Friday, June 19, 2009
Filled with pranks, jokes, magic toys, and much more, the Funny Store is the last old-time novelty shop in Times Square. Every inch of this emporium of laughs and tricks, no bigger than a Manhattan studio, is crammed with fun items.
As I entered the store one morning a dancing George Bush puppet greeted me singing Louis Armstrong’s song Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen; Little Johnny-Boy, a figurine wee-wee squirter sprayed me; a foul-mouthed Polly-the-Parrot insulted me; a black spider-on-string dropped from the ceiling landing on my shoulder; and a trap crunched a twelve inch rat - fake, of course.
The store carries old favorites - hand buzzers, whoopee cushions, blue mouth candy, itching powder, bleeding knives, squirting doorbells, disappearing ink, spy glasses, room stinkers, flaming wallets and a magic coloring book which changes blank pages to colored objects by saying Abracadabra.
The number one item, is actually number two - a large mound of rubber turd. He sells security badges, custom made newspaper headlines, ID cards and passport photos. At Halloween the store becomes costume central with its huge collection of masks - Feddie Kruegger, Michael Jackson, Trump and many celebrities.
Times Square, the Great White Way, known for its movie houses, theaters, clubs but novelty/magic shops, arcade playlands, burlesque joints and flea and dime museums share in the area’s history.
Few are more familiar with this than Arnold Martin, The Funny Store's 47-year-old manager, who began working in Times Square as a 14-year-old from Queens.
"I was fascinated with magic and silly things," he said. "I first saw a magician perform at Macy's in Queens. He noticed how spellbound I was and gave me a free pass to watch him at the American Theater of Magic in midtown. Soon I was selling novelties and demonstrating tricks at its souvenir counter."
It opened a new world for him. There he met Lady Esterline, the Ringling Brothers sword swallower, Otto and George the ventriloquist, Tommy Laird the magician and Congo the Witch Doctor, who walked on broken glass and ate lit cigarettes. “It was a carnival with ten bizarre acts,” he said.
With his dark horn-rimmed glasses, large eyes, short, black wavy hair Martin could pass for a computer geek except he is extremely personable and friendly. He resembles the comic actor, Arnold Stang, star of radio, television, famous for his twangy voice and his early 1960’s commercial "Open Wide for Chunky." At six-foot-three, he towers over the diminutive Stang.
Martin is not a magician but give him a deck of cards he becomes a slick Coney Island barker as he delivers his spiel - "Everyone can do these tricks. Just step right up, pick a card, any card, put it back into the deck - top, bottom middle - anywhere. No special skills required. Read-the-instructions once, be like me. Read them twice, be twice smart as me…."
The original Funny Store opened on the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue in the early 1950's. It closed in the mid-eighties forced out by the city’s redevelopment plans for 42nd.
Martin moved to the Fun Emporium on Eighth Avenue near 42nd Street. When the Emporium lost its lease, it moved one block north and opened shop at the Playpen Theater, formerly the Cameo Playpen Adult Theater and renamed the Funny Store.
Martin explained the store's unique arrangement with Playpen. In the mid-nineties the city passed a law that stated the X-rated business of an adult store cannot exceed 40 percent of its operation. Funny Store and a camera shop fulfill the city's 60 percent requirement as non-adult business.
The Funny Store attracts tourists, local people and Broadway professionals who shop for props, makeup, human hair, beards, masks and costumes. Clients include cast members from The Producers. Jersey commuters shop for adult toys for their bachelorette parties Mary Poppins, Drowsy Chaperone and other shows.
Actor, stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried, ventriloquist Jay Johnson, magicians from the Monday Night Magic Show and radio host Joe Franklin are regulars. Martin has appeared on the Howard Stern show.
If you need to shed the winter blues drop in and let Martin entertain you.
The Funny Store - 693 Eighth Avenue, near 44th Street Mon-Sunday, 212, 957-1688; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Funny Store and the Playpen adult theater closed July 2007. A 33 story luxury hotel is replacing it. Photo by Straycat