Harold von Braunhut, the creator of Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Spex and other quirky novelties marketed to children via advertisements in comic books, has died. He was 77.
Von Braunhut, whose reported involvement with white supremacist groups in recent years tarnished his reputation as a noted contributor to pop culture, died of unknown causes Nov. 28 at his home in Indian Head, Md., after a fall.
The holder of 195 patents, Von Braunhut had an uncanny flair for dreaming up inexpensive products aimed at the youth market. And the former manager of novelty acts was a master of advertising hyperbole.
He was the man behind Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters -- cards depicting monsters whose bald heads grew “hair” when water was added -- and Invisible Goldfish, which came with a glass bowl, invisible goldfish food and a guarantee that their owners would never see them.
Von Braunhut also marketed Crazy Crabs (pet hermit crabs) and the “blushingly funny” X-Ray Spex, which were said to enable the wearer to “see through skin! See though clothing!”
But his best-known creation was Amazing Live Sea Monkeys, which he billed as “a true Miracle of nature.”
Who could resist the “World’s Only Living, Breathing Instant Pets”?
Illustrations depicted the Sea Monkeys as grinning creatures wearing crowns and bathing suits and happily swimming next to an undersea castle.
But what arrived in the mail were actually hybrid brine shrimp eggs that came to life when immersed in water.
Included were a “Deluxe Micro-View Ocean Zoo” plastic aquarium, “Banana Treat,” a supply of “ ‘dessert’ for our aquatic pals” and “Cupid’s Arrow,” a “mating powder” for “shy Sea Monkeys afraid of ‘marriage.’ ”
For those tiny, translucent “instant pets” that got sick, there was even “Sea Monkey Medicine,” which was “almost as good as having a team of Sea Monkey doctors standing by in the E.R.”
The “instant pet” idea is said to have come to Von Braunhut in 1957 when he saw a bucket of brine shrimp being sold as fish food in a pet store.
“I was always interested in wildlife, and I was looking for something that would interest other people in it,” he told the Baltimore Sun in 1997.
The Sea Monkey eggs reportedly remain in a sort of suspended animation until they are placed in water that has been mixed with a secret formula devised by Von Braunhut that causes them to hatch.
Introduced in 1960 as “Instant-Life,” Von Braunhut’s hybrid brine shrimp eggs failed to catch on. But sales soared after they were re-christened Sea Monkeys in 1962.
Although his products are now sold in stores worldwide, Von Braunhut originally turned to comic-book ads after chain stores passed on selling his creation.
“I got kicked out; they told me I was crazy,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “I was so crazy, I established a national icon.”
Indeed, he sparked a craze that continues to this day.
Billions of Sea Monkeys have been sold, and 400 million accompanied John Glenn into space in 1998. They also spawned a children’s Sea Monkeys TV show that ran on CBS for two years in the early 1990s, and there are websites for Sea Monkeys fans and a Sea Monkeys video game in which players care for a “virtual” Sea Monkeys colony.
Von Braunhut had an ideal background for a man known for his whimsical mail-order creations. In his early years, he raced motorcycles as the Green Hornet and managed novelty acts, including a stunt diver known for diving 40 feet into a kiddie pool filled with only 12 inches of water.
But in 1988, the Washington Post revealed there was more to the inventor of Sea Monkeys than previously reported: According to the Post, Von Braunhut was an active supporter of the Aryan Nations, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist group.
The Post reported that he had pledged part of the proceeds of one of his inventions -- a spring-loaded, whip-like self-defense weapon known as Kiyoga Agent M5 -- to the legal defense of Aryan Nations leader Richard G. Butler, who was later acquitted of sedition charges.
Irwin Suall, the fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, told the Post that they had “long been monitoring Harold von Braunhut. He’s linked to some of the most extreme racist and anti-Semitic organizations in the country.”
The Post also revealed that, according to relatives and other sources, Von Braunhut had been born a Jew.
Von Braunhut told the Post he and his family had moved to New York City from Memphis in 1931. Citing family members and Suall, however, the newspaper said that Von Braunhut had been born Harold Nathan Braunhut in Manhattan in 1926.
Questioned about his Jewish background and other activities by the Post, Von Braunhut refused to “make any statements whatsoever.”
A Times article on Von Braunhut in 2000, in which he labeled news reports about his activities “lies,” reported that two previous Sea Monkeys license holders had severed their relationships with Von Braunhut because of his reported ties to racist and anti-Semitic groups.
Education Insights of Rancho Dominguez, Calif., is the current Sea Monkeys license holder. George C. Atamian, president of the company’s Sea Monkeys division, was not available for comment Friday.
But Atamian told The Times in 2000 that he and other company officials were aware of Von Braunhut’s alleged past but that Sea Monkeys shouldn’t be tainted by their inventor.
He also said Von Braunhut had faxed him a note in which he denied that he had written an anti-Zionist newsletter that Atamian had faxed to him or that he was involved in any such group.
In the mid-1980s, Von Braunhut moved from New York City to Maryland, where he established a nature preserve.
He is survived by his second wife, Yolanda; a son, Jonathan; a daughter, Jeanette LaMothe; and a brother, Gene.