It seemed like a good old all-American craze — until the nasty truth emerged about the man who concocted it.
Nobody ever doubted that Harold von Braunhut was one twisted dude. What else can you say about a man who transformed a dinky, transparent species of crustacean into "Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys," peddling billions of the creatures under fantastically false pretenses? A man whose 194 other patents included those other unforgettable staples of comic-book advertising, Invisible Goldfish and X-Ray Spex?
Twisted von Braunhut surely was, but if you asked the legions of baby boomers who mail-ordered his packages of amusing disappointments in the 1960s and '70s, it definitely seemed like the good kind of twisted.
So what if Sea-Monkeys did not actually spring to life sporting broad grins, spiky tiaras and perky hairdos? So what if the sperm-like creatures could not truly be hypnotized, play baseball, or rise from the dead?
Everybody past the age of 6 knew Sea-Monkeys were little more than an elaborate hoax, but von Braunhut's witty packaging ensured that everybody still loved them — enough to certify him as a beloved king of American kitsch.
But then von Braunhut, who died recently at age 77, cooked up a drastically different toy — the Kiyoga Agent M5. A pen-sized, coil-springed weapon that unfurled a metal whip at the flick of a wrist, the Kiyoga took off (well, sort of) after Burt Reynolds used it in his 1981 big-budget stinker, "Sharkey's Machine." With typically shameless panache, von Braunhut peddled the Kiyoga for $59.95, calling it the ideal weapon "if you need a gun but can't get a license."
But in the late 1980s, the Kiyoga snapped back at its inventor. Richard Butler, head of the Aryan Nations — then the nation's most dangerous white supremacist group — enclosed a Kiyoga brochure in a fundraising letter while, Butler, who was facing sedition charges in federal court, told his fellow Aryans the "manufacturer has made a pledge of $25 to my defense fund for each one sold to Aryan Nations supporters."
It didn't take long for reporters to pick up the scent of a scandal: Could American children's favorite huckster actually be funding the country's vilest hate-mongers?
Yes, indeed. Butler soon confirmed to the (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review that von Braunhut was an old pal and "member of the Aryan race who has supported us quite a few years."
The Washington Post put any lingering questions to rest with a story that made it clear von Braunhut's racist ties ran considerably deeper than your average Sea Monkey aquarium. He'd helped buy firearms for a Ku Klux Klan faction in Ohio. He was a regular at the annual Aryan Nations World Congress, where he sometimes had the honor of lighting the cross. He even distributed his own anti-Zionist newsletter.
A former business associate said that von Braunhut had once told him, "Hitler wasn't a bad guy. He just received bad press."
While thousands of Americans were taking a skeptical second look at their Sea-Monkeys, the Post also sent a jolt through the neo-Nazi world with its other big finding: "The 62-year-old supporter of neo-Nazi groups was born and raised in New York City as Harold Nathan Braunhut, a Jew."
For the rest of his life, von Braunhut's legendary cleverness deserted him whenever he was questioned about being a Jewish neo-Nazi. He typically lashed out and hung up on reporters who pestered him.
But even with his "Aryan" pretensions hopelessly dashed, von Braunhut's millions kept him in the Aryan Nations fold. In December 1995, von Braunhut — who called himself an ordained priest and often wore a clerical collar to Aryan Nations gatherings — presided over the funeral of Betty Butler, the chief's wife.
When von Braunhut ascended to that great aquarium in the sky last November, he was said to be at work on a pet lobster and an instant frog. Meanwhile, the Aryan Nations, long since shrunk to a mere crustacean in the sea of organized hate, was said to be eagerly anticipating the reading of at least one Jew's will.