Johnny Jupiter on My Mind

You are invited to play the Gipsy Kings while reading. It'll bring an added soupçon of the trademark Johnny Jupiter panache and elan.

Once upon a time there was a kids store in New York City called Johnny Jupiter. It first appeared in 1976 in Greenwich Village on 10th street. Then in the 1980s on Madison Avenue just below 7nd Street, across from Ralph's. Then again on Lexington Avenue between 80th and 81st Streets. 

Alas, it’s now long gone, but warmly remembered by the select few who were its club members. You know who you are: come through the door and you are a club member for life.

[I am also a life member of the Alfred Dunhill of London Club. Back when, I was a frequent customer—Temple Hall #1’s and Ramone Allones Robusto’s; natural wrapper, please, if you are thinking of sending a box. The staff at the time when Dunhill’s was located at that mercantile power spot at 5th Avenue and 50th Street gave what they called “English Service.” That being, friendly, and just a little playful, maybe a little eccentric; but always most helpful. The sales guys I frequently saw I named Larry, Mo, and Curly. Very entertaining bunch. Great service, though. One day I was invited to join the Dunhill Club. Yes, please. Forthwith, with my right hand raised, I was inducted. I thought you should know.]

In a past life I worked at Johnny Jupiter. In the Cashier role; permanently stationed at the till, and usually the first to greet you when you came in. And, with every arrival, I did my best to make it a Somewhere-Over-the-Rainbow experience. Hey, standing on a small 4 foot square patch of floor all day behind a counter (freezing in the winter), you have to mix things up a bit. No? Well, I did. Made a lot of friends. Some misses here and there. You gotta try out new material. And lay an egg or two. “Not everyone is your customer,” per the boss himself. The great Mr. Jerry Harmyk.

If you think I was waxing a little too nostalgic about a Johnny Jupiter Club, what store do you frequent where you bring the help gifts? There was a fine woman from Connecticut [Someone said that the only thing people in Connecticut ever worry about is how to keep the sun from bleaching the wicker garden furniture.] who spoke of going to picnics in their pony cart and all the intricate hand crafted Christmas cookies that she made. At the time I had no clue about one Ms. Martha Stewart. But the lady from Connecticut—no it wasn’t Martha Stewart—really painted such a picture of thorough culinary accomplishment and skill. We teased her about it and challenged her to prove it. We got some really beautiful and amazing Christmas cookies one holiday season. Once we sold an ice cream mold and I hinted at a hazelnut, coffee and chocolate ice cream bombe. No dice on that one. There was the t-shirt with a New Mexico landscape from someone who had a horse ranch there; and now I’m told she likes to grow avocados in California. Just a little shout out to you-know-who-you-are. [And, I like avocados, so you should know.] I once got a Snoopy cap originally given by Mr. Charles Schulz hisself. My sweetest was a Valentine card with a cake baked just for me by one of the little lovelies in my fan club. The Ferrari Testarossa was really great too; after all these years, it still hauls. A small Swiss army knife which I still have on my key chain to this day. [The chrome metal logo fell off and the Swiss Army folks [also in Connecticut (?)] took it in recently and replaced the logo and spruced it all up. No charge. Go S.A.N.!] And, oh yes, a little statue of the Wizard of Oz holding a crystal orb. More about that later. And, the Fabergé egg. But, that's a whole another story.

Some of the club regulars brought their own color. Take for instance, little Ms. Pinky. Imagine a little girl as magical and dreamy and beguiling as Mara Wilson in the movie Matilda; and, whose parents are as colorful in their own way as Matilda's (Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman). Mom is an amateur boxer, gun enthusiast (shoots 'em up), photographer, book seller, and doggone blogger. Dad walks a dog named Smudge and is heavily into levitation; specifically, 21st Century Transportation. Pinky is a big girl now and rather colorful and creative in her own ways. Click on those colorful links and be amazed.

Johnny Jupiter was created by that dynamo retail duo, Jerry Harmyk and Paul Toner. The store first opened in the West Village in New York City on 10th Street. Later, moved to Bleecker Street, eventually they were heading on up, to the East Side, for a piece of the pie. Madison Avenue at 72nd Street to be precise, where there is some of the most hallowed retail frontage in the entire city. [The World!] Right across from Mr. Lauren’s "church" dedicated to the life style of patrician style, quality, and entitlement. Just a stone away from a real church, St. James, my sanctuary at lunch times to meditate and commune with the Big Merchandizer. [If you don’t know by now about Ralph Lauren, well he’s the Oprah of retailing; or, the Donald Trump. Knows mens ties, I hear. His schtick—I say ouvre: Think Buffy and Chipp at the lake, sweaters tied around waists/shoulders, well-worn rubber-soled loafers, no socks. Khaki’s and madras (well bled) shirts. Blonde. REAL, blonde. There’s a young man of color, a school chum, fitting comfortably right in. Assorted other folks, young and old, each one more beautiful or handsome than the next. Straw picnic basket and a nice lunch spread on a paisley. Dockside, with the Chris Craft runabout bobbing quitely alongside. Shiny aluminum skin sea-plane in the middle distance. House on the hill way over across the lake, at least 24 windows on the front alone. Rosco, the golden retriever, smiling approvingly, large bone between paws. Chuck Baker taking pictures. Martha Baker, styling the whole thing. Both blonde themselves. And the whole thing is an ad for colorful fabric belts. Get it?]

After the Madison Avenue store closed in the late 1980’s it was later resurrected for a short run by Jerry, but this time as a solo venture. [Paul went on to manage the retail arm of a well-known auction house and now has an ever so swell atelier in SoHo selling the works of promising new artists. He told me an interesting thing about his gallery customers. Some ask if the artist’s work will appreciate in value in time? Paul says, “I don’t sell the future. It’s art, buy what you like.” Jerry, after the last Johnny Jupiter closed put all his attention on his two other stores, U.S.E.D. (Used Stuff Eclectic Detritus) and Kitschen. He also brought his merchandizing talent to the start up of the ever so happening Housing Works thrift shops. And, currently, Jerry is with the Fresh Air Fund, a NYC institution that since 1877 has been providing free summer experiences in the country to children from disadvantaged communities. A good man, doing good things.]

How to describe Johnny Jupiter? If you were a customer you know that even Marcel Proust himself would have a nervous breakdown trying to remember such a place. Stick to cookies, Marcel.

I, however, will give it the good old college try.

I did my time at Johnny Jupiter at both the Upper East Side stores. [My own downtown days were well past by then. Read my—excellent, ahem—piece on my year of living at the Chelsea Hotel. (You call that living?)] Let’s see… Johnny Jupiter? For one thing, it was a small store. Even smaller when all the shelves and counters and fixtures were in place. Crowded, when all that space was fully merchandized with stuff. Stuffed! That’s it, “stuffed”! And, so, by design. [Read Patty Volk’s Stuffed.] An overall impression of an ineffable wonderfulness of variety, color, texture, and form, high and low. And, at the Lexington Avenue location… music! My collage above attempts to just barely capture the Johhny Jupiter gestalt; greater than the sum of its parts, and way too much to take in all at once. Fantastic! The Grand Canyon of retailing! A Wonder of the (shopping) world! The eye had no idea where to go and the head would spin. I wonder how many people came there just for the trip? The place was loaded floor to ceiling with all kinds of things. [As one downtown type who wandered in one day asked, “What da ya got here, toys and shit?” But he got hip to our s---. He bought a lot of it.]

In the retail trade Johnny Jupiter would be classed as a mix of toy store and gift shop. There was no attempt to compete with the R Us’s. We stuck with the classics. People would often call to see if we had the latest fave. “Do you have Nintendo?” “No, and we don’t intend to!” Classic toys. With a nod now and then to a current popular classic; The Little Mermaid made quite a splash one year. Transformers, briefly; the all-metal ones. Plush animals (some not so plush; you say Steiff, I say stiff.), jacks, kazoos, tutu’s, magic wands, silly putty, Slinky, Mr. Potato Head, Cootie, the Benda Family (Ben, Brenda, Belinda, and Ben Jr.), Gumby, cap guns, pirate hats, swords, balls. And, on and on. And, lots of different kinds of balls. No kidding. We had some balls.

Speaking of which, once a neighborhood little girl came to shop with her mother. She wanted some little prank. I was her trusted sherpa to guide her to the summit of practical jokedom. (We teach by example.) I offered her a stick of gum which that sweet little thing innocently accepted. But, when she took the stick of gum out of the package, down on that precious little finger came this spring trap; a small version of your basic mouse trap. Surprise! She immediately turned the brightest shade of red and began to bawl her eyes out. Mom was a good sport, though. We settled out of court. They came back other times later, but somewhat more cautiously.

My favorite celebrity prank was with Cher. As in Sonny and Cher; that one. She was buying things for a gift bag for her (then) daughter. I pointed out those little pencils we had in the gag department. "Would you please give me your autograph?" I asked. Smiling and appearing a little flattered, she took the pencil and began to make her mark. Oops! Rubber tip. Ha! Ha! If you remember how Sonny used to tease Cher on their television show, you know the look I got. Way better than a autograph. (If I could turn back time!)

Balloons. There's a whole subject onto itself. What you might want in a ballon, Johhny Jupiter got it. I delivered clusters of helium filled balloons on foot, dozens of blocks away on sunny days, in the rain, in the wind, in a Mercedes Benz 190 SL. Even a bunch of Red, White and Blue for President Nixon's birthday party. What's he like? I cannot retell under strict security orders. Let's just leave it at... a real peach.

And speaking of deliveries. After work one day I had to run up a few shopping bags to the home of a very beautiful actress. For all the zaniness I got to trot out at the store, somehow I had this rather strict sense of propriety about my role. The lovely lady offered my a sample of a freshly baked apple pie. "No thank you, Ma'am. Got to be on may way." The right thing to do? Or, a missed moment?

On the complete other end of the spectrum of what we sold there was an assortment of “antiques,” the kind you could only pick up if you went to some weekend auction in the country. Mostly kitchen items and general household decorations. "Tchotchkes"—le mot juste. Everything very reasonable. In between, greeting cards and postcards, balloons, gift wrap, paper tableware, place cards and party favors. [Paul and Jerry also operated a wholesale company, Mud Pie Inc., importing those Victorian paper character masks and die-cut Victorian ephemera that you could paste in a scrap book or to use in your latest decoupage project.] On the Upper East Side of New York City at the time families with children were in a brisk competition to keep up or have the best birthday party. Johnny Jupiter was the one stop shop not only for party decorations and favors, but we could always be counted on for theme ideas and general consulting to bring that special touch to the little precious’ big day. Johnny Jupiter often had a children’s party table at Tiffany’s annual display of table decorating ideas. Johnny Jupiter had a good rep.

Even adults would often shop for party ideas and we usually had something in the never-been-done-before category. Or, during the holidays, we regularly had Madame calling in from her estate in New Jersey to send the car in to pick up Thanksgiving place cards and chocolate turkeys for the table. And Christmas Crackers from England; you know, a fancy decorated tube that you pull apart, there’s a little bang, and inside is a surprise—a treat, a toy, a paper hat, a pithy message.

Since the practical jokes things and magic tricks were in an old fashioned glass and oak case near the cash register, I became the resident wise guy/magician. The store always carried your complete assortment of practical jokes and small magic tricks. You could always count on Johnny Jupiter to have in stock the trusty Whoopie Cushion, Snappy Gum, a Laugh Bag, fake vomit, and—for your true connoisseur—Doggie Doo. Trick wise, I would regale young and old alike with the famous chain escape. And, the Color Changing Silk. [When I was a boy in Detroit I had a passion for magic and would visit the professional shop downtown on Saturdays to hang around to see the demonstrations and to add to my collection of tricks. I learned a slam bang routine for the chain escape from a professional magician. And, you know how things from your youth can stick with you into adulthood. Who doesn’t like magic? I did stop biting my nails though.]

The thing about Johnny Jupiter for me was not what was for sale. Of course, sales paid the rent. For me anyway, the whole point of the shop was the chance to play, to have some theater, some fun. A job, sure; a weekly pay check. But a chance to give my own inner child free play while I was at it. Anyway, if you can’t have fun in a toy store, where you gonna? If you walk into a toy store you automatically signal that you are up for some fun. Except Dustin Hoffman.

We had more than a few celebrities for customers. We were always discrete to respect their privacy. Unless, of course, they were wearing a sandwich board with their name emblazoned. Then, you got the star treatment. Anyway, Mr. Hoffman walks in and makes a small purchase. There we are face to face. Me keeping from screaming “Oh, my god, it’s… D------ H------.” He’s got on this rumpled old olive green army jacket and a face right out of Rain Man. He gave me some money, I made the change, then said my thank you. Some fun. I wonder, was he being ironic? Perhaps a layer of humor that mere mortals couldn’t even imagine?

I think our most famous celebrity was America’s Fitness Guru Himself, the ever electric Mr. Richard Simmons. He is my very most favorite movie star. Ever! When he was in town he would often come in and load up on gifts. He always created a big stir with the customers. I liked to tease him. Sort of like Dave Letterman when they were on speaking terms. (Lover’s quarrel?) Even in the winter time Richard would emerge from his car with a glittery sports tank top covering up some very short shorts. I had to ask on more than one occasion if he was wearing anything at all under that tank top? He was always more than happy to interact with the customers. “Mr. Simmons, are you available for autographs?” “Why, yes, I am.” “Attention shoppers, Mr. Richard Simmons will autograph your shopping bag.” He was beaming. Then I added “… with every $50 purchase.” He froze, hands on hips with the evil eye for me.

Peter Jennings was the prime time ABC news anchor and I was a super fan. One day his wife came into the store to buy a water pistol, apparently to use to encourage the house kitty to move from unwanted perches [do cats perch?]. Anyway, a few days later we receive a call; it's his wife asking me for instructions on how to fill the water gun. He is clueless. It had to be said, "So here I am having to teach the great Peter Jennings how to fill a water gun?" He has since moved on to the Real Prime Time. RIP Mr. Jennings.

For Halloween the store was the go-to outfitter for the local kids. Below is a photo collage I made with scenes from that very holiday day, circa 1990.

And, the high point of the year at Johnny Jupiter was the Christmas season. The store specialized in imported glass tree ornaments displayed overhead hung from the ceiling. [One day all the ornaments began to sway just a little. I joked that it was an earthquake. But, really, it was an earthquake; somewhere North in Canada.]  Easter baskets and custom gift bags to take, or delivered to the ski resort. Stars and Stripes for the 4th. Summer camp packages sent out regularly with loads of fun, each item wrapped individually to make opening the present a treat in itself.

Because Jerry Harmyk had such a well know reputation as a party designer we were often asked to do special events. One I recall was a young lady’s 10th birthday Bingo party. I got to be the caller. New territory, MC for a party of 10 year old girls. It started with me seated at the front of the room in front of an array of prizes. Bingo basket ready. There they were, all 18 or so of them. Sitting motionless and silent. The pressure was on; it was up to me to see that this crowd had a good time. So the first thing we did was to bust the lid off it. I invited everyone to just make the most noise and commotion that they possibly could. That did the trick. We had so many prizes that eventually you won something just for having a number. Nothing but chirping, bubbly little girls left for home that night.

The biggest event that I was involved with was a major charity benefit dinner for the New York Public Library. Several well (well) known designers were invited to create tableaux based on a selected work or body of work in the Library’s collection. Johnny Jupiter was invited for the children’s category and the selected theme was the Wizard of Oz. Copies and pages of actual original book were also on display during the party. Originally I was involved with arranging for Veteran’s Poppies (faux soporifics) to cover a meadow of Astro Turf. And a length of yellow brick linoleum, supposedly the same used in the original movies. The good folks at Congoleum sent over a role, gratis; and, thank you. James Earl Jones was to play the Wizard of Oz. When it turned out that he couldn’t make it, I was pressed into service. Something about wanting a “real nobody” for the job.

Talk about theater. There I was dressed like, not the movie version, but the original book version of the Wizard of Oz. Long robes, conical magician’s hat, full beard, and wizened makeup. Quite a treat to play the Wizard and get a chance to crack-wise with the rich and famous. Everyone showed up. The graceful Brooke Aster. The beautiful Mitzie Newhouse. That curmudgeonly Kurt Vonnegut (he was a real pill with the Wizard) and that sexy beast Dr. Ruth. [Told her this dirty sexy joke. Sadie comes home all giddy after her doctor appointment. She says to her husband of many years, Sammy—who is reading the paper at the kitchen table, “So, Sammy, ya vont to know vat the doctor said about my bRRReasts?” “Ya, vat,” he says, barely stopping from his reading. “The doctor said I had the bRRReasts of a 16 year old!” she said boasting. “And what did he say about your 80 year old ass?” he says sarcastically. “Vell……… we didn’t talk about you.”]

But it’s show business, you know. The bright lights are only aglow for a short time. After my part was finished I changed out of my costume, got a bite to eat backstage, and, as the assembled guests moved on to dinner, I went home. Walked to the uptown bus in the quiet evening street. It was clear and cold with a truly magical mist of rain falling gently. Lonely, yet content. [Mr. Jones, if you ever find yourself in a pinch, let me know. I can fill in for you.]

So long to Johnny Jupiter too!

It was indeed somewhere over the rainbow.