Tucked in the back of every Mad Magazine, comic book, and creepy horror rag that my dad brought home for me was a treasure trove of fantastical delights. There was something entirely riveting about the small print ads for gag gifts and other anomalies. Promises of x-ray vision, mind control powers via hypnotic devices, and real skeletal remains – illustrated with strange, blotted line drawings – created a sense of wonder. And then there were the sea monkeys. It was one of the first things I remember spending my allowance on. When they arrived I imagined they'd look like sea horses. Instead, they were specks of brown dust rising to the top of the fish bowl I had lovingly procured for them.
Harold von Braunhut is the man responsible for inciting childhood dreams of sea monkey friends around the world. His novelty inventions numbered almost 200 and include the aforementioned x-ray specs that promised a peek behind a woman's dress, and an invisible goldfish kit – which boggles the mind since Von Braunhut managed to get away with selling a glass bowl, fish food, and nothing else. During his lifetime – Von Braunhut passed away in 2003 – he also raced motorcycles under the name, The Green Hornet, and managed a talent act whose routine involved diving 40 feet into a child's swimming pool with only a foot of water to break his landing. Von Braunhut had a sincere appreciation for nature – one of the reasons he invented the sea monkey gimmick (they were actually a resliient species of brine shrimp) – and lived on a 70-acre property with his wife (actress Yolanda Signorelli, the sexploitation starlet who appeared in 1967's Venus in Furs) where they tended to their own wildlife conservation.
But there's a darker side to Von Braunhut's story that came to light after his arrest for carrying illegal weapons. The inventor tried to go through the airport with his latest creation, the Kiyoga Agent M5 – a spring-loaded whip that telescopes by pressing a button. He won the case and charges were dropped – apparently the M5 wasn't as stealthy as promised (shocking) – but his friendship with the Aryan Nations' leader Richard Girnt Butler was uncovered, due to Kiyoga Agent M5 ads being printed in the back of the white supremacist group's newsletter. Oddly enough, Von Braunhut was Jewish, but that never stopped him from buying firearms for the Ku Klux Klan, or lighting the burning cross at the Aryan Nations' annual conference.
The Awl (a big hat tip to them for printing this fascinating story) speculates on a few reasons why Von Braunhut's Jewish heritage was overlooked in his associations with these anti-Semitic groups, but one thing is clear – the man was a bona fide salesman through and through, and we have him to thank for letting our childhood imaginations run wild – at least until we realized we were gypped with a bowlful of bullshit. The dichotomy is chilling and has all the makings of a wildly interesting documentary. Who's up for the task?