Chris Randall and Teresa Joseph Sunday at their Fair Haven Heights home. The Mo-Pho is currently in their Lenox Street driveway.
Watch out, New Haven. The Mo-Pho has arrived.
That’s the name of the new double-decker bus brainchild of Teresa Joseph and Chris Randall, partners in life and work who run the local photography business, The Notorious P.I.C. After arriving stateside from Liverpool this week, the 30-foot bus is now parked in the driveway of their Lenox Street home in the city’s Fair Haven Heights neighborhood. Sunday morning, the two held an open house to show the bus before renovations. Almost two dozen attended over just a few hours.
In its previous life, the bus hosted a multi-hour tour through Liverpool to its historic soccer stadium in Anfield. Now, it will host photo parties, yoga classes, pop-up art exhibitions and temporary studios. The two are hoping to have it available for rent by spring of 2022.
“What me and Chris have found together, which is really rare, is extending the magic that we have,” Joseph said, sitting back on the musty red leather seats that once held avid Liverpool F.C. fans and tour groups decked out in red and teal team swag. “I’ve been getting so much joy in watching people create a narrative [around the bus].”
The idea behind the Mo-Pho—yes, it’s pronounced exactly the way you think it should be—has been rumbling forward in Joseph’s mind for roughly four years. Initially, she said, it was a wild thought that struck her after a photoshoot downtown, during which she dressed up in a rabbit costume with an abnormally large head. During the shoot, later titled “The Adventures of Kitty and Bunny,” a woman jumped off the Elm City Party Bike to tip her and Randall.
Joseph: "What me and Chris have found together, which is really rare, is extending the magic that we have." In the bottom photo, Joseph chats with photographer Mike Franzman and his girlfriend. Aaron Goode and Patricia Kane are photographed closer to the front of the bus.
It was the first time the two made money as business partners. While Joseph was driving to work the next day, the image of an interactive, mobile photo studio jumped into her mind. She knew it would be called the Mo-Pho, she said. She thought about its theme music, and imagined an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. that New Haveners would rock out to. She wanted it to be beautiful, with an inside that could host a tiny dance party just as easily as a pop-up gallery.
Originally, she envisioned a vintage VW bus, with crisp pastel coloring that made it look like it was decades old. She held onto the idea as she and Randall built out The Notorious P.I.C., a small business built around photographic experiences. She drew inspiration from some of their own photoshoots, including her and Randall’s now-infamous “Fishnet Day,” which doubles as their anniversary, an intimate mock wedding, and a Sasquatch photo bomb that went viral last fall.
Last year, their business was selected as a venture for Collab’s Fall 2020 Accelerator, which did all of its work in virtual space. While building a pitch deck and final presentation, Joseph said that she was able to think about how she wanted the Mo-Pho to expand its mission by expanding its size. From a VW bus, it became a box truck. She played with the idea of an old postal truck. Then it was a trailer or a van. When their Collab program ended in late 2020, she doubled down on the image of a bus for size.
“It was like, I was navigating through my own heart,” she said. “It really helped me. As I became more acquainted with the vision, the vehicle had to grow.”
Photographer Mike Franzman, who knows Randall through I Love New Haven, was one of two dozen people who stopped by.
In a phone call Monday morning, Collab Venture Managers George Black and Ndubisi Okeke both praised the Mo-Pho as a project that makes New Haven a kinder and more exciting place to live. Okeke described Joseph as “so full of life,” and brimming with ideas that dovetailed with Collab’s mission. He said that he and Black were excited to work with the duo on taking those ideas—"encouraging, validating the flame that people have”—and making them into a sustainable business venture.
“Notorious PIC is the kind of venture that I wanted to support, in that they are interested in building a business that ... the language I would use is healing the broken places of the world,” Black added. “They want to bring joy to New Haven. They want people who don't think they're worthy of celebration to know that they are worthy of celebration, and they want to create space for themselves and others.”
Following Collab, Joseph reached out to Jerry Dolejs, who started running double-decker bus tours across Utah in 2012. She learned how hard it was to rehab a bus, from hard-to-find parts to floors that could not be flattened because of how they slipped over the tires. The more she heard, the more Joseph thought a bus would be impossible. She told Dolejs that she might be going back to the drawing board.
“It almost got scary to invest in an idea because the closer I got to it, the farther away I felt,” she said. Then she stumbled on a Pinterest board featuring Down The Rabbit Hole, a restaurant and wine bar in Australia that had rehabbed a double-decker bus as part of its business.
Joseph was transfixed by what she saw. The inside of the bus was entirely white, and filled with golden sunlight. Couches with sleek wood finish and rust-colored cushions sat on the sides. An arched, clear convertible roof arced over the top. She felt something within her ticking faster.
“I was like: ‘This is it! This is it!’” she recalled Sunday. “This could be a photo studio!”
She and Randall began working with Dolejs to find a bus. By now it was early 2021; the pandemic was still raging. She joined bus and trucker groups on Facebook, asking seasoned drivers for their advice. She figured out financing for the bus, enabled in part by a sale of land that followed her father’s death this year. Then in August of this year—almost 10 months after she’d first made the decision to look—they found a bus in Liverpool.
It seemed too good to be true, Joseph said. The bus came from the Swedish manufacturer Skania, which initially threw her for a loop. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to find parts for the bus if it broke. Then she found an auto shop in Bethany that had parts for the same make and model. She recalled sitting at the bank beside Randall, ready to wire a final payment to Dolejs. The teller asked if they were sure.
“We were like, let’s bite the bullet!” she recalled with a little laugh, her pink coat pulled up all the way to her chin. “We did this half on faith.”
She and Randall are not ones to keep secrets, she added. The two shared the news across social media immediately, as they waited for the bus to get painted. It took weeks. Then earlier this month, it set sail from Liverpool. They enlisted Dolejs’ help to pick it up in New Jersey and drive it to New Haven. Using a trucker app to clear overpasses, the trek ultimately took six hours and totaled 200 miles. Randall said the bus needs over 14 feet of space.
Joseph with Eric and Maza Rey. Maza, who is a photographer, described the project as both "tremendous" and "couple goals." She said she's excited to become an official fangirl as the Mo-Pho takes off.
Now that the Mo-Pho is in New Haven, Joseph and Randall plan to rehab the bus before using it for any photographic purposes. Currently, the bus is outfitted with red seats and one narrow aisle on each level. Inside, the walls still look tired, a dirty off white with marbled patches of grey and plush, hydrant-red seats. Stickers advertising the stadium tour, cheering on Liverpool F.C., and reminding riders that they are on camera still sit plastered to the walls. A staircase leads from the first level to the top.
Between now and the spring of next year, the two plan to insulate the bus and gut both the top and bottom, taking out the seats that still line both levels. In addition, they plan to put in a convertible roof where the top currently sits open. They are looking for a barn where they can do the renovations indoors during the winter months, particularly as rain and snow hit New Haven.
Once it is ready, clients will be able to rent it for a specific location—a wedding reception, for instance, or a pop-up yoga studio, or a farm at the height of cider donut season. Unlike a party or tour bus, the Mo-Pho will not transport passengers during events. Randall explained that insurance for driving an activity bus is prohibitively expensive—and would cause him and Joseph a lot of anxiety. The wheel, after all, is still on the wrong side.
“It’s like an on-site photo party,” Joseph said. “The vision is anything you can do in a small venue, you can do on the bus. We’re still fine-tuning it because there’s so many dreams.”
Top: Maza Rey.
The duo has already received an overwhelming outpouring of support, she added. Sunday, a steady stream of people arrived, some as wide-eyed and bubbly as the young children they brought in tow. Aaron Goode, who lives nearby in Fair Haven Heights, gravitated toward the short, winding staircase that took him up to the second level. He listened to details on the truck while debating the need for more restaurants in Fair Haven Heights with neighbor Patricia Kane.
“I think it’s exciting for the neighborhood, and for New Haven,” he said as he rested one arm across the leather surface of a seat. “I feel privileged to live in a neighborhood with free spirits like Chris and Teresa.”
Kane inspected the treetops and fall foliage from two seats away. “I’m excited to see it in action,” she said. “This is the great thing about creative people. They have dreams and visions that other people don’t. I don’t have their imagination.”
Giulia Gambale Gouge, entrepreneur in residence at the New Haven Free Public Library, with Ben Minichino, Joseph, and Randall on the top level of the Mo-Pho.
No sooner had they headed down the steps than Ben Minichino entered the bus, warding off the cold in a thick, cream-colored wool sweater that kept out the wind. Years ago, Minichino met Randall at Romeo & Cesare’s, in the space that Atticus Market now occupies. While he lives just outside of New Haven, he grew up in Wooster Square and said that he and Randall still stay in touch. His work as a food broker brings him back into the city constantly.
“I think that it’s very unique and cool!” he said as a chill swept through the open air. “I can’t wait to see where their vision brings it. It’s going to be an interesting ride.”
Downstairs, Joseph chatted with friends and toured them through the bus as they continued to arrive. Tiny pools of water sat on the floor from Saturday’s rain, a reminder that the two need a barn for renovations as the winter months roll in. Every so often, she dipped into the house to warm up, then reemerged in a puffy pink coat, bell bottoms and fishnets.
While she and Randall built out the concept of the Mo-Pho, she said they were particularly inspired by the sheer number of artists in New Haven. “They contribute to our magic,” Joseph said. Many of them stopped by Sunday, from photographers and musicians to small soup business owners. Photographer Maza Rey, who lives in Edgewood and works across the city, said she’s excited to see the project take off.
“I love the idea of being able to bring the party to the people,” Rey said. “This is tremendous—this is a dream come to reality.”
Follow the Mo-Pho at its website.