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Bean There, Done That
Only in the sweetest sense: Father of a confectionery craze that captured the national sweet tooth in the '70s and '80s, David Klein's cavity of memory is filled in with a documentary that conveys both the sweet and sour experience of fleeting fame -- and backstabbing business deals.
Jelly Bellies/belly laughs don't gel in the same way for Klein these days as they once did when he invented the silly-sounding candy beans. As the documentary "Candyman: The David Klein Story" reveals as it premieres Nov. 27, at 8 p.m., on the Documentary Channel, you can take a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew -- and still face a morning-after of wet slaps in the face.
The documentary follows "Candyman" Lane and all its licorice-style twists: First in his class at UCLA Law School, California Klein clings to the eccentric and unexpected, choosing not to take his state bar exams or practice law, but pursue tasty tarts instead of torts. Smarting from some not-so-savvy contracts sealed not with a kiss but kismet, this brilliant thinker became a Willie Wonka wonk -- knowing all there is to know about the candy business, except how to exit with a sweet deal.
In 1976, after inventing the Jelly Belly -- which belied its silly name to become a serious multimillion-buck bean business and even earn a presidential seal of approval from Ronald Reagan -- Klein caved (willingly) and traded half his company in exchange for a promise of employment for his father-in-law.
Where it counted -- in the dollars -- Klein was no brainy bean counter. But now, 30 years after selling the business lock, stock and trademark for a payoff of some $4 million -- a millstone to wear given he'd be worth about $200 million now had he kept it, instead of what he describes is a senseless bank statement of 2 cents -- Klein says it doesn't matter. It's a story that adds up to no more than a hill of, well, a hill of beans, he claims.
Tell that to his son. "My dad sold magic beans for a cow," Bert Klein says in the documentary.
And those beans provided much jack for the beanstalkers, the company that eventually bought his dad out.
Bean there, done that. Big deal, what's money? asks the Candyman.
Good question, but then, the intelligent Klein doesn't always intuit what's best in business.
"I remember when my daughter," who has started her own candy sensation, Sandy Candy, an artistic edible creation, "was interested in pursuing the Internet back in '95, I said to her, 'It's a passing fancy. Don't waste your time.' "
Crash course in economics from a father who sold short his own future?
What makes the film on the Documentary Channel -- generally available through the DISH Network and DirecTV -- so compelling is not its business beat, but the candy heart that pulses as a valentine to the vanquished but upbeat. For all his misguided moves and whiplash/licorice slaps in the face, Klein claims not only is he happy, but that he's modeled his life more on mitzvot than money.
Yes, he says, "I am a living mitvzah."
Nearly broke himself, he broke open the wallet to aid others in need, seeding some top beanstalks of their own choosing.
And as for the candy company that eviscerated his dreams even as it sugar-coated his role in the candy's creation (Go to their website, says Klein, and you won't see his name mentioned anywhere), he still has kind words for their/his product. "It's still the best jelly bean ever made."
Makes one wonder if he's a Pollyanna or pulling your leg. Or maybe just a -- is there still such a thing? -- truly nice guy.
Go for the latter, say those interviewed in the film, who marvel at the Candyman's inability to fudge his thinking, being honest to a fault -- and he hates faulting others for any of his own mistakes.
"It's not about the money," he explains. "Am I too nice for my own good? Someone once said I'm too sweet for capitalism."
So he endures capital punishment -- a bank account as empty as a mouth of cotton candy. Where the richness lies is in banking on the accounts of others he has helped.
There is the story he is reluctant to share, not wanting to embarrass the Syrian visitor to this country whom he helped bankroll with advice so that when he returned to his homeland, the Syrian would become a seer in the wholesale candy business.
Perhaps the Mideast merchant's greatest success was confounding his Syrian compatriots with this comment: "This Jewish guy back in the United States helped me."
For the Candyman, whose whole life has been one trick or treat, why dole out so much good and plenty?
"Why do good? You have to," Klein says simply. "That's what we're on earth for, to try and make a difference in someone's life."
Home Sweet Home
Rachmanes from rock candy as the source? All-day sucker for offering succor to others? What would Sammy Davis say?
It all hits home, sweet home: "The greatest thing to come out of this film" is the rapproachment Klein's had with his son, a success story himself, working for Disney, who draws on pride now (and is a producer of the film, directed by Costa Botes) rather than disappointment.
"He always wondered how I went from hero to zero," and now he can see how sweet the man and mensch is who he calls Dad.
And as for David's daughter, Roxie, rocking the candy industry with her Sandy Candy? He heaps on praise by the tablespoon.
"A Jewish father," he says of way of explanation, not forgetting to give out her website (www.niftycandy.com).
And about that law degree he never used? It usurps nothing but space. After all, what would he have done with it? Won multimillion-dollar settlements for big corporations? This son of the '60s doesn't have to think twice of the flower power he would have provided: "I would have done all pro-bono work anyway."
But surely, all those Jelly Bellies would have filled not only his belly, but his pocket. Being worth $200 mil is worthless, he avers, unless you value your life and family, which he does. "All that money wouldn't have changed my life," he claims.
Go for the good, rather than the gold?
Of course, says the focus of the award-winning documentary.
"It's been a wonderful life," he concedes, remembering also that his film will be repeating through the next month or so, including competing against that holiday evergreen "It's a Wonderful Life" on broadcast TV.
"Well, it has been," he says, filled with love and good laughs of the continual sugar high that's coated his life.
Is it really all that surprising then that one of his favorite all-time candies is also jelly-based, with a built-in laugh in every bite?
And that is?
"Chuckles," quips the Candyman with an affection for confection.