Visionary of offbeat treasures finds niche

Outsider art entrepreneur opens fun AVAM store

December 12, 2004|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

In the world's bottomless pit of stuff, one person's overstock of Chia Pets is another person's treasure. Particularly if that person happens to be Ted Frankel, a puckish man with a Harpo Marxish countenance and a penchant for visual hilarity.

Five months ago, Frankel, 53, impulsively left Chicago, where he operates three popular retail stores, to open Sideshow, the newly expanded gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum in South Baltimore.

Sideshow affords the "openness to allow people to be who they want to be," Frankel says. Today, that's an important thing, he says. "Look out your window. The world's broken."

Frankel has invented a general store for outsiders, chock-a-block with practical jokes and impractical toys, giggle-provoking gags, and provocative books celebrating life's infinite amusements.

Sideshow is a place where hopeless irony brackets spiritual kitsch, and the Laptop Buddha and Crazy Cat Lady action figure (plus cats) are upstaged by the Smoking Baby, an object that comes, of course, with a disclaimer: "Real babies should never smoke."

Here, you can find a vintage Mork and Mindy acrylic paint-by-numbers kit, tiny "Peewee" harmonicas from occupied Japan, a "grow a lover" kit (just add water), as well as tin work from Haiti and original pieces by a Chicago graffiti artist named Choke. On display as well are some of the dozens of pristine Chia Pets recently unearthed by Frankel in a Baltimore warehouse, whose whereabouts he won't disclose.

Frankel's decision to move to Baltimore came about as a result of a brief visit here. About five months ago, Frankel visited AVAM for the first time with friend Nancy Josephson, a Wilmington, Del., bead artist and voodoo priestess whose work is currently on exhibit at the museum. A compulsive collector of oddities and a trained graphic artist, Frankel was smitten by what he saw.

In passing, he met museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger, who gave him a hug. Frankel went home, where he runs a toy store called Uncle Fun, and two stationery stores called Fly Paper and Paper Boy. A couple of weeks later, Hoffberger called him. "'You're the one,'" she said.

"For what?" Frankel asked.

"I want you to open the store. I'm very intuitive and you're the right person."

Hoffberger had done her research and found that Frankel's playful entrepreneurial spirit was a natural fit for AVAM, where "we wanted a larger store presence," Hoffberger says. But, "we didn't know how to quite get there."

Frankel was the man for the job, Hoffberger decided. "You never think that when it's right, it's for one good reason. It has to be right for 10,000 good reasons." Among them, she numbers Frankel's ability to "go to Haiti and bring back such marvelous stuff at [great] price points."

There are plenty more reasons, she says. "I just keep peeling off layers of how wonderful he's been."

Within days of accepting Hoffberger's offer, Frankel bought a house in Baltimore. "I'd been asking for a while for something to happen," he says. "I didn't think it was going to be out of town."

Frankel, who also goes by "Uncle Fun," is keeping his Chicago home as well. "I will try to be bi-urban," he says.

Some of his own artwork is also available at Sideshow, including an assemblage featuring three images of the Virgin Mary. Its message of peace is decidedly different than the shop's more irreverent religious offerings. "All religious symbols are available for everyone," Frankel says.

Living in such an alternative universe, where the Three Stooges cavort with Che and Jesus, it may seem like Frankel never grew up. At one point, he would have agreed, he says. Now, though, he has achieved the ability "to think innocently as a child, but with an adult mind. It's an incredible gift and I think I have it."

The American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 410-244-1900.

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