New Jersey is famous for loads of visual landmarks. The beach, the Meadowlands, lighthouses, Asbury Park’s way-too-smiley Tillie and many more. The one landmark that stands out like an evil clown watching you drive down a highway is, well, the actual enormous evil clown parked on Route 35 in Middletown. Yes, the evil clown is real, and it’s our latest vocabulary word.
Evil Clown — Noun. The creepy, unofficial mascot of Middletown, NJ
Example: “I had a nightmare the Evil Clown showed up at my door.”
The larger-than-life billboard cutout was created in 1956 by Leslie Worth Thomas of the Road Ad Sign Company. Coincidentally, Thomas also designed AP’s Tillie. So Thomas had a thing for freaky smiles. Thomas created the sign for Joseph Azzolina, a Jersey native who was trying to promote his Food Circus grocery store. Get it? It was called Food Circus, so, what better way to draw customers than with a clown out front? Only this one is less friendly Bozo and more Stephen King’s It. He has an official name — Calico — but he’s more popularly known as the “Evil Clown of Middletown.”
Calico is something of a tourist attraction. Cars regularly park along the side of Route 35 to snap a pic of the menacing clown, who back in the day, twirled a balloon string in his hand. Calico became so popular, he now has his own Facebook page.
Doug Kirby, the publisher of Roadside America, had a lot to do with the popularity of Calico. “For 20 years my wife and I lived about a mile from the clown in Middletown,” he said. “As a kid growing up in Monmouth County, I remember the motor still working to rotate the Food Circus supermarket sign. In the early 1990s, we started referring to it as Evil Clown. The sly expression, the red index finger — it was a strange character, unique in Roadside America. I made a 3D computer model of it in 1995 to animate and see it spin again!”
Calico has gone through some changes. Food Circus turned into Foodtown and ultimately became Spirits Unlimited. The grocery chain’s headquarters, though, are still there (the fam owns a dozen or so Circus stores around New Jersey). In 2011, Joseph Azzolina Jr. worked to renovate the Evil Clown by giving Calico a fresh paint job and helping to grease the wheels that would help him rotate again. “It’s a cool and unique icon,” he told the Middletown Patch during the project. There have been a few scares — not from Calico, but from potential development projects that would force Calico to come down. In the end, he stayed put and even dresses up on holidays.
Residents are affectionate about Calico, dubbing him their ‘unofficial mascot.’ Some have even inked their devotion to Calico on their bodies in the form of an Evil Clown tattoo.
Others have written songs about him. One, Mike Morris, encouraged the Azzolina family to market and trademark Calico back in 2010. “John said that it was a large undertaking and that it could take a while before all the legal issues of trademarks, licenses and copyrights could be worked out but they were being worked on and sometime soon there would be a whole line of merchandise featuring Calico “the Evil” Clown.” Right before Christmas that same year, the first Evil Clown t-shirts showed up for sale at Spirits Unlimited and the store still carries a line of them today.
Another more famous former New Jersey resident is filmmaker Kevin Smith. He gave Calico a cameo in Clerks II. And in 1996, Calico was featured in the opening sequence of Philip Botti’s Jersey-focused movie Middletown.
So, Calico really does have some bragging rights — apart from showing up in your nightmares.
Improve your Garden State vernacular and learn the New Jersey lexicon with NJ Vocabulary: The Series.