COVINA, Calif. — He's the Willie Wonka of this small suburban town east of Los Angeles, the rotund man in the T-shirt and shorts who joyfully takes just about anybody who walks through the door on a tour of his tiny candy factory.
But David Klein was once much more.
The confectioner, who these days makes a comfortable living selling various chewy, crunchy concoctions with funny names like Candy Barf and Zombie Heart (the latter squirts strawberry-flavored "blood" when you bite into it), was once at the center of a sweet-tooth revolution.
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He was Mr. Jelly Belly.
In 1976 Klein launched the gourmet jelly bean craze when he improbably envisioned that people would be willing to pay 10 or 20 times more for jelly beans if they simply tasted better, came in scores of natural flavors and had a clever name.
Then, with only $800 in hand, he somehow talked a small, family-run candy company in the San Francisco Bay area into going into business with him.
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The result was the Jelly Belly, a precociously flavorful little gob of sugar, syrup and corn starch that quickly became the favored treat of millions, including President Ronald Reagan.
And Klein, a one-time nut distributor who had begun selling his creation in just one candy store, was the gourmet bean's mascot.
Decked out in a Jelly Belly-bejeweled top hat and a matching white cowboy suit, he was everywhere in the late 1970s.
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He was photographed for People magazine sitting in a bathtub filled with Jelly Bellys, some stuck to his hairy chest, others lodged between his toes. He dropped by TV programs like The Mike Douglas Show to trade quips with the host and cajole the celebrity guests into sampling his new flavors.
Then, for reasons Klein still has trouble coming to terms with, he and his partner sold their interest in the Jelly Belly name in 1980 for $4.8 million. He collected his half of the money in monthly installments over 20 years, and he faded into obscurity.
"I went from hero to zero in about 60 seconds," the usually upbeat candy maker says morosely when the subject is raised. "I was Mr. Jelly Belly for four years. And then ...," his voice trail off.
While Jelly Bellys were being passed around the table at Reagan administration Cabinet meetings and carried into outer space by astronauts in the 1980s, Klein was trying in vain to come up with another big thing.
He brought out a version of sugar-free salt water taffy. He tried to hit it big with sour licorice until more well-heeled competitors squeezed him out. He pioneered gross-out candy with a chocolate bar shaped to look like — well — you get the idea. It never caught on.
Through it all, he moped about his and his late partner's decision to sell their 50-50 interest in Jelly Belly to the Herman Goelitz Candy Company, which renamed itself the Jelly Belly Candy Company.
"It caused a lot of pain in the family," says his son, Bert Klein, who produced the documentary Candyman: The David Klein Story. So much so that his son, a veteran Hollywood film animator, says that as a child he stopped telling people his father had ever been Mr. Jelly Belly. It was too painful and most people didn't believe him anyway.