From 1990 to 2014, Ted Frankel owned and operated Uncle Fun, a Lakeview shop that sold novelty items and gag gifts. The mild-mannered Frankel could often be seen casually sporting a jester's cap or a wig composed of glow sticks, and his stock included such staples as bacon-flavored lip balm, glasses with googly eyes, hordes of rubber cockroaches, unicorn snow globes, and enough fake poop and vomit to fake a yearlong stomach bug. The shop's interior, roughly the size of a Starbucks, was crammed with shelves and drawers carrying miniature high-heeled shoes, rubber finger puppets, and other knick-knacks to pad out goody bags.
Laura Scruggs, 42, began shooting the documentary Uncle Fun: You're the One a few weeks before the shop, located on Belmont near Southport, closed in January 2014, and for the last four years she's been interviewing former employees, regular customers, and local artists who frequented it alongside her. You're the One memorializes Uncle Fun and applauds Frankel for nurturing what he calls "the safe space on the Monopoly board." Chicago Filmmakers will screen the documentary three times on Sunday, with Scruggs and her husband and producer, Jake Scruggs, taking questions at each show and Frankel appearing at the last two.
This is Scruggs's first film, and she's chosen a topic close to her heart. "I am in love with Ted," she explains. "I've spent almost half my life at Uncle Fun." As depicted in You're the One, that love takes many forms. In one scene Scruggs, clad in a rainbow crop top and fairy wings, professes, "Ted Frankel is my spirit animal. When I told my husband about this, he said, 'He's not an animal.' And when I told Ted all of this, he said, 'I'm a whoopee cushion.'" She flashes a smile and hugs herself.
Scruggs's passion manifests itself in the documentary's excess: counting her and Frankel, You're the One includes 50 talking heads. (Her original list contained 70 names, but the roster was whittled down by Frankel.) Scruggs snooped around the Internet for more video of the store and includes those scenes alongside her own. Most of the documentary was shot with an iPad, and the interview subjects are poorly lit, the video's production values secondary to the reminiscences. Scruggs can often be heard gasping and giggling off-camera, and she appears onscreen frequently, draped in more fairy garb and wielding an illuminated wand. When asked how much objectivity she tried to maintain, she replies, "None whatsoever."
- RICHARD A. CHAPMAN
Frankel, 67, now lives in Baltimore with his husband, operating the gift shop at the American Visionary Art Museum. He began his fun run in 1976 with the opening of Goodies, another novelty store in Lakeview that he ran with his two sisters. According to Frankel, family conflicts drove him out of the business in 1990, and he rebounded into Uncle Fun. "He created his world out of that—a safe place for himself and everyone else," says Scruggs.
Her infatuation with the shop began during a day trip to Chicago from Normal, Illinois. She and a friend were killing time before a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Bailiwick Repertory Theatre (now Theater Wit) and stumbled upon the shop. "What I remember most is that I bought a green, sparkly star ring, threw it off a bridge, made a wish, and the wish came true," she says breathlessly, as if witnessing this miracle all over again.
Scruggs's day-to-day life is laced with such whimsy. She earned her masters in communication, media, and theater, and trained as a professional caregiver. Through Kinder Odyssey and the Maine-Niles Association of Special Recreation, she serves as a companion to young special-needs children, guiding them through school days and extracurricular programs. On weekends, she attends to a 23-year-old with autism; the pair go shopping, learn piano, and see plays. She's occasionally contracted for what she calls "freelance fairy work," including camp programs where kids learn movement exercises, pen fairy-themed poetry, and craft custom fairy dust. She has been consulted on a few stage shows and trained the fairies for a production of Thumbelina at Lifeline Theatre. Interviewed by phone, she speaks slowly and deliberately in a high register, as if addressing a classroom of kindergarteners. "In my normal life, I can be too much for people," she says. "But I was never too much for anybody at that store. I felt valued, appreciated."
Scruggs has faced her share of personal difficulties. A year after Uncle Fun closed, she suffered a miscarriage. When she finally revealed this to Frankel via e-mail a few weeks ago, he wrote back, "We are blessed in many ways and these blessings are often hidden by a dense fog waiting for real life fairy wings to whisk the confusion away."
For her next film, Scruggs is documenting fairy festivals across the country. After attending one at Spoutwood Farm in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, she drove an hour out of her way to Baltimore. She still visits Frankel once a year. v
- Courtesy of Laura Scruggs