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Friday, March 3, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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ERIK LACITIS

Stain remover leaves some indelible marks

Seattle Times staff columnist

Let's see . . . would you like another story about fed-up taxpayers or those stirring McCain-Bush-Bradley-Gore debates or the fascinating speculation of 50 people about whether our mayor will run again or . . .

. . . the poignant history of the name of a product known by anyone who's watched late-night infomercials?

Today I bring you DidiSeven, the miracle cleaner that's sold 30 million tubes worldwide. It's a history that goes back to Nazi Germany and in which I ended up talking to a 74-year-old man in the town of Rennigen.

For many of us, DidiSeven is a TV memory right up there with the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Usually, such products peak in sales and end up in a closet. That's what was happening to DidiSeven.

Then came this month's issue of Consumer Reports in which the highly regarded publication rated stain removers, the result of nine months of testing. I was one of those who caught the well-read report. Pat Slaven, project leader for the stain tests, understood the reason for the high readership. "If you're a little kid or an old person," she said, "everybody has had a mustard stain."

And here's why the DidiSeven manufacturer is excited. "It's a TV product that actually works," Slaven said. "It removed more stains than anything we tested."

Now, let's go back to Germany, 1938. In the southwest town of Offenburg, near the French border, lives an 11-year-old boy named Walter Willmann. His dad works in the railroad office. Just about Walter's best friend is the girl next door, the same age, named Edith Koster. She's the daughter of a local prosecutor.

Walter speaks English only sparingly, so when I call, his son, Walter Jr., translates.

As I hear the 75-year-old in the background, the son tells the story about Edith: "She was the love of his early life. She was Jewish and her family had to flee out of Germany. He liked her so much that he promised to name his first daughter after her."

That's quite a remarkable promise from an 11-year-old. Walter never heard from Edith again and has no idea where her family ended up.

The years passed, the war ended. Walter married, began working in an accounting job at a chemical firm, moved to Rennigen. A baby girl was born into his first marriage. She was named Edith - Walter had not forgotten his promise.

The years went by. Although Walter had no background in chemistry, he was interested in its research. He began tinkering with cleaning formulas. At home, he would stain trousers, T-shirts and other clothing and then try his formula. By 1967, he was ready to market a product. He did it the old-fashioned way, with demonstrations at a fair, at a pharmacy.

There was always a moment in the demonstration when customers were hooked. That was when a deutsche mark, stained with ink, grease and red dye, was dipped in the formula. You're not supposed to be able to get stains out of currency paper. This cleanser did.

Walter prospered, buying a small building, manufacturing the cleanser on the ground story, living on the top floor. By 1987, 10 million of the tubes had been sold in Europe. That was when Rob Woodrooffe of Toronto heard about the astounding demonstrations.

Woodrooffe, whose firm is Interwood Marketing Group - its latest infomercial touts the "Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts" videos - bought the rights to the cleanser. Walter retired, the manufacturing now is done in Canada, and the rest - 20 million tubes, at $9.95 a tube - is TV sales history.

DidiSeven is still around, available at chain drugstores, but the infomercials haven't aired much. The company was in the midst of figuring out a new campaign when this month's Consumer Reports came out. They're very happy in Toronto.

Walter, meanwhile, explained to me how the cleanser came to be named DidiSeven. He was born on July 16, 1925, and various combinations of that date add up seven, which he considers his lucky number. That's part of it.

As for Didi, well, that was Edith's nickname. Not only did Walter name his daughter after the 11-year-old girl he knew so long ago, but a TV product that's been sold in 100 countries as well.

The name's a story of friendship, I told Walter's son, who relayed my message to his dad.

"Yes, he thinks so, too," came back the reply.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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