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INSIDE STORY

The Sea Monkeys and the White Supremacist

Do Those Little Brine Shrimp Marketed as Kids' Toys Have a Connection to the Aryan Nations?

October 01, 2000|TAMAR BROTT | Los Angeles-based writer Tamar Brott is a contributor to the So SoCal section of the magazine

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.

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