APART FROM THE FACT THAT THEY CAN HATCH WITHIN MINUTES AFTER contact with water, brine shrimp are unappealing creatures. They're ant-sized and translucent and bear a striking resemblance to sperm. Yet brine shrimp packaged as "Sea Monkeys" are currently sold as children's companions, and portrayed on their boxes as pink, pear-shaped simian creatures with spindly legs, paunches and coy smiles. They are one of the most impressive achievements in the annals of marketing.
Harold von Braunhut, a former manager of novelty acts, first packaged his patented hybrids in 1960, transforming the Sea Monkeys into American icons via millions of comic book ads. Von Braunhut also wrote the 32-page handbook that is included in most Sea Monkey kits to this day, which states that the creatures can be hypnotized, play baseball and rise from the dead. The tone of the handbook is florid and huckstery: "It seems that at mating time in the Animal Kingdom, the males engage in combat to win the fin, paw, flipper, hoof, wing or what-have-you, of their 'lady love.' "
In 1999, the Sea Monkeys were in line for an overhaul: The freeze-dried creatures were, and still are, licensed to Educational Insights Inc., a Carson-based company whose ExploraToy division handles production development and sales of the Sea Monkeys. According to then-art director Gregory Bevington, the classic '70s naked monkeys lounging on a seaweed bank in front of a castle are too "lame" for today's children. Hoping that a new look and some razzle-dazzle would parlay Sea Monkeys from an undisclosed-but-"significant" portion of their $40 million in annual sales to a $25-million-a-year line, Educational Insights brought in Alan Fine, who spent the majority of his adult life in Mattel's marketing department.
"I have a lot of background on what is attractive to kids, what works and what doesn't work," said Fine, who is no longer with the company. Before leaving in August, Fine helped wage a multimillion-dollar media blitz in honor of the Sea Monkeys' 40th anniversary. Five new products were being unveiled, including a Sea Monkeys speedway and an LCD watch that houses up to two Sea Monkeys for up to 24 hours. But the linchpin of Fine's campaign was a brand new television commercial featuring greatly altered Sea Monkeys, which has yet to air.
Months before I saw this commercial, I drove down to Educational Insights, hoping to see the new Sea Monkeys. Having hatched more than my share as a child, I was curious about the kind of concessions needed to entice the Game Boy-loving children of today. I had no idea this would turn into a story about a white supremacist inventor and the nice men who were marketing his invention to children.
ANTICIPATING MY ARRIVAL, BEVINGTON SET UP A PICTORIAL history of Sea Monkey packages on a conference-room table at ExploraToy. On one side were classic ads featuring the nuclear Sea Monkey family, virtually unchanged since the '70s. "There's a dad, the mom and a couple kids," Bevington explained in a droll voice. "The mom has a little flip hairdo, and, basically, they look like naked people with webbed tails and feet and hands and three prongs sticking out of their heads. They have potbellies and skinny arms and legs so they're not really physically fit."
On the other side of the table, Bevington arranged artists' submissions for the updated Sea Monkeys. A radical departure from their sweet, potbellied predecessors, the new models had enormous torsos and tree-trunk legs. Some wore scaly breast plates; others sported capes. "If we really want them to appeal to kids of today, they need to look like superheroes or action figures," Bevington said.
Any decision regarding the appearance of the Sea Monkeys must be vetted by Harold von Braunhut. The 75-year-old inventor currently lives on a nature preserve in Bryans Road, Md., and drives a red Corvette. "Harold," as he is known at Educational Insights, is notoriously protective of his patented Sea Monkeys. ExploraToy Vice President George C. Atamian says Von Braunhut once refused to do business with a company desiring to make Sea Monkey refrigerator magnets after he discovered risque magnets in its catalog.
Atamian, a round-faced scientist, met Von Braunhut via phone in 1990, when he called to congratulate Atamian on an underwater microscope he'd invented. A few days later, some Sea Monkeys arrived in the mail. Atamian didn't know what they were. "When people were reading comic books, I was in the Marine Corps," he says. When he opened the boxes, he thought they were junk. But Atamian eventually came around, and in 1995, he brought Von Braunhut to ExploraToy.
The two men talk Sea Monkeys "every day, every night and every weekend," and Atamian has become a great receptacle of Von Braunhut lore, which he imparts at lightning speed. "As far as I'm concerned, he's an absolute legend. He's got 193 patents and he invented X-Ray Spex [another huge success, advertised in the back pages of comic books], which is a phenomenal thing. He's a master of marketing and a great word crafter and he's done all kinds of strange stuff. He used to race cars and motorcycles. And he used to manage a mentalist called the Great Dunninger, who he says put Uri Geller and all the other mentalists to shame."
But Atamian says it is Von Braunhut's scientific achievement that impresses him most of all. "Sea Monkeys, as you know, are hybrid brine shrimp eggs that are immersed in a medium that nobody's been able to knock off," he says. The Sea Monkey eggs remain in a sort of suspended animation until they are poured into water that's been mixed with this top-secret formula, whereupon they hatch. "There's something in the powder [Harold] formulates that does something to those eggs that nature can't do," Atamian says. Von Braunhut and his wife, Yolanda, are said to be the only two people who know the formula, with which Von Braunhut is constantly tinkering. "It used to be [that] only one Sea Monkey lived and that [same] one died. Now the formulation of the chemistry, the vigor of the Sea Monkeys themselves, is better than ever," rhapsodizes Atamian.
I ask Atamian for Von Braunhut's unlisted number. Atamian says he would prefer that I not speak to Harold. Each time I ask, Atamian puts me off with a series of excuses, ranging from Von Braunhut's reclusiveness to his poor health--a few years ago Harold fell off a balcony, then his "gallbladder exploded." Atamian also mentions that whenever Von Braunhut gives interviews, there's "fallout." Curious as to what this "fallout" could be, I do a database search on Harold von Braunhut.
AMONG VON BRAUNHUT'S MANY INVENTIONS, WHICH RANGE FROM bulletproof garb to an insect observation kit, is a pen-sized weapon called the Kiyoga Agent M5, which telescopes into a metal whip at a flick of the wrist. The M5 caused an uproar in 1988 after it was revealed, in a fund-raising letter for the Aryan Nations, that a portion of the sales proceeds was going to Richard Butler, founder and leader of the organization. (This is the same Richard Butler who, along with the Aryan Nations, was recently found negligent and ordered to pay $5.1 million after two security guards assaulted a mother and son outside the Nations compound in Idaho in 1998.) Butler was on trial for sedition and needed help with his legal bills. Shortly after the M5 story broke, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article about Von Braunhut, revealing his involvement with "some of the most extreme racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country." The article quoted an official with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith as saying: "He has a reputation of being a generous contributor." Von Braunhut has vehemently denied the accusations in various news reports. Yet in a 1988 interview with the Seattle Times, he referred to the "inscrutable, slanty Korean eyes" of Korean shop owners and was quoted as saying, "You know what side I'm on. I don't make any bones about it."
At my request, the ADL, which has tracked Von Braunhut for years, sends me a rather hefty package. In it is a picture of the inventor, who resembles Lenny Bruce, posing in a priest's collar in front of a Nazi flag. News clippings track his frequent attendance at the Aryan Nations Congresses held every July in Hayden Lake, Idaho, where he appeared as recently as 1995--sometimes as a featured speaker, sometimes as the lighter of the burning cross. And there are newsletters from an organization called the National Anti-Zionist Institute, headed by "Hendrik von Braun," whose return address, P.O. Box 809, Bryans Road, Md., is the same place one sends away for Sea Monkey paraphernalia such as baseball kits.
Floyd Cochran, spokesman for the Aryan Nations until 1992 and a reformed racist, recalls Von Braunhut as a slight, balding man with "a rather large nose for a person of the Aryan Nations." He says Von Braunhut was something of a misfit. "He'd give long speeches about numerology and he'd make references to the pyramids," Cochran says. "It just didn't play very well."
If Von Braunhut is underwhelming in public, the Anti-Zionist newsletters written by Hendrik von Braun are quite lively. "In the world of jewels and precious metals, only that which is pure, rare and unalloyed is of the highest value," begins a newsletter dated 1993. For a full two pages, readers are urged to unite against "wogs" and "mud people," even if it means giving up their own lives. "No one (except for Jesus Christ Himself) has ever managed to live forever," Von Braun writes. "Even if you could, what a bore it would be to hang around for a few hundred years, not doing much of anything except watching the niggers make basketballs and sneakers out of Jew skins."
As it turns out, Von Braunhut is Jewish. According to the 1988 Washington Post article, he was born to Jeannette Cohen and Edward Braunhut in New York City on March 31, 1926, as Harold Nathan Braunhut. A cousin was quoted in the Post as saying he "probably" attended Von Braunhut's bar mitzvah. Gail Gans, director of the Civil Rights Information Center of the ADL, says Von Braunhut may have been allowed to remain in the Aryan Nations even after the startling revelation partly because he is wealthy. "If he'd been a practicing Jew or they thought he was informing, then surely he'd have been kicked out," she says--and Cochran, who lectures for the ADL, concurs. He says rumors about Von Braunhut's ethnicity had been circulating for years and that members of the Aryan Nations were "disappointed" when the Post article appeared with its reference to a bar mitzvah, but that Richard Butler liked Von Braunhut's money. Cochran does not know the extent of Von Braunhut's contributions to the Aryan Nations, but says the organization called upon him often.
When the Von Braunhut headlines appeared in 1988, New Jersey-based Larami Limited held the Sea Monkeys license. Atamian says Von Braunhut took the company's license away because Larami had neglected Sea Monkeys after the enormous success of their Super Soaker water gun. But Al Davis, executive vice president of Larami, tells a different story. He says that he received a flurry of phone calls from retailers, wholesalers and distributors concerned that Sea Monkey dollars were going to unsavory places. "When I called Harold on this," Davis says, "he said something to me I find hard to believe to this day. 'Al,' he said. 'Hitler wasn't a bad guy. He just received bad press.' "
In 1994, Von Braunhut found another licensee, Basic Fun, a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in novelty key chains, to market Sea Monkeys. Alan Dorfman, president of Basic Fun, says Von Braunhut assured him that the allegations were false and that the bad press had been generated by an enemy with whom he was involved in a property dispute. But less than a year later, Dorfman, who is Jewish, severed his relationship with Von Braunhut after the New York Times identified Von Braunhut as a featured speaker at the July 1995 Aryan Nations Congress. It was there that Butler called Jews "the bacillus of the decomposition of our society."
While Basic Fun was in the process of severing its contract, Dorfman says he was approached by Educational Insights, which wanted to take over the Sea Monkeys license. Dorfman says that the company, whose founder and chairman, Burt Cutler, is Jewish, was aware of Von Braunhut's past. "We knew through the turn and content of the conversation that they knew what they were getting into," Dorfman says. "We wished them luck and that was the extent of it."
NINE MONTHS AFTER MY FIRST visit to ExploraToy, I drive to Carson again, this time to view the new TV commercial featuring the revamped Sea Monkeys--which are no longer naked. "Having been involved in the marketing to kids," Fine said in one of our initial interviews, "you don't want to introduce that as an area of controversy."
The specter of Sea Monkey dollars funding hate groups seems to be less controversial. When I broach the topic with Fine and Atamian, Atamian confirms that all of the higher-ups at Educational Insights know about Von Braunhut's past. He says that everyone in the toy industry knows about him, that people had sent them the articles, but that the Sea Monkeys shouldn't be tainted by their inventor. "Is this any different than the U.S. government having normal relations with Germany three, four, five, six years after World War II?" Atamian asks. "We're doing business with him on a business basis with a wonderful product called Sea Monkeys, and we don't see where it's relevant. I've never seen evidence of his alleged past behavior."
Says Fine: "This has absolutely nothing to do with Harold as a person. It's more to do with who Sea Monkeys are and what they can mean in terms of fun and fantasy for kids and adults of all ages."
Cutler agrees. "Do you listen to Wagner? The Israelis wouldn't listen to his music for all those years. But now they do."
Prior to signing their contract, Atamian says he warned Von Braunhut that he'd heard the allegations, and that if Educational Insights saw any evidence that they were true, Atamian would sever the deal. But Atamian never asked if the allegations were true. It seems no one at Educational Insights has ever confronted Von Braunhut about his past--not even to inquire about the possibility of Sea Monkey profits going to white-supremacist hate groups. "I certainly don't want to confront him with something like that," says Fine.
I leave Atamian and Fine with copies of the National Anti-Zionist newsletter, and they promise to confront Von Braunhut once and for all and ask if he's funneling money to hate groups. Then they'll get back to me. In the meantime, I track down Von Braunhut's number and call him myself.
Harold von Braunhut is almost deaf, but loquacious, and his voice is high-pitched. He says he knows nothing about ExploraToy's desire to clothe Sea Monkeys, and as far as he knows, they will remain naked until "fish wear pants." Then he launches into a story about the Wham-O Instant Fish debacle of the early 1960s, a seminal event in the marketing of Sea Monkeys. "Wham-O was flying higher than a kite with the Superball and the Hula Hoop, and they took a risk on an instant fish. But the fish didn't work. The buyer at Sears, Roebuck almost got fired because of it. So when I took my Sea Monkeys around after that, you'd think another Ice Age had happened. The doors that weren't open to begin with slammed shut in my face. So I went to comic books. I did 303 million pages of advertising per year."
When I ask Harold about his past, he becomes furious. He tells me the news reports are lies. He doesn't take the opportunity to set the record straight, though. "I don't have to defend myself to you or anyone else. I'm hanging up."
A few days later, Atamian calls to say he has good news. He's faxed Von Braunhut a copy of the Anti-Zionist newsletter written by Hendrik von Braun, and Von Braunhut has faxed him a note categorically denying that he'd written it or that he is involved in any such groups. I ask Atamian if he believes Von Braunhut. "All I know is I have to believe him," Atamian tells me. "Or else how could I live with myself?" He promises to fax me a copy of Von Braunhut's letter when he can. "The fax machine's out of paper now," he says.
The fax never comes. Later that day, Fine calls. When we had parted a few days earlier, he'd seemed rattled. As a Jew, Fine had said, he would have to walk away from Sea Monkeys if it turned out monies were being diverted to anti-Semitic causes. But he's extremely relieved when he calls, telling me that Harold has enemies who wish to see him caught in a vice.
"Then you believe him?" I ask. Fine pauses a moment. "There's one thing that makes me feel he didn't," he says. "Harold's a great writer. I mean he's very articulate and he prides himself on writing great copy. And that thing you sent me--it's really poorly written."
IN DECEMBER 1995, ONE MONTH AFTER SIGNING ON WITH Educational Insights, Von Braunhut officiated at the funeral of Betty Butler, Richard Butler's wife. Since then, Harold von Braunhut hasn't been seen by either the Anti-Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center, both of which have tracked him for years. "Once you get past a certain age," Floyd Cochran says, "running around the bushes playing paramilitary games doesn't happen. That's true of a lot of things in life."
And if Sea Monkey dollars have been going to hate groups? Cutler says he'll increase his donations to Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "I'm a major contributor to the center," he adds.
If Von Braunhut's past isn't relevant to Sea Monkey sales, ExploraToy's new TV commercial certainly may be. In it, the Sea Monkeys are dressed like rock stars and sing songs that Von Braunhut clearly did not write.
"Pour us into water," they wail. "You won't believe your eyes. We eat. We grow. We race. We're into outer space. We're wet and we're wild. 'Cause you make us come alive." The new Sea Monkey lyrics and attire are startling, but the unexpected cutaways to live brine shrimp are even more so. They're hideous creatures. Magnified thousands of times, they look like blind white centipedes, and each time they fill the screen, it is a new decimation of fancy, an annihilation of 40 years of Harold's own brand of huckstery Americana. Educational Insights has returned to the Sea Monkeys' retro-'70s image for packaging. Harold's vision is intact, at least for now.