“Don’t touch” is a rather silly admonition in a store full of toys. Ted Frankel has no patience for such scolding when parents bring their kids into Uncle Fun, his kitschy toy shop in Lakeview, where it’s nearly impossible not to find yourself picking things up.
“It sort of drives me up the wall,” says Frankel, the man behind the mustache and Cheshire cat grin of the store’s logo. “I always go, ‘Oh, this is a toy store, that’s OK.’ As long as you don’t steal anything and come in and have a good time, then you’re always welcome.”
Frankel was raised in Cleveland by parents in the toy business (father did wholesale, mother retail), and they were always bringing home samples. Consequently he never completely put away his childish things: the bulging toy chest of his youth became the jam-packed shop of oddities that is his livelihood, crammed with boxing nun puppets, old sports medals, and windup cars.
“I buy what I like. If something hits me I just buy it,” he says. “It may be off-the-wall weird.” Frankel recently bought cases and cases of little vials of elk urine, which attracts other elk. He just sold some to a hunter, but Frankel figures one of his customers may find an alternative application for it. “There’s always a level underneath or above it, which is the level I like to be at,” he says.
Devoted customers started with Frankel back in the late 1970s, when he opened Goodies on Halsted, a forerunner of Uncle Fun that many remember for its soda fountain. In 1990 he opened Uncle Fun on Belmont and followed up three years later with Fly Paper, a card and stationery shop under the el tracks at Roscoe and Southport.
Frankel plans to debut another card store, Paper Boy, across the street from Uncle Fun at the end of the month, but first he’s organizing a salon of sorts. He invited customers to submit artwork inspired by the offbeat merchandise at Uncle Fun for a show in the new space, guaranteeing everyone a spot for at least one submission. He has received more than 150 contributions–paintings, photography, sculpture, fashion, and even a cake. “It’s sort of art school with no pressure,” says Frankel, a onetime art student. Work by regular customers and neighborhood kids will share the walls with pieces donated by some of Frankel’s better-known shoppers, including Ed Paschke, Tony Fitzpatrick, Heather McAdams, Mr. Imagination, Nicole Hollander, Art Spiegelman, Cynthia Plastercaster, Jay Lynch, and Bill Griffith. Some of the proceeds will benefit the Children’s Place Association, a local not-for-profit agency that provides support and operates a group home for children with HIV.
The democratic premise of the show promotes Frankel’s notion that everybody can be creative, but some people just let their brains get in the way. “When you get connected to your soul and you make something, it’s art,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a kid coming home and putting his hand in that clay like everybody did in first grade and going, ‘Look, mom, look what I made,’ or an Ed Paschke or a Tony Fitzpatrick. They’re all getting connected to their gut and putting it on paper or into a sculpture or whatever. Whether you’re baking a cake or making a painting, the act of creativity is being able to put the straw into your gut and suck it up.”
“The Fun Show” opens with a party featuring “the velvety casino sounds” of John Connors and his band, Bric-a-Brac, Friday from 6 to 10 at Paper Boy, 1351 W. Belmont. The show runs through September 27 (it will be closed Monday and Tuesday). For more information call 773-477-8223. –Todd Savage
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ted Frankel photo by Eugene Zakusilo.