'Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox'

Preview the Film

Robert Smith speaks with Sara Lamm, director of the new documentary film Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox. Emmanuel Bronner, a chemist, escaped from a mental institution and developed his own brand of peppermint soap that has a variety of uses. He also covered the label with religious and philosophical sayings. Dr. Bronner's son Ralph also joins the conversation to discuss his father's mission and life work.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

If you will forgive me for a moment, I'm going to take a quick shower.

(Soundbite of shower)

SMITH: It's a little hot. Okay, I'm in the shower now, but not necessarily to get clean. I'm here to talk about soap, specifically Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure-Castile Soap. If you have been in a health food store in the last 30 years or spent the summer on a hippie commune, I'm sure you've seen the blue and white bottle. And once you've actually put in on, here let me open it up, you will not forget it because it has this certain zing once it hits your body. Woo(ph).

But the most amazing thing about this soap is the label. There are thousands of almost microscopic words revealing a glimpse into the inner workings of the mind of Dr. Emmanuel Bronner. Here I'm going to read a little bit of this: Only if constructive selfish I work hard perfecting first me like mark spits all one. If it sounds like it was written by a crazy man, well, it turns out that Dr. Emmanuel Bronner escaped from an insane asylum before he built his soap empire. His story is told in a new documentary called "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox." Here, let me get out of here and dry off.

I'm back in the studio now wearing clothes, I should say. And joining me is the director of the new documentary, Sarah Lamm, thanks for coming in.

Ms. SARAH LAMM (Director, "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox"): My pleasure.

SMITH: Anyone who have seen this bottle probably has the same question: Was he crazy?

Ms. LAMM: Yeah. Well, no, not definitively yes, he was crazy, but certainly that was my first reaction. And I think the answer turns out to be a very decided, who can say?

SMITH: Dr. Bronner died in 1997, but his family business still sells millions of these bottles. Tell me a little bit of his story, how did he get from Germany to America and become the soap magnate?

Ms. LAMM: Dr. Bronner was born in Germany to a Jewish family of soap makers and came to America in 1929. And his family soap company in Germany was destroyed by the Nazis and his family was killed in the Holocaust. And right around that time, he became extra engaged in what he was preaching. At the time, he was calling it Bronner's peace plan, which eventually became what we know of today as the moral ABC or, you know, the text that's printed on the soap label.

And he was preaching with such, sort of, fervor that he was committed to an insane asylum by his sister. And he escaped in 1947, I believe, maybe 1948. And he fled to California, hitchhiked to Los Angeles and started mixing up the drums of the peppermint soap that we know today.

SMITH: You have a lot of great archived footage of Dr. Bronner and I have to say in person, he sounds exactly as you would expect from reading the bottle. Let's listen to a clip.

(Soundbite of archived footage)

Dr. EMMANUEL BRONNER (Soap Maker): The moral ABC that the wise man in the temple is the teacher of righteousness of light. The real rabbi hero taught the (unintelligible) about Jesus to rally race trying at once unite the whole human race in one God faith.

SMITH: How did this eccentric man get adopted by the hippie counterculture of the '60s?

Ms. LAMM: They were drawn to the fact that it was a product that was a non-traditional product that was pushing a very non-traditional message. And the great thing about the moral ABC is that even if you don't understand all that, you can generally find something that you agree with.

Unidentified Woman: I live in a hippie in the Ozarks on a hippie commune in the '70s and we use Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap for everything - washing baby diapers, brushing our teeth, washing our hair.

Ms. LAMM: I don't personally recommend brushing your teeth with it. To me, it was like brushing my teeth with soap.

SMITH: This whole time while Dr. Bonner was making the soap and preaching about uniting the world, you show in the documentary how hard it was on his family. Describe him as a father.

Ms. LAMM: Dr. Bronner, the most important thing to him was his vision and was his message - uniting spaceship earth. And his son, Ralph Bronner, will tell you that if you said: Dad, it's time to eat; he would say, what's more important, eating or uniting spaceship earth?

SMITH: But it was more than being distracted. He actually put his children in foster homes and orphanages.

Ms. LAMM: It was much more than being distracted. It was essentially not being a parent at all except for some visits periodically.

SMITH: Despite all this, two of his sons did follow him into the business. And during much of the documentary, you follow his son, Ralph. And it's clear he has a little bit of his old man in him. Let's call up Ralph Bronner and see what he thought of the documentary. He joins us now by phone. Thanks for calling in.

Mr. RALPH BRONNER (Son of Dr. Emmanuel Bronner; Vice President of Dr. Emmanuel Bronner's Magic Soap Company): Yes.

SMITH: You travel the country telling the story of your company and your father. But did anything surprise you seeing your family up on the big screen?

Mr. R. BONNER: I would say it's one of the biggest thrills of my life. It's a series of - like aligning the planets that worked out so beautiful, I can't believe it.

SMITH: What was it like to work with your father in the soap company? There are times in the documentary where you are sitting in the background as he goes on one of his rants and you're looking at him a little bit like he's a little mad.

Mr. R. BRONNER: Well, Dad was obsessed and impossible to work with until God blessed him with Parkinson's. And I don't mean that cruelly, but how many of the listeners could work for a father's two main principles, but if he's on the phone, if he was with people talking - he grabs a name, Robert constructive capitalism is where you share the profits with the workers and the earth so much you make it. And I'd say, Dad, we're in a restaurant, you don't have to shout, there's people all around. I want them to hear and I made him louder.

But in my teaching of reading and so on, I love biographies. And I found that almost all of the great men - the geniuses were also obsessed. I think the Wright brothers wouldn't have taken time off to take a kid somewhere. They were obsessed with flying.

SMITH: Did you ever consider putting a warning on the label because there are certain parts of the body that when you put this soap on, it kind of stings a little bit, you know what I'm talking about?

Mr. R. BRONNER: Well, here's a positive one. The funniest letter I've ever got. Dear Dr. Bronner, I want you to know how much I enjoy your peppermint soap. After I shower and dress, it feels like someone put a York Peppermint Pattie in my underwear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: It is a unique sensation. Sarah, after working on this documentary for years, do you actually use the soap?

Ms. LAMM: I do. I still use the soap. I will probably continue to use the soap. I've gotten very used to that tingle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Sarah Lamm is the director of the new documentary, "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox." Ralph Bronner is the son of the famous soap maker. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Mr. R. BRONNER: Thank you, it's enjoyable.

Ms. LAMM: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh it will work as a cleanser. It's natural and it's pure. It will wash your hand, brush your teeth, clean your hair and more. And when you read the label, renouncing hate and war. You're wearing a (unintelligible) your spirits they will soar.

SMITH: The documentary "Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox" opens this week in Los Angeles, with more stops around the country this summer. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Robert Smith.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Don't worry about what's in it, just put it on your skin. And trust that it will scrub you free from dirt and sin. That's Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap. It's natural and it's pure. It will wash your hands, brush your teeth and clean your hair and more. But best of all...

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