Down the Rabbit Hole: The Universal Appeal of ‘Alice in Wonderland’

In Austin, “Alice” fans are throwing a real-life Mad Hatter’s tea party.

By Laura RiceFebruary 24, 2015 9:04 am

Follow me down the rabbit hole for a minute … as I tell you a story about a young woman named Alice and her adventures in Wonderland.

You’re probably familiar with this story because it’s been around a while – exactly 150 years. And it’s been re-interpreted and translated many times over, including a 1950s Disney cartoon and a 2010 film starring Johnny Depp.

Guessing someone’s favorite part of the story can be difficult. Maybe it’s the Cheshire Cat? Or the evil Queen of Hearts? Or what happens when Alice tries to get through a door that’s much too small…

“She drinks a bottle of some potion and then she turns small,” five year-old Maggie Brown says.

(Full disclosure, she’s not just any Alice fan. She’s the daughter of Texas Standard’s host and executive producer.)

But asking around, another answer seemed most popular:

“The tea party,” six year-old Kate Lorenz says.

“The part that they’re acting out right now… because the Mad Hatter’s really funny,” seven year-old Liam Harris says.

Lorenz and Harris are dressed up and sitting with their moms at a table in the lounge of Austin’s Four Seasons Hotel. In the center of their table is a tray stacked with three layers of goodies – cupcakes, scones and finger sandwiches in the shape of hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades.

“This is our first Mad Hatter tea party that we have and we’re hosting these in conjunction with the Harry Ransom’s exhibit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,”says Four Seasons director of public relations Kerri Holden. “And as soon as I heard that they were going to be doing that at the Ransom Center, I knew that our afternoon tea was the perfect fit for this.”

It’s a pairing that’s appealing to a surprisingly diverse group.

Natalie Bustamante is at a large round table with more than half a dozen 20 to 30 year-olds.

“Actually this kind of feels like Disney for grown-up women,” Bustamante says.

And for kids too. Remember Liam and Kate? Liam’s mom Jennifer Harris says Alice’s story is not just for girls.

“Oh no, not at all,” Harris says. “He’s a big fan of Alice in Wonderland. He loved the book and the Disney movie and really enjoyed the exhibit a lot. He got a lot out of it and I think it’s even something we’ll go back to again before it closes.”

Those words are music to Danielle Sigler’s ears. She put together the exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center. The center owns the collection of more than 200 pieces of art, photography, rare books and more. And the exhibit explores the story’s near universal appeal.

Sigler says she learned a lot about that appeal in the two-year process or curating the exhibit.

“She’s a young person on this kind of crazy adventure, encountering all sorts of people. Questioning herself, questioning what she’s learned, questioning the world around her and I think that’s something everyone can relate to,” Sigler says.

And be inspired by. The exhibit begins with the inspiration for the story by author Lewis Carroll: various photographs of the real Alice – Alice Liddell. Around each corner is another facet of the Alice story – film adaptations, theatre costumes and volumes and volumes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from around the world – including one illustrated by Salvador Dalí.

“I think it’s a story that’s open to an infinite number of interpretations” Sigler says. “It’s specific enough and compelling enough to be really appealing but the descriptions are broad enough to make space for a lot of creative work to come in and fill those gaps.”

Back at the tea party, the interest is clear. The remaining five scheduled weekends are completely booked. But there’s still plenty of time to see the Harry Ransom Center exhibit.

The exhibit is up through July 6 – and it’s free.