From Superheroes to Star Wars: How Ben Cooper Changed the Face of Halloween by Ira Cooper

 For any serious Halloween historian, it goes without saying that Ben Cooper Inc. was the leader in the Halloween costume industry for the entirety of its history, from 1937 to 1991. By the late 1940’s, Ben Cooper, Inc. was one of the largest and most prominent Halloween costume manufacturers in the U.S. The company had begun selling its costumes through large retailers such as J.C. Penney, Sears, Woolworth’s, and to the five-and-dime stores that dotted the landscape of America’s growing cities and suburbs.  In the early years, Ben Cooper costumes sold anywhere from $1.25 to $1.89 and never retailed over $2.00. The most popular costumes up to that time were classic Halloween icons like devils, ghosts, skeletons, witches and assorted other archetypes. But starting in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s another archetypal character would take center stage at Halloween: the Super Hero.

Halloween after Halloween through the 1950s and early 1960s, my father and his brother- my Uncle Ben saw their empire steadily grow. Even during the slow periods, they made ends meet by selling Daniel Boone and Davey Crocket coonskin caps – buying up every raccoon and squirrel tail they could get their hands on in the tri-borough area and beyond. In fact, Ben and Nat were able to expand their factory staff to over three hundred full-time year-round employees and over seven-hundred during the six-months leading into Halloween. My father had capitalized on their success with Disney-characters, going after every character license he could get his hands on.  Ben focused on creating original costumed heroes with his staff of artists back at the factory, and was not above asking us kids for ideas. I’ll never forget when I pitched a character named “Sad Sam” only to see it come to life that very next Halloween. Being a Cooper definitely had its privileges, and wearing a costume that I had inspired was about the coolest thing a kid could wish for back in those days, although I only wore it briefly as I was not about to give up my Superman playsuit.

It was as far back as the 1950’s when my father, ever the visionary, had the presence of mind to trademark the word “Super-Hero.” I’m not going to suggest that my father could have known just how world-dominating comic book characters would become over sixty-years later. But he knew the value of the larger-than life, colorful characters when it came to Halloween, and he and Ben saw-fit to ensure no one would challenge them when it came to their all-out dominance of the comic-book inspired Halloween costume line. And it would be the supremely talented Ben who, along with one of his artists, who designed a “Spider Man” costume in 1954 - a full 8 years before Stan Lee and Marvel debuted their Spider-Man character. Some say that when Ben found out, he marched straight over to Marvel offices, literally five blocks away, and demanded the license to make costumes for their character, which became Marvel’s very first merchandising-license ever. Nat would eventually sell the “Super Hero” trademark to Marvel in the 1970s, which both DC and Marvel co-own the trademark to this very day. But the relationship between the Coopers and the folks at Marvel was a solid one, so my own idea is that they had a friendly conversation- and the relationship continued right up to the end. Proof, to me, has always been that Ben and Nat were given what looks to be free rein in interpreting Marvel characters for the kids costume market for which they were famous.

Aside from Marvel, Topps Trading Cards (also located in Bush Terminal literally across the cobblestoned street from the Ben Cooper factory), and a retinue of smaller toy companies had their headquarters in the New York City area. What made lower Manhattan the Mecca for toymakers was the fact that the “Toy Center” where everyone who was anyone had a showroom to hawk their wares , was on the corner of 23rd street and Fifth Avenue, the heart of the ‘Flat Iron’ district and the crossroads of 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue and right beneath our feet, the subway line. Ben Cooper, Inc. always had a modest showroom on the second floor, but with the advent of Star Wars and the exponential expansion of licensing in general, they move upstairs.

The new Ben Cooper showroom on the 12th floor of the Toy Center was in the enviable position of being at the top of a bank of elevators and just to the right of the 12th floor lobby.  This was not by accident, and certainly came at a substantially higher price than the modest end-of-the-hall location of the original showroom.  Where the original Ben Cooper showroom had fluorescent lights in the ceiling and hot spots for the pegboard displays above the costume racks, the new showroom had ambient lighting, cooler focused spots, dimmers, banks of lights under the costume racks, and smaller pinpoint spots for the muted brown fabric covered displays that replaced the old pegboard.

This slant on lighting combined with upscale furnishings, substantial burl wood Formica table tops, leather office chairs, two wet bars, a heavy glass door, an elegant oversized (about 4 feet in diameter) three-dimensional reproduction of the Ben Cooper logo in a muted matte finish brown and lit from within, a multitude of private offices conference rooms, and special display rooms for major buyers leant the whole affair an air of importance.  Never mind that the office was crowded pretty much only once a year, and the rest of the time was a regional sales office which was rarely visited by a buyer. It was still money well spent and there was a distinct possibility that, if the company could become a manufacturer of toys sold year-round (as was cousin Bob Cooper’s goal) then the investment would not only mean a more impressive Toy Fair each February, but a base of operations for whatever the future might hold.

The Halloween line, seen in this light, was no longer an ancillary line bought by a toy buyer; not a commodity; not a seasonal purchase (although it certainly was) but rather a must-have, nearly 100% licensed line of well designed, well packaged, profitable merchandise that drew in customers by the thousands. If you did not have the Ben Cooper line in your store, you weren’t, in the words of Ben Cooper’s lead salesman Al Fisher, in the Halloween business. In fact, Al would invite you to leave if you did not plan to buy at least one case of everything in the line, period.

Even buyers who came from areas of the country that had little love for Toy Fair and the New York business people who made up a sizable portion of the industry, had to come for Star Wars, Marvel, and Disney. My Father and Uncle took a huge chance back in early 1977 (even before the seminal ‘space opera’ by George Lucas had opened in movie theaters. They dared not hesitate, and grabbed the licenses from Lucas film for eight beloved characters, including a villain that would change the face of Halloween forever – Darth Vader. In my next blog, I’ll delve into what it took for my family to make the first Star Wars Halloween possible forty years ago. A move that would make or break Ben and Nat Cooper as the undisputed Kings of Halloween.

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