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A Bear of Very Little Shame

Imaginary Bear is seated on a window table at the newly revamped Bright Spot coffee shop in Echo Park. The bear, who claims to have helped design Stonehenge, palled around with Sid Vicious, modeled for Picasso and jammed with Charlie Parker — he gives his age as “infinity minus a day” — appears well, despite a broken nose and a few dirty patches in his dulling pink fur.

“Now look, I’m very busy. So, if you wanna talk you better take advantage of my time . . . he he he . . .” says Imaginary Bear, who has been called everything from “a genius” to “a violent Jewish stuffed animal.”

Imaginary Bear, you have your hands in a lot of pots.

“I have my hands in a lot of pots, in a lot of pans, a lot of bowls, some very small jars and even some teaspoons,” he says, looking out toward the rainy afternoon sky, undoubtedly searching for a rainbow.

“I.B.,” as his friends call him, is accompanied today by a small entourage, including longtime friend, manager and puppeteer Tanya Haden. Haden, who graduated from CalArts with a degree in animation, is one of jazz bassist Charlie Haden’s three daughters and will be, along with her band the Haden Triplets, doing a monthlong residency at Tangiers in Los Feliz this April.

Maybe we should start from the beginning. Okay, so you’re a bear?

“Hello??? Somebody hasn’t had her coffee this morning. Yes, I’m a bear. I’m a small bear and I’m pink and I have a big plastic nose with a game inside . . . it’s broken, see?” I.B. shakes his body in order to make the even smaller plastic bear and hoops that float in his water-filled nose move about. His broken nose is a result, I.B. says in a very forgiving tone, of his “very good friend” Tom Grimley throwing him across the room.

As a monologist-humorist, I.B. has shared the stage with Beck, the Foo Fighters and That Dog, the now-defunct pop-punk band in part formed by Haden’s two sisters, Rachel and Petra. As a political activist, he claims to have been involved with the ’60s “under-underground” revolutionary group SAFN (Stuffed Animals for Nonviolence), and in the ’70s he says his work with Ralph Nader found him chained to nuclear missiles. In the lean years, he worked the cruise ships as a tap dancer.

Like other comedic forces of nature — Lewis, Belushi, Fisher et al. — the Zelig absurdist, who has also been called “Hello Kitty’s acid fantasy,” is fond of saying he has been “to hell and back.”

“Let’s just say I’ve woken up in public bathrooms in airports and the floor was wet,” says I.B. matter-of-factly.

I.B. is also willing to talk freely about the controversy that has followed him to the online community Friendster. He uses the forum to communicate with fans who write for advice and to post his daily inspirational musings, which quote anyone from Rumi to Lenny Bruce. Humming along to the jazz playing in the coffee shop, I.B. seems relatively unfazed by the recent attacks on his character on Friendster. Instead, he’s more concerned with his recent work with the Slide Maker’s Union and its quest to get more slides onto playgrounds, the upcoming Razzleberry Sparkle Pie Fest in Imaginaryland, and Nader’s chances of winning the election. But his rivals, a surly character named Reality Bear, who claims to be from Realityland, and the television writer Ali Rushfield (The Stones, Undeclared), are unrelenting. Reality Bear’s accusations are primarily philosophical — I.B. writes off R.B. as “a schmuck who has never been to Imaginaryland.” But the taunts of Rushfield (a longtime friend) are personal. She has publicly questioned the bear’s sobriety, says I.B. failed to pay back money borrowed during a particularly paranoid response to 9/11, and even went so far as to assert that I.B. is the one who convinced Nader to run this campaign season, simply because “he thinks it’s funny.”

“Let’s just say he is dangerous on so many levels,” says Rushfield via telephone. “I wouldn’t question how high his connections go. He is a tyrannist. He is a Republican. He is the Harvey Weinstein of the bear world. He is abusive. He screams. He throws things. He has no manners.”

I.B., I talked to Ali Rushfield.

“Oh yeah? How is she?”

She says you have a God complex and were the one behind Nader’s decision to run again.

“Oh boy!! Listen, I have had many, many long conversations with Ali about all sorts of things. She is a very intense woman. What I say about God is, ‘It takes one to know one.’ Okay? Now, Ralph Nader is an old friend of mine, and I feel he has a very good chance of winning the election.”

Haden, who has known I.B. since a babysitting client left him at her house some 10 years ago, admits that he does in fact owe people money, but he is eager to work. He’s open to the possibility of a book deal, a cartoon, even a calendar. But she says he is reluctant to get into bed with corporate America, which may have something to do with the fact that he does curiously resemble the Playskool line of toys called Nosey Bears. Of course, any direct connection to Playskool would be hard to confirm, since the printing on his tag has mysteriously faded.

I.B., you have fans in Europe and even Japan. Though despite your rather large following, it seems you have escaped the mainstream.

“Ohhh, the mainstream . . . They are always talking about the mainstream. Listen, my mainstream may be very different from yours. We have a stream in Imaginaryland. And I don’t think I should waste any kind of happiness on a silly stream. I mean, do you have a raft?”

Are you speaking metaphorically?

“No, I am speaking very simplistically. I just don’t like Hollywood and all the mumbo-jumbo that goes along with it. We don’t really speak the same language.”

That said, Petra Haden, Tanya’s sister, was so inspired by I.B. that she named her first solo album Imaginaryland. Songs from the critically acclaimed album were featured in Miguel Arteta’s 2000 film Chuck & Buck, and received independent-radio play.

“He is wise,” says Petra Haden, a few days later, of her muse. “I talk to him all the time, mostly about relationships. I also talk to Quacker, do you know him? I know that I.B. comes from Tanya’s head, but I really feel like he is his own individual spirit, you know?

I.B., tell me what and where is Imaginaryland? Is it in a different dimension?

“You could call it a dimension or a dementia, he he he. You just need to want to go there and you can. You know how to get there.”