He's been immortalized in movies and magazine covers. He's terrified scores of children and built a cult following among others.

The evolution of the Evil Clown of Middletown from roadside ad legend has a special place in New Jersey pop culture history.

His name is Calico but most New Jerseyans know him as the Evil Clown of Middletown. Calico is an 18-foot metal road sign on Route 35 outside the Circus Wines store. When Calico was installed in 1956, it advertised the first in a series of Food Circus grocery stores owned by the Azzolina and Scaduto families.

Full disclosure: I worked for the Azzolinas as a public relations assistant during college and later as a reporter for their weekly Bayshore-area newspaper, The Courier, which has long since closed.

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Calico greeted me every day as I headed to work. He was so commonplace in my world that I didn't appreciate just how weird it was having a gigantic, menacing-looking clown along the highway outside of your newspaper office.

Maybe it was nostalgia or homesickness, but it was only after leaving New Jersey that my fondness for the big creepy guy grew.

I decorated my office with a framed copy of the Weird NJ issue featuring Calico. After the clown cover went into hiding for a few years during the pandemic, I triumphantly brought him back to adorn the wall of my home office.

Evil Clown of Middletown on the Cover of Weird NJ

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I'm not alone among the current and former Middletown residents who hold a special place in their hearts for Calico.

The evolution of the Evil Clown of Middletown from roadside ad to legend has a special place in New Jersey pop culture history.

Courtesy Joseph Azzolina Jr.
Courtesy Joseph Azzolina Jr.

A History of the Evil Clown of Middletown

The idea for Calico began at the Azzolina family kitchen table in 1955. Then-businessman and eventual New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Azzolina and his wife, Lynn, partnered with his sister Grace Scaduto and her husband, Louis, in opening a grocery store.

"They were sitting around the table trying to come up with names for the company and my Aunt Claire, my mother's sister, came up with the idea of a circus," said Joseph Azzolina Jr., executive vice-president of Food Circus Super Markets.

Tillie Design in Asbury Park
Getty Images

Tillie Artist Leslie Worth Thomas Designed Calico

The family went to Road-Ad Service in Asbury Park and asked the company to come up with ideas for the sign. Road-Ad Service artist Leslie Worth Thomas created the design for Calico in the summer of 1955.

Thomas also came up with the Tillie sign on the Palace Amusements building in Asbury Park. A restored version of the Tillie sign is shown above.

Calico on Route 35
Courtesy Joseph Azzolina Jr.

Calico Appears on Route 35

Route 35 in Middletown was a single-lane road when construction on Calico first began in December 1955.

Pictures of Calico also appeared inside the grocery store when it opened Jan. 18, 1956. The clown was nameless at the time, but would eventually come to be named Calico by a customer because of his bright red and yellow checkered outfit.

The clown cost $18,000 to build in 1955 -- the equivalent to over $200,000 in 2024.

Courtesy Joseph Azzolina Jr.
Courtesy Joseph Azzolina Jr.

Why the Evil Clown of Middletown Stopped Spinning

The Evil Clown of Middletown electronically rotated until the mid-1970s.

While heavy wind gusts played a role in the decision to anchor Calico town, teenagers in Middletown also may have had a part to play. Bored kids would try to spin the clown at night.

Calico also saw his fair share of wear and tear after having cheated death at least twice: once when he was struck by lightning and another time when a bird's nested inside the sign and caused an electrical fire.

Jackie Corley/Townsquare Media
Jackie Corley/Townsquare Media

How Did Calico Turn 'Evil'?

RoadsideAmerica.com editor Doug Kirby is likely the first to dub Calico "The Evil Clown of Middletown."

"What happens over the years is there's an appreciation for these things beyond the pure commercial interest," Kirby told the Asbury Park Press in 2015. "At some point they cross over from being a crass commercial thing to a beloved historical landmark. The clown definitely fits that."

Courier / Jackie Corley
Courier / Jackie Corley

Evil Clown of Middletown on Film + Television

Calico has made multiple appearances on film and television, largely in Kevin Smith-helmed projects.

The Highlands native filmed an opening scene of Clerks II. Employees from the newspaper and the liquor store rushed to buy flasks for the director to sign.

Smith also filmed a Tonight Show segment with Azzolina Jr. and returned a third time for a scene in Clerks III.

The Evil Clown's first movie appearance, though, was in Phillip Botti's 1996 documentary Middletown, according to its Wikipedia entry.

Jackie Corley/Townsquare Media
Jackie Corley/Townsquare Media

Rumors Swirled About the Evil Clown of Middletown's Future

According to the Azzolinas, there have never been plans to get rid of the beloved clown.

"When we closed the store here in Middletown the supermarket, people were like, 'what’s going on with the clown?' It made sense to keep it when we opened the liquor store," Azzolina Jr. said of the 1991 closing of the Food Circus grocery store.

Rumors the clown would be torn down began flying again in the 2000s when the Azzolina and Scaduto families proposed a mixed used development project on a parcel of land at the Circus Wines location.

Later, a Save the Evil Clown of Middletown Facebook campaign popped up again when another development project was planned behind the Circus Wines location.

That campaign led to the clown being registered as a landmark with the state of New Jersey, according to an article in the Two River Times and confirmed by Azzolina Jr.

The Evil Clown has proven a marketable branding opportunity, with merchandise including T-shirts sold at the Circus Wines store and a limited-edition beer produced with Twin Lights Brewery.

Today, Calico remains in his rightful place, smirking and wagging his red-tipped finger at drivers on Route 35.

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Gallery Credit: Jackie Corley

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