There’s no Aunt Jemima. Not a real one anyway. The idea came from a song in old minstrel shows, that homey old aunt often played by a white man in black face. Yikes. Somehow in the 1890s, her image consolidated as the face of pancakes. A brand was born.
Then there was Colonel Sanders, a real man with a real white pointed goatee. He even sold fried chicken, franchising KFC in the fifties till the business got too big and he sold it off. They kept his image on the buckets and in commercials, the aging southern gentleman forever tied to his lip-smacking blend of herbs and spices.
And there’s this guy, the one up there. He’s real, too, and they just made a movie about him. Directed by Jody Shapiro, Burt’s Buzz is the unlikely story of Burt Shavitz, the hippie beekeeper who missed out on millions, but became an icon anyway, his name smeared on countless people’s lips.
Burt Shavitz is a true eccentric, a back-to-the-land, living, breathing anachronism. Having found early success as a photo-journalist in the sixties, he turned his back on bohemian New York and set himself up in Maine in a renovated turkey coop with no running water. Doing odd jobs to get by, he craved the simple life. Beekeeping was something he stumbled into by accident. Selling honey by the side of the road when he wasn’t asleep in his truck, that’s about as far as his ambitions led him. It wasn’t until the arrival in 1984 of his soon-to-be partner, Roxanne Quimby, that the business of Burt got real.
If Burt was a Zen naturalist who wanted nothing more than his shack in the woods, he met his inspiring opposite in Roxanne, an ambitious unemployed single mother hitchhiking to an uncertain new life. Soon they were selling his honey in smaller, ornate jars at a local store, and making candles from the leftover beeswax. The business earned $20,000 in the first year, and within a few years Quimby was branching out to naturally made personal care products. The lip balm blew up, and by the late 90s Burt’s Bees was incorporated, with their own stores and sales in excess of $8 million. With exquisite serendipity, they’d caught the growing wave of consumer interest in organic and natural products. Burt’s bearded mug was the finishing touch adorning many of their products, an illustrated earthy image cultivated years before Etsy would lay claim to homespun quaintness and simplicity.
Ironically, Shavitz wasn’t participating in the growing ubiquity of his image. Quimby bought him out in 1993 for a house and some land. After she sold 80% of the company to private equity company AEA Investors for $173 million, she gave Shavitz an additional $4 million. Burt’s Bees kept growing, and in 2007 Clorox acquired it for $925 million. Looks like Burt’s suggestion that Roxanne use up all that leftover bee’s wax was a pretty good one.
Shavitz doesn’t seem overly bitter about being pushed out. He readily admits he’d been having an affair with a junior staff member as the company began expanding. Whether it was that betrayal, or Quimby’s desire to secure control over their budding empire, the documentary doesn’t spell out. Probably a little of hive A, a little of hive B. Though he and Quimby don’t speak, Shavitz is still an occasional pitchman for the company. His promotional trip to Taiwan is one of the more surreal recurring elements in the film, where his whiskery face has earned him a peculiar celebrity.
Burt’s Buzz glosses over what motivates Shavitz, why a man who wants nothing more than to play with his dog on his little parcel of land would allow himself to be shunted to the other side of the globe by the giant conglomerate that bought out his homespun business, together with the lover who pushed him aside years before. Though he often seems distant and aloof, the attention has to mean something. So many people have a little piece of Burt. This way he maintains contact, reminding people by his presence that the famous face they adore is his own. In an era where people crave and award celebrity for almost nothing at all, Shavitz’s fame is as honest as his face. He hardly seems to care, and it’s that indifference that sticks.
Burt’z Buzz opens on Friday, June 13th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto (see here for screening times and tickets). The 6:40pm premiere screening will have an intro and Q&A by director Jody Shapiro. For more info about the movie, and places to see it in the USA where it’s also currently in release, see here.