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Paul Helms, Avery Brundage and the Great Olympic Bread War

The Olympics are quickly approaching and the world will soon be turning its eyes towards London. While we hold our breaths in anticipation, we here at KCET Departures have been exploring the Olympics' connections to Los Angeles. Our dear city has hosted the games twice, and Southern California is home to many an Olympic athlete. However, putting aside the athletes and the games themselves (just briefly), this city is also home to something else "Olympic." Bread. Yes, bread.

On the border of Culver City and Los Angeles sits Helms Bakery. Now the building is home to furniture showrooms, art galleries and a few restaurants. Yet, it once was a flourishing bakery under the guidance of owner and namesake -- Paul Helms. Despite not having a retail location, their bread was known all over the city because the products were sold, still warm, from the back of Helms Bakery Coaches. Each truck would have an assigned neighborhood, and eager patrons would wave the driver down on street corners. Loyal and frequent customers would also place a blue "H" in their windows so drivers knew to stop for them each time.

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Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Paul HelmsWhen the Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1932, Paul Helms successfully sought out the exclusive contract to supply bread to the Olympic Village in Baldwin Hills. A smart entrepreneur, Helms took legal steps to ensure that he had the authority to utilize Olympic symbols in advertising. With no precedents blocking his action, he was granted authorization -- and immediately set out to capitalize on his Olympic affiliation. Los Angeles old timers will most likely have fond memories of the Helms' truck fleet and their deliveries of delicious "Olympic Bread" to neighborhoods all over the city and beyond.

But not everyone truly appreciated Paul Helms and his bread empire. One man -- Avery Brundage, then president of the United States Olympic Association, publicly denounced Helms and his "Official Olympic Bakers."

According to Brundage, Helms' obstinate advertisement of his Olympic connections was exploitation of the Games. In his mind, Helms was using the symbols for personal gain -- which went against the very principles of the Olympics. Without regards to Paul Helms' continued positive relationships with various Olympic teams in 1936 and 1947, Brundage committed himself to decrying this California bakery and the man in charge.

Avery BrundageContrary to this, other colleagues associated with Olympic committees identified Helms as an agreeable citizen and recognized him as a positive booster of the Games, financially and otherwise. Yet their attempts to defend Helms could not convince Brundage; his persistence in his efforts against the bakery continued for more than a decade. Perhaps this can be attributed to Brundage's character -- renowned for being intense and uncompromising. An article in the Olympic Journal of History goes so far as to call him the "American Olympic Czar."

While the official lawsuit was referred to as "Helms Bakeries v. the United States Olympic Association (1932-1950)," it really was a one man operation on the part of Avery Brundage against Helms and his bread.

When attorneys and other members of the Olympic committee became involved, Brundage was urged to be more civil. The case was finally settled in 1950: Helms agreed to remove the symbols from his ads, despite possessing the legal authorization to utilize the symbols. The case brought the importance of intellectual property rights to the attention of the National Olympic Committees -- many of whom had failed to register and trademark the famous, recognizable rings and symbols. Therefore, Brundage's actions and Helms' cooperation actually helped to spur the movement towards seeking the protection of Olympic marks.

Despite moving their advertising strategies away from the Olympics, the Helms Bakery thrived until 1969 when it closed, most likely due to the booming popularity of newly established supermarkets.

So who is the official supplier of bread for the upcoming games in London? Oroweat, a branch of Bimbo Bakeries USA, has been the "official bread supplier" to the US Olympic team since 2004. That they are a large corporation and not a family owned operation like Helms Bakeries perhaps demonstrates the extent to which the Olympics has changed since 1932. However, like Helms, they proudly display the Olympic rings on their website. What would Avery Brundage have to say about that?

Helms Bakeries today with the Olympic symbol intact | Photo by ax2groin used under a Creative Commons license

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