Local T-shirt Mogul Garrett Pfeifer Discusses His Big Johnson
He doesn't look like the kind of guy to build a multimillion-dollar clothing company. He's a bag of bones speckled with freckles, sporting spectacles, and topped with a Cool Whip dollop of red hair. And yet despite being practically the definition of a scrawny geek, he's got a look of smug self-satisfaction that might embarrass Tom Cruise. That's because he's E. Normus Johnson.
"I gave a speech at my old high school on careers," Garrett Pfeifer chuckles. "Because I guess I have an interesting career path, from tax attorney to T-shirt printer. And I had talked about doing T-shirts for the Special Olympics [and other organizations]. One of the students raised his hand and said, `Don't you have one T-shirt that's, like, more famous than the others?' So I looked at my old headmaster and said, `Absolutely. The Big Johnson T-shirt!'"
If you were anywhere near a boardwalk or a junior high lunchroom in the early '90s, then you know E. Normus. He helped Pfeifer turn his Big Johnson line into a double-entendre money-printing machine that pumped out tens of millions of shirts at its mid-'90s peak. They were beachwear designed for the 12-year-old boy in all of us, with E. Normus surrounded by the kind of cartoon ladies who only exist on dirty T-shirts and finished off with an excruciating pun about E. Normus' wedding tackle like "Big Johnson Keg Party: Let Her Pump It a Few Times Before You Enjoy the Head." Right now you're either cringing or grinning at the memory.
And it turns out this empire of dick jokes is also a member of the local chamber of commerce. Tucked unassumingly into the fold of Maryland Screen Printers--a multimillion-dollar group of companies that prints shirts for clients as diverse as Marriott Hotels and the U.S. Tennis Association--each new Big Johnson design is born in a nondescript red-brick warehouse in a Dundalk office park. Sadly no wet T-shirt contests spontaneously broke out during a recent visit. The printing and warehousing aspects of the business require long, hard hours of work, after all, and that might be why Pfeifer, a ruddy 46-year-old with the booming demeanor of a retired high school coach, recently stepped down from the full-time operations of the printing company he founded with his brother Craig almost 20 years ago. The brothers continue to share the Dundalk facilities, but Garrett Pfeifer now wakes up every day thinking about only Big Johnson.
As he sidesteps buckets of bright printers ink in the warehouse and explains the workings of the giant metal carousels that clonk and wheeze as they squeegee colors on blank shirts, Pfeifer says that Big Johnson was born in a moment of impotence.
"I didn't know I was leaving my job to go into T-shirts," he says. Pfeifer worked as a frustrated tax lawyer for one interminable year and then quit. He went on a few interviews in his field and then the longtime lover of funny T-shirts had an idea after seeing the moderate local success he and his brother had selling quasi-bootleg shirts at football games in 1986. "I can remember one day where I thought, If I can make a dollar a T-shirt, I should just sell a million shirts."
Pfeifer quit lawyering on Jan. 1, 1987, at age 26, and set up Maryland Screen Printers with his brother Craig exactly a year later. When a local DJ named Batman, promoting an Inner Harbor booze cruise that summer, brought the two brothers a breast-happy T-shirt design that had been drawn by an equally frustrated ex-history teacher named Al Via, the Pfeifers had found the man who would help them erect a monument to bad taste.
Via perches in front of a shiny Mac in a small office in the Maryland Screen Printers building that's covered in bikini girl photos, SpongeBob memorabilia, and bits of Big Johnson history. There's a signed photo of Kathy Ireland on one wall and a photo of a life-size E. Normus Johnson statue being hugged by a Playboy playmate on another. Via still creates all of the Big Johnson art in an instantly recognizable, brightly colored style that's eye-poppingly engorged with caricatures and allusions. "I can basically knock [a design] out in two days," Via says. "[But] it would be easy to get bored doing this over and over, so I try to put as much cultural stuff in each one as I can. I did one that was a tequila shirt, so it had to do with Mexico. And I filled the background with every Mexican cultural reference--and American take on a Mexican cultural reference--that I could think of. Speedy Gonzales and the Frito Lay guy, but also Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, as well as a couple of real Mexican wrestlers, people who had played Mexicans [in movies]. Touch of Evil was in there."
"In addition to the punch lines being funny, Al was able to create a complicated scene on a T-shirt--some of them have 40 or 50 people--and make it feel organized and readable," Pfeifer says. "Whereas, especially when we were popular, everyone was trying to copy us and it would just look cluttered."
In the summer of '89, Pfeifer came up with a T-shirt design that played on that old stand-by to make insecure guys feel better: "it's not the size of the boat, it's the motion of the ocean." "We said it is the size of the boat," Pfeifer says with pride, as if this realization had finally cracked the impossible penis pun code. Judging by how quickly the shirts took off, he just might have. He decided on "Johnson" because "when we went through all the other terms [for penis] none of them sounded official enough," and a brand was born. "We sold them at stores in the Inner Harbor," Pfeifer says. "Those were our first retail customers other than parking lots. We used to do the Towson Town Fair and the Fells Point Fun Fest." From the initial surfboard-themed design came golf, baseball, lacrosse, gardening, tattooing, and on and on--thousands of shirts, and even Pfeifer throws up his hands trying to recall them all as he strolls through the warehouse, passing row after row of new and old designs alike. Following a few fortuitous trade-show appearances, including one in Atlanta where Big Johnson was squeezed into a booth near beachwear giant Ocean Pacific, the company had gone national.
According to Pfeifer, Big Johnson grew and grew until 1996, when the company peaked at over $20 million in sales per year. "We went about as far as we could with the subject matter," he says, noting that department stores would often pull Big Johnson after the first complaint. And anyone who was a teenager or preteen at the time knows how much parents and educators loved Big Johnson.
"We never got letters saying, `You shouldn't do this,'" Pfeifer says. "We did get letters from parents who were mad that their kids got sent home for wearing them. [Big Johnson shirts] were banned in Disney World and Kings Dominion. And Disney's a customer [of Maryland Screen Printers]. And Kings Dominion has been a very big customer."
Still, even if America has loosened its grip on Big Johnson, the country is more comfortable than ever with wearable depravity. "Especially these days, if you go to web sites like T-Shirt Hell, they have some nasty, nasty stuff," Pfeifer says. "We always thought that we were more clever than crude. Even if the cruder shirts tended to sell better. Part of the joke was that we were printing stuff that you couldn't say out loud. Now I don't think we'd make PG-13," referring to the X-rated T-shirts available on the internet. When discussing softening sales, he also points to the fact that it's harder than ever for small businesses to get a finger in the modern shopping mall. "We used to have two or three [independent] T-shirt shops in every mall in America," he laments, noting the trend toward chain stores exclusively selling merchandise produced in-house.
Today, mom-and-pop shops can call up the warehouse and order one or 100 shirts, and Pfeifer's employees will pick and pack them, no problem. When asked who the audience for Big Johnson is these days, Pfeifer compares it to a presidential election. "You look at the states that come up red for Republican and blue for Democrat," he says. "It's the red ones."
Big Johnson has expanded beyond E. Normus to include popular lines of firefighter, police, and biker T-shirts, including "If It's Got Tits or Tires, It's Gonna Give You Trouble" and "If You Can Read This, the Bitch Fell Off." "That one's been huge," Pfeifer says. The novelty T-shirt business is a constant race to churn out new, always potentially hit-or-miss product, but for Big Johnson the hits keep coming, including the recent smash "I Was Drunk and Bald Before Britney Spears."
Still, there's a bit of melancholy hanging low over Pfeifer's office as he roots through two large Rubbermaid storage containers, boning up on artifacts from Big Johnson's storied past. There's the prototype Big Johnson beer can that proved too expensive to mass produce. "They wanted to do it as a microbrew, where you just have to print the label," he says. "But I thought, Our guys are can drinkers." There was a Big Johnson "Twice Burning" hot sauce, and a Big Johnson golf driver (with a large-sized head, natch). He has Big Johnson trading cards, a Big Johnson for President poster ("Out for Bush in '92"), and Big Johnson sneakers, all evidence of a few years when America was addicted to Johnson. There was even a real Big Johnson surfboard, even if it was just a prototype, designed by famed surfboard shaper Mike Eaton in 1991. "He was a wild guy," Pfeifer says. "He had been shaping surfboards too long--the fiberglass had gotten to him."
The Big Johnson NASCAR car--at one point in 1996 the driver was, wait for it, Dick Trickle--scored big in 1995 at the Dover International Speedway in Delaware, but NASCAR sponsorship proved too costly for a company that didn't have the penetration of a Coke or a Kodak. And the $1,000 bikini contest the company used to hold at the Baha Beach Club in Orlando, Fla., where girls straight off a Big Johnson shirt would come from miles around to compete, is also a thing of the past.
Of course, Pfeifer's not quite the party guy he once was either; family obligations long ago put the kibosh on judging bikini contests and other emblems of the E. Normus Johnson lifestyle. But Pfeifer can rest on the fact that he created an instantly recognizable little pervert who's permanently filled a hole in pop culture. Folks of a certain age know what you're talking about immediately when you pull out "Big Johnson." And while Big Johnson's sales figures may not be what they were when Maryland Screen Printers made the Inc. 500 two years running in '93 and '94, Big Johnson still creates 40 new designs a year, shipping about 1 million T-shirts in total.
Those are hardly negligible numbers, and so Pfeifer's always on the lookout for the kind of drunken antics that will translate into profitable shirts. At a recent college lacrosse game, he came across a drinking game he had never seen in his 46 years. "[Fans] were doing what they called `dunkeroos,'" he laughs. "They hold you upside down in a trash can full of water--which used to be filled with ice and beer and now it's melted by the end of the day--until you can't hold your breath anymore. And when you come up they make you cannonball a beer. So Al's working on four dunkeroos shirts right now. You know, I'm old and have kids and so I don't see this stuff anymore. But I might be ahead of the curve on the dunkeroo."
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