Boardwalk Empire

Joe Kro-Art created an Ocean City landmark out of old junk, new art, and timeless showmanship.

By John Lewis - August 2013

Joe Kro-Art created an Ocean City landmark

Joe Kro-Art created an Ocean City landmark out of old junk, new art, and timeless showmanship.

By John Lewis - August 2013

-Phoography by Stephen Cherry

It all started with a bay window. Joe Kro-Art installed a bay window, which he'd salvaged from a demolished Baltimore townhouse, on the side of his fledgling Ocean City gallery in 1972. Kro-Art needed a show window for displaying artwork and, hopefully, catching the eyes of tourists strolling the Boardwalk. It worked. People noticed the art-filled window, liked it, lingered by it, and often came inside to browse. And that's the objective of every Boardwalk business, whether it's selling French fries and funnel cake, beach chairs and hermit crabs, or thrill rides and games of chance—siphoning customers from the ocean of humanity surging past the front door. Sensing he was onto something, Kro-Art began nailing all sorts of things to the building. He'd been scavenging materials from old buildings for years, so he had plenty to work with: panels of stained glass, shingles, fireplace mantels, grates, fencing, gutters, light fixtures, chains, paint can lids, siding, and even a coal chute. He painted many of the items bright yellow and white, adding splashes of blue and red to intensify the overall effect. He tacked on silver reflectors, plastic flowers, Christmas lights, and an astounding number of hand-painted signs that didn't announce, so much as shout, the place's attributes: “Best in USA!," “It's Astounding!!!," “#1 In Home and Condo Decorating!"

The old structure virtually vanished under the dense jumble, which came to resemble a gaudy frigate run aground at Second Street. But Kro-Art left no doubt as to what it housed, mounting three large signs spelling out the business's name in orange, DayGlo letters—O-C-E-A-N G-A-L-L-E-R-Y.

He stuffed it with upwards of 20,000 paintings, prints, and posters, and, in the process, created an Ocean City landmark that—counting two previous, but short-lived locations—celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer.

“The building has a magic about it," says Kro-Art, standing behind the cash register the weekend after Memorial Day. “It attracts people year after year, and I have customers who have been shopping here for decades."

Johnny Unitas was a customer (a fact that's noted on a sign nailed to the building) and media outlets such as USA Today, CNN, and the Discovery Channel have visited the gallery over the years (all duly noted on signs). Ocean Gallery also turns up in books such as Maryland Curiosities and Weird Maryland, which called it “the most wild, crazy, and unique shop on the boardwalk."

That reputation has been furthered by Kro-Art's appearances on WJZ (dressed in his trademark tuxedo and red bow tie), a series of wacky TV commercials (with the gallery owner outfitted as Batman or maybe a character from the film 300), and stunts that include sinking a Titanic car in an offshore reef and appearing to ride a bicycle off the gallery's roof. He also created a series of “art cars" before they became trendy, and the Batmobile he made with his kids is usually parked behind the gallery.

But in all the chaos, two things tend to go unnoticed about Kro-Art: He is a shrewd businessman and a serious artist himself. But you'd need to visit him at home in Monkton to get a sense of that.

Kro-Art—who began hyphenating his name (Kroart) 25 years ago, because it was mispronounced so often—lives on an 18-acre spread across the road from a horse farm once owned by Jim McKay. The spacious brick Colonial he shares with his wife, Adele, sits at the end of a winding, tree-lined drive. There are no coal chutes nailed to its exterior. It is, in fact, the antithesis of Ocean Gallery: understated, pastoral, and quiet.

Kro-Art spends as much time as he can here, though he shuttles between Monkton and an Ocean City house behind the Plim Plaza Hotel, around the corner from the gallery. Dressed in a white shirt, jeans, and loafers, he sits on a sofa in a spacious living room that is, surprisingly, not cluttered with art. In fact, the only artworks displayed are paintings and drawings by his three children (now grown and out of the house) and photographs Kro-Art took around the property, shots of a frozen pond or horses in the snow.

He decompresses in Monkton, where he's lived for more than 30 years. “Because Ocean City is such a zoo," he says, “there are times I have to get my head straight and put ideas together. This place provides the peace and quiet I need for that."

Kro-Art personally chooses the artwork he sells, though he's quick to point out that he simply stocks what people want and tries to keep it affordable. (Prices range from 99 cents to a couple hundred bucks.) The head-spinning mix includes a generous selection of work with local ties: A. Aubrey Bodine photographs, nostalgic Ocean City scenes painted by Paul McGehee, prints by “blue- crab artist" Jonathan Brown (his rendering of steamed crabs spread over a newspaper with the headline, “Ravens Win," is especially popular), and signed prints by local artist David Schroeder, who works in Ocean Gallery's frame shop.

“People love to visit the gallery Joe created, and they actually buy pictures there," says Jennifer Bodine, who's been selling her father's work at Ocean Gallery since 2005. “He has a goldmine, a winning formula."

Paul McGehee concurs. He's been selling prints at Ocean Gallery for 33 years and, when asked about Kro-Art's success, says, “The guy's a retail genius."

On the side, Kro-Art furnishes artwork to various businesses, including local hotels and health-care facilities over a four-state area. He makes the deliveries himself, using an old Lincoln that's parked outside. “I do business in a very conservative way," he says. “I'm very hands-on and involved, and I work at making a good impression and making people comfortable enough to buy something. I've been that way from the very beginning."

The Baltimore native started his first business at the age of 12, after noticing a lot of broken gates in his Northwood neighborhood. So he taught himself how to install a gate latch, bought a dozen of them from the local hardware store, and went door-to-door looking for customers. It didn't go so well at first. “People didn't take me seriously," says Kro-Art. “But I gave it some thought and remembered that people talked to me a lot more when I went to church on Sundays, when I was dressed in a suit and tie. So I put on a tie and tried again."

It worked. “I ended up selling a lot of gate latches that summer," he recalls.

Around the time he was developing his sales skills, he was also developing an interest in art. As a youngster, he loved art more than any subject in school, more than recess even. “So I went to Maryland Institute [College of Art] when I was eight years old for some classes," he says, “and I absolutely hated the formality of it. I couldn't stand it. But I never stopped drawing and painting."

The experience instilled in him a feeling that “art should be fun, and that's primarily what it should be about."

After graduating from Poly, he got a teaching degree from Towson University and taught art and science at Herring Run Junior High. While still at Towson, he went to Ocean City during the summer of 1963 with a car full of his paintings (landscapes, still lifes, abstracts) and a notion of selling them to tourists. He found a sympathetic landlord who rented him a space, a former chicken carryout, at Baltimore and Caroline streets for 20 percent of whatever he sold.

“All I had to do was sell something, and I'd be ahead," says Kro-Art, grinning at the memory. “I didn't sell much, but I survived. And I established the first Ocean Gallery."

The following summer, the landlord rented that space to someone else, and Kro-Art moved his gallery to the Boardwalk—first, to a porch at the Colonial Hotel, and then to his current location after a fire destroyed the hotel. He also stopped focusing on his own work and began stocking a wider variety of pieces.

“The magic really began on the Boardwalk," he says. “There's an electricity on the Boardwalk that is incredible. If you try something, you know instantly whether it's working or not. I would watch people to see how they reacted. Then, I just gave them more and more of what they liked. That's the whole secret to Ocean Gallery."

Now, Kro-Art hopes to show more of his art at Ocean Gallery. He already sells poster-sized prints of his Monkton photos, but he's culling through his many paintings with an eye toward creating a series of prints.

He unlocks the door of a barn near the house and switches on the overhead lights to reveal a studio full of paintings, many of them Jackson Pollock-like abstracts. A few pieces are Impressionistic and bring to mind Monet's garden paintings. It's a riot of color, with canvasses big and small covering most of the walls and floor.

Kro-Art roots through them and points out a large, rectangular abstract that used to hang in the Carousel Hotel. He extracts a splattered and swirled piece that catches his eye. “I'm putting together a collection of my best paintings," he says. “It's been a long time since I've focused on my art."

He looks wistful. “You know, when I first moved to Ocean City, I painted anything I thought people might buy," he says. “I painted pictures of candles, somebody's poodle, and I even painted an advertisement on a girl's stomach so she could walk the beach in a bikini and advertise some piano and organ company.

“Then, I spent all my time creating a fun environment for people to access art and get comfortable with it, but I'm not taken seriously because of the crazy stuff I do to reach out to them. But I know art brings them back to the beautiful side of life, and I've made thousands of homes a more comfortable place to live."

Kro-Art returns the painting to the pile and flashes a smile. “I think I could sell some of these," he says.

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