Friday, June 21, 2024

The Evil Behind The Sea Monkeys

Harold von Braunhut – born plain old Harold Nathan Braunhut – was one of the greatest marketing geniuses of his age…possibly of any age. Taking snake oil to brave new pastures, he was the Emperor of Comic Book ads. He created dozens upon dozens of crackpot novelties, available for only a handful of coins. Yet, despite the joy and thrills his inventions promised (and some, occasionally, delivering), he was an incorrigible racist – a White Supremacist whose Jewish roots did nothing to steer him away from The Klan.

Born in 1926 and raised in the heavily Jewish area of Brighton Beach in New York City, Harold was the son of publishing owners and toy manufacturers. His future vocation was pretty much unavoidable. Not much is recorded of his early life – his parents were practising Jews and Harold had his bar mitzvah at the usual age. It seems he changed his name to the more Germanic-sounding ‘von Braunhut’ in the 1950s, the first outward sign of him distancing himself from his past.

Like countless showmen before him, he was an expert dabbler. He raced motorbikes under the moniker ‘The Green Hornet’. He performed as a magician called ‘The Great Telepo’. He managed human marvels such as Henri LeMothe who used to bellyflop from a platform 40 feet in the air into a kiddie pool filled with 15 inches of water. Also under his charge was ‘The Amazing Dunninger‘, famed in the 50s for reading minds over the radio and later for performing astonishing mental feats and tricks on television.

By the time he was making a name for himself as a salesman in the 1960s, few were looking at the man behind some 193 patents for everything from Sea Monkeys, to X-Ray Specs to a spring-loaded whip. When they did, it was too late to prevent him from becoming a multi-millionaire. He had found comic books the perfect place to market his crackpot creations, speaking directly to children and promising them incredible secrets and objets d’étonnant for only the price of their pocket money. It was indeed a stroke of genius, though a necessary one – his attempts to sell his freeze-dried fish to supermarkets had come unstuck when faced with buyers who had been stung by similar quackery in the past.

It wasn’t until many years later that von Braunhut was unmasked as a neo-Nazi. It was a bit of a giveaway when one of his adverts appeared not in a comic but in the newsletter of the Aryan Nations. The Kiyoga, a flip-action self-defence device which could have been popularised by Burt Reynolds in 1981’s ‘Sharkey’s Machine’, had it not died a death at the box office. Regardless, von Braunhut peddled it for a whopping $59.95 (although only a mere $19.95 plus postage in other publications). Moreover, he pledged $25 of each sale to Aryan supporters to go straight to the Aryan Nations’ defence fund.

The Aryans Nations was founded in the 1940s by Richard Butler, and grew quickly to become recognised as one of the US and Canada’s foremost White supremacy groups. Their bastardised interpretation of Christianity held that Jews were directly descended from the Devil, and their enclave in Idaho was typical of a wealthy cult indulging itself in its own madness. Despite an expose of von Braunhut’s Jewishness in The Washington Post – from his upbringing to his Jewish lawyers to his upkeep of his parents’ graves in a Jewish cemetery in perpetuity – Butler kept Harold at close quarters – he may have been a lapsed Jew, but he was also rich.

Von Braunhut was said to have enjoyed the exalted role of lighter of the burning cross at the Aryan Nations’ annual get-togethers and was named in The Washington Post as having promised $12,000 to Grand Dragon Dale R. Reusch of the Ohio chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to purchase 83 firearms. Von Braunhut allegedly wore a collar to Aryan Nations’ meetings as an ordained priest, and presided over the funeral of Butler’s wife. At another meeting, he advocated repeal of the 14th Amendment, which granted Blacks as citizens with equal protection of the laws. He also revelled in the title of leader of the Imperial Order of the Black Eagle, a New York collective which extolled the virtues of a White state and barked wildly about zionist agendas. When he retired to Maryland in his later years, his office was decorated with signed pictures of Goering, Mussolini and four of the Luftwaffe’s ace pilots.

Von Braunhut rarely gave interviews and he refused to offer any meaningful responses to accusations of his involvement in racist organisations. Yet, he was unable to keep the mask on for sustained amounts of time. In an interview with The Seattle Times in 1988, 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.”

One ‘Hendrik von Braun‘, a writer in the Aryan newsletters he used to advertise his wares in, is most likely a not-very-well-disguised Harold. His rhetoric is not for the squeamish, asking readers to “unite against ‘wogs’ and ‘mud people’.” “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.” The LA Times reported von Braunhut as saying, “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy. He just received bad press“.

The gates to the dilapidated von Braunhut estate

Harold died, not before time, in 2003 after a fall. However, the tale does not end there. His second wife, Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut, was the sole heir to his fortune and his intellectual properties. Signorelli came from a wealthy family and appeared in several films in the 1960s, all of which focused rather more on her looks than her acting ability. These included Doris Wishman‘s ‘Too Much Too Often!’ (1968); Malcolm Furri‘s ‘Death of a Nymphette’ (1967) and Joseph Marazano‘s ‘Venus in Furs’ (1967), not to be confused with Massimo Dallamano‘s film from a couple of years later.

Yolanda pleaded ignorance to her late husband’s racist views and remembered only a lively man who was ferociously inventive and loved to entertain. However, after his death, the rights to Sea Monkeys had become blurred, with the Big Time Toy Company earning millions of dollars a year as Yolanda lived alone in a freezing cold mansion wrapped in blankets to keep warm. By all accounts, von Braunhut’s secret formula elevated his Sea Monkeys to oceanic echelons several leagues above Big Time’s, whose ‘Made in China’ declaration on their boxes made it clear that efficiency came ahead of life-forming magic. The battle for ownership is ongoing, the royal family beneath the waves is as beguiling as ever.

Palace of the Brine

What are Sea Monkeys?

For those expecting a shock reveal, they are only brine shrimp (Lat: Artemia salina), first recorded in Iran in the 10th Century as ‘aquatic dog’, an uncanny foresight into their future marketing. Whilst certainly odd-looking creatures, both monkeys and dogs are not the immediate comparisons which spring to mind. With endearingly alien bug eyes on the sides of their heads, they have a cartoony appearance, and with the addition of strange, feathery appendages along their body and a long, flexible tail, they do have an oddly cute appearance. However, it is their egg form which has led to their superstar lives on land. Brine shrimp eggs or cysts can remain in total stasis for two years while in dry oxygen-free conditions, even at temperatures below freezing, with some able to survive even longer and in boiling temperatures too. It was this state of cryptobiosis which intrigued von Braunhut.

Von Braunhut worked alongside biologist Anthony D’Agostino to develop a dry formula which could be added to tap water to give the dormant eggs everything they needed to hatch and for the shrimp to live for an extended period of time.  The patent was granted in 1972 and still belongs solely to von Braunhut’s estate – it is the key ingredients in this mixture which set apart his Sea Monkeys from other rivals’ efforts. It was actually another company, Wham-O, which beat von Braunhut to the chase.

Wham-O were gigantic – they had marketed both the hula-hoop and the frisbee and so their ‘Instant Fish’ was seen as a slam dunk. With similarly dormant eggs, the idea behind Instant Fish was the same, except that instead of bizarre-looking creatures hatching, you really did get fish – specifically, killifish (Lat: oviparous cyprinodontiform), a very pleasing, cute-looking little fish which from a tiny egg could swim around a bowl almost instantly. Except that they didn’t work. They proved such a complete disaster that they were largely responsible for Sea Monkeys having to be advertised in comics, as stores nationwide weren’t going to be issuing refunds hand over fist again in a hurry. Ironically, in the unlikely event the eggs did hatch, the owner could feed the tiny fish with…brine shrimp.

LeMothe’s original ad

Originally called ‘Instant Life’, a name far too similar to ‘Instant Fish’ to convince either traders or buyers, von Braunhut named his creation, ‘Sea Monkeys’, largely because of their tail. It was the marketing beyond this that made the world fall in love with them. The first Sea Monkey adverts were created by old chum Henri LeMothe, but it was when he employed DC and ‘Creepy’ comics artist, Joe Orlando, Sea Monkeys were given an extraordinary overhaul, appearing in ads as regal humanoids next to their palatial abode beneath the waves. As sales grew, the claims became even wilder – they could obey your silent commands; different backdrops could be purchased for them – these “underwater buffoons” were your new friends.

Joe Orlando’s creation

The genius of von Braunhut is that whilst both children and adults alike could instantly tell upon receipt that the actual Sea Monkeys resembled nothing like the ads promised, they nevertheless were living things and they did look very intriguing. No-one threw them down the sink and no-one asked for a refund. Your cheap purchase didn’t look anything like your metal image but it was a weird creature to nurture and gawp at.

The secret crystals of life are little more than yeast, borax, food colouring and some nutrients – more could be purchased by sending along further postal orders to ensure elderly Sea Monkeys retained their zip. Though 2-3 months lifespan wasn’t unusual, some pets could live as long as 5 years. Their enclosures were as plain or as extravagant as the Sea Monkey parents were willing or able to afford, from fish bowls to deluxe penthouses with buildings, plantlife and branded bases. Big Time continues to develop this folly, with Sea Medic” Sea-Monkey Medicine, “Cupids Arrow” Mating Powder and the Sea-Monkey “Aqua-Leash,”  even urging its new Sea-Monkey owners to earn a DLD degree (Doctor of Denizens of the Deep) by writing directly to the Crustacean College of Sea-Monkey Knowledge.

Daz Lawrence 

Buy a family today! 

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