Dr. Bronner speaks! North County’s late, eccentric soap maker returns on new LP
Michael Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s All-One!, talks about his grandfather’s Moral ABC’s and the origin of the North County soap company.
Labeled with squint-inducing type that spells out an eccentric gospel — “ALL-ONE!” — the blue and white bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps have always been works of visual art.
Now, the Vista company is venturing the realm of audio art.
“Sisters & Brothers” is a new vinyl LP culled from decades of recordings made by the company’s founder. Although the man died almost 20 years ago, this is pure, uncut Emanuel Bronner, in his own words, in his own voice.
“This is Emanuel Bronner’s project,” said Darwin Westich, who listened to more than 100 hours of Bronner’s recordings while editing this LP. “There were days when I wondered, ‘What is Emanuel trying to tell me today?’”
Wednesday’s release party at Little Italy’s Music Box is a fundraiser, a concert and the latest chapter in one of San Diego County’s oddest epics.
Emanuel H. Bronner (1908-1997) was a self-styled doctor, negligent father and erratic businessman. In the 1940s, he endured a brief stint in an insane asylum.
He was also a newer-than-New Age visionary, an early advocate of organic products whose dense and sometimes baffling gospel of Judeo-Christian-humanist ideals has endured.
“For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE!” thunders a key passage from Bronner’s Moral ABCs. “ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE! ALL-ONE!”
Whether read or heard, Bronner’s impassioned words can be hard to follow. Yet scholars who have absorbed his complete testament say it is a unique synthesis of age-old wisdom.
“It’s eclectic and he’s borrowing from various things,” said Roger Chapman, a history professor at Florida’s Palm Beach Atlantic University. “I think it’s perfect for the post-modern period we are living in.”
And perfect, some believe, for an LP.
“This project turned out to be a lot bigger than we thought it would be,” said Michael Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner’s All-One!, the Vista company his grandfather founded.
“This is timeless.”
As a boy, Michael was curious about his family’s past. His grandfather wasn’t much help.
“What did you eat in Germany, grandpa?” Michael remembers asking.
“That is not important!” the elder Bronner replied. “What is important is saving Spaceship Earth!”
As men, Michael and older brother David have filled in some gaps in the family tree. The Heilbronners, it seems, were a German family who entered the soap trade in the mid-19th century.
A third-generation soap maker, Emanuel emigrated to the U.S. in 1929. Tragically, the rest of his family did not follow. In the 1940s, the Nazis seized his family’s company and murdered his parents.
In the U.S., Heilbronner shortened his name to Bronner and adopted the honorific “Dr.” Entrusting his children to a rotating cast of friends and relatives, he embarked on a career as an itinerant speaker. In parks and street corners, his thickly accented voice advocated eternal brotherhood and sisterhood.
An unauthorized lecture at the University of Chicago led to Bronner being locked up in an Illinois asylum. Family lore maintains he escaped, thumbed his way to Las Vegas, then used $400 in roulette winnings to resettle in Los Angeles.
For living expenses, he revived the family trade, selling bars of soap wrapped in emphatic, staccato messages of universal love.
“WE’RE ALL ONE OR NONE!” a representative line reads. “EXCEPTIONS ETERNALLY? NONE!!”
Founded in Los Angeles, the company then known as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps moved to Escondido in the late 1960s. In 2014, the headquarters shifted to Vista.
Bronner anticipated the green movement by decades, insisting on pure ingredients. Yet he was always more interested in the label than the product, and a brush with the Internal Revenue Service pushed the company toward bankruptcy. Bronner’s adult sons, Jim and Ralph, stepped in and set things right.
Today, led by grandsons Michael and David, Dr. Bronner’s All-One! employs 150 people and reports annual revenues of more than $95 million.
When Ralph Bronner died in February 2015, his possessions included more than 400 reels of recordings. Dating back to at least 1968, these contain at least 200 hours of monologues — and occasional literary interpretations — from Emanuel Bronner.
Although self conscious and shy in front of a tape recorder, Bronner was determined to pass along his Moral ABCs. He honed this philosophy for years. His sense of urgency intensified after he began to lose his sight around 1978.
“He was always looking for the right words,” Michael Bronner said, “the right grammar.”
The record contains relatively brief pronouncements — a minute or two, sometimes less — delivered in a rapid-fire cadence. Between some segments are snippets of music, most lifted from Johann Strauss waltzes.
“He was totally making a mix tape,” said Westich, who spent months editing the LP.
Potential liability entanglements led him to eliminate one notable segment: Bronner’s detailed description of how his soap can be employed as a birth control method.
Different concerns surrounded another arresting clip. Bronner loved Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem “If—,” but the version he recorded during a 1982 trip to New Orleans is unusual for two reasons.
1. He Bronner-izes the British laureate, including the poet’s conclusion:
“& which is more, my son, you’ll be a man! A MAN! A MAN!”
2. Bronner riffs on Kipling are set to background music from Tom Sanders, a street musician playing dulcimer.
Westich needed the performer’s permission to reproduce the music, but he had no address, no phone number.
On Youtube, Westich found old videos of Sanders performing on the Big Easy’s Jackson Square. From Vista, Westich called shops that ring that landmark square, asking if anyone knew Sanders.
The first call was a dud. And the second.
The third: “I know Tom! He’s still around.”
Westich flew east and, sample bottles of Dr. Bronner’s soaps stashed in his backpack, found Sanders and gained his permission.
“If—,” revised by Dr. Bronner and accompanied by Tom Sanders, is one of the highlights on “Sisters & Brothers.” The LP will sell for $20, with proceeds benefiting Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit that provides music lessons and instruments to prisoners.
Bronner’s Moral ABCs don’t mention prisoners or guitars. But passages in this unique prophet’s work seem to support this cause — and others.
“… we must teach friend & enemy, the whole Human race...”
That’s on Side One.
“Sisters & Brothers” release party, Wednesday at the Music Box, 1337 India St., San Diego. VIP pre-party, 6:30 to 8 p.m., $50; general admission, 8 p.m. to midnight, $15. Tickets and information: https://fgtix.to/2j4dsDF
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