When I’m in Middletown, NJ, I make a point of visiting Calico the Evil Clown, a fellow so famous he even has his own Wikipedia page. He’s 30 feet tall and has been watching motorists whizz by on Route 35 since 1956.
Calico started as the mascot for a grocery store called Food Circus, but his current employment with a liquor store seems better suited to his bloody index finger and sinister leer. Since he’s now a landmark, I suppose he no longer has to try very hard to be likeable.
Calico was painted by a sign-painter named Leslie Thomas, who was also responsible for another New Jersey icon, the idiotically grinning Tillie from Asbury Park. Tillie was born in 1950, making him slightly older than Calico. His styling is old-fashioned even for mid-century. That’s because he was designed to look like the Coney Island Steeplechase Park “Funny Face” logo. In fact Tillie was named in homage to the builder of Steeplechase, George Cornelius Tilyou.
Both of these clowns have been faced with the prospect of demolition and both times New Jerseyites fought to see them saved. New Jersey, in fact, may have a soft spot in its collective skull for clowns, because it’s also the home of the Circus Drive-In, also on Route 35 in Wall Township, built in 1954. The Drive-In’s clown is much more benign, presumably because his friends on the roof of the Big Top are watching him.
New Jersey is not the only place where the clown flourished on mid-century roadside signs. There’s Circus Liquor in North Hollywood, CA, whose 30-foot-tall Boozy the Clown has been encouraging people to drink since the mid-Sixties. Boozy’s eyes are painted crosses; obviously he’s blitzed.
The Evil Clown trope started with the opera Pagliacci in 1895.There’s something about the masked entertainer that arouses our suspicions. I’m not afraid of clowns, but I find them annoying. Obviously, I’m not planning on visiting the Clown Motel in Tonopah, Nevada. I could live with the benign clown on its sign, but not with hundreds of clowns inside, too.
Then there’s Circus Circus in Las Vegas. Like many psychopaths, its clown looks like a nice guy, drawn in mid-Seventies pop art style. Behind that smile, he plans to clean you out. He’ll leave you enough for a Greyhound ticket home and a $1 coffee from McDonalds… if you’re lucky.
Even the clown at Clown Burger Too, in Fort Worth, TX, looks dubious, and not just because he’s standing on stilts. Is that sly look in his eyes because he just slipped something in your fries?