This is part two of a farewell to Lakeview gag shop Uncle Fun. To read part one, either click here or use the chapter navigation above.
Uncle Fun was telling the Michael Jackson story.
It was going to be a good story — you could tell by the way employee Joya Salustro smirked behind the register when Uncle Fun started telling it. It involved a photo booth and a surprise visit by the former boy king of the Jackson Five.
Ted “Uncle Fun” Frankel was just at the point where the surprisingly patient King of Pop was sitting in his lap for yet another picture when the story was interrupted by a woman walking out of the basement with the top half of a mannequin and an employee asking about the price of “an old green cart.”
I didn’t hear the end of the story. I might never get a chance to. Uncle Fun the gag shop is closing Jan. 26. Uncle Fun the gag shop owner is cutting his last ties to Chicago so he can focus full-time on his other store and his new marriage, both in Baltimore.
“It’s sort of the same philosophy as my store here,” Frankel said, talking about Sideshow in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum. “More heart than head.”
Everything’s half off while he tries to clean out the Lakeview toy, vintage and novelty shop with the grinning gag man logo. It opened in 1990. Frankel has been selling gags in Chicago since the 1970s, splitting his time between Windy and Charm cities for the last decade.
“It’s one of those fate stories and learning to keep your mind and eyes open,” Frankel said.
About 10 years ago, Frankel and a friend visited the American Visionary Art Museum, which focuses on works by outsider and self-trained artists. While there, he met founder Rebecca Hoffberger. They chatted for what Frankel remembers as a two minutes.
Two months later, she called him on the phone.
“She said, ‘You’re the one.’ I said, ‘The one what?’” Frankel said, laughing.
He was the one to run the new museum store. They talked for a while and Frankel decided to head back to Baltimore to see the layout.
“The next day, I bought a house,” Frankel said.
Most of Karen Lewis’ memories of Frankel have to do with a school he didn’t attend.
Lewis was at the store Tuesday night to spend an Uncle Fun gift certificate while she still could. She wandered the store with a bag of designer sporks and other tchotchkes, trailed by a silent teenager with a stocking cap pulled nearly over his eyes.
“Adam, you could use this,” Karen Lewis said, holding up a metal lunchbox made to look like it was built of bacon.
Lewis, who jokes that she’s “47 and a half,” has lived in Lakeview for 17 years. Her kids went to Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a K-8 school Frankel has supported through raffle donations — that’s where Lewis won the gift certificate — and in one case Lewis remembers fondly, with a bit too much of his own money.
“One year, one of the classes made a mural,” she said. “He and one of the parents had a bidding war. It just kept going higher and higher. I can’t remember what it got up to, but it was ridiculous.”
She shook her head and chuckled a bit. Later, she would ask Frankel if he remembers the mural. He chuckled then too. It’s still in his house, he said. Dinner guests ask where he got it.
An infrequent but regular customer, Lewis said she’ll miss having the odd little shop in the neighborhood she’s seen grow and change for nearly 20 years.
“It’s such a unique place to have in the community,” she said. “And it’s not going to be here any more.”
Between Baltimore and Chicago, Frankel had two houses and four stores.
Baltimore soon started pulling ahead in the race between cities, in no small part due to the man Hoffberger set Frankel up on a blind date with nine years ago.
Frankel started shifting away from Chicago, closing his stores Fly Paper and Paper Boy two and a half years ago.
On Jan. 1, 2013, same-sex marriage became legal in Maryland. On Sept. 6, 2013, the mayor of Baltimore performed Frankel’s wedding right in her chambers.
There was a bit of favoritism at play — Frankel’s now-husband works for the mayor.
So, life. So, marriage and homes and a dog named Archie. So, a store lined with cheap penny gags and beautiful vintage art. So, new beginnings and new endings.
So, bits and baubles, vintage toys and old children’s books. So, circus posters and chattering teeth and googly eyes and New Kids on the Block trading cards and statuettes of aliens made from screws and bike chains.
So, smiling red-haired staffers who will miss him and photographers wearing WOLF! buttons looking for one last supply run. So, children who grew up on Uncle Fun and adults who grew into children each time they visited. So, a little gag shopped packed to the gills in sub-sub-sub-zero weather with people wanting to say goodbye.
“Sorry to see you go,” a gray-haired regular said, gripping Frankel in a handshake you could see in a funeral receiving line.
“It’s a party,” Uncle Fun corrected. “It’s a celebration. There’s no sorry.”