Hit the road, Jack: Popular joke shop closes

by Beacon Staff • December 13, 2006

The kids swarm the elderly man, eyes wide with disbelieving delight. He demonstrates each product with a veteran's flair and a child's passion.,"How about some fart spray?" he asks, motioning to the neon can in his hand. "Or some human turds? Boogers even?"

The kids swarm the elderly man, eyes wide with disbelieving delight. He demonstrates each product with a veteran's flair and a child's passion.

For six days a week for the last 55 years, Harold Bengin, now 76, has stood amidst fake vomit, fart bombs and exploding cigarettes. As he's aged, his devotion to fighting melancholy one gag at a time has only strengthened.

But after December, Bengin will hang up his whoopee cushion for good and close down Jack's Joke Shop after 85 years in business.

"I feel sad," Bengin says, "but when you're 76 years old, you can't sign a 10-year lease, can you?"

The road of humor is paved with flowers that squirt water, pens that give a slight shock and bug-filled ice cubes. For Bengin, that road began in 1948, when, at the insistence of a friend, he went on a blind date.

It was on this date Harold met Phyllis Goldberg, daughter of Jack Goldberg, founder of Jack's Joke Shop.

"It wasn't love at first sight," Bengin says. "It grew on us."

After two years, they were married. A year later, at the request of Phyllis' father, Jack Goldberg, Bengin, 21 at the time, became store manager of Jack's Joke Shop.

It was a job he would hold for the next 55 years of his life.

"It's a living," Bengin says as he flips through various types of fake vomit. "No, I'm joking, it's been great."

Finally finding vomit that fits his purpose, Bengin places the package on the counter.

"You ready for this?" he asks, his eyes glazing over with eagerness, lips curling as he readies to deliver what he considers to be a great line.

"We sell happiness," Bengin said.

How many times has he used that one before? He laughs, nodding his head feverishly.

"A couple of times," he says. And then he's off again, rifling through racks of garlic candy, black soap, and hot pepper toffees. He hands packages off to his coworkers, his "kid" brother Lou Bengin, 79-year-old, and Max Katz.

"No two days are the same," Bengin says as he hands off a rabbit foot to Katz.

According to Bengin, members of The Harvard Lampoon visit the store each year to purchase gag gifts for initiation.

The final year of that tradition, as well as countless others, has made Jack's Joke Shop busy as it packs up all the unsold gags and unheard laughs.

Although the store is closing, Jack's Joke Shop has seen hard times before. The shop has moved four times since it opened in 1922. "We've been kicked out of four locations: Scollay Square, Park Square, Cross Street and Boylston Street," explains Bengin.

As his hands rummage through bloody fingers, jumping candy, and itching powder, Bengin's face lights up and his wrinkle lines seem to disappear. It wouldn't be a stretch to see that the exploding cigarette packs and water-squirting cameras have been used to force a smile out of a bad day for the owner maybe as often as it has for the patrons.

As if to quickly counter the serious turn of conversation, Bengin leans over and flicks the radio on. The Bee Gees' classic, "Staying Alive," begins and so does Bengin, who engages in a sprightly dance around the counter, looking as he so often does, vibrant and full of life.

As he dances around the store, Bengin urges me not to talk to his customers. His face is serious but his demeanor is light, always on the verge of a joke.

"People don't want it known that they're here-like you, sir." Bengin approaches a well-dressed man in his early thirties looking at fake mustaches. The man looks up at Bengin, startled.

"Do you want people to know you're here?" Bengin asks.

The man looks toward the ceiling, thinking it over.

"Um . maybe," he says.

Turning back, Bengin offers an indifferent shrug and replies, "Well, he didn't say no."

The rift in customer opinions in a place like Jack's Joke Shop is huge. The carnival-like ribbing shoppers receive is either welcomed as a touch of old-time salesmanship or it's disregarded as obnoxious.

Harold Bengin isn't for everyone.

"I went into Jack's a few months ago to buy a pair of handcuffs for a joke involving a silver briefcase," said Jameson Viens, a senior print journalism major and a former Arts and Entertainment editor for The Beacon. "[Harold and Lou] made some unfunny sexual jokes and assumed I went to Emerson.

Both shopkeepers were very annoying."

Other customers, such as Boston University junior Andrew Galati, love the cheap jokes hawked at Jack's.

"As I walked through the door, I wanted to ask the old man [Bengin] what was so funny, but upon closer look of his face, I think I understood," Galati said. "I mean, after all, who doesn't like jokes?"

Shaking his head, Bengin discusses items that have gone by the wayside-ink blotters and rubber chickens-but it's as if he's not talking about them at all. His eyes wander sadly around the shelves of his store and finally to his own hands. His voice trails off in mid-thought. As Brian Wilson once lamented, some people just weren't made for these times.

Turning around, hands empty for once, Bengin counts off the celebrities he's met on his fingers. It's clear two hands aren't enough. Ed Bradley, Douglas Brinkley, Kevin Bacon and Glenn Frye are just some of Bengin's famous customers. But he remains indifferent to celebrity, his eyes only perking up when he spots an exploding wallet on the counter.

"Ninety-nine percent of celebrities are just regular people with regular thoughts and worries," he says.

Although Bengin is unimpressed with celebrities, he himself is a celebrated member of the community. Long-time customers come in with their children to pay respect and say their goodbyes, and maybe to snag a few packs of snapping gum while they're at it.

A young couple walks into Jack's Joke Shop.

Although the door is shut, and will be closed for the final time Dec. 31, one can still hear the faint voice of Bengin.