Big Johnson T-shirts bring E. Normus success to brothers

May 11, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

By inking millions of white T-shirts with endless variations on the same dumb joke, a couple of Baltimore boys have made themselves wealthy men.

Last year, Garrett and Craig Pfeifer did $16.5 million in sales with Maryland Screenprinters, a company they started seven years ago in the basement of a rented house in Towson.

"Screen printing is nothing special," says Garrett, 34. "Look in the Yellow Pages, you'll see a hundred of them."

But the indefatigable Pfeifer brothers have something the competition does not: Big Johnson.

A series of 120 cartoons built around a scrawny nerd named E. Normus Johnson and his unconfirmed claims of physical endowment, Big Johnson T-shirts are the Pfeifers' golden egg.

Accounting for about 60 percent of the 6 million shirts the company printed last year at their Holabird Avenue plant near Dundalk, Big Johnson has helped the Pfeifers double profits every year for the past five years. The shirts wholesale for $7.50 and wind up on local racks priced from $14.50 to $18.99.

Garrett Pfeifer said that between 1988 and 1992, total sales at Maryland Screenprinters jumped an astonishing 976 percent. That includes what they call "fish shirts" -- large mouth bass leaping for bait -- and other nature scenes for places like Tochterman's on Eastern Avenue. They also print hats, embroider shirts on $95,000 computerized stitching machines, and print shirts for manufacturers of name-brand jeans.

In 1993, Inc. magazine named Maryland Screenprinters one of the 500 fastest growing private companies in the nation, with sales across the nation and countries from Japan to South Africa. Inc. verified the company's sales figures -- from $6.5 million in 1992 to $16.5 last year -- through through tax returns and audits by a third-party accountant.

The brothers are reluctant to give figures on how much money they're making after expenses, arguing that most profits go back into the company and that people treat you differently once they find out you're making a bundle.

Such good fortune has created a work force of 85 employees, a management spot for a third-brother, 28-year-old Eric Pfeifer; the need for a full-time lawyer to chase down copyright infringements and phone calls from parents around the country complaining that their kid was suspended for wearing a Big Johnson to class.

"I don't think we could have possibly worked any harder than we have," said Garrett, who left the Venable, Baetjer and Howard law firm in 1988 to go into business with Craig, 32, who had been hustling suntan lotion.

Yet, the pop culture market is dictated by a national attention deficit disorder, in which morons elevated to icons fade faster than you can say Beavis & Butt-head.

"Beavis and Butt-head are dead," said Steve Silber, who has seen T-shirt fads come and go at his Tops 'N Bottoms store in Eastpoint Mall since 1969. Hot shirts typically last about 18 months, 24 months at best, said Mr. Silber. Yet, the Big Johnson craze has continued to grow for five years.

"Big Johnson is very suggestive, but cleverly done with no profanity," said Mr. Silber. "Even though teen-gers buy most of our shirts, a lot of mothers come in here and we're reluctant to have anything really pornographic. But after the shirts were out there for a year, we couldn't stay away. We can't keep them in stock."

One of the reasons is the way the Big Johnson double entendre -- in which E. Normus is always accompanied by a buxom and adoring female -- can be applied to countless subjects popular with a certain breed of man: all sports, fast cars, the police and fire fighting professions, the construction trade, and on and on.

And more than a few women have been buying the shirts for the certain breed of male they happen to love.

"How can you analyze a consumer?" asked Mr. Silber, noting that Big Johnson spin-offs, like the "Co-Ed Naked" shirts, have not fared anywhere near as well. "The consumer is a strange creature."

While the college-age beach and beer crowd shows no sign of losing interest in E. Normus -- the Big Johnson fan club now numbers 13,000 -- Maryland Screenprinters are determined to keep the momentum going beyond T-shirts.

"We want to make it a brand name that can stand on its own without the joke. That's what's going to make us last beyond a fad," said Garrett, who came up with the Big Johnson idea after seeing how popular similar saloon T-shirts were in Ocean City a decade ago.

This year, according to Garrett, they spent about $1 million to sponsor Busch Grand National NASCAR driver Johnny Rumley and extend Big Johnson's popularity beyond America's beaches and campuses to race tracks and their attendant culture throughout the country.

Through NASCAR, the brothers get to hobnob with other corporate sponsors, like the Miller Brewing Co. "Those guys give away more shirts than I can print," said Garrett. "Those are the people doing huge numbers."

The company is now in negotiations with local bowling ball manufacturer Dennis F. Baldwin to license the Big Johnson name for a line of bowling balls. If a royalty agreement can be worked out, the product could be in stores and the hands of pro bowlers by summer's end.

Other ideas include Big Johnson golf clubs and making an animated Big Johnson cartoon with E. Normus, created by a former Frederick County high school teacher Al Via in the '60s style of "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers."

"I always had a lot of ambitions," said Garrett. "I just never thought it would be T-shirts."

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