Remembering the year’s weirdest local business stories

Keytar Bear (above center) got some unexpected attention in 2019. A pair of inventors created a Lite-Brite style map board (top left). In Maine, an ice disk (top right) boosted tourism. And in Cambridge, a sign of the times at a local gas station (bottom right). While TripAdvisor’s legal team had some fun taking on the people who organized the “straight pride” parade (bottom left) in Boston.
Keytar Bear (above center) got some unexpected attention in 2019. A pair of inventors created a Lite-Brite style map board (top left). In Maine, an ice disk (top right) boosted tourism. And in Cambridge, a sign of the times at a local gas station (bottom right). While TripAdvisor’s legal team had some fun taking on the people who organized the “straight pride” parade (bottom left) in Boston. Globe file photos; illustration by Chris Morris for The Boston Globe

Truth is often stranger than fiction in the business world. Just ask the corporate brass at CVS or TripAdvisor, the jurors in Boston federal court, or maybe the municipal workers at Keene City Hall. Folks, it’s that time of the year again: Time to look back on some of the weirdest local business stories of the year. And yes, a certain orange tyrannosaur is back. But this time, that dinosaur has company.

The perfect gift for the harried commuter in your life: Waiting for the Orange Line to show up can be maddening. Those new cars can’t arrive soon enough. In the meantime, how about enjoying transit chaos from the comfort of your home? That’s one promise offered by the “TrainTrackr” map boards, created by a pair of local inventors who probably spent too much time stuck on T platforms. These digital Lite-Brite-style maps are perfect for a desk, or up on a wall, framed: They feature LED bulbs arranged along a map of T subway lines, lighting up as trains move from station to station in real time — even if those “movements” happen to be on the slow side.


The dinosaur that refuses to die. The developer of Essex Landing in Saugus set off alarm bells around town when a certain beloved orange T.rex, rescued from a defunct putt-putt course, disappeared from clear view of Route 1 drivers during school vacation week in April. Thankfully, it turned out to be only a temporary relocation of the 6,000-pound lizard, to a less visible part of the property. That giant glowing doughnut, fastened to the tyrannosaur’s puny arms to promote a new Kane’s shop at the site? That one ran afoul of the town’s signage rules and had to come down. Because nothing says proper zoning like a drive down Route 1.

For Keene, a great sign. You don’t need to be a prehistoric lizard to irk the sign police. Just ask the co-owner of the Vietnamese restaurant Pho Keene Great, located at City Hall in Keene, N.H. Isabelle Jolie may have picked a moniker tailor-made for T-shirts, but not so much for officialdom. Her restaurant sign was met with objections inside City Hall, but the authorities eventually relented — though not before prompting some Pho Keene Great headlines.


For Cambridge, a not-so-great sign. The illuminated sign above the Shell station on Magazine Street has long been a beacon in the night, Cambridge’s answer to the Citgo sign in Boston. But what happens when the “S” goes out? Do we have to spell it out for you? Live on the scene, a reporter for Commonwealth magazine overheard a group of older people, shooting photos of the infernal sign, in which one asked “I wonder if the Internet knows about this.” Judging from the commotion online, it’s safe to say the answer to that question is yes.

Natick plays the Game of Thrones. The Natick Mall is known for a number of things: fancy condos, a flirtation with the ill-fated name “Natick Collection,” nightmarish parking at Christmastime. But here’s a new one: its bathrooms. The Brookfield Properties-owned mall made it to the finals in Cintas Corp.’s annual “America’s Best Restroom” contest, in part because of makeup rooms, stalls with marble shelves, and a waiting room with a chandelier. The mall eventually lost out to the Nashville Zoo, where a women’s restroom features a floor-to-ceiling glass window through which a family of small monkeys can be viewed. What about the guys? They can try to find relief while peering into a python exhibit. Hard to beat that one, Brookfield.


Have a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Cease-and-desist letters can be angry, maybe even feisty. But they are the last places where you expect to see humor — or pop music references. Maybe not anymore. TripAdvisor’s legal team had some fun taking on organizers of the “straight pride” parade in Boston after the Needham company was mentioned on the parade website as a “prospective” corporate sponsor. The letter, threatening legal action if TripAdvisor’s name isn’t dropped, name-checked more than a dozen LGBTQ anthems. One sample: “We have become a well-known brand for our reviews of hotels, restaurants and even the occasional YMCA, but we weren’t Born This Way — we obtained that recognition through significant advertising and promotion since as early as 2000.” And maybe listening to some Village People and Lady Gaga along the way.

Bearer of good tidings. He may seem ubiquitous around town, but Keytar Bear can’t be everywhere. Now he can. Fans can bring the busking bruin to life in front of any street scene, with an augmented reality Snapchat “Lens” that will bring up an image of the Bear, his keytar, and some music on their phones. (Boston-based Bare Tree Media designed it.) The anonymous street performer seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention, telling a Boston magazine reporter that “I didn’t think I was worthy and was trying to remain an underground novelty act.” Novelty? For sure. But Keytar Bear has long surpassed underground status around here.


Who ya gonna call? Market Basket went viral after a shopper reported seeing a ghost in Victorian-era clothing floating through the chain’s Wilmington store — perhaps near the frozen peas. Others chimed in, with their own supernatural shopping stories. The company’s publicist at Rasky Partners tried to tamp down rumors before things got too strange, issuing a statement to the press proclaiming: “As far as we know, all of our stores are ghost-free. But if there’s anything to it, she’s probably attracted to our Victorian-era prices.”

Maybe stick to schmoozing doctors. The founder of Insys Therapeutics and four other former executives were convicted last May in Boston federal court of racketeering and other federal charges in a scheme to get doctors to prescribe Subsys, a highly addictive opioid painkiller meant for cancer patients. (A judge partially overturned the convictions last month.)

So what was it that swayed the jury? We don’t know for sure. But it didn’t help that the jurors saw a jaw-dropping music video featuring another former Insys executive dressed as a giant bottle of Subsys who rapped about taking over the painkiller market. The video was shown at the company’s 2015 national sales meeting, presumably to get salespeople pumped up to peddle the drug. The would-be rapper had already pleaded guilty before the trial started, to one count of racketeering conspiracy. Somehow he wasn’t charged with having bad taste.


Please enjoy the music while your party is reached. A child psychiatrist at Mass. General pleaded with CVS Health to change its hold music, sending a letter to the Woonsocket, R.I., drugstore/insurance giant explaining how the tune was destroying his emotional health, note by miserable note, as it haunted him day and night. Naturally, the request received widespread media coverage, including a Wall Street Journal story that referred to this as “one of the most polarizing pieces of music in America.” Well, Dr. Steven Schlozman, you may finally get a good night of sleep again. In March, CVS appeared to relent, saying it would update its on-hold music.

Cold cash from tourists. Officials in Westbrook seized on an unusual way to draw tourists to their Maine city, by promoting a spinning, perfectly round ice disk that emerged in the Presumpscot River. The city pushed out photos of the giant saucer on Twitter, proclaiming that it “looks like the moon has landed in Westbrook, Maine!,” and Mayor Mike Sanphy appeared on “Good Morning America” to promote the disk as a prime attraction. Curiosity seekers arrived from far and wide to gaze at this whirling wonder. The publicity had its downside: One such visitor was a man with a raft and a chainsaw, who traveled to Maine to turn the disk into a massive frozen peace sign. He mucked it up a bit, but the real threat to the beloved disk was 50-degree weather in February.

Grilling up a rivalry. Burger King didn’t need to mention any competitors by name. But the target becomes pretty clear when your ad agency, Boston-based MullenLowe, dishes up a TV spot that features banjo music, a mention of KFG (“king of flame grilling”), and a tagline like “When it comes to flame grilling, the King always outranks the Colonel.” The executives at McDonald’s must have been relieved. BK previously took on that other burger chain, with a “scary clown” campaign, including a spooky ad in which a guy seeks refuge in a Burger King shop from a posse of seemingly insane clowns. We don’t know about you, BK, but that King mask is pretty freaky, too.

The other dinosaur that refuses to die. As usual, Boston had more starring roles on the big screen in 2019, from the filming of the latest Ryan Reynolds action flick, “Free Guy,” to director Greta Gerwig’s take on “Little Women.” We have the state’s generous tax credits to thank. Then there are the scenes in the climax of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” as our reptilian hero takes on the three-headed meanie, King Ghidorah. The skyscraper-sized kaiju wreak havoc across the city. The film crews shot some exteriors here, but most of the “Boston action” took place on sets in Atlanta. The movie trailers depicting a monster armageddon prompted plenty of jokes on social media. One Reddit user sarcastically noted: “That just means more land for development.” Another one: “Sadly this is the only way that the MBTA will be forced to make necessary improvements.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.