It's Never Too Late for Cheesecake | Our Town | Chicago Reader

It's Never Too Late for Cheesecake 

He loves his calendar girls, But Jack Chia would love them more if he could make a few bucks off them. And with 1963 perfectly aligned with 2002, he's getting another chance.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

For the last 38 years, Jack Chia's vision of the American dream has been stacked inside cardboard boxes, unseen by the red-blooded men he aimed--aims--to sell it to. Chia is the 77-year-old founder of the GoodTime Publishing Company, whose sole product is the 1963 Girl-a-Week & Joke-a-Day Calendar, an eye-popping assemblage of vintage soft-core pinups and cornball one-liners. The fact that Chia's calendar hasn't yet sold out hasn't shaken his faith in free enterprise, nor has it discouraged him from repeatedly trying to unload the multithousandsomething remaining copies of his dream project every time a new year has the same days and dates as 1963--which it has four times since. "To me it symbolized freedom and opportunity," he says. "To an immigrant, those are the values I value most. Also, I am fond of cheesecakes."

Hailing from Chongqing, China, Chia was a lieutenant colonel specializing in psychological warfare in Chiang Kai-shek's embattled Nationalist Army in 1949. He and a few young comrades published an open letter proposing government reforms but became disillusioned when the corrupt old guard ignored them. He left Taiwan on the heels of Mao's mainland victory and began studying international relations at Fordham University.

In New York he continued to rail against the Reds, translating a well-known 1953 anticommie book called Out of Red China. That led to a writing job for Voice of America, which broadcast his political commentaries, patriotic stories, and jokes into the mainland. He assembled some of those gags into a book he titled "Laughing Down Chairman Mao." He can still recall a few of the old japes: "The dentist in China under communists has to pull the teeth through the nose. Why? Because who dares open their mouth? Ha ha ha ha ha."

Chia, who has the disarming habit of laughing uproariously at memories of misfortune, got his first bitter blow from the American marketplace while busing tables at a resort in upstate New York. At the end of the summer, the paycheck he was counting on to pay his tuition bounced after the owner declared bankruptcy. "I got so mad. And here I work so hard for this system I believed in." In a blind fury, he heaved all his jokes into the furnace--just before a letter arrived from a Hong Kong publisher, asking him to send the manuscript.

Depressed, he quit school and lit out for Chicago, eventually landing a job as a fiction editor for Newsstand Library, a publisher of paperback soft-core novels at Belmont and Western. The company cranked out five titles a month, and the brass's emphasis on steam over substance offended Chia's sense of higher art. "All they want is juicy descriptions," he says. "Some prostitutes wrote about their stories. Well, the story may be true, but you have to have some theme to hang on there."

Chia wasn't just dissatisfied with his job. His Playboy pinup calendar was bugging him, too: "I get tired of watching same picture for whole month." That's when he hit on the idea of a new and improved calendar, one with a different tomato every week and a rib tickler every day. Quitting his job and following the trail Hef had blazed a decade earlier, he assembled a mock-up at his kitchen table and began searching for backers. To his astonishment, a distributor in New York City placed an order for 200,000 copies.

Outside their office he clicked his heels in the air and headed for the photo agencies, poring over thousands of pictures and buying rights to the ones that appealed to his refined sense of proportion. He knew nothing about the photographers but wound up selecting shots by Russ Meyer, Bernard of Hollywood, and Tom Kelley--who shot Marilyn Monroe's red velvet series. Most of the models were bare-breasted, but Chia had his own standards; when one agency offered him photos of what looked like Jackie Kennedy in the nude, he said, "Thanks, no thanks. That's not me." He settled instead on a Russ Meyer knuckle biter of a bikini-clad June Wilkinson frolicking in a sandbox. "That picture looks like Marilyn Monroe, but actually June Wilkinson is better endowed."

At the library Chia unearthed more than 11,000 jokes, selecting the final 365 groaners from wags like Jack Paar ("A mermaid is a half girl and more fish than you need") and Irv Kupcinet ("A girl is grown-up when she stops counting on her fingers and starts counting on her legs"). He penned a handful himself under the name He-who Who-he ("As a rule he who tells no lie to a woman has no consideration for her feelings").

With only $5,000 in the bank, his biggest problem was financing. On the promise of a huge return from the distributor, he found a printer and paper supplier willing to carry him until delivery. But his binder refused to do the work without money up front. Chia found a silent partner, a lawyer who paid part of the binder's fee. But the partnership started to fracture when he pressed Chia to put the first lady look-alike on the cover. "I say, 'I don't feel right.' He say, 'You'll feel right when we sell the calendar.'" The two broke up, and because Chia wasn't paid up the binder started dragging his feet. Then he left a load of calendars in an open truck bed in a downpour, forcing Chia to reprint most of them. By the time they were finished it was the end of January 1963, and nobody wanted the calendars. But the printer, the paper supplier, and the binder still wanted their money. "People wrote me all kinds of funny letters," he says. "'We carry you for nine months. More than your mother.' Ha ha ha ha ha. They want to sue me."

Stuck with a mountain of stale cheesecake, Chia tried to salvage the pictures, laminating them onto placemats and beer mugs. "I try to sell, but people think it's too arty or not arty enough," he says. "They say why don't you try to sell at nudist camp. So I packed these in my car and drove down to Roselawn, Indiana. The manager, to poke fun at me, he say, 'Do you know what you are doing? You are trying to sell icebox to Eskimos.'" With similar results, he tried to convince an elder at the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce that the jokes would go over big stuffed inside fortune cookies.

Chia took on two jobs to pay off his debts. On the night shift at a printing plant he straightened the unbound, unfolded pages of girlie magazines as they rolled off the press. "What got me down was some of those magazines, they are showing everything," he says. "It's like clinical, showing the parts and everything. I feel so bad, my artists couldn't sell. That drive me nuts. And one day I just couldn't take it. I'm sitting down there with my hands on my head.

"That evening I was home early. My phone rang. Guess who is on the line? My former silent partner. He has some dirty jokes to tell me about Jacqueline Kennedy. That make me vomit. I went to bed early. But the next morning I woke up, I heard the birds singing out there. That's where I got the idea. The calendar would repeat itself. I went to library to check. I found, yes, that 1963 would come back"--in 1974.

It took three years to pay off his debt, and Chia bided his time for eight more. He secured another distribution agreement and a contract with an envelope manufacturer to produce packaging to explain the 11-year delay. Chia was rubbing his hands together when the Sun-Times ran a story about him, but the envelopes failed to materialize and he missed his distributor's deadline. Nineteen eighty-five could have been his year, after the Associated Press, USA Today, and Bob Greene all gave him ink, but he couldn't win over a distributor and only sold a few thousand. In 1991 he decided the timing was wrong.

The new century offers new marketing strategies. Chia has a Web site to push the calendars, and he's sold a few on eBay for up to $110, though at press time he was letting them go for $15. He's pushing the calendar on its collectibility, which is why he refuses to say how many thousands he has left--though he could afford to send 500 copies to Special Forces troops stationed in Afghanistan. Current events present yet another angle. "I would like more people to get into the spirit of a joke a day," he says. "So that we can laugh our way out of the recession and out of acts of terrorism."

Chia doesn't expect to sell out of the calendars in his lifetime, and it's not as though the project has dominated his life. He is married, has three kids, and had a career as a writer and commercial filmmaker. He's also spent most of the last year reflecting and writing his memoirs. "I learn a lot," he says. "Thinking back, there's no system in the world that's perfect. Nowadays in China, the young people just want to go into business. They admire free enterprise. Sometime I think they don't know the real free enterprise. But those are the realities of capitalism. Good or bad, you have to take them all."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Mike Sula

Agenda Teaser

Music
September 20
Music
Cortex Elastic
September 20

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories