They are an iconic image from childhood for anyone who ever has as much as leafed through a DC or Marvel comic book. Sea Monkeys. Always on the back page, right next to the ad for X-Ray Spex glasses.
How iconic? Both The Simpsons and South Park have had entire episodes that revolved around Sea-Monkeys. Sea-Monkeys – brine shrimp in a package that magically come to life when dropped in water. Then, well, using magnifying glasses built into the plastic containers, you could, theoretically, watch them do brine shrimp things for hours.
You had to be eight or nine to buy into it but generations of kids did. And do, Sea-Monkeys are a $3.5 million a year business.
The story behind the ‘invention’ of Sea-Monkeys is bizarre, flamboyant, and fascinating – a kind of early ‘50s film noir meets The Addams Family kitsch. They were developed by Harold von Braunhut, a motorcycle racer/TV producer/magician/agent for carnival acts/inventor/salesman.
Novelty items like those on the back pages of comic books were apparently a pretty big business in the early ‘60s. It was dominated by Wham-O – the guys who sold the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, Slip n’ Slide, and a lot more.
In 1960, Wham-O sold something called ‘Instant Fish’ – a package of freeze-dried African killifish that were supposed to come to life when water was added. Sales dried up like the fish when buyers found out that no power on earth could revive ‘Instant Fish’.
Von Braunhut, however, took the idea and worked with a marine biologist in Montauk to selectively breed a species of brine shrimp that could lie dormant for long periods. It was, actually, something of a scientific breakthrough. The biologist created a hybrid form of brine shrimp, von Braunhut named them Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys and they took off. The rest is history.
Von Braunhut died in 2003. His widow, Yolanda – whose background could fill a Netflix series – inherited the company, the secret formula, and the immense estate on the Maryland side of the Potomac River that the Sea-Monkeys had built.
Von Braunhut, however, had been a strictly hands-on manager and his loss was keenly felt. Yolanda needed help and wasn’t all that interested in continuing the Amazing Live Sea Monkey business. She turned to Big Time Toys out of Lexington, Kentucky, name-wise a fitting successor to Wham-O.
She gave Big Time Toys the license to package and sell Sea-Monkeys while her company supplied the packets with the desiccated shrimp. She also agreed to sell the entire company to Big Time Toys in the future. Big Time was to pay $5 million for the licensing agreement and another $5 million later, over a period of years, for her company. Yolanda was looking at a Sea-Monkey free future.
It’s probably not much of a surprise that a company with such a fictional sounding name defaulted on the agreement(s), but Big Time Toys did. Basically, they went to China and got their own source of brine shrimp and announced they now owned the Sea Monkey kingdom.
Lawsuits have been winding their way through federal courts for some years now, all the cases revolve around some fairly knotty contract law issues, trademark infringement, as well as the catchall issue of – ‘if Sea-Monkeys aren’t really real, then how real is the company that sells them?’
The case is in court and will be for years to come, Yolanda has the house and little else. She cannot afford the heat and electricity of such a mammoth home and lives in two rooms closed off from the rest.
Meanwhile, Sea-Monkeys still sell, Big Time Toys has them in Walmart and Toys r’Us as well as the ubiquitous comics.
The point is, this is just another example – albeit a most entertaining one – of the botched sale of a company. An operating, profitable company, the death of the owner, a ‘quick’ sale by the heir, then years of litigation. All of it was avoidable with proper planning.