If there’s one thing we love more than road trips, its roadside kitsch, and every so often, a story that combines the two comes along and makes us feel all good inside. Like the tale of Mighty Joe Young, a giant gorilla figure that took a cross-state trip to a new home that saved him from abandonment.
Mighty Joe Young goes by many names; he’s been known as Magilla, Kongo-Pongo, and George at different times throughout his life. It was originally an attraction on a seaside boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey; back then, he functioned as a slide, with a staircase in his back leading to boards coming out of his chest. He was then moved to the Island Family Fun Park go-kart track across the bridge. It was there that a man named Larry Valenzano first noticed the giant gorilla. It reminded him of his late son, Joe, a bodybuilder who had died from a brain tumor in his 20s. Larry and his family used to jokingly call Joe “Mighty Joe Young”, after the gorilla from the film of the same name as a joke.
Larry was heartbroken by the loss of his son and wanted to find a way to honor his memory. He decided to rename the gas station he owned in Shamong to “Mighty Joe’s”, and buy the gorilla as a memorial. By this point, the go-kart track was closed and abandoned, and Larry went to the gas station next door to enquire about purchasing it. Larry offered $2,000 for the gorilla, but was informed that offers of up to $10,000 had been made for it. However, Larry’s touching story made an impression on the owner.
“So I explained why I wanted it, and he said, that he’d been offered a lot more, so I left. If it wasn’t meant to be, it wasn’t meant to be. Then I got a call from him a week or so later, and he said, ‘Can you stop in next time you come down?’ So I did. I owned a gas station, he owned a gas station — he was a nice Italian man, I’m Italian. And he said, ‘Ya know, I have a lot of money. And I like what you want the gorilla for more than what any of these other people want it for. So I’m going to sell it to you for $2,000.’ He asked if I had any way of transporting it and I said no. So he said, ‘Okay, I’ll take care of that too.’ He had someone come with a tractor-trailer, took the arms off, brought the arms up here one day and the rest on a second trip.”
Mighty Joe Young now stands at the gas station in Shamong, the slide holes in his chest covered by a sign commemorating the real-life Joe. It’s done a lot to bring in curious onlookers (Larry says one man who stopped by was involved with bringing the gorilla over from Spain, where it was made, in the 1960s) and charitable contributions alike; he now plans to add a donation box to the gorilla, since so many people have asked if they can contribute money to fighting brain cancer. If you’re in the area, stop by to fill up and meet Mighty Joe Young… it’ll be a memorable and touching road trip pit stop, for sure.