Wednesday, Sept. 17, 1997 | 9:46 a.m.
HENDERSON -- It no doubt went largely unnoticed, but a singular pop culture encounter took place in front of "The Simpsons" house.
Cartoonist Matt Groening came face to face Tuesday with a costumed Lisa Simpson figure taller than he is, and, for a second, it was hard to tell which was more a creation of the show's success.
If not for America's long appetite for the dysfunctional cartoon family, the Lisa costume would be a set of ugly yellow throw pillows somewhere. And Groening might still be the struggling undergroundish cartoonist he was a decade ago when the Simpsons debuted as a series of short cartoons on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show."
Instead, he arrived in Henderson -- surrounded by a junket heap of traveling reporters, photographers, marketers and "Simpsons" staffers -- as the fabulously wealthy creator of a bona fide entertainment franchise, fully accessorized with T-shirts, key chains, books and other objets d'Bart. He signed his name in purple paint on a house modeled after his own cartoon design. He posed with bigger-than-life versions of his own cartoon characters ... all for the sole purpose of flacking a new CD-ROM ("Virtual Springfield") based on his cartoon universe.
"It's a cartoonist's dream come true," he understated.
"Did I ever think it was going to come to this?" he mused at one point, helpfully posing for the massed cameras. "No."
Groening was calm in the eye of the promorazzi storm; he wears his success lightly. Dressed in a loud patterned shirt, shorts and with floor-protective booties stretched over his Etonics sneakers, he took a private tour of the house.
"If you hear screams," he said, pausing at the door with his two young sons, Will and Abe, before going in, "they'll be screams of delight." His tour came a few days after the house was closed to public view; more than 33,000 people slogged through between Aug. 13 and Sunday. Located in Kaufman & Broad's South Valley Ranch subdivision, the $120,000 home will be given away during "The Simpsons" season premiere Sunday.
As several busloads of media, marketers and Fox Network people milled outside, Groening was enchanted with the surreal interior of the house. In Lisa's Room, he removed one of her outfits from the closet and said, "The guy who drew this obviously didn't know how to draw girls' dresses."
In Bart's Room, hoisting a pair of Bart's undies, he was overheard saying, "I think these are Krusty's, if you know what I mean." Although the house's designers watched umpteen episodes of "The Simpsons" to get everything just so, apparently not everything was: 8-year-old Will kept pointing out inconsistencies between house and show.
Fortunately, the cartoonist was nowhere in sight when an awful truth was revealed in the front yard: Homer was a woman!
"Say 'Doh!"' the blobby Homer Simpson character was urged. "Doh!" it squeaked in a voice several octaves too high. Later, the Homer figure answered to "Ruth."
So much for our cherished illusions.
Emerging from the house, Groening announced, "I take full credit for this. It's a bizarre, weird moment.
"It's based on a Frank Lloyd Wright design, isn't it?" Picking up comedy steam, he pointed at the very normal house going up across the street and said, "This is your house ... and this (pointing at "The Simpsons" home) is your house on drugs!"
After some photo ops with people in suits who gave him framed documents -- "blah blah blah proclamation blah blah" -- Groening spray painted Bart on the side of the garage, bearing the slogan, El Barto was here. "I will be the first person to vandalize the Simpsons house," he said grandly.
It was a futile gesture, though, good only for fleeting CD-promotion purposes. It will be painted over when the contest winner assumes the house in March. However, the Homer head Groening etched in wet cement near the front door is permanent.
Time for another round of photos. "Matt, Matt," one of his handlers shouted over the hubbub, pointing at his chest. Groening glanced down at the large "Simpsons" press tag hanging around his neck. He turned it over to display a bright ad for "Virtual Springfield." OK, now shoot.
Afterward, as the out-of-town media lined up to tour the house, Groening warned them, "Don't use the bathroom for a few minutes!" Meanwhile, one reporter was giving free rein to his investigative instincts. "What I want to know," he said, "is Marge really a man?"