The pandemic gave an unexpected boost to many forms of entertainment, from online streaming services to old-fashioned board games, but if there's one element of American consumer culture that really got clobbered by the coronavirus, it's retail recreation. Shopping malls were already in decline long before last year, but social distancing and convenient Prime delivery pretty much pounded the final nails in the coffin of once-dominant venues like the Fashion Square Mall near my house, which feels more and more like the setting for a George Romero movie every time I pay a visit.
But if there is a Central Florida exception to the mall's inevitable extinction, it just might be found in Oviedo, where arts entrepreneur James Brendlinger has transformed a strip of fading storefronts into a thriving epicenter of entertainment education. The Penguin Point Productions brand that Brendlinger originally established while teaching at Lake Howell High School has now taken over nearly an entire wing of the Oviedo Mall, providing not only an intimate black box theater but classrooms, dance studios and scenic and costuming rentals, creating a kind of one-stop-shop for East Orlando's theatrical needs.
A few weeks back, I visited Penguin Point's facilities for Beth Marshall Presents' annual Play-in-a-Day presentation, which featured a dance performance choreographed by my wife, along with more participating artists of color than in any prior year. But although the show was enticing, my attention was firmly focused a few doors down, where Brendlinger has teamed up with Cyn Sellards to open Duckie's Vintage Boutique, the ultimate outlet for making Gen Xers like myself feel both young again and ancient at the same time.
Brendlinger and Sellards' friendship goes back many years, but she and I may have known each other even longer, having both worked at Universal's Terminator 2: 3D attraction during the mid-1990s. We lost touch for a long time, but reconnected a year ago when she was seeking help assembling a Back to the Future-themed surprise birthday party for her son Evan. I helped hook her up with a tricked-out DeLorean from DJ Elliot Hansen's Florida Time Machine, plus actors Kyla Swanberg and Rob Sims from Cosfx Studios, and the resulting event went viral online.
Back in our T2/3D days, Sellards was probably the only employee able to make the awful Cyberdyne Security uniforms look stylish, and she's applied her distinctive eye for fashion and design to managing Duckie's, a deliriously delightful den of clothing and tchotchkes paying tribute to all decades, but mostly the '80s and '90s. From the custom neon signage above the door to the clever window and wall tableaus (curated by Sarah Fanok, of the neighboring Imagine Dance Academy) re-creating iconic costumes from films like The Breakfast Club, it's clear that Duckie's isn't merely a store, but a heartfelt love letter to the era of day-glo and acid-washed denim.
Duckie's inventory of retro styles was originally sourced from Penguin Point's vast costume shop, which Sellards initially started inventorying early in the shutdown.
"After the pandemic had started, and everything was kind of a little crazy, we were down in [Brendlinger's] storage area, and he had a lot of excess vintage and things that people had donated. We were just sitting on the couch in storage, and he's like, 'I would just love a vintage shop,'" Sellards recalls. "The next thing I knew I was in a room for a few months, just pricing and researching" — until a large storefront propitiously vacated adjacent to Penguin Point's ever-expanding domain.
Of course, parachute pants that I probably wore in middle school aren't the only throwback items Duckie's offers. Looking for an authentic Lava Lamp? Duckie's is the only local authorized outlet. Want vinyl rock & roll albums at rock-bottom prices? Brendlinger drives crates of classic wax down from Pennsylvania on the regular. (Check out the wall of obscurities by the likes of Don Johnson and the Cabbage Patch Kids.) Extinct media formats like VHS and DVD also live again on Duckie's back wall. And for more modern music fans, you may even find collectible CDs autographed by Taylor Swift (whose parents hail from Brendlinger's hometown).
Beyond being a nostalgia-soaked sales boutique, Sellards and Brendlinger hope to build Duckie's into a social gathering spot where people can play video games (there's a classic Ms. Pac-Man cocktail table coin-op near the entrance, and old-school consoles in the rear), or catch monthly live performances on a postage-stamp stage that was originally built for the Broadway production of Footloose. "My goal is I want Tiffany to play here at the mall," Brendlinger says, semi-seriously.
Perhaps the best part of all is that purchases at Duckie's are actually donations to help fund Penguin Point's educational mission, which means that this mall mini-monopoly's newest member is helping teach the younger generation in more ways than one.
"I had a little boy come in; he was about 8 years old, and he bought a camcorder from us because he wanted to make a movie about the '80s on the camcorder," says Sellards. "And then he bought a little black-and-white TV set that worked, for his props." Sounds like Gen Z's Spielberg is already on his way.