Where Everybody Knew Your Name

Where Everybody Knew Your Name

F or years, it was a nondescript, stoop-or-you’ll miss-it ground-level acknowledgement stuck on the outside corner of a building with the kind of sticky letters you affix on mailboxes.

Last year a petition went round the neighborhood, City Hall took note, and in the summertime a proper street sign was erected at the corner of Park and Chapel.

“Gag Jr’s Corner,” it reads.

Before Gag Jr.’s was a corner, before there was the Gag Jr.’s Liquor Shop which stands a couple doors in from that corner, it was a breakfast nook. It’s hard to look at the tiny, tidy Dunkin Donuts store which has occupied the corner for over 20 years now and think that it used to house a bustling breakfast eatery with several booths and tables. The Gag’s Jr. diner era was a respite between national chain outlets; in the 1960s, the spot was a White Castle hamburger franchise.

Gag Jr.’s was the diner of choice for first-shift workers at local factories and for late-rising students at Yale’s schools of Drama and Art & Architecture. It was also convenient to the Duncan and Colony Inn 

Gag Jr.’s Corner
Corner of Chapel and Park, New Haven (map)

hotels on the next block. (The Colony Inn was where The Study at Yale is now.) Also nearby: the apartments where the Yale Rep and other theaters housed visiting actors. A slew of stars would dig into their ham and eggs at Gag’s.

One morning you could have walked in and seen Rosey Grier, the football great turned TV star, sitting alongside ’50s and ’60s crooner Dion—both were appearing at a Christian event at New Haven Coliseum later that day. Passers-by looked awestruck through the windows, then rushed into the diner to greet Grier. They swarmed the erstwhile New York Giant and Here Comes Rosie cartoon star, who’d become famous for his stereotype-busting fondness for embroidery—and largely ignored poor Dion, who was less immediately recognizable, especially in the estimable shadow of the gigantic Grier.

Gag Jr. served all the stars and cocky stars–to-be without descending to starstruck awe. Every customer received the same courtesy and efficiency. He did, however, ask for autographed photos. The walls of Gag Jr.’s

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were festooned with signed photos of everyone from then-Yalie Mark Linn Baker (years before he stormed Broadway and co-starred on the 1980s TV sitcom Perfect Strangers) to Sammy Davis Jr.

Gag Jr. helped turn what was then a blighted and distressed neighborhood into a brighter and safer spot. A breakfast joint can really brighten up a corner at the time of day when it most needs it. Gag Jr.’s was a beacon of change in that part of downtown.

Other notable storefronts on Upper Chapel in the 1980s including the Lady Luck Laundromat (which had a roulette-wheel gimmick and the slogan “If You’re Lucky, She Does It for Free”), the bohemian hang-out Café Des Artistes, an earlier location of Miya’s Sushi and Paperback Trader (which morphed into a series of comic book shops.) The area was the province of legendary neighborhood activist Evelyn Schatz, who died in 2003 and rated her own honorary “Evelyn Schatz Way” street sign at the corner of Chapel & Howe.

Vincent Gagliardi Jr. is still with us, in his late 80s. He occasionally stops in to visit the tenants of the buildings he still owns on that storied block between Park and Howe. Those tenants include his son Gary, proprietor of Gag Jr.’s Liquor Shop. Gary will regale you with stories of what the neighborhood used to be like. He gives assurance that all the old photographs with the famous names which hung on the walls of the breakfast place are safely stored.

But the biggest name is the one that still adorns the corner: Gag Jr.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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