The Pharaoh’s Den sign in ‘Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise’
“PHARAOH FED THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD FOR 7 YEARS,” the sign in Germantown proclaimed. “THE FIRST SUPERMARKET.” This was the entrance to Pharaoh’s Den, a grocery store run by Sun Ra’s saxophonist and manager Danny Thompson during the Arkestra’s Philadelphia period. When I finally get that time machine, I will do all of my shopping here and at Leonard Nimoy’s Pet Pad.
Just thinking about a day in Danny Thompson’s life during those years makes my feet hurt. Ra biographer John F. Szwed writes that running the store, which was financed by Thompson’s mother, was only one of the saxophonist’s responsibilities as the person tasked with keeping the Arkestra in funds. When he wasn’t busy in all-day rehearsals or running Pharaoh’s Den, Thompson wore a salesman’s hat, dealing stacks of El Saturn’s unlovely vinyl.
Danny Thompson’s approach to the sale of records was what he called improvisation, and what others might call shtick: a mixture of messianic zeal, hustle, and moxie. When he entered Third Street Jazz & Blues with handfuls of 45s, some of which looked warped, handmade, maybe not even recorded on, he launched into a pitch that assured the sales staff that no other store would be getting these records, that they were a unique product, collectors’ items, that they would immediately sell out…then, more ominously, that they were dangerous. After such a spiel, who could say to him only, “We’ll take a couple”? When asked what the returns policy was for defective records, Thompson would answer, “The Creator works in mysterious ways.”
Thompson described the grind of working for “the Creator” in a recent onstage discussion with his colleague, Marshall Allen. “It was like you going to a construction job,” he said.
I became Sun Ra’s manager for like 10 years. It will burn you out. Really, I’m not going to lie. If everything went wrong, it was on you. If everything went right, it was on, “Sun Ra did it.” It was just so much. It was so much that I left for a while, but you never really leave. I took a vacation like 10 years.
Below, at 18:10 in Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise, filmmaker Robert Mugge steps inside Pharaoh’s Den and films Danny Thompson in front of the Tastykake display. Note the paraphernalia of the outer space way of life for sale in the back. Szwed: “The idea was to bring high culture into the community by means of art work and historical posters on display at the store, and to make some money from the neighborhood kids at the same time.”