A postal employee who didn't want to spend his life working for other people, Phil Johnson started a cosmetics store on the side. He pondered selling playground slides for kids, running a hotel or jumping into the dry-cleaning business.
"Remember Martinizing?" Johnson says with a sigh.
Nothing seemed right.
Interested in magic, he pulled PJ's Trick Shop out of his hat. In spite of recessions, the Internet and several moves, he's managed to keep PJ's from disappearing for 46 years and counting. Now 77 years old, that might be his best trick of all.
The prospects didn't seem so bright when he leased a store in the Canterbury Shopping Center in south suburban Markham for his grand opening on Nov. 1, 1967.
"I started the day after Halloween. That's how dumb I was," says Johnson, who now considers wigs, props, costumes and makeup a big part of his business. The shop has jumped from Markham to Palatine to Des Plaines to Prospect Heights to the Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect to its current location at 2308 E. Rand Road in Arlington Heights, near where Johnson lives.
Son Brian Johnson, 33, of Ingleside, manages the store these days and has developed an expertise in makeup and special effects.
"Yesterday, I had lots of blood and a vampire exploding," the younger Johnson says matter-of-factly.
He's in discussion about violent scenes in a scheduled vampire musical theater production coming to the Des Plaines Theater.
"I have to figure out if they want to smoke, burn, blow up or bleed," he says.
Makeup and special effects is a growing market that helps out when sales of invisible ink, disappearing coins and magic rope tricks flag.
"I do all the high schools," Brian Johnson says, rattling off gigs that include everything from supplying fangs to the lead of "Dracula" to adding bruises and grime to the street people of "Les Miserables." The store still sells plenty of makeup used to face-paint unicorns on kids' faces at school fundraisers and summer street fairs, and it also does a booming T-shirt business, putting kids' names on uniforms and such. But Brian Johnson clearly loves the challenge of creating something creepy.
All the vampire movies and the success of TV's "The Walking Dead" have led to more and more young people seeking outfits and makeup for private parties and pub crawls, instead of just at Halloween.
"I love when they do the zombie stuff. The gore has been growing," Brian said, adding that he has to be careful about what he wears when he picks up daughter Zoe from her preschool. "We've done a lot of zombie fests."
In recent years, he's branched out into jobs with those big public disaster training drills. He'll create a realistic-looking bus crash victim or give someone a bullet wound. He says he's also found a niche helping undercover cops, once adding track marks to a police officer's arm to make him look like a junkie.
Many of the customers are regulars, such as Donna Dickinson, founder of Dickinson's Little Vaudeville, a children's variety show school based in Palatine that features kids dancing, juggling, singing, playing instruments, telling jokes and performing skits from an era that uses props not sold at most stores. In the 20 years and 124 benefit shows since Dickinson opened Dickinson's Little Vaudeville, she's gone to PJ's for "makeup sticks, juggling gear, Groucho glasses, fake food, wigs, comedy hats, rubber rocks, bamboo canes, oversized playing cards, teaching videos of famous magic acts, pirate costume accessories and a gorilla suit," Dickinson says.
Longtime customer Barney Gronski, 76, stops in to buy three foul-mouthed mechanical parrots.
"I bet I've bought 80 of them," Gronski says, explaining how he'll break them out at suburban watering holes. "I stop in to have a refreshment every once in a while. I'll bring out the parrot and everyone asks, 'Can you get me one of those?'"
Phil Johnson sneaks into the back of the shop to fetch the R-rated parrot, which is part of an adult collection alongside naughty bachelor-party gifts and the like that has shrunk during the years.
"My wife doesn't like it," the owner says.
Married for 42 years, his wife, Shirley, notes she spent her career earning "an honest living" at a bank. She says she's used to all the practical jokes and does a couple of magic tricks, but her real talent comes in keeping the books and staying on top of inventory.
"The Whoopee Cushion has always been good for us," she says.
Lifelong friend Don Taylor helps at the store, as does 24-year-old Trent Rivas of Des Plaines. Developmentally disabled since birth and limited a bit physically by cerebral palsy, Rivas landed his dream job four years ago at the store where he shopped as a kid.
"It's been a miracle for me," says Rivas, who notes that he can't do simple math and doesn't read, but somehow is able to perform magic. "Magic is almost like therapy for me."
A documentary crew is making a film about Rivas, who will be among the magicians performing at the store's annual Aces Magic Club competition at 7 p.m. May 21 at Home House of Music & Entertainment, 1227 N. Rand Road in Arlington Heights.
"I taught him everything I know," Phil Johnson says about Rivas. "It took me two minutes."
A core of 10 professional magicians who make their livings performing magic shows, work and volunteer and perform at the store.
"They'll do a couple of tricks the kids can do to make them happy," Brian Johnson says, "and then they'll do a couple of tricks the kids can't do to keep them interested."
A customer who zips in to buy a bag of balloons could wile away an afternoon at the counter watching tricks and jokes for free.
"We have fun," says Phil Johnson. Having already performed his cache of magic card tricks and demonstrated the Whoopee Cushion ("I sure hope that's the Whoopee Cushion," he says), the founder pulls out the mask he first wore decades ago to scare the kids at Halloween.
"It's my favorite -- 'Old Man,'" he says as he slips on the white-haired, wrinkled mask. "I finally caught up with it."