Meet the Jelloman, the Iconic Jell-O Shot Entrepreneur of Philly's Indie Rock Scene
"I put in seven pounds of powder and four handles of vodka into each one. It's like the Jell-O soup kitchen."
Photos courtesy of Paul Vile
Paul Vile tells me one of the worst parts of his operation is the smell. It's easy to see why; he’s cooped up in his house for hours, mixing titanic loads of vodka and Jell-O powder through a stainless steel distillery, dosing an army of plastic thimbles with a makeshift pump. For each music festival, he brews up 3,000 Jell-O shots, which takes up an entire day's worth of work. "I boil 30 gallons of water in a cauldron, and then I put seven buckets around me, and I pour ten liters into each bucket," he says, detailing the process on a granular level with his delightful Philadelphia English. "Then I put in seven pounds of powder and four handles of vodka into each one. It's like the Jell-O soup kitchen."
This is why people call Paul, the brother of famed Pennsylvanian vagabond Kurt Vile, the Jelloman. For years he's been one of the iconic local characters of the Philly music scene. You can catch him outside of music festivals and rock clubs all over the city, surreptitiously vending his candy-colored Jell-O shots (each individually garnished with a sprinkle of Pop Rocks) out of an unmarked van. Concert-goers are eager to subvert the overpriced drinks at the bar, of course, so his patronage is always a welcome presence. Vile's unique legacy is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Colin Kerrigan entitled Jelloman, if u will, which just met its $20,000 Kickstarter goal this week.
On paper, Jelloman comes off like a classic rock 'n roll burnout; the sort of guy who enjoys a quiet life on the fringes of the scene, perfectly satisfied with his lot in life. And to a certain extent, that is true. Paul speaks in a scatterbrained mumble, like someone who is perpetually on the hunt for his intended meaning, and his association with his brother has certainly made it easier for him to sink into a Philadelphia indie rock scene that's growing denser by the day. But you also can't count out his work ethic.
"[With this movie] I want this movie to show the progression of someone's hustle," he tells me, noting that, in the past, he was laying bricks for a living. "I was saving my money, and investing my money, but I was bored of my 9–5 job. I went to a music festival and saw this woman selling Jell-O shots. She was selling them for a dollar, and in two hours she had sold four hundred of them." That, he says, was his inspiration.
The part of Jelloman's gimmick that doesn't break liquor laws is what he calls his "Jell-O art," in which he creates a Lite Brite-esque mural made of Dixie cups full of polychromatic gelatin that spells out a particular band's name on a cardboard slab. He presents that mural to a band when they come through town, which has become a minor rite of passage for artists on the Northeastern tour route. "I had already known about Jelloman before because I'm a Best Show listener," says Bully's Alicia Bognanno, referring to Tom Scharpling's cult call-in show, of which Jelloman is a frequent guest. "When we played the show, he contacted our tour manager, and everyone in the band already knew that I really love Jell-O shots, and they wheeled the [mural] in. … the whole time I was like, 'Are you fucking with me?' He's so bizarre. It was really funny."
Bognanno was faced with the crisis that confronts everyone who receives Jell-O art from Paul; whether or not to desecrate the canvas by downing all the shots. (The band eventually gave in to their urges. "By the time we were drinking them, they were kinda warm," she remembers.) Overall, Bognanno ranks the Jelloman in the top five of the strange local characters she's met on the road—high praise from a band that's played all over the world.
I suppose that's the moral of this story. You can just be a guy who sells Jell-O shots, or you can create an entire enterprising persona—you can become the Jelloman—and suddenly you might have a movie, and a funded Kickstarter, and a legendary reputation that will be carried on the tongues of drummers and guitarists for time eternal.
Good luck to Paul Vile; may his unholy brew remain sticky and volatile. You can expect the release of Jelloman, if u will before the end of the year.