Dr. Bronnerâ€™s Magic Media Soap Opera
There’s a classic montage in the stupendously silly cult hit, Half Baked, in which Dave Chappelle describes all the different kinds of pot smokers. The most memorable, played by Jon Stewart, is the “Enhancement Smoker” — the guy who enjoys everything more intensely when he’s “on weed.” As Stewart hands over money for his bag he enthuses, “Have you ever looked at the back of a $20 bill, man? There’s all kids of weird shit going on!”
Had the scene lasted just a bit longer, Stewart might have produced a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, which bears (stoned or stone-cold-sober) perhaps the mother lode of weird label verbiage — with a back-story almost as convoluted as the one behind the Masonic symbols gracing our national currency.
It’s the story of one Dr. Emanuel H. Bronner, chemist, master soap maker, Holocaust survivor and lead prophet for the One God of Spaceship Earth. In 1947, Bronner escaped from a mental institution and began selling soap made from his family’s 150-year-old recipe out of the back of a Los Angeles tenement hotel. Today the company, run by his grandsons, David and Mike, sells more than six million bottles of soap a year.
This tragicomic drama propels the narrative of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox , a new documentary by Sara Lamm that attempts to capture the essence of this thoroughly mad (and at times, thoroughly maddening) genius who was, in the purest sense, far ahead of his time. Using a mix of archival footage from the ’70s and ’80s and original material shot in the early part of this decade, Lamm offers up a tale of perseverance and near-staggering acts of acceptance, faith and tolerance on the part of the Bronner family.
As Soapbox illustrates, Dr. Bronner — who passed away in March of 1997, just shy of 90 years old — was definitely out there. He saw himself as part of the long lineage of prophets that includes Jesus, Mohammed, Hillel, Moses and Buddha. Bronner believed these prophets appeared on earth regularly — every 76 years to be exact, inspired by the arrival of Haley’s Comet — to lead their people to God. He was also convinced the most recent of these prophets was Mark Spitz, the American swimmer who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Because of his profound spiritual beliefs, the label that bears his name became both his manifesto and his legacy to humanity. It is a 30,000-word treatise on “All-One,” an ever-evolving set of teachings he called “The Moral ABC,” designed, in his words, “to unite all mankind free!”
Unfortunately, the course of human history is littered with the literal and symbolic corpses of prophets — real or self-imagined — who bore new truths as harbingers of a new way. And Dr. Bronner’s fate was no different than those who came before him. He was locked away, called insane, discredited and dismissed. The FBI even had him listed in their “nut file.”
However odd or unorthodox his behavior or his theories, though, Emanuel H. Bronner’s product was a hit with the west coast counterculture, who became his best customers and sustained the business for decades. Blind for the last 20 years of his life, he remained first and always a subversive, a true believer in absolute freedom who embraced the work of Thomas Paine, made friends with Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, advocated for hemp and organic farming, and was so rabidly anti-communist he put Nixon to shame. His “all-one” philosophy was a Universalist doctrine of mutual peace, respect and ecological harmony, based on the central tenet that we are all children of the same divine source.
The Bronner paterfamilias was also inherently a just and fair man, an ethos that runs deep and strong in his descendents. Believing in the idea of “Constructive Capitalism,” where one shares profit with the “workers and the Earth,” Bronner and Sons (and now Grandsons) built an ecologically balanced business that uses all organic vegetable oils, 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic, fair employee wages and salary caps for David and Mike Bronner, the current president and vice-president, no more than five times that of the lowest paid employee (the current national average salary for CEOs is 430 percent more than their workers). To this day, the company gives away over 70 percent of its net profit to various causes all over Spaceship Earth — some of the more recent being fresh water wells in Ghana, orphanages in Haiti and China, and local organic farm projects.
What you can’t help but take away from Soapbox is the exceeding compassion and care of the extended Bronner family, who seem to posses an inherent, almost compulsive sense of acceptance and social justice. You feel their nobility not through any sense of grandiosity, but in their patient acceptance of the odd, the unfamiliar or the uncomfortable.
Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the parallel narrative about Bronner’s oldest son Ralph, who goes to Manhattan to perform in an off-Broadway show about the family. This leads to some of the film’s most touching scenes, involving a young musician Ralph Bronner befriends in his hotel, whose girlfriend lay dying in hospice a few feet away. As the young man breaks down before him, Bronner simply offers comfort and holds space for the man’s grief. It is a selfless act of unconditional love, in the spirit of his father, the good doctor, who had love for all of the world around him, if not sadly for his own children, who spent most of their lives in foster care. Still, Ralph Bronner is able, at the film’s conclusion, to place his father’s shortcomings into a perspective that resonates:
“Eccentric people do not make the best parents. I can’t imagine Beethoven stopping the composition of a symphony in order to feed the kids. For my father, it was always more important to save Spaceship Earth than it was to have dinner with the family.”
Headlines read: "Wrongly jailed by soap"
Another film — this one hitting the small screen (YouTube, to be exact) — continues the epic tale of the noble Bronner clan. The wry, upbeat and at times hilarious web short — which has received tens of thousands of downloads since it was released in early May — centers around David Bronner, grandson of Emanuel, hemp activist and current President of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, and the recent allegations by police in Newport Beach, Calif. that Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps contain traces of GHB (Gamma Hydroxy Butyrate), a notorious “date rape” drug.
Entitled Soap, Drugs & Rock and Roll the seven-minute short is an original and effective use of the media as a PR tool — with our heroes the unassuming soap makers who, in one fell swoop, cast serious doubt on the practice of field drug testing, expose the lies of commercial soap producers, advocate for organic products and educate the viewer on yet another layer of our culture’s dependency on oil.
The circumstances laying the grounds for the story have already become the stuff of legend:
On the night of April 4, Don Bolles, eccentric 51-year-old drummer for punk outfit The Germs, was driving through über-conservative Newport Beach, Calif. on his way to an AA meeting when his tricked-out van was pulled over, allegedly for a broken taillight. Bolles gave consent to search the van, and the presiding officer found a bag of legal medical marijuana sitting next to a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap. For some reason (perhaps because the bottle was clearly labeled as hemp soap) the officer decided to apply a NarcoPouch® 928 field test to the soap to assess it for drug content. The test came back positive for GHB, and Bolles was arrested and taken into custody.
Upon hearing this, the Dr. Bronner’s company immediately paid Bolles’ bail and legal fees, and stepped up to defend their brand publicly. David Bronner appeared before California media denouncing the charges as “totally absurd,” and suggesting that Bolles was pulled over for the offense of “driving while weird.” They then ordered the same NarcoPouch® 928 test and began testing their soap products. What they found was astounding
“It was a gift that fell out of the sky,” Bronner says with a measure of incredulity. “We saw a golden opportunity to address greenwashing in our industry head on.”
The “gift” to which Bronner is referring was the discovery that his — and in fact any natural organic soap — will always test positive for GHB using the NarcoPouch® 928 or other similar field drug tests, which makes the false-positive a good indicator of real organic vegetable oil-based “castile” soap. What the Bronners then learned, in another seemingly pre-ordained twist, was that commercial “liquid soap” products made by companies like Dial, Softsoap, Kiss My Face, EO and Nature’s Gate, all tested negative for GHB, indicating that they contained no real soap in the recipe. In voiceover, David Bronner then explains that the “soap” in these products is really a collection of petrochemical detergents.
Thus, the NarcoPouch® 928 is outted as a lousy drug test, but a really great soap test.
“It’s not the most glamorous battle we’re fighting, but it’s our backyard,” adds the tall, quiet and unassuming David Bronner. “Our grandfather was a radical, and we’re just trying to keep pace with the standards he set. He used to quote Hillel: If not now, when ? Well, we have enough strength and visibility to speak to these issues and change them in the long run. We just call things as we see it, and in this case, we saw injustice, and we came in to clean it up (no pun intended).”
“Yeah, you can use our soaps for pretty much everything,” Mike Bronner adds, “except getting high.”