October 29, 2016

MORE THAN YOU CARE TO KNOW ABOUT MY HALLOWEEN SEASON


What follows is a sprawling account of my 2016 Halloween season. I don't think I included enough jokes to make it super entertaining, but at least its a thorough document. It's a disjointed collection of thoughts that amount to the story of one man's focused, and sometimes frustrating attempt to enjoy Halloween at a new capacity.

Last May I was mowing my front yard when I involuntarily said, 
"I'm ready for Halloween."
Such an early craving was unusual even for me. At the time I had just made a close-yet-failed attempt at joining the full time workforce again. Following this defeat a crop of opportunities popped up that my freelancer instincts could not resist. I seemed to forget that in the summer I take on the full time roll of content provider for my son, a job that usually requires dozens of government workers. It also happens that my wife's profession goes into overdrive during those months. An August-long head cold (or something) added another layer to my challenge. Summer was unrelenting. It did not relent. You could say it was relentless. Many times I said it and thought it, 
"I'm ready for Halloween."

September arrived. The decision to begin one's Halloween season two months before October 31st is a controversial one. Does prolonged celebration diminish the impact of the season? Can September even feel like Halloween?  That's the one I had trouble with this year. Philosophically, I was all for a September 1st kick-off, but despite my yearning to dive into the orange and black it was the hot weather that presented a psychological barrier.

Thanks to my ability to overthink something so petty I discovered a mental workaround for the frustration. I simply designated September as "Pre-Halloween" season. It's an obvious concept, but I'd never consciously viewed it that way before. Typing up this thought process for public consumption feels like an intimate, even embarrassing act. But it was a crucial part of my quest to fully savor this time of year. Henceforth, September, or Pre-Halloween, shall be a time set aside for leisurely preparation and anticipation. It reminds me of a memorable quote from The Simpsons of all things, "To the most beautiful moment in life, Better than a deed, better than a memory, the moment... of anticipation!"

In the second week of September I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma to meet a friend who runs a traveling antique show. Saturdays in Tulsa are not complete without a visit to the Tulsa Flea Market, a weekly gathering that takes place in the heart of my nostalgia, former home to the Phantasmagoria dark ride— the fairgrounds. Navigating through an acre of junk-covered tables while breathing the scent of fresh popcorn was already getting me high when I noticed glowing orange lights dotting the rows of vendors. The Halloween stuff was out!

I had taken mental inventory of a blow molded ghost and a set of masks before I spotted a familiar design. It was a vacuform graveyard scene that I'd last seen on a store shelf when I was in second grade. At the time it was a strong contender for my allowance money, but ultimately I left it behind. Not this time.





No summer weather could stop this decoration from drilling straight into a deep fount of Halloween memories. These are the moments that nostalgia junkies like myself are always searching for, often fearing that we've exhausted them all. This object is a bridge to my young self, not just standing in an aisle of fresh Halloween product, but also standing in a new school semester, with new weather, new classmates, new television shows, new book orders, new events, and new Christmas wishbooks. It's the realization that Fall isn't so great because it contains Halloween, rather, Halloween is great because it happens during the Fall. Ironically, Spring, with it's many endings (and terrifying tornado sirens) can never offer the sense of renewal that Autumn has.

(For the record, the decoration was made by "Empire Seasonal Division," and there were at least two other designs. I saw these on ebay...)



In late September the preparations continued, and by that I mean I bought more stuff. One can only stare at a wall decoration so long so I set out to find some cheap and spooky media. The 8-film Horror pack for five bucks fit my needs (the one with Chopping Mall, C.H.U.D. II, and Waxwork). Also meeting my requirements were some choice items from Oldies.com, a favorite storehouse of discontinued stock where I picked up Halloween Scream (1993), a slapped together collection of early computer animation from the Mind's Eye series. I also got a childhood favorite Witches Night Out, as well as Nancy Kerrigan's Halloween On Ice, a 1996 extravaganza in which Kerrigan choreographed a routine to John Carpenter's Halloween theme that involves dozens of skeleton ice skaters. (The DVD dealt a crushing blow by omitting this particular performance! Lets hope for a complete Criterion edition blu-ray). Anyway, I also found some nifty mail-order inspired lounge pants!


Dollar Tree provided this charming zombie/haunted tree/skull cave scene that features a solar-powered flying bat...



 I displayed a couple spooky LPs I found within the last year (the two on the right)...




Lastly, I expanded my collection of Halloween audio tapes. I will likely give these a separate post at some point. There's one called Haunted Mansion Cassette Tape that's given me little jolts of joy ever since I hung it up months ago. The natural (hedonistic, materialistic, greedy) thing to do was seek out more of this pleasure with more tapes. My set of four inspired me to update my pegboard display with a spooky theme.

 

I realize its a bit skeleton and skull heavy, but that's a problem I'm willing to live with.

When I wasn't on ebay I frequented DinosaurDracula.com, a site run by a man who has shunned all criticism surrounding premature Halloween celebration. On top of his cavalcade of Halloween posts, Matt started a late night forum for spooky discussion. Participating in these was yet another way for me to stoke the Halloween spirit. Among the topics were things like 'first horror film' and 'scandalous video tape covers,' but one of my favorites was 'local legends.' I had a lot to say on the matter...

"...One that stuck with me came from an overheard conversation that my mom was having. (The same lady who professed nearly every classic urban legend in the book, from the lady with the beehive hairdo full of spider eggs, to ankle slashing gangs, to the kid who tried on a coat and got bit by a snake hiding in the lining.) She was talking about a prominent missionary who made a series of audio tapes based on his experience exorcising demons in third world countries. These supposedly included actual recordings from exorcisms. 

The series of sermons was on a collection of a dozen cassettes, and they were available only to those professionals who might need to deal with real demons. The thing is, the missionary gradually revealed information to the listener in controlled increments. The listener HAD to listen to them IN PROPER ORDER to build up an understanding and immunity to the powerful spiritual truths. BUT what if someone happened to pop in cassette twelve WITHOUT hearing the eleven previous tapes in order?... They would literally go INSANE!

My mind struggled to imagine what that tape sounded like (it probably sounded like the Hell scene in Event Horizon) and how horrible it would be to accidentally pop that final tape in my boom box. Chills!"
_______

I was also reminded of the way that Halloween manifested in my teen years. It seemed to intensify as I grew up. The 'Satanic Panic' emerged just as I was coming of age...

"I distinctly remember that the panic in my area kicked in the day after this Geraldo Rivera special. (One of the murders wasn't too far from where I lived.) After that, there were local warnings about a nearby lake where it was said that Satanists blocked the road with fallen trees. If you approached them, they would cut down a tree behind you and trap you, and you were done for. There was talk about a white hearse that drove around town with tinted glass windows. Someone supposedly got up close and saw a bloody pig's head in the back. There were rumors about rituals in a local party spot called Acid Field. Same goes for a place called Zero Mountain.

Funny thing is, all of these warnings backfired, and life became very exciting for my friends and me. We were just old enough to drive, so every place on the 'do not go' list turned into a potential adventure for us. I investigated Acid Field, and Zero Mountain (which wasn't close) and the lake with the fallen trees (and we actually saw some!). It felt like suddenly there were adversaries all around us, and we were the heroes ready to shed light on their evil. It was thrilling.

And then there was the rumor of the Halloween haunted house that was a couple towns over. It was said to be a multi-level deal with a huge admission fee. However, if you were brave enough to make it, your money would be refunded, ten dollars for each level passed. But nobody could actually make it to the end on account of it was so terrifying. When the internet came along I discovered that this was a nationwide legend that I had put my total faith into. I love that my little town was so privy to so many national legends. The latest fashions and fads passed us by, but if you're talking misinformation, this place was a sponge, and my little world got very interesting."
_______

One of the Dinosaur Dracula topics was '2016 Halloween to-do lists.' I was way ahead of them. This year the stakes were too high to go wandering into the season without a game plan. My list seemed unrealistic as I typed it up, yet somehow I've fulfilled about 95% of it with a few days remaining. I've pasted it below, however, you might want to skip it for now because I'm about to elaborate on it item by item.

HALLOWEEN LIST 2016
1. Go to the Halloween festival (and buy another skull mug)
2. See a scary movie in the theater
3. Repair my light-up decorations
4. Make my Halloween mood table
5. Put up some exterior decorations (for the first time!)
6. Drive on a highway I've never driven on and visit some towns I've never been to
7. Play Left 4 Dead 2, and Dead Space games
8. Keep reading IT
9. Rent horror DVDs from the video store
10. Watch my pre-selected Halloween VHS pile
11. Have a horror on VHS party
12. Create something with a Halloween theme, blog post or otherwise
13. Walk around at night listening to spooky music
14. On Halloween: go Trick or Treat, hand out candy, eat pizza, watch the new Ghostbusters

1. Go to the Halloween festival (and buy another skull mug)
On the last day of September I finished a relatively involved freelance job that had been lingering all summer long. During the final leg of the project I got an email from a potential client offering one of those 'week-long, drop everything and work fourteen hours a day' jobs. They even offered a special 'rush bonus.'  It seemed like some cosmic test, and I'm not sure whether I passed or failed, but as much as I could use that paycheck full of rush money, I couldn't do it.

Instead October first was the day when a couple friends and I made a two hour drive to a Halloween festival. It takes place on the converted grounds of a Renaissance fair. There's a building that resembles a castle and a little fake town that's all decked out in Halloween. They set up a number of walk-through spookhouses that are somewhat elaborate and plenty satisfying. It's cheesy and chintzy (like me), but I've been back at least a half dozen times over the years because there are few other places, especially nearby, where the Halloween spirit is so tangible. It's the flaming torch lights, and the dance music (Thriller, Time Warp, and that Somebody's Watching Me song with the Michael Jackson backup vocals) and the costumed workers who all speak in leftover British accents from the Renaissance fair, which doesn't quite make sense. It's the smell of gasoline from the guy with the chain-less chainsaw at the end of the haunted house, and the smell of carnival food competing with the smell of cigarettes (which are being overtaken by new gangs of vape enthusiasts).

I stood in the ticket line ready to pony up (I never say 'pony up') for the Fright Combo which includes the four scariest attractions according to their skull rating system. None ranked fewer than four of the five possible skulls, and one broke the scale with an astonishing six skulls. When it was my turn the cashier informed me that their card machine was down. My plan had involved using a card.

No problem, they had ATMs on site. We discovered the ATMs were connected to the same network as the card machines (reminder: they were down). Our only option was to relocate our car in the vast, dark festival parking lot and drive to the nearest gas station. The gas station ATM was conveniently located near the front door. So convenient in fact, that using the machine required a four dollar fee. That Nancy Kerrigan Halloween on Ice DVD cost me less than four dollars. My friends and I took our financial spankings and got the cash. You probably understand how these kinds of hurdles have a way of diminishing the fun factor, so I announced to my friends that I would ask the festival cashier for a discount. Even I didn't believe the statement because yeah right, like I would ever ask the cashier for a discount.

We re-parked, re-walked in, and re-stood in line. I went to the same lady who gave me the news about the card machine. She told me that the card machines were down. I explained my brief history with the card machines, and I asked the cashier for a discount. It was like an out of body experience for me. Her reply? 
"No. I can't do that."
I doubled down, and moved to phase two. 
"Could I talk to a manager?"
"No, that's not possible."
At that moment a man opened up a door behind her who looked managerial relative to the rest of the British accented spookhouse operators. I heard myself addressing him directly. He half listened to my woeful tale. He replied that the Fright Combo, at thirty dollars, is already such a great deal he simply couldn't go lower. As if he were paying his spooks by the scare and I would push them over budget.
Then I tapped into some unfamiliar part of myself and I made my case again, though I never lost my smile or the demeanor that I learned from watching George Costanza try to charm strangers. We had a full blown back and forth. He perked up when he learned that the gas station was charging a four dollar fee, and suggested that he could raise his own ATM fees. I contested, but about that time he reached over and typed a code into the cash register causing my admission to ring up four dollars less. I can only hope that my refund wasn't his way of compensating me for valuable intel. 

Whatever his motive, from that moment on I was riding a tempest of pure victory. Between spookhouses I walked into one of several souvenir shops and bought a skull mug, just as my list instructed. The price tag: four dollars. It serves as a trophy for my consumerist conquest.



2. See a scary movie in the theater
I went to see the Blair Witch sequel on opening weekend. I was entertained and it satisfied my curiosity, but I missed the subtlety and the feeling of genuine dread that was caused by the first one. Seeing it in a Sunday matinee on a hot afternoon didn't help.

Then a few days ago I also watched Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I knew going in that it has a Harryhausen-esque skeleton battle sequence and a prominent ghost train dark ride, so everything else was just bonus.


3. Repair my light-up decorations
I've amassed about a half dozen blow molded Halloween pieces since the 1990s along with other light-up stuff. Each year entropy claims another bulb or fuse leaving only a couple that still work. This year I made good on my vow to bring them back to life. It only took three different trips to Lowe's and Walmart, but they are now spooky, yet functional beacons. Rekindling their glow was probably the most symbolic task on my list.

 



4. Make my Halloween mood table
For the third time I took part in a practice that I predict will become a staple of national Halloween tradition. This too can be traced to the Dinosaur Dracula web site. Unlike a Christmas tree, my mood table goal is to make a unique creation each year. Here's how it turned out this time...


This year I went with sort of a yin yang approach. I noticed that my ghost holds the skull and jack-o-lantern like he's comparing them. So I set up more loose comparisons: I've got Bela on the left and Boris on the right, Wolfman claws verses razor glove, bendy against bendy, and so on.  Here's a closer look...


Though it doesn't support my little theme I included these vinyl Halloween puppets. About fifteen years ago I got overzealous in an ebay bidding war and way overpaid for them. It's taken me this long to find peace with my folly.

 
The Count Dracula hanging on the right side of the wall was a one dollar flea market find this year, and the very same model that my first grade teacher had in our classroom. I only mention it so I can share the great header card that came with it...

  
The best thing about my mood table is that it inspired my son to make one of his own, which he calls the Corner of Terror. Not only did he put together a bunch of stray monsters, he set up a series of poetic instructions that ultimately lead the victim to open a coffin filled with spring-loaded snakes.


 
5. Put up some exterior decorations (for the first time!)
The thought of extending my Halloween decor to the outdoors has always been overwhelming. Maybe it's because I know I can't create the amusement park level Halloweenland of my dreams. And aren't you just begging to be robbed or vandalized? But this year was the year. My son and I invested a total of nine dollars (plus a Frankenstein figure a buddy gave to me years ago) and decorated the flower bed out front. These are baby steps, but it felt good, and it ties into #14 on the list— hand out candy.  As we worked on it, I noticed my next door neighbor decorating their porch too. It was like a Rockwell-esque fantasy.


6. Drive on a highway I've never driven on and visit some towns I've never been to
This may not seem Halloween related, but Fall is my favorite time for taking day trips, and they're all the more magical when you see occasional spooks and pumpkins in small town store windows. There's also a decent chance that flea markets and antique shops will have some seasonal products out.

I had to go about an hour out of town to find an entirely untraveled route. My carefree mindset took jabs from the many political signs along the way, but the good weather nearly evened things out.  The towns I visited under-delivered on places to stop. One Main Street had a stretch of inviting second-hand shops according to google maps, but the street view photo must have been taken before all the "Going out of business" signs went up. 

To make up for it I took a long detour and landed in Joplin, Missouri, a city that doesn't seem to excite my friends or family, but I've always been fond of it.  As a stop along former Route 66 it still has the flavor of a driving man's town. It also has an active mall that contained a Spirit Halloween shop... 

 

7. Play Left 4 Dead 2, and Dead Space games
Well, I can check off the first half in this entry in a big way, but this year I didn't get to Dead Space. I can't explain the eternal attraction (addiction) I have to Left 4 Dead. Each time I log in my Steam account I see my shameful number of total hours played (deep into triple digits), but I just keep going. It's got about eight zombie-filled co-operative missions to choose from, and they play like endless reruns. I think that's the draw. I'm so familiar and comfortable in that harrowing world that it's as soothing as watching old Brady Bunch episodes. Worst part is, I'm still not very good at it.


8. Keep reading Stephen King's IT
I'm currently on page 559 out of 1092. I've enjoyed it so far, especially the way it hops back and forth between the 1950s and the 1980s, two of my favorite decades for nostalgia. The meandering pace of the story is probably the reason I'm comfortable writing such a bloated Halloween post this year.


9. Rent horror DVDs from the video store
Twice this month I visited a local movie rental shop whose primary source of income is actually payday advances, tanning beds, and beer. But they still have a vast floor of DVD shelves and even a corner of VHS for sale. I've strip mined the video cassettes which are one dollar for a week's rental or fifty cents to buy. (I laughed when I was told this, but then I was assured that it's not a joke.)

The process of walking the aisles and picking out movies has become so foreign so quickly. I had the store to myself for a full half hour on both visits which made the experience even more dreamlike. Adding to the effect were a slew of burnt-out overhead lights, as well as other fixtures of Soviet style commerce. Still, my hunt for movies was easily as enjoyable as the viewings themselves. This makes a ton more sense when you consider my masochistic choices: The Rob Zombie Halloween II remake, that Nightmare on Elm Street remake, and the Poltergeist remake. I knew better, but my raw curiosity had been nagging me for years. But I did like Silent Hill and Frailty.


10. Watch my pre-selected Halloween VHS pile 
A few years ago I discovered a not-so-nearby small town video store that was liquidating their horror section, and I was the first collector on the scene. I snatched up all the titles that looked fun or hard to find and these filled me with complete contentment. 

Of course not. I am a collector and therefore I was haunted by all that I left behind. I returned again and again, each time lowering my standards for what I deemed worth buying. Eventually I exhausted everything I wanted. (I can't bring myself to buy those Leprechaun movies, even though they fit my criteria.)

My suspicious activity (An out-of-towner who repeatedly sifts through video tapes like he's deciphering ancient texts) made me memorable to the owner, who seems like an eccentric fictional character who was written on a tight deadline. (I suppose I'm like that too.) Inevitably the two of us started having conversations of increasing length, discussing the histories of the store, the town, and eventually, our own families.

This August I returned again to confirm that there were no remaining must-have VHS tapes. Amazingly there weren't. I chatted with the owner for about a half hour and was about to leave empty handed when I noticed a stack of tapes behind the counter that I hadn't seen before. It included: the Italian film Demons, as well as Night of the Demons, it's sequel, and Deadtime Stories. These are fan favorites that I'd never watched, and couldn't imagine finding in the wild again.

The owner seemed surprised by my second approach, yet eager to return to our talk which he had steered towards the topic of conspiracy theories, something I don't have a lot of patience for. Or so I thought. My return must have been misconstrued, because he became uncharacteristically fired up, asking me leading questions and insisting I read long articles while he waited. Typically I'm someone who genuinely listens as opposed to just waiting my turn to talk, but this time I was laser focused on finding an opening to wedge in my question about the video tapes. His tirade lasted another hour, as all of my signals and attempted exits were denied.

He covered the textbook cover-ups including: the murderous Clintons, Obama's citizenship, the fact that US dollars are meaningless, the dangers of cell phones, the government's use of fluoride to sedate us, JFK, toxic medicine, 9/11 of course, and yes, even the fake moon landing. Finally there was a pause. I asked, and he was happy to part with the videos. However, somebody had alerted him that these particular tapes were "collectibles," thus they were not priced at his usual dollar fifty rate. Four for twenty was as low as he'd go, and amazingly this was almost a deal breaker for me since I was primed to pay the typical blowout prices. Then I came to my senses and realized that I was past the point of no return. I took out my debit card. Somehow during the previous hour I didn't clue in to the fact that there's no way this guy would accept debit cards.

I found a Dollar General store down the street where I could use their government controlled card readers to get some cash back. Oh yes, I was painfully aware that the convenience fee (two dollars this time) would corrupt my deal on the tapes. But by then I had lost all free will. I was strapped to the belly of a monster I had sired in the video store. The sting of this inconvenience faded when I discovered the store had just put out their Halloween candy (in early August!) The fates had spoken so I bought my first bag of BRACH's candy corn of the season. That's right. This is my second petty, long-winded Halloween story that involves unexpected ATM fees.

I returned to the store and pointed out that unfortunately I had to pay with US dollars which, as you may recall, are meaningless. He accepted my payment.

I placed these tapes in a reserve of 2016 Halloween choices. I've watched a third of them so far.



11. Have a horror on VHS party
By "party" I mean that I invited two friends over to sit on my couch. One of them was able to make it. The movies were background noise as we talked about other movies. It was a very fun night.

12. Create something with a Halloween theme, blog post or otherwise
I can check this one off in just a matter of paragraphs.

13. Walk around at night listening to spooky music
I put in some headphones and walked to a gas station in the middle of the night while listening to the soundtracks to Halloween 4 and Stranger Things. It was really neat. Also, I was dressed as a clown. (Not really.)

What's even neater was a different, very foggy night when I talked my son into going on an impromptu walk. I bribed him with an ICEE after bedtime and we ended up visiting two different convenience stores. I didn't bring music, but we talked the whole time, and I'll never forget it.

14. On Halloween: take my son trick or treating, hand out candy, eat pizza, watch the new Ghostbusters
My son turns eleven soon, that precarious age when some of the greatest thrills of childhood become endangered. (I say a 'thank you' prayer every time he holds my hand in public.) Most of his friends are already proclaiming that they've aged out of going door to door for candy. I hope my son will stick with it a few more years. (I did, despite being ridiculed, though it was nothing new to a guy who never packed up his childhood toys.) However, I'm planning a transitional year of both candy getting and candy giving. I'm looking forward to it: open windows blaring spooky sound effects that were recorded in the 80s, something black and white playing on TV, standing among my fully functional decorations and my mini-graveyard, and making a memory so great that hopefully my son will write about it on the internet in thirty years.

January 03, 2016

ANATOMY OF A 1980s NOVELTY SHOP WINDOW DISPLAY

 

UPDATE!: Be sure to scroll all the way to the bottom of the article to check out an amazing reply to this post from Mark Pahlow, founder of Archie McPhee!!


Content Advisory: It's pretty mild, but this post contains some imagery that might not go over well at the office, or any place where semi-nudity and crude humor isn't okay.

During a recent journey across the internet I happened upon this photo of a genuine novelty shop window from the 1980s. I'd like to send out my heartfelt thanks to the anonymous soul who had the wherewithal to capture this piece of space and time. The cost of film and development alone would prevent most from snapping a picture like this. (That's why I suspect it was taken by the shop owner or the window dresser, but I'll speculate more in a moment.) Not only does it exist— it's a quality photo and somehow it made the digital leap onto the web! The extent of the display is also remarkable even for a time when novelty items were more prevalent.

After marveling for a while I put on my cyber-detective hat and started asking questions.
When was this photo taken? 
Based on the "Think Fat" poster I have deduced that it was taken in 1985 or later. However, the mix of merchandise goes back at least a decade and a half before that. For instance, the Executive Waste Basket Ball dates back to 1966 (though they remained on shelves for a long while). A couple other packages have that late sixties look too. This may be a clue as to when the store opened.

Where was this? 
Certainly in the United States, as indicated by the Jimmy Carter bottle opener, and probably below the Mason-Dixon line considering the confederate flag, hat, and bow tie. It's most likely a touristy spot. Some place like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or maybe somewhere in Florida or Texas, or perhaps an east-coast beach town?

What store is this? 
Is the business called Michel's or Michelle's, or something else? That's still a mystery.
UPDATE:  When I reversed the image and enhanced it a bit you can see another sign that says "Michel's."
Also, commenter Hugh Walter theorizes that it could be an internal display, possibly for trade rather than retail. Very interesting!



Of course the big question is, what exactly were they selling? After a lot of staring and a lot of googling I've been able to identify over two dozen objects, and I've located photos of most of them. Some I recognize, but couldn't find photos of. These include: the big blue Sob Scarf, the Talking Refrigerator at the bottom, and that particular Lucky Dice display.

A couple of them remain shrouded in pixels. The one that drives me nuts is the thing that looks like a camera in the bottom middle. The image on the side looks like sequential shots of a baseball player. Is it some sort of novelty camera?

EDIT: Solved!
Reader "VertigoJon" did some serious detective work. He says...
"I set out on a mission to figure it out.
5 hours later, after photoshop-forensics I still couldn't get it. Inverting colors, playing with contrast, blurring, sharpening, de-noising… nothing.

The text looked like preppy gag, troute king, pyeig-L rug, peng's rag… and on and on. I did google searches of all sorts that would drag up vintage camera gags.

Finally I got it! On the box, over what looks like the camera, I was trying to figure out what the yellow stripe was when I say what looked like red letters. I THOUGHT I could clearly make out “PHONE”… so I went with that. It isn't “king”, it's “ring!!

Then an epiphany! PHONE-Y RING!
A quick google of that term confirmed it."




The Phone-Y Ring was produced by Cal Themes who was also responsible for a line of "jiggler" creatures and animals, as well as a selection of suggestive box gags. It came out in 1980 which happens to be the same year that CaddyShack hit theaters. Thus, Rodney Dangerfield's high tech golf bag, complete with telephone, may be the inspiration behind the golfing imagery on the side of the box.


The other one I want to know about is the pinkish box in the bottom left with the hand dropping something (a coin?) into another hand. There's also that tasseled fabric thing hanging next to the flags in the upper right corner [edit: solved! see further below]. This could be another clue to the locale. If you have any ideas, please don't hesitate to comment.

Mysteries aside, let us turn our attention to the known products that make up this carefully curated medley of mirth.




 
1. Blow-up doll 
This is probably the most common inflatable girl, considering it's been in production for nearly half a century. She's inexplicably named Judy and she's often sold alongside her soulmate, John. This model is not anatomically correct, however, that fact doesn't dispel the social stigma placed on Judy owners.


2. Phony Arm Cast (with sling and safety pin for the sling)
The 'phony' genre of gags are typically unable to fool anyone standing closer than ten feet away. But this classic sympathy-getter is surprisingly realistic when worn. Cover it in fake signatures for maximum effect.


3. Think Fat Wall Poster
This reaction to the '80s fitness craze demonstrates the gift shop's role as a cultural first responder.  Trend chasing profiteers brought us everything from Michael Jackson-esque glitter gloves to Beanie Baby preservation devices. Timely or not, it's tough to imagine even one customer compelled to pay for this poster and then hang it up for daily viewing. Maybe the ultra-wacky college student from a Spring Break movie, who already owns the double-can beer helmet, and a closet full of Hawaiian shirts? But the truth is, enough people voted with their dollars to fund a fat joke poster subgenre. And it wasn't just this company, here are a couple others from Western Graphics...


Speaking of poster makers, according to the copyright info, the Think Fat image was bestowed upon us by "Tony Stone Associates." Some ebay research yields a mini portfolio by Stone and company which includes: two bewildered kittens, a cockpit, and a baby sitting among a selection of chamber pots and bed pans. Mind you, all of these are large wall posters intended for home decorating.







4. 'Kiss Me' Inflatable Lips
This misshapen, yet demanding object is the sort of thing that can pass for romantic in the context of a carnival, or a sweaty boardwalk.


5.  Mr. John Fake Urinal
This was produced by Fishlove, Inc. which was one of the top commercial merrymakers in the 1960s and 70s. They were responsible for the classic Chatter Teeth, Whoops fake vomit, jumbo sunglasses, and a ton of box gags. ( I demoed a Fishlove party gag kit a long time ago.)

This item seems like another potential classic, but I suppose few would-be pranksters were willing to risk the messy consequences of it actually fooling someone. (I found this photo on the Fun Incorporated Instagram which does indeed incorporate some fun images.)



6.  Rubber Chicken
Another definitive novelty, and this shop proves their credibility by offering at least three different designs. (This is the one on the left.) Think about that, three different styles of rubber chickens to choose from! That is just unbelievably hardcore. I fancy myself a novelty enthusiast, but this makes me a bit uncomfortable.


7.  Costume Ball and Chain
Even at this place a ball and chain seems like an odd choice for a window piece. There I go again, always underestimating the number of people interested in dressing as the standard black-and-white-striped prisoner. In actuality, it's been a staple for decades. It's half of the old 'cop and crook' couples' theme, plus, a prisoner represents deviance in the most general sense. In fact, the ball and chain is an internationally recognized symbol for captivity even though it hasn't been commonly used for generations! Now I totally get why they put one in the window.


8. Magic Knife
Kicking off a series of "thru head" items is the Magic Knife. The name of the product, the unrestrained graphics, and the chintzy plastic construction blur the lines between illusion, costume accessory, and toy. The blood splattered word "TERRiBLE" is simultaneously appropriate and out of place. The whole thing smacks of cultural illiteracy, which only adds value in my opinion. The Native American artwork may seem odd, but I'm betting that it's an attempt to associate with the better-known Arrow Through Head tradition. One thing is for sure, Knife Thru Head poses a real marketing challenge. Just look at these other designs...


The approach on the bottom right is the most successful in my opinion. The vampire element doesn't make a lot of sense, but the designer prevented the product from obscuring the artwork and the text, and the light gray gravestones are a nice contrast to the black knife, which ensures visibility.
Wow, critiquing decades-old novelty packaging gives me a tremendous rush.



9. Trick Arrow Trough Head
As I said before, this is the most well known of the "through the head" products. It looks to be the earliest incarnation, plus, it was popularized by Steve Martin's stand up comedy act. Martin fans took to wearing them to his shows where he mocked the lesser quality versions. I have a theory that Martin's were custom made from real arrows. This is a thought that puts deep envy in my heart.






10. Nail Thru Head 
This one feels like a cash grab following the success of its predecessors. It's also the most unlikely of the bunch considering the scarcity of foot-long spikes in our daily lives. However, I do appreciate the phrase "wonderfully weird 'nut' case."


11. House Rules fake clock
This is probably the uncredited inspiration behind Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet's horrible song.
More importantly, it represents one of my favorite forms of novelty: humorous barware from the mid-century. I love the notion of the basement bartender keeping a stockpile of sight gags on hand to keep things lively. There were no bar shelf pictorials in Good Housekeeping, nor was there a "man cave" aisle in Hobby Lobby, and yet people instinctively knew how to decorate this corner of the house. The booze and the decor worked harmoniously to create a casual atmosphere intended to maximize comfort and minimize pretense.

I'd like to take a few moments to celebrate this phenomenon with pictures. Fictional examples can be seen in Edward Scissorhands...


and Mary Tyler Moore...


And here's a real life example that I found on this blog...


This one even has a different version of the clock...


More glorious real life examples courtesy of ebay...






12.  Magnum P.I. Poster
While this bit of pop culture isn't out of place in a gift shop such as this, the choice to put it in the window seems to reflect the taste of the window dresser, especially considering that it's one of two dark-haired, mustachioed hunks on display. (see below)

13. Burt Reynolds Reclining Nude Poster 
This is the poster version of Burt's infamous 1972 photo shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine. It is perhaps the closest thing to a male equivalent of the famous Farrah Fawcett poster from the same era. Burt recently said that he regrets his decision to do it, even speculating that it may have cost him an Oscar for his role in 'Deliverance.' Read the link, he really said that.


Here's the photo again so you don't have to keep scrolling back up...

 


UPDATE:  Magician, Frank Thurston has identified the tasseled banner in the upper right corner!
It looks to be a variation of a racially insensitive bar tapestry featuring an exotic drinker posing the question, "What'll you have?" The figure that appears on the one in the photo looks to be wearing some sort of knee-wear and has a covered torso. It's hard to imagine who else might be included in this bizarre series. (Thanks for the tip Frank!)
 





14. Fake Lobster-
I know I shouldn't question the appeal of novelties, but it's hard for me to understand the endgame here. It's too big and artificial looking to be a dinner table gag. It's not really a toy. My best guess is that it's more of a party decoration, maybe for a luau or ocean themed event. Whatever the use, the demand is real or they wouldn't keep manufacturing this thing decade after decade.



15. Hanging Fuzzy Dice 
Another perennial item, cleverly juxtaposed with the display of regular sized dice in the shop window.


16. Fake Spear
This potential costume accessory doubles as a toy for the kiddies. This type of thing popped up when baby boomers were kids and just never went away. Every souvenir hut seems to have a mini arsenal of 'historic' weapons and regalia. Speaking of which...


17. Confederate Army Costume Hat
Who are the parents that encourage their kids to dress up as the losing team?



18. Executive Waste-Basket-Ball
This was produced by Poynter products, another notable player in the novelty game during the golden years. Their most prevalent output (based on Ebay listings) was the Jayne Mansfield water bottle, the go-go dancer drink mixer, and a battery-operated Frankenstein whose pants fall down.
 

I really admirer their product line. It was far more diverse, complex, and imaginative than the competition...

Anyway, I consider the Waste-Basket-Ball a minor classic. How else would movies depict the passage of time for playful people with writers block, or all-night study montages?


19. Sin Glasses-
I wonder which came first, the name or the product? The box design was definitely 'on trend' but the glasses are almost unrecognizable on the model. (Maybe to tone down the bawdiness?) I can sense the optimism behind this one, someone thought it would be the next big thing. Maybe they were ahead of their time because this Youtube video has nearly a quarter million views.


20. Weepy the Wee Wee
Urinating statues have been around since ancient times, but during the last century they finally became portable (and affordable) thanks to the advent of squirt gun mechanics. I'm impressed with the way this figure is designed with careful ambiguity, so as to cater to both young and old, and notice how the genitalia is obscured on the package while still communicating the product's function. But despite so many well-made decisions, I think the name was a big mistake. I was writing a paragraph that explained the problem, and explored possible solutions when I realized that I've already lingered on this way too long.
Believe it or not, this item was in the news earlier this year when a popular gas station attendant was fired after a customer complained that he used a Weepy to spray cleaning fluid on their windshield. The internet was not happy with the decision.


21. Crack Up Golf Ball
I've tested my share of trick balls (billiard, baseball, and golf) and none of them move in squiggly lines like the one shown on this deceptive package.  However, the Crack Up golf balls are made of some compressed powdery stuff that will indeed fly apart when hit hard enough. The down side is that it lacks the shine or markings of a real ball so good luck fooling anyone. I wish I could travel back to 1978 and warn everyone.


22. Happy Mouth Bottle Opener
In the gift biz Jimmy Carter was reduced to his mouth and his love of peanuts pre-presidential role as a peanut farmer, often at the same time. I'm amazed that the makers of Happy Mouth didn't turn the handle into a peanut. I have nothing but respect for their sense of restraint.


23. Gas-Up Pocket Flask Decanter
Produced in 1973, this was undoubtedly inspired by the national oil crisis of the same year. I love that it exists, but it seems so elaborate (even requiring batteries) for such a semi-amusing concept, and the possible payoff seems pretty low. 


Unless you imagine the very best case scenario— It's 1973 and you're a well-liked member of your local lodge. You're deep into the biggest party of the year, the girl has already popped out of the cake, and you walk over to the coat check where you pull this decanter out of your briefcase. You picked it up at your favorite joke shop on the way here. (You're a regular and the owner knows you by name, and gives you discounts.) You got a big bonus this year so the lofty price tag didn't cause you to blink. Also, you remembered to buy batteries. 
You discreetly assemble the whole thing, and fill it with your favorite booze while your friends start to notice your absence. (This group of lugs are the best a guy could ask for, friends til the end.) Thanks to the 'pocket hook' the Gas-Up device fits undetectably inside your jacket. 
Armed for laffs, you head back towards the heart of the shindig trying to conceal a huge grin. Someone has a lampshade on their head, but you know they're about to lose their "life of the party" status. You approach a semi-circle of esteemed brethren that includes: the local mayor, the owner of the new bowling alley, and Telly Savalas. You say, "Can I freshen anyone's drink?"
as you open your jacket. The room is a tinderbox of laughs and you just brought a stick of dynamite. You've ensured your rise to social stardom while lessening gas crisis anxiety. You are an American hero.

But under any other circumstance Gas-Up seems a bit lame.





UPDATE: Here's a very insightful response to this post from Mark Pahlow, founder of Archie McPhee!! Excess at 1980s Gatlinberg gift shows?!! Tales of the Manhattan toy show?! An exclusive peek into the history of the novelty biz?!! It's so great I can't take it!!...


"The time your photo was taken could be as early as late 1970s, because of the Jimmy Carter items being so prominent, or most anytime in the 1980s. There was so much Jimmy Carter junk produced that it was being sold years after he left office.

Carter's run for the White House (a classic move by a governor most of the country never heard of but who had a strong state support group to push him through the various state primaries) was a period full of peanut theme novelties because of his family's long history of peanut farming in Georgia.

As for where it was taken, it might have been in Gatlinburg, TN, at a Smoky Mountain Gift Show.  That small town held a famous trade show for decades, often scattered in the conference rooms of assorted motels there, that was strong on novelties and had national attendance. I remember the local folks being really friendly there. And I remember being scared driving a rental car at night from the airport to Gatlinburg on narrow, two-lane roads. 

We ate lots of chicken fired steak at those shows. There were a lot of characters at that time, with lots of unhealthy food, cigarettes and booze. I loved the small companies making
novelties out of tree stumps, coal, sugar, etc.--lots of small outfits trying to make it in the marketplace.

But I think it is more likely to have been taken in one of the lower rent, lower floors of the 200 Fifth Avenue Toy Center (Building) in Manhattan. I went there for many years, starting in the late 70s. I was a naive kid in the Big Apple, sleeping on the floor of a friend's apartment there because the hotels were so expensive. At the time, New York City was the motherlode for the novelty trade.

The big toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel had large, posh showrooms on the upper floors, that often required an appointment to enter.  The smaller jobbers, importers and old family novelty firms, most of which also had offices and warehouses (yes, at that time Manhattan still had property cheap enough to use for warehousing) nearby, showed there. There were small rooms, often without windows, were jobbers showed goods while chain smoking. 

After I wandered that building, I'd walk to the nearby offices/showrooms of novelty importers to inspect their huge selection of products.

M. Pressner & Co. was a short walk south on Broadway.  I'd walk the showroom aisles with Jerry Pressner and place orders. Pressner carried the popular Sin Glasses that you showed in the photo. Their logo was a crown and the name "Empress" which was on their packages and shipping cartons. 

At that time Pressner still had a small facility in New Jersey that producing US-made plastic toys like Cracker Jack animals, doll accessories and novelty charms and trinkets. It was such lovely stuff!

Also nearby was Nadel & Sons, where I worked with Mel Nadel.  I bought the classic Nail Through Head carded novelty, exactly as shown, from Nadel. And then I 'd see the notorious Nat Shaland at Wm. Shaland Co. There was Louis Greenberg as well.

All of these importers still had old stock novelties and toys that were made in Japan and I bought all I could. It was a transition time for novelty and toy production being moved to Hong Kong and Taiwan.  

I'd sit with these Kings of the Novelty Trade and ask questions and listen to their stories.

World War II was really a challenge for them as all Japanese goods were banned in the US and their warehouses were full of Japanese made goods.  I also learned in the old days a firm selling merchandise could depreciate their product inventory each year, as though it were a fixed asset, which is unbelievable when compared to general accounting principles today. And in the 1950s they faced an income tax rate that was as high as 90%.  

I loved those guys and the amazing products they created and sold.  They were rubber chicken/nail through head swashbuckling marketing pirates and geniuses, who helped teach me the trade and gave me payment terms of net 30 days when I was starting out and had no money. 

This blog post brought back some good memories for me! I miss all those guys & that ephemeral world. I am happy that you, Kirk, are doing the work to capture some history and flavor of these wonderful products and people. I tip my hat to you, buddy!"

Mark Pahlow