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The Uncle Fun Mojo
When you keep an open mind about fun there’s no telling what you might find.
“You meet all these wonderfully eccentric people,” said Uncle Fun owner-founder Ted Frankel who is closing his popular Chicago novelty store on Jan. 26. “Usually they store things and at the bottom of the stack is the really good stuff. When I was a graphic designer I saw this Chicago company that did this crazy stuff. They sold cosmetics in ethnic neighborhoods and had beautiful pins and labels.”
Frankel, 62, learned about Valmor Products that thrived between the early 1930s and the mid-1950s on the south side of Chicago.
Valmor manufactured and packaged spiritual cosmetic supplies for the African-American community, the kind of things you would see at A. Schawb’s drug store in Memphis–a place that is just as colorful as Uncle Fun.
Look closely at the bottom of Uncle Fun’s counter by the front door and you will see original Valmor Company Madam Jones labels promoting “Pressing Oil for that Smooth Silky Looking Hair,” “Special Black Pressing Compound (for use with hot comb or pincers) and “Lucky Mojo Jockey Club Toilet Water.”
Here’s Ted having reflective fun in his store this week:
During the early 1980s when Frankel operated his Goodies novelty store and soda fountain, 3450 N. Halsted, he visited the Valmor factory, then at 24th and Prairie.
He met Morton Neumann, a Jewish chemist who owned Valmor products.
“It was sort of like my store,” Frankel recalled during a fun conversation at his store on Monday afternoon. “Crazy and stuff all over the place. He and his wife (Rose) were working it. She was like a Lilly Tomlin character answering the phones. We became friends. So I said I would trade him my services for some of his junk. When he closed his factory he made me a deal and I bought a bunch of his stuff. Little did I know that when I went to visit him at his house he had more crazy like original Picassos and whatever. He was one of the country’s biggest art collectors.”
Neumann died in April, 1985 at the age of 87. Obituaries said he had one of the best collections of 20th Century art in the world. He owned 25 Picassos. He helped finance the expansion of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“He lived in one of those mansions on Division Street where every floor was a different period of art,” Frankel recalled. “He was the nicest guy. He came with his wife to the opening of Goodie’s. “He got a kick out of where his stuff went.”
Obituaries failed to mention Neumann’s life with Valmor.
City of Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson is working on a book and tentative exhibit on Valmor and Neumann.
“Ted Frankel saved that company’s legacy,” Samuelson said earlier this week in a separate interview. “He has a good eye. All those labels are the things that just get thrown away and nobody would know about them. Robert Crumb learned lettering from Valmor. He had a collection of those. Terry Zwigoff (Chicago born filmmaker, “Ghost World,” “Bad Santa,” the “Crumb” documentary) is a big Valmor enthusiast. So is Chris Ware and Chris is friends with Ted.”
Chicago graphic designer Charles Dawson created many of the early Valmor labels. Dawson was born in 1889 on a Georgia plantation and studied at the Tuskegee Institute and the Art Institute of Chicago.
“He was the first black commercial artist in Chicago,” Samuelson said. “They are classic labels.”
Valmor was the umbrella name for offshoot brands like Madam Jones, Sweet Georgia Brown and Famous Products. “They made cosmetic products and perfumes,” Samuelson said. “Incense. Love potions like ‘Follow Me Boy’ and ‘Hold Your Man.’ The Neumanns would go on trips to buy the raw and roots materials for the perfumes and products they made. It wasn’t like somebody was putting in water from a tap and putting a label on it. Their travels got them interested in modern art.
“Morton would buy on instinct. His eye was impeccable and they had a way of showing up the art establishment. The Neumanns caught on to things before the establishment did. He had a way where he would seek out the artists. The Neumanns were so charming that they became friends with many of the artists.”
Neumann had a side mail order catalog where they sold costume jewelry and watches. “He had a special set of watches made where the numbers spelled out Pablo Picasso,” Samuelson said. “Picasso was so delighted with these watches he gave them to his favorite bullfighters. When Picasso had an operation they wanted to keep it a secret. They sent him to some town far away. What gave him away is that he was wearing Neumann’s watch.
“Morton had a Duane Hanson (sculpture) which is a man sitting on the floor. When they would go away they’d put a sheet over it. They were afraid if the alarms went off the police would come in and shoot him up.”
One of the Neumanns gifts were that they were fun, regular folks.
“Valmor was a real mom and pop business,” Samuelson said.
Stockholm born-Chicago bred sculptor Claes Oldenburg is another Valmor devotee. Last year Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum of curios and gadgets were on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. “In the European version there’s some Morton Neumann things,” Samuelson said. “I talked to him by e-mail and he said the real Mouse Museum was Morton’s factory in Chicago.”
Frankel closes Uncle Fun on Jan. 26.
The final joy buzzer will be sounded.
By then all the valuable Valmor items will likely be bought up. Mortality eventually becomes a theme for many collectors.
“As I grow older, sure those things come into your head,” Frankel said. “Being a collector I’m surrounded by tons and tons of stuff. I enjoy it when people come to my house and say, ‘I really like that.’ Often times I give it to them because I’ve gone through things in my life where things were taken away from me. You learn they’re just things. But as a creative person and a collector I love being surrounded by creative and wonderful things. As far as what happens when I die, that’s for the people that are left behind. I do have several museum collections of art and they will go to those museums.
“It’s just wonderful to live around all the stuff because it makes me happy.”
And you cannot put a price on happiness.