight, Elliott Gould, and the candidates who ran in last week's Denver mayoral race. Tracy Austin parted temporarily with her five-foot-tall Steiff bear, an adorable bruin the tennis star won in a West German tournament.

Other attractions include E.T.'s closet - a cubbyhole with E.T. sitting in the midst of dozens of bears - and a picnic-in-the-park scene with bears jogging , playing on swing sets and jungle gyms, being pushed in baby-bear buggies, and dancing around the Maypole.

International bears gather around a large globe with ribbons connecting them to their homelands, showing that the love of teddy bears is far more than just a national preoccupation. Promotional bears, such as Smokey, Yogi, and Misha of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, converse in one corner of the exhibit hall, while story bears, including Winnie, Paddington, and Rupert, have set themselves down in another area to socialize.

The history of the teddy bear begins in 1902 in two places thousands of miles apart. Morris Michtom of New York, founder of the Ideal Toy & Novelty Company, manufactured a stuffed bear and, according to legend, wrote the President of the United States to ask permission to use his name for the bear. Theodore Roosevelt had become associated with the bear when he refused to shoot one that was unfairly trapped. That incident was immortalized and politicized by Clifford Berryman of the Washington Star, whose cartoon ''Drawing the Line in Mississippi'' showed the President refusing to kill the trapped bear.

Meanwhile in Germany, Marguerite Steiff made stuffed animals for a living, following the specifications drawn up by her young nephew. She later retired and sold out to an American toy company.

Why has this cuddly animal become so popular and loved?

''There are many theories,'' says Ms. Evans-Olson, sporting a T-shirt with dancing bears ''Ted and Ginger'' and a button proclaiming ''Bears Make Everything Right.'' ''Bears seem to remind a person of childhood happiness. Consequently, many adults like to pass their bears along to their children.''

The categories in the bear competition are largest, tiniest, best-dressed male and female, bear cousins, most unusual, most loved, favorite ancient bear, and a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike bear. A grand winner will be chosen, and the bear and his or her owner will be flown to Philadelphia for the Great American Bear Rally II June 25 and 26 at the Philadelphia Zoo.

All departments of the Denver museum are pulling together to honor the teddy bear, presenting exhibits, lectures, movies, storytelling sessions, and a rally. Ms. Evans-Olson and a staff of volunteers even sewed together a 10-foot teddy bear that has adorned the front of the museum through wind, rain, and spring snowstorms.

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