By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
At 22-feet tall and 10-feet wide, it has withstood the test of time, surviving fire, a potential sale of its home and a near ousting by a major development project. It’s been featured on the Tonight Show, in Weird NJ and Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, and draws fans from all over the state to gawk at its creepy grin, shoot tribute videos and set up a Facebook fan page in its honor.
Calico, the iconic “Evil Clown of Middletown,” turned 55 on Tuesday. Now it’s time to celebrate five and a half decades of making roadside history with a new venture: evil clown apparel.
Just before Christmas, Spirits Liquors, which uses Calico as its mascot, launched a line of t-shirts featuring the clown’s beloved mug. Joseph Azzolina Jr., who’s late father launched the Food Circus/Super Foodtown and Spirits chains, said Calico’s birthday was a perfect time to capitalize on its legend.
“So many people love the clown. It looks mean, a little bit, and he’s got his hand in the middle there, but people aren’t sure what he’s doing with it,” Azzolina said. “It’s large, it’s an icon and it’s got character to it.”
Azzolina, who is selling the shirts at three Spirits locations and will make them available soon at all Foodtown stores, said he intends to branch out the Calico brand into other types of apparel in months to come.
It’s been a long trip to retail shelves for the metal monolith.
Before gaining recognition with the help of spotlight-shining by Kevin Smith and Weird NJ, Calico had a series of moments that could have sent it to the scrap heap like so many old road markers have been erased from history.
Some years ago, a family of birds nesting inside the sign set off a fire, causing heat and smoke damage. In 1991, when Foodtown closed its doors at the location, a group of locals rallied Azzolina Sr. to keep Calico out front. He did, and later opened up Spirits rather than sell the property. Then, about four years ago, the massive Azzolina-sponsored Town Center project, in which more than 100 acres would have been developed into business and residential units, posed a major threat to Calico’s fate.
Local historian and author Randall Gabrielan, who has authored numerous photo-history books, said he recognized Calico’s charm long before it made it to the big screen, or was labeled as ‘weird.’
“The clown is one of the most popular photographs I’ve ever published,” he said. “It was always a symbol.”
But declaring it evil may be a bit off, he said. When Calico made its debut, on January 18, 1956, roadside signs were a popular form of advertising. Calico’s job was, in effect, to let people know there was a store nearby.
“So you could say it was a working clown,” Gabrielan said. “It didn’t have a working arm waving people in, but really, he brought people into the store.”
More than that, Calico was a sign of relief for some people.
Bernice Roberts, who said she was one of Foodtown’s first customers, said her family has grown up with the clown, and can’t imagine living in town without it.
“I love the clown. It’s a landmark,” said Roberts, 80. “When you’ve been traveling, when you pass the clown, you know when you’re home.”