The Height of the Beans
“In life, you only need to be a genius for 15 seconds. This is America. If you come up with a good idea, you can run with that idea.” David Klein’s good idea, as he goes on to explain, was Jelly Bellies, conceived in 1976. “The product originated in Temple City,” he recalls, “on a Thursday night, as I was watching Happy Days.”
Klein’s version of events, it turns out, is typically self- effacing. The idea of jellybeans made from natural ingredients and sold in separate flavors came to him, he suggests, rather than describing how he thought it up. His friend Ed Ringle remembers a phone call that night, as well as his own dismissal of Klein’s brainstorm. Ringle strides along a sidewalk, the camera in Candyman: The David Klein Story walking to keep up with him. And then, almost as quickly as they begin to tell it, the story of the invention is gone. Klein moves on to describe the next step, his effort to get the candy made. For this, he says, he made a phone call. The film shows a bright red dial-up phone, underlining both the urgency of the original action and the joke of the reenactment.
That’s not to say that Candyman doesn’t take its subject seriously or that its effort to set history straight isn’t earnest. For the film does mean to make clear that Dave Klein was the man who invented and first promoted Jelly Belly jellybeans, a phenomenon in the histories of both candy and commercial marketing. After appearances at this year’s Slamdance and Hot Docs, Costa Botes’ film premieres on the Documentary Channel 27 November. The idea for the film came from David’s son Bert, who recalls here vivid first memories of his father on TV selling Jelly Bellies. (“My mom,” he adds, “insists that I learned my first colors from Jelly Belly.”) Footage of Klein with Mike Douglas makes clear his extraordinary enthusiasm: as he sings ad dances, wears silly suits, and mixes up a batch of flavoring on set, the host and other guests smile and nod.
Klein still smiles as he says he felt “destined to be in the candy business.” His son narrates that after his father attended UCLA and law school, essentially doing “everything to make his parents happy, something snapped in his head, and he said ‘No, I’m not gonna do this.’” What he did instead was invent candy.
The film presents this choice as both inspired and, over time, arduous. Its own timeline cuts back and forth, and includes memories from assorted Klein colleagues, such as Steve Corri of Garvey Nut & Candy and candy broker Lisa Cohen Dideriksen. According to Corri, “The industry was boring: it lacked flavor, it lacked color, it lacked imagination, it lacked creativity, and Dave was there to provide all those things.” But even as they describe Klein’s originality and generosity, his friends also lament what happened to Klein’s invention.
Klein took his idea to Herm Rowland at Goelitz, and they started the line with eight flavors. At first, the scale of production and sales was small, and Klein was very hands-on. His wife Rebecca asserts, “His philosophy is, if you’re going to represent something, you’re going to have to know everything about your subject.” Except, apparently, what flavors he’s conjuring: Klein tells a story about selling what he called strawberry-flavored beans in the corner of an ice cream parlor, and being advised by a young customer that the flavor was actually cotton candy. The kid drove away on his bicycle, Klein says, and he had no idea how he had “changed history.”
Demand for the bean took off quickly, in part because of Klein’s relentless promotion and in part because longtime jellybean fan Ronald Reagan started ordering Jelly Belly by the case. (Weird Al Yankovic, of all people, provides context: “Sure, he created a monstrous deficit and he supplied missiles to Iran and he gave aid to Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but hey, he liked Jelly Bellies, so he can’t be all bad, right?”) The success led to some confusion, reflected in the film’s retelling. It appears that Klein lost hold of the rights to his creation, thanks to an unfortunate deal he made with the Herman Goelitz Candy Company, now called the Jelly Belly Company. The company’s website now notes only that “a Los Angeles candy distributor had an idea for a jelly bean made with natural flavorings.”
The erasure of Klein’s name from the candy’s history is one reason Bert and his wife, producer Jen Cardon Klein, committed to the film. As Bert describes his father, he’s generous to a fault, and not the canniest of businessmen. The son remembers going to Disney Land “at the height of the beans.” His dad, he says, bought all the Mickey Mouse balloons and together they walked around the park, giving them away to kids. Bert says, “He likes seeing other people happy, strangely enough.”
The film hints at a strained relationship between father and son, as well as David’s depression, and late introduces Bert’s sister Roxanne, who joined her father in another candy venture (Sandy Candy) after her then 18-year-old brother left home to be married and start his own career (as an animator for Disney and The Simpsons, among other projects). Bert offers his own explanation for his father’s behavior: “He keeps trying again and again like a heroin addict,” he surmises, suggesting David pursues “the unattainable high for him, which is loyalty.”
As much as Bert or David’s life was shaped by the beans, Klein is less inclined to analyze how he lost the legal rights to Jelly Belly. He shows Bert a small book, an “official history” that makes no mention of him. Bert walks through the house, showing signs of his father’s difficulties, a hole he punched in the wall or Jelly Belly paraphernalia. While Candyman illustrates the costs of David’s experience, it wisely leaves the father and son’s resolution off screen.