WHO IS ZOLAR? MEET THE DEAN OF AMERICAN ASTROLOGY
By: Philip Deslippe
While checking one’s astrological forecast in the newspapers or online is largely a daily occurrence, the vast and global history of astrology can make it seem to be as old as the stars. Chinese astrology developed about 3,000 years ago during the Zhou dynasty, and is thought to have existed in India for nearly a millennium before then. The Western system of astrology is believed to go back even further, to the ancient Mesopotamia of almost four-thousand years ago, which then made its way into the Greek, Roman, Arabic, and European systems of divination. The spread of astrology in America however— the path it took to end up in our daily newspapers and emails—is less than a century old, and largely the result of a single man named Bruce King, known to millions as “Zolar.”
The most common story of how Bruce King became the famous Zolar revolves around him encountering a man known as “Professor A.F. Seward” who had been in Atlantic City for decades. Seward was a sensational promoter and an incredibly smooth talker. Aided by a giant chart of the zodiac and gaudily decorated car, he had amassed a fortune by selling horoscopes for a dollar apiece to tourists on the boardwalk since 1900. By the time King had witnessed Seward in action on the boardwalk, the Professor had parlayed his wealth into a real estate empire of hotels and apartment buildings.
King would take astrology to levels that even Professor Seward could not dream of, and King seems to have done it through his own eclectic background that prepared him for the unique innovations that he would make. King left school in Chicago early and ran off to become an actor. Not long after he became an assistant to a traveling salesman who was in the clothing business, and by the age of twenty-one he developed his own clothing lines and was making a massive amount of money on his own. King then went into the securities business in Los Angeles, but left stocks (and reportedly went bankrupt) during the height of the Great Depression and came full circle by returning to Chicago.
According to one interview in 1960, getting into the astrology business was something that King stumbled onto “by accident”, but in several other accounts it seems to have been a conscious and deliberate move done with savvy. King noticed that during the Great Depression “astrologists were the only people with money” and the field of horoscope-sellers was sparse with only a few semi-famous figures (including Seward) and little of the popular forms that we recognize today.
King began in the vein of Seward by selling one-dollar horoscopes on the radio under the name of Kobar, mixing astrology and popular psychology. In 1934 King moved to New York and bought out a coin-operated vending machine that sold horoscopes for ten cents each. Named the “Astrolograph,” King had the machines placed in movie theatres around the country and they became wildly successful. King bluntly stated in a profile for The New Yorker, “That machine popularized astrology in America.” The success of the Astrolograph had its limits. It offered annual horoscopes, which while popular, ensured that King would only see repeat business from an individual every twelve months.
His next big innovation came soon after, when King passed by a Woolworth department store and was struck with the idea of selling horoscopes to retail outlets. Unlike the annual forecasts from the Astrolograph, these were pocket-sized booklets offering shorter-term horoscopes, and they were wildly successful. King nearly sold a million of them to the 2,200 stores in the Woolworth chain in just his first year alone. It was at this point that King adopted the moniker “Zolar” (a combination of the words “solar” and “zodiac,” and not too far removed from his radio name Kobar) and began to also publish cheap paperback books on astrology and related topics such as dream interpretation.
Zolar became the “Dean of Astrologers” according one report and “the world’s most popular astrologer” according to his own reckoning, but it would have been difficult to dispute his supremacy in the field. By his own estimates around 1960, Zolar was responsible for over seventy-percent of all horoscopes distributed in the United States, received between 20 to 25,000 personal letters a year, and had sold an astonishing total of over fifty-million horoscopes. He would eventually be translated into over ten languages.
Although his background in business and sales was doubtlessly a key to his success, it would be unfair to see Zolar is simply a talented salesman. By all accounts he took astrology seriously and could talk about it with unique depth and detail, no surprise given that he had dedicated himself to an intense self-directed study of astrology and related practices, saying once “Everything I’ve ever known I’ve taught myself.”
His popularizing of astrology also would have been impossible without his eye towards to common person. With the Boardwalk-hawking of Professor Seward aside, when Bruce King began astrological charts were mostly an expensive and private affair that were drawn up specifically for an individual. King saw himself as not a specialist, but like “the old $2 country doctor— a general practitioner” who over time and dealing with large numbers of people “evolved a method of astrological analysis that will cover the greatest common denominator.”
When interviewed, King was aware of the consequences of a horoscope’s power. He knew that his business grew when times were tough, and those who looked to the stars for guidance were often disturbed by troubles on earth. While he eschewed most media enquiries and kept a turbaned swami figure as the logo of Zolar, King also refused to claim that he held supernatural powers and said that the power in astrology was “mostly psychology, of course.” By the time of Zolar’s death in 1976 astrology had become so popular that people wore t-shirts with the zodiac, introduced themselves by asking for someone’s star sign, and could buy a copy of their horoscope at the supermarket check-out. It was a long way off from Zolar’s beginnings in 1932 when “nobody knew what a horoscope was” and “thought you were a nut” if you talked about it. King was behind this shift and helped to shape astrology not just into something popular, but also into the non-fatalistic, self-help form that it has taken today.