After great efforts were made to try to rally to save the shop, the East Village's iconic Gem Spa was permanently closed in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Over the course of the year, it was slowly dismantled, with all of its major items—including the landmark yellow-emblazoned Gem Spa sign, gates featuring work by renowned artist Paul Kostabi, and their egg cream sign—auctioned off piece by piece. But one piece slipped out of sight well before all this went down: the animatronic Zoltar fortunetelling machine went missing in 2019.
While it spent almost a decade sitting outside Gem Spa on Second Avenue at St. Mark's Place, offering up a "wealth of wisdom" to people idly walking by, EV Grieve discovered in May 2019 that the machine had left Gem Spa, and was allegedly removed "due to our scaled-back hours to prevent vandalism."
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This week, the NY Times published a delightful story on this Zoltar, with an attempt to figure out how exactly it ended up across the river and outside of OMG Pizza on Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick. It turns out it wasn't Gem Spa's call at all.
While reporting the story, Times writer Alex Vadukul found Carlo Muraco, who is the unofficial Zoltar king of NYC. Muraco, who used to operate video game arcades and now runs businesses in Coney Island, owns and operates at least four Zoltars around the city, including one at Margarita Island, another at Surf City Pizzeria, one on Stillwell Avenue, and the old Gem Spa one now located in Bushwick.
An argument between Muraco and Parul Patel (who took over running Gem Spa from her father in the years before it shuttered) over whether to keep the machine outside or move it indoors led to Muraco removing it from the legendary corner shop altogether.
Patel told Gothamist that after decades of being open 24-hours a day, they had decided to cut back hours in 2019 because it was no longer profitable staying open all night to a dwindling St. Marks crowd. The store got gates to put up, but they didn't want to leave the Zoltar outside where it could be vandalized. She told Muraco she was willing to move it inside the store, but he was adamant that it stay on the street.
"I said there was space in back if he wanted to put it inside store, but he wasn't interested in that, so he took the machine away," Patel said.
"People used to come from far and wide to see the machine. All our customers were really sad about that, they were heartbroken about that, but it was really beyond our control," she added. "I reached out to him several times after that, and he would always say, 'I'll put it on the street, not outside.' We couldn't afford to take on that liability, its a $10,000 machine."
Patel said that ultimately, she was glad it was still around, telling fortunes: "I'm happy that it has a new life where people can go and see the machine."
It's fair to say that it's not in the best of shape at this point—the booth is all scratched up, the gloves are ripping off its hands, and it generally looks worse for wear after years of providing essential psychic services to passersby—but it's still reading the future for anyone who has two dollars to spare and isn't put off by a voice that sounds a little like a Triumph the Insult Comic Dog impression.
“I’ll forget [he's there] when I walk by and... he’ll come out and say, [extremely Zoltar voice] 'I have a fortune for you,' and it makes me jump out of my shoes!" Jose Diaz told us on Wednesday when passing by the machine. "I’m like ‘holy shit’ these things come from like Coney Island, like when I was a kid... like a Twilight Zone episode. You ever saw it? With Willie Shatner, and he puts a dime or a penny in and it says, ‘don’t leave yet don’t leave yet?’ What can I tell you... American ingenuity.”