Monkey Business To their adoring legions of fans, Sea-Monkeys are the ultimate in Kitsch. But their Maryland inventor says they're really a starter kit for environmentale awarness.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bryans Road -- ECCENTRIC is too mild a word to describe Harold von Braunhut, a cartoon character come to life.

At age 71, he stands no taller than 5-foot-5, with slumped shoulders and a mostly bald pate, but remains an imposing presence nonetheless. Barking orders at his small but loyal staff in a thick New York accent (in Harold-speak, the word "beautiful" becomes "bee-YOO-dee-full"), he often smacks his rubber-tipped cane against the wall for emphasis.

His staff, which includes wife Yolanda, seem to take von Braunhut's outbursts in stride. Maybe it's because they know that beneath his crusty facade lies a soft-hearted environmentalist, an extraordinary mind, a boy who became a man without sacrificing that childlike wonder most of us are too quick to discard.

"He's the master professor," Yolanda beams as von Braunhut scrambles around the couple's Bryans Road residence, which doubles as an office. At the moment, however, the president of Transcience Corp. has little interest in business -- he's too preoccupied scolding Josephine, their ornery cockatoo, who's squawking with utter abandon.

The "master professor" is an inventor with nearly 200 patents to his name. But what Harold von Braunhut is best known for are his contributions to popular culture. He's the man behind such novelties as X-Ray Spex, the comic book come-on that guaranteed wearers could "see thru clothing!" The '70s craze in which the hermit crab was suddenly the "it" pet to get? He's responsible for that, too.

But of all his inventions, the one that's made the biggest impact is the tiniest in size. Harold von Braunhut is the father of Sea-Monkeys.

Anyone who ever cracked open a comic book in the 1960s knows about Sea-Monkeys, "a true MIRACLE of nature," the ads boasted. Back then, mail order was the only way to buy the "instant-pets" -- actually tiny brine shrimp that grow in their own mini-aquarium. Today, Sea-Monkeys are sold in stores worldwide.

"We're blazing new trails," says George Atamian, vice president of ExploraToy of Carson, Calif., the product's distributor since 1995. He says sales of the novelty pets are better than ever, though exact figures are guarded as closely as the secrets of Sea-Monkey technology.

Atamian attributes the sales boom mainly to baby boomers hungry for nostalgia.

"There's this big thing with retro," he says. "There's so many people who knew Sea-Monkeys" who want to introduce them to their kids. As von Braunhut likes to point out, they're now selling to a third generation of Sea-Monkey enthusiasts.

And though von Braunhut takes pride in his invention's pop-culture status, he's more interested in the product's intellectual value.

"People say, 'What gave you the idea for Sea-Monkeys?' I thought, if you could take a package of powder and put it in water and see it come to life. What could be more remarkable than that?"

To him, Sea-Monkeys are more miracle than novelty. It's proof positive, he says, that "God-given natural splendor" can captivate generations weaned on the artifice television has to offer. And why not? After all, Sea-Monkeys teach children that what they might think is science fiction may turn out to be science fact.

Birth of alterna-pet

Long before the new kid-craze of electronic pets like Tamagotchi was a twinkle in somebody's hard drive, von Braunhut's Sea-Monkeys offered children an inexpensive, low-maintenance alternative to traditional animals.

For the uninitiated, Sea-Monkeys are a cousin of Artemia salina, more commonly known as brine shrimp. Because of certain "cryptobiotic" properties the crustacean has, it's possible to preserve their eggs so that they exist in a sort of suspended animation. Von Braunhut discovered a way to mix these eggs with a formula of what he refers to as "magic crystals" so they could be brought to life by anybody with a 12-ounce container and some water.

A bare-bones Sea-Monkey kit, which sells for about $8, comes with a small plastic tank, a 35-page handbook and three packets of "top-secret" mixtures. One is used to condition tap water; another holds the eggs; and a third, special food. Other bizarre accessories can be ordered through the mail: Sea-Monkey Banana Treat, Red Magic vitamins and Cupid's Arrow mating powder. ("For shy Sea-Monkeys afraid of 'marriage,' this fabulous formula will give them a quick trip 'to the altar,' " the catalog claims.)

Von Braunhut conceived of the idea in 1957, when he saw a bucket of brine shrimp being sold as fish food in a pet store.

"I was always interested in wildlife, and I was looking for something that would interest other people in it," he says. He started research that year.

The original Sea-Monkeys, marketed under the name Instant-Life, sold in 1960 for a mere 49 cents. "Keeping them alive was a terrible struggle," the inventor recalls.

Until, that is, he hooked up with marine biologist Anthony D'Agostino, an expert in microcrustaceans. Together, they created the hybrid Artemia nyos -- named for their New York Ocean Science laboratory in Montauk, Long Island, now in operation for more than 35 years.

Back then, von Braunhut says, they were lucky if two Sea-Monkeys survived 30 days. Today's Sea-Monkeys, after much tinkering, prove a hardier breed. Now, he boasts, the product's enclosed "Life Insurance Policy" is good for a full two years.

Because there's such a demand for new and more quirky Sea-Monkey products, ExploraToy is putting the finishing touches on "Ocean of Wonder," a new 8-piece set featuring a cutting-edge batch of Sea-Monkeys that turn pinkish-red from a nutrient that colors their blood.

The kit will be sold exclusively at Kay-Bee Toy stores for a year before going nationwide. The store, Atamian says, lobbied hard for the rights.

Which is remarkable, considering the product's history. Those memorable comic book ads? They were a last resort, after chain stores wouldn't take the bait.

"I got kicked out; they told me I was crazy," von Braunhut says. "I was so crazy, I established a national icon."

With recent appearances on TV shows like "3rd Rock from the Sun," Sea-Monkeys may be more recognizable than Pauly Shore. "The Sea-Monkey Worship Page," a 2-year-old Web site/labor of love operated by Canadian Susan Barclay, has also given the pets some high-tech exposure. More than 75,000 browsers have visited the page, which includes such features as "Ask the Sea-Monkey Lady," as Barclay likes to call herself.

"Some of the questions are fantastic," she says, citing one young man who wrote in with a lengthy comparison between Sea-Monkeys and communists (i.e., they work together, share food).

"I've gotten anything you can imagine, so much weird e-mail, like from the woman who swears she's being stalked by her Sea-Monkeys." A pause. "It's just for fun," she says, laughing.

At 27, Barclay typifies the sort of nostalgic consumer ExploraToy's so fond of.

"I went through my second childhood at 23," she confides. She started collecting "an assortment of weird stuff," including an Etch-a-Sketch and a Magic 8-Ball.

"The main reason everybody loves Sea-Monkeys is because they're called Sea-Monkeys," she says. Other than the name, the Chilliwack, British Columbia, resident says, she appreciates their simplicity. "I've tried to keep pets, but I'm not good with pets," she admits. "With Sea-Monkeys, it's hard to [mess] up."

As the father of one of the "Rug-rats" on Nickelodeon's popular cartoon series said in an episode featuring the crustacean critters: "They make the perfect pet. You don't have to walk them, you don't have to feed them and best of all, they don't leave any nasty surprises in your slipper."

Education in life

Behind all the cutesy, kitschy Sea-Monkey silliness, though, is von Braunhut, a brilliant man whose formal education ended when he was graduated from high school from New York's P.S. 26.

"It just goes to show you, it's not the education you get in school [that counts]," von Braunhut says proudly. "It's the education you get in life."

For von Braunhut, it's been an education built on a variety of experiences. Besides his novelty products, he managed a novelty act: stunt-diver Henry La Mothe, a Guinness Book of World Records record holder famous for his 40-foot dives into kiddie pools filled just 12-inches deep. He's an ordained minister, and also creator of the Kiyoga, a multipurpose self-defense weapon that was featured in the Burt Reynold's action film "Sharkey's Machine."

But what von Braunhut seems most proud of is his more low-profile endeavors, like the 70-acre estate he calls the Montrose Wildlife Conservation. His two-story home, surrounded by lush foliage, sits at the end of a long dirt road that snakes through the property.

When he bought the land in 1984, "there wasn't a single goose here," von Braunhut says. Now his "farm" is populated with fish, frogs, a snapping turtle named Gonzo, a one-legged blue heron named Tiny Tim, even a magnificent bald eagle.

"I've dedicated most of my life to protecting animals," von Braunhut explains. "I was conscious of it when it was unpopular."

Now, when Atamian, his distributor, comes to visit, the two wander down to Montrose's picturesque pond and feed bags of stale bread to its denizens. "All right, you guys," von Braunhut says, wobbling over to the place where Gonzo patiently waits. He picks through the loaf with a careful eye. "I don't feed 'em mold," he grunts.

He's every bit as attentive with Sea-Monkeys. Plastic tanks in a rainbow of colors adorn many window sills in his house -- he even keeps a set in the bathroom, atop the toilet tank.

Always a tinkerer, von Braunhut continues to play with the patented Sea-Monkey formula. Some of his tanks are test breeding grounds for Algae X, a new product he's developing that adds much-needed oxygen to Sea-Monkey water. Those not blessed with the fuzzy green stuff are lovingly oxygenated by von Braunhut, who pours the contents between two containers to achieve the desired effect.

The act is indicative of the simple, unassuming way in which von Braunhut conducts business. With the exception of the research conducted in the NYOS lab (still headed by D'Agostino), Sea-Monkeys remain a grass-roots operation.

Von Braunhut still writes the official Sea-Monkeys handbook. Mail-order products are stored in his basement and shipped direct from Bryans Road. To this day, the top-secret Sea-Monkey formula is mixed in a dilapidated barn near his house. A new, improved barn ("This one has air-conditioning," he says) is under construction.

Despite the fact that he's a handful of years past the age when most men retire, von Braunhut shows no signs of slowing. Current projects include a pet lobster (brought to life "magically" Sea-Monkey-style) and an acronym-based word game that's allowed him to "patent the alphabet," as he puts it.

"The most fabulous inventions," he says, spectacled eyes twinkling like Sea-Monkey Sea Diamonds, "are yet to come."

Pub Date: 7/21/97

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