“Have you heard of Dr. Bronner’s soap?” Ralph Bronner asks a grungy, aging skateboarder with a tattooed face in the hallway of a New York City hotel. “You fit our profile.” After a few minutes and some free soap, the two are fast friends and Bronner assures him, “All of us that love the soap, including me, are abnormal.”
Sara Lamm has always been intrigued by Dr. Bronner’s, so much so that it inspired the creation of a performance piece based on the 3,000-word spiritual message found on the label. When she called the company to ask for a donation of product, she got more than she bargained for—a friendship with Ralph Bronner, the famous soapmaker’s son. “I was so surprised to find that there was this family of really warm, engaged people behind this soap that I’d always used,” Lamm said. It wasn’t long before Ralph Bronner approached her for help with a project—crafting a portrait of his father’s life and dynamic business. Lamm signed on as director of her first documentary film, and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox was born.
Emanuel Bronner was born into a family of master soapmakers from Heilbronn, Germany in 1908. After he emigrated to the US in 1929, he married a Catholic and had three children before an illness killed her in 1943. Bronner warned both his parents of the impending Nazi takeover, but they remained in Germany and perished in the Holocaust. Lamm believes these traumatic events triggered a mystical experience in Bronner, while also affecting his mental health. After this, Bronner quit his job at a soap factory and began barnstorming the country to spread the “Moral ABC” of his “All-One-God-Earth” philosophy, abandoning his children in as many as 15 foster homes and orphanages. His philosophy teaches that all people should unite under one God, and that prophets from all the spiritual traditions recognized and preached this.
The intensity of Bronner’s All-One-God-Earth lectures, delivered in a heavy German accent, was legendary. He was arrested at the University of Chicago in 1946 where he was accused of organizing students and refused to leave the dean’s office. He was brought to a mental institution in Elgin, Illinois, where he was given shock therapy. Six months later he escaped to Los Angeles, where he began producing and bottling his peppermint soap out of a small apartment. To each bottle he attached a copy of his “All-One!” philosophy.
Bronner’s business blossomed. Alongside preaching his philosophy, he strove to be ecologically and socially conscious long before the current green business boom. His family carries on the tradition of fair wages and responsible production to this day, selling 4.5 million bottles a year.
There is more to this documentary than biography. The film’s subthemes are imbued with Bronner’s message of acceptance and unity. Rewind to the grungy skateboader, an everyday outcast who upon further study is a talented pianist and a caring companion to a girlfriend dying in hospice. Ralph Bronner, his friend of just a few hours, sits with him in his hotel room as he grieves, perpetuating a family legacy of compassion. “I was really moved by Ralph’s optimism,” Lamm said, “and by the way that he had integrated a painful childhood and turned it into a mission to be helpful and kind to other people. And I think Dr. Bronner does the same thing.”
Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox will be shown July 13-15, 7:30pm, at Time and Space Limited, 434 Columbia Street, Hudson. (518) 822-8448; www.timeandspace.org.