Monday, March 30, 2015

Memory Bank: A Night Out in Totowa, N.J. (circa 1975 - 1980)

In case you can’t tell from my toy collection, I had a wonderful and happy childhood in New Jersey of the 1970s. 

Although my family lived in the town of Glen Ridge (between Montclair and Bloomfield), we would sometimes spend a night in Totowa, New Jersey, about forty five minutes away from our home on Clinton Road.


Well, for one thing, Totowa was the location, in the late 1970s, of the Totowa Drive-In, on Rte. 46.  

It was there, in that venue, that my parents saw such films as Last House on the Left (1972), The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), and Death Race 2000 (1975) while my sister and I were expected to go to sleep in the back of the car. 

As I've written about before...we stayed up and peeked.

Of course, we also saw plenty of kid’s movies at the Totowa Drive-In too, mostly Herbie movies from Disney, if memory serves. 

But on a day we were going to the Drive-In to see a movie, my Mom would pack us all sub sandwiches, potato chips and homemade blueberry muffins, and we’d all sit in the car together watching the featured movie on the big screen. I remember how twitchy the sound system was, at times, and the big, clunky speakers we'd hang on our windows so we could hear the audio.  

But sometimes, when we were in Totowa for  movie, we also visited a store that I possess vivid memories of to this day: Two Guys. 

What was Two Guys?  Well, it was a discount chain that had a hundred or so locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Jersey from about 1946 to 1982. 

The store sold Vornado Brand appliances and fans, but had much more to offer as well. The giant store in Totowa had a lumber department, a grocery store, a toy department, a soda/ice cream counter, and a house wares section, for instance.  I know there were Two Guys locations in Middletown, East Hanover and Cherry Hill too, but I remember primarily, the Totowa store.

When you first walked in, there was a huge midway. And there, on that path, was a pre-Atari 2600, free-standing Pong game unit, at least for a while.  So we would go to Two Guys, buy sodas and my parents would engage in Pong battles for a good long while.  

When I discussed Two Guys (originally known as Two Guys from Harrison) with my Dad the other day, he mentioned to me that we also got our first screen tent -- for cross-country camping -- at the Two Guys located in Totowa.

In 2015, I still carry memories of at least one particular visit to Two Guys. It was late at night -- or at least dark out -- perhaps after a trip to the Drive-In, and we went inside.  

In the toy department there were rows of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) toys that I had never seen in Toys R Us or other toy store, and which I would never see for sale again, except in the collectible market.  

For example, I remember distinctly seeing the Electronic U.S.S. Enterprise from South Bend, as well as the electronic “phaser guns” and belt buckles from the same manufacturer.

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Two Guys -- a discount store -- had these toys in stock because they were poor sellers. I remember wanting these toys very badly, but for seventies dollars, they were very expensive. 

Not long after that visit -- in the early 1980s -- Two Guys went out of business and was replaced by a store called Bradlees, another chain that is out of business now too.  

The Totowa Drive-In is no longer operating, either.  

Yet all these places live on in my memories.

I haven't been to Totowa in many years (probably since the late 1980s...), but I do remember the great times I spent there with my family long, long ago, watching movies, playing Pong, and lusting for starship toys.

I told my son, Joel the other night that if I could time travel with him, I'd take him to Totowa in the late seventies to see Star Wars at the drive-in theater, and then buy him some ice cream and toys at Two Guys.  

He told me, without batting an eye, that it was a bad idea, because I might run into my younger self.  

And what if I bought him a toy that young JKM was supposed to own?  

The whole universe would succumb to a reality-shattering paradox!

That's my boy.


  1. I always enjoy reminiscences of this type, but this post has special resonance for me because I grew up in Passaic, not far away, and attended Neumann Prep in Wayne from 1972-1976. My school bus passed the Totowa Drive-In every day, and of course that entire stretch of Route 46 was an important shopping zone for my family. (We also shopped a lot at a Bradlees store that was off Route 3 in Clifton.)

    In my home we had street maps of all the New Jersey counties, and I always thought that Glen Ridge looked interesting on the Essex County map, since it is such an extremely narrow town, only a few blocks wide. Although I frequently went to Nutley on my bicycle from my home in Passaic Park and occasionally rode as far as Belleville, Bloomfield and Glen Ridge were a little beyond my usual exploration zone. I had library cards in Nutley and (in the other direction) Rutherford as well as Passaic, and was always zipping between the towns to handle all my book borrowing.

    Glen Ridge, unfortunately, came in for some notoriety several years after you and I were out of the vicinity, with an infamous 1989 rape of a mentally challenged girl by members of the high school football team, and subsequent trial. These events were given wide publicity through Bernard Lefkowitz's book, "Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb," and a TV movie adaptation of it. They also live in on as an echo in a number of horror / thriller novels and movies, undoubtedly including some that I'm unaware of. But two movies that come to mind are "Stir of Echoes" and "Shutter." Even though the first is based on a Richard Matheson novel that predates the Glen Ridge case, and the second is a remake of a Thai original, I feel that in some sense both films remember Glen Ridge - or at least are informed by the sense that such incidents, whenever and wherever they occur, are more horrific than much of what usually passes for "horror." Lefkowitz made much of the community's "shadow self" ("The Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb"), which of course is a classic horror trope much employed by Stephen King among many others. Do any have any thoughts on these connections?

    1. Hi Patrick,

      You're from the same neck as the woods as me! That is so cool. I didn't realize that!

      You make an important connection, I wrote about the Glen Ridge rape case, and Our Guys, in relation to "Stir of Echoes" and about 1990s horror films in my book Horror Films of the 1990s.

      The incident occurred when I was one year out of the high school, so I attended with many of the students who were involved. It's a stain on the town, for sure, and it has had ripples on the modern horror genre. I thought Our Guys was a terrific book, and explored the issues in relevant, meaningful terms.

  2. It also occurs to me that, growing up where you did, you must enjoy all the local geography and references in "The Sopranos," as I certainly do - Fountains of Wayne, and the Sopranos' house in North Caldwell, and the Bada-Bing Club (actually Satin Dolls) in Lodi, and Russo's Bakery (which was supposed to be in Nutley, but was actually Joe's Bake Shop in North Arlington - I bought cakes there!). Your family must have eaten at Holsten's in Bloomfield where the series' final scene was shot, right?

    1. Patrick,

      Holsten's in Bloomfield was a regular stop for my family!

  3. The photo of Two Guys really brought back memories. We had a Two Guys in Baltimore County, MD and it looked exactly like the one in the picture. They must've used the same blueprints for every store. Today, various other stores inhabit the building, but the basic design is still clearly visible. As a kid in the early 70s, I remember their large glass-case display of all the latest GI Joe Adventure Team figures and accessories as well as a case filled with Corgi cars. It was like perusing necklaces and rings in a fine jewelry store. They also had loads of stuff that never sold, like Captain Action Green Hornet costumes from the late 60s, still collecting dust in 1972. If I only knew how valuable those sets would be in the 21st century.