The Wizard of Lime Creek
It was the 1950s. Disguised as a quiet music store employee in Mason City, Iowa for many years, my dear witty friend, Al Crowder, quietly formulated a monumental marketing scheme with global implications. In 1951 his son received a package from his maternal grandfather, which included an inflatable, clear plastic device that looked like a water jug. Crowder was puzzled, and he typed a letter to the International Latex Corporation that made the product. He asked what the "bladder" was. He got a letter back saying it was a floatation device for an instant attack boat used during World War II. The letter was signed by E.C. Jaskowiak, "assistant to the president." Had 20th century sales and marketing come down to this--mystifying products backed up by cryptic letters from an assistant to an inaccessible president?
A light clicked on in Crowder's head. He created a "new and improved" device, the BunaB, which was to "trump the assault boat."
The first in the chronological order of BunaBs was the genuine improved #7 BunaB, complete with clear plastic carrying case, serial number and registration card. On the surface it appeared to be two pieces of insulated wire, one red and one blue, each a precise 1 3/4 inches long, held together at the ends by yellow plastic tape. But it was more than that.
According to the blue printed instructions, "The #7 will, with reasonable care, give years of trouble- free service. It has been scientifically inspected and checked against the master model at the factory. The Improved #7 BunaB will meet or exceed speci-fications set up by the industry for accuracy, durability and simplicity of operation. No moving parts insures constant stability. With a minimum of practice, results equaling conventional instrument may be expected... After prolonged use, the BunaB may indicate a variation of one or two percent when checked against a new BunaB. In that case, the old one should be discarded immediately."
Upon receiving a Genuine Improved #7 BunaB, you were urged to fill out the accompanying registration card, stamped with your unique serial number, and mail it back to Orville K. Snav and Associates, 111 North Jefferson, Mason City, Iowa. Your registration card, detailing how you most effectively used your #7, would be filed in the Hall of Science at Snav Towers and you would automatically become an Assistant to the President of BunaB International and a key personnel in the field. Within a week you'd receive a lengthy typed letter, beginning personal correspondence with the venerable founder himself, the Wizard of Lime Creek. Orville K. Snav was the name Crowder had used while living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when he'd mailed an empty en-velope each day to a radio show desperate for mail.
Crowder himself became the chief assistant to the president and also took on the responsibilities of correspondence chief, sales manager and shipping and receiving clerk.
Making a gift of a #7 to another person automatically entitled you to carbon copies of all ensuing correspondence. This was in the days before Xerox copy machines!
The price of a BunaB #7 in 1966 was 98 cents apiece, or two for $2. This barely covered the cost of postage for correspondence.
In 1957 BunaBs became an international phenomenon when "The Little World of Orville K. Snav" was featured in one of the first Playboy magazines. BunaBs were sold and "effectively utilized" in 39 foreign countries. If you became an assistant to the president and key personnel in the field of BunaB International you were in good company. Assistants to the president included Hugh Heffner, Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, Jerry Lewis, Peggy Cass, Groucho Marx, Gary Moore, Meredith Willson, Hugh Downs, Marc Connelly, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Dave Garroway, Henry Morgan, Rudy Vallee, Leonard Feather, Herb Shriner, Scott Carpenter, Dick Clark, Mel Sharp, Jose Ferrer, Richard Haydn, Arthur C. Clark, Walter Mondale, Andy Williams and Barry Goldwater. Meetings of the board included nuclear physicists from both sides of the Iron Curtain in the 1950s, politicians, corporate presidents, school-teachers, radio announcers, bartenders, housewives and Bullwinkle. Jay Ward, creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, placed the words "BunaB Anthem" on the podium from which Bullwinkle read his poetry.
BunaB #7 was just the beginning. The Christmas catalog distributed during the annual December 15 Mailing Frolic included an assortment of other "aids to nicer living":
1. The Improved BunaB #6, "identical to #7 except for its similarities" came with no serial number or registration card and sold for $29.50 per 100.
2. The BunaB #5--"Companion to TV"--was a 12-inch vinyl recording, designed for those who desired to play records while watching television. The recording was from the original soundtrack of the Urban-Eclipse silent film, "The Fatal Love." And could be played at any speed with equal results. It could also be played with a 1 ml stylus or a sharp cactus needle. It was temporarily not available, a savings to you of $3.95.
3. The Improved BunaB #4 was a micro precision dial and pointer, which could be "readily attached to any clean, flat surface that needs an added dial:" Price 98 cents apiece: or $12 a dozen.
4. The BunaB #3--Between Shave Lotion--was formulated "especially for the fastidious as an aid to nicer living during the critical 23 hours and 45 minutes between applications of after shave and 'before-shave' lotions." Originally priced at $117 per barrel, it was available in the "new Giant Petite" (960 minims) size for 98 cents apiece or $12 per dozen.
5. The BunaB #2--Zudirk--was a modern adaptation of a game believed to have originated in the Scilly Islands off the coast of Cornwall, England, centuries before the arrival of the Romans. "A favorite sport of high priests of the Druidic cult, it was originally played outdoors, utilizing the implements of burning tinder, heart-shaped boulders, stone adzes and condemned criminals." The modern version tended to ward off the hazards of scarring and tetanus. This board game, complete with playing pieces, was offered for the modest sum of 98 cents apiece or $12 a dozen. The warning "Don't Play Zudirk with Strangers" was stamped in red ink on top of every piece of correspondence from Snav Towers.
6. The New Improved PMM Shield--was a black half-circle for pasting on the left-hand face of an alarm clock. The initials stand for Post Meridian Morning, and the shield causes each morning to begin at 12:01 p.m. It was awarded the Orville K. Snav Foundation "Seal of Reasonable Quality."
7. The C-K Key opened nearly all chastity belts (a modification of a device employed in the early Middle Ages.)
8. The ECA Kit or Exigency Conversion Apparatus (complete with plastic bag) converted any unoccupied closet into a bathroom, in case of contingency.
9. The PCD or Primeval Combustion Device was a breakthrough development (rubbing two sticks together), which contributed to the "alleviation of today's critical problems, such as pollution, obesity, hygiene, physical fitness, unplanned parenthood, the energy crunch and others."
10. The Electronically Amplified Improved Chromatic Ambidextrous Arm and Hammer Ball-Bearing Double-Action 31 string Zithern with four speeds forward was a musical breakthrough. This was an electrified autoharp converted into an easily played keyboard. (Recordings were available by special request.)
11. There is no BunaB #1, although Snav and Associates continued to try to think one up.
Al Crowder was also an accomplished musician and teacher. Beginning in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, he was a one-man show with his banjo, accordion and active deadpan wit. Soon he was touring cross-country, announcing for 1920s dance bands, playing on radio gigs, selling musical instruments, and collecting classic jazz recordings, first on wax cylinders, then on vinyl. He
had the original Louis Armstrong recordings made at Gennett Studios in Richmond, Indiana, as well as original Bix Beiderbeck recordings.
In the mid 1930s in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he taught music to Herb Shriner, who later gave him a spot on early television's "Herb Shriner Show" in 1956 and then the "Garry Moore Show" in 1958, where he appeared four times. In 1939 he finally settled in Mason City, Iowa, selling instruments and teaching banjo at the local music store. In addition to the banjo, he played accordion, saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet and drums, "after a fashion." He volunteered to serve as soundman for the summertime Mason City Municipal Band concerts in the park. He told a reporter upon retiring from the soundman job that he didn't remember how long he had done it, "except that the park had just two trees when I started."
In 1951 he returned to radio as "Grandma's Disc Jockey, reviving old memories from old times," playing tunes from his extensive record collection.
His wife, Louise Crowder, was a professional musician herself--touring Russia in the 1920s, playing popular music on her accordion. Al claimed he'd be lost without her jolly disposition and nonstop monologue. As Dame Minerva P. Snav, she kept track of the 50,000 registration cards and ensuing correspondence. The Crowders always seemed to be in good spirits but were often short of money because of the progressive costs of postage stamps. My mother would often slip Louise a $10 or $20 bill to make sure they had groceries.
I first got to know Al Crowder at the music store. He was usually sitting quietly in the back, tuning banjos and guitars and giving music lessons. I was in high school and starting to make music professionally, eventually joining other musicians to form the PKQ. He liked my playing style and told me that I was the only one who could play "that old jazz style."
One day he invited me to take a tour through Snav Towers. "Snav Towers and the BunaB Warehouse occupy a portion of an eight square mile area directly west of downtown Mason City and approximately three blocks from Lime Creek." This was Snav's name for the city's winding waterway, which courses through the library grounds, traversed by the footbridge where Marian the Librarian sang her song, "Til There Was You," in "The Music Man."
We passed by Cascade Hall (the bathroom) and the BunaB laboratory and corporate public relations department (the kitchen) and then climbed the steep stairs to the Hall of Science. It was packed from floor to ceiling with treasures and memorabilia from key personnel throughout the world, "covering over 9,000 square inches."
A framed document on the wall, signed by Kentucky's governor, Louie Nunne, attested to the fact that Crowder was an official "Kentucky Colonel." Jay Ward, creator of Rocky and Bullwinkle, made a cross-country trip in 1972 through which he obtained 200,000 signatures on a
petition asking that Moosylvania be granted statehood. He stopped by Mason City to take a tour of Snav Towers and donated a flashy red Dudley Dooright Canadian Mounties hat and a miniature felt moose head.
In the middle of the Hall of Science was a large hookah, a contribution from an assistant to the president in Istanbul. Snav loved to snap photos of me pretending to huff and puff on it, smirking. There were original Jane Arden comic strips and a large bookshelf filled with authors of various persuasions, all key personnel. There were original copies of Marc Connelly's "Green Pastures," perhaps America's most popular religious drama, and a Russian text about astrophysics. (Al referred to the charts and graphs as his favorite cartoons.)
In the lower reaches of the Hall of Science was a small gift from the United States Army's First Cavalry Division in Vietnam, consisting of a sterling silver BunaB #7 tie tack. This unit was almost 100% equipped with BunaBs.
The walls were covered with pictures and photographs. Richard Haydn, who played the European impresario in "The Sound of Music," posed for pictures on the back cover of BunaB #5, the recording of the silent film sound track. Key Personnel and astronaut Scott Carpenter's picture was on the wall, as were photos of Crowder on television with Garry Moore, Herb Shriner, Dick Clark and Mel Sharp. Scattered throughout the Hall of Science were copies of "The Wretched Mess News," published by Milford Stanley Poltroon out of West Yellowstone, Montana. Previously a well known national advertiser, Poltroon got fed up marketing peanut butter, moved to Montana and began corresponding with Orville K. Snav. They joined forces to market the "C-K Key," the skeleton key guaranteed to open all chastity belts. The standard C-K Key, made out of "Snav-metal," sold for $1.48. The executive model, made of solid 14 carat gold, sold for $24. Thousands of C-K keys were ordered, 30% of them by females.
The Crowders and I became close friends. My family and I made hundreds of visits to Snav Towers over the years. My middle child, Anna, has the same natal day as Al Crowder, which entitled her to a free #7. I have two file folders of copies of correspon-dence between Snav and my BunaB giftees. At one point there were so many BunaBs circulating throughout Grinnell College that Orville K. Snav called for a special meeting of the board for B.O.O.G.: BunaB Owners of Grinnell. During an unusually tense political period on campus in 1970, I sent a #7 to one of the leaders of the radical student groups who was known for his serious and uncompromising political positions. He never smiled. About two weeks after he received his BunaB, I asked him if he had received his #7 and whether or not he had become an Assistant to The President and Key Personnel in the Field. A sheepish grin came slowly to his face. And he said, "Orville K. Snav is a very wise man."
In the late 1970s Al came down with cancer of the prostate. One of his testicles was removed to lower the hormonal stimulation of the tumor. He immediately started the "Only One Club: for those with 'only one' breast, arm, leg, ovary, eye, kidney, or other bilateral organ system" and had meetings of the board throughout the country. I last saw Al in his hospital bed on the special Ruben Flocks prostate wing of the University of Iowa hospital in the winter of 1981. He was weak and semi-comatose. Sensing the impending fall of the BunaB Empire, I held his hand in gratitude.
As I was leaving I noticed a little rectangular pink slip on his food tray, similar to those I had seen hundreds of times before, included in all of his correspondence. I turned it over and read, "Whoever finds this, I love you."