Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ben Cooper Inc. & Its Competitors: The Folks Who Sold Halloween

If you were a child anywhere from 1945 to 1990 in the United States, even if you never wore one of their costumes, the chances are very good that you are familiar with Ben Cooper Inc., for a time the biggest maker of Halloween costumes in America. Chances are also very good that you might be familiar with their competitors, Collegeville and Halco. From the mid to late 20th Century Ben Cooper Inc. and its two chief rivals manufactured the bulk of Halloween costumes for children. The costumes were sold at many different stores, including Woolworths's, Montgomery Ward, Sear's, J. C. Penney, and most dime stores. For many in the Silent Generation, the Baby Boom, and Generation X, then, Ben Cooper Inc. is nearly synonymous with the holiday.

Ben Cooper Inc. was founded by Benjamin Cooper, the son of a restaurant owner born in 1906 on New York City's Lower East Side. He was only seven years old when he received his first Halloween costume, that of a little devil. While he studied accounting, Ben Cooper's real interests were of a more artistic bent. For a brief time he was a songwriter on Tin Pan Alley.  In 1927 he moved from song writing to the theatrical costume business. He designed costumes for the showgirls at the Cotton Club and later costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies.

Broadway and vaudeville shows would go into decline with the Great Depression. It is perhaps for that reason that Ben Cooper founded Ben Cooper Inc. in Brooklyn, New York in 1937. That same year Ben Cooper Inc. took control of F. S. Fishbach, Inc., a wise move given the company had the licence to produce costumes based on Walt Disney characters from Mickey Mouse to Snow White. Starting in 1937, then, Ben Cooper produced costumes of various Walt Disney characters under F. S. Fishbach, Inc.'s "Spotlight" label. While Ben Cooper Inc. and F. S. Fishbach, Inc. were more or less one company starting in 1937, they would not formally merge until 1942, when they were incorporated as "Ben Cooper Inc."

 As surprising as it might seem to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers given Ben Cooper's dominance of the Halloween costume industry from the Fifties to the Sixties, it was not the oldest company to make Halloween costumes, nor was it the first Halloween costume manufacture to engage in licensing. As early as 1916 crepe paper manufacturer Dennison offered disposable, paper, Halloween costumes. In fact, Ben Cooper Inc.'s chief rival for many decades, Collegeville Flag and Manufacturing Company, pre-dated it by many years. Collegeville Flag was founded in Collegeville, Pennsylvania in 1910 as a manufacturer of flags and aprons. They entered the costume business very early. One source states that it was 1920, while others simply say that it entered the costume business in the early Twenties. Regardless, the story goes that College Flag found they had excess material on hand and as a result they manufactured their first costume--a clown costume. Not only would Collegeville enter the costume business at a very early date, they were also one of the first costume companies to deal with licensed characters. As early as the late Thirties they made a Lone Ranger costume.

Not only was Collegeville an older company than Ben Cooper, Inc., but so was its other chief rival, Halco. Halco was founded in 1917 as the J. Halpern Company, a company that dealt in toys, novelties, stationery and so on. For much of the Twentieth Century Halco would be the most respected name in the manufacture of toy cap guns. From cap guns and holsters it would only be a small step for Halco to move into the costume business. Like Collegeville, Halco would also be one of the first costume companies to delve into licensing. From 1935 to 1938 the company made costumes based on the characters from Thimble Theatre, including Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Wimpy. They would also start making goods for another holiday, Christmas. Halco manufactured Santa Claus suits, as well as aluminium icicles for Christmas trees.

While all three companies were founded prior to World War II, it would be following the war that the manufacture of Halloween costumes would become a big business. It would also be in the Fifties that children's tastes in costumes would change. Prior to and during World War II, the most popular costumes tended to be those most traditionally associated with Halloween: ghosts, witches, monsters, devils, and so on. While television in the United States had existed since the Thirties, both the Great Depression and World War II prevented regular television broadcasts, let alone any expansion of the medium. It was then in the late Forties that regularly scheduled, network broadcasting began. By the Fifties television had overtaken radio as Americans' medium of choice. As result Ben Cooper Inc., Collegeville Flag, and Halco based more and more costumes on licensed properties from television shows as the Fifties progressed. The shift from children's tastes in costumes from the traditional ghosts and goblins to the latest television heroes was significant enough to be noted in an Associated Press article by Sid Moody published on 31 October 1960. In the article, Harry Mirsky, a representative for J. Halpern Company, is quoted as saying, "Oh, we still sell devil suits, and witches and hobgoblins, but we're getting away from those weirdies. Television did it. Nowadays kids don't want to be skeletons. They want to dress up like the characters they see on TV."

Given the demand for costumes based on television characters, Ben Cooper, Inc., Collegeville, and Halco would go into licensed characters in a big way in the Fifties. As would be typical for the three companies' histories, Ben Cooper cornered a lion's share of the licensing market in the Fifties. In addition to the Disney character costumes they had been making since the late Thirties, they also manufactured costumes based on such comic book and television characters as Superman, Bat Masterson, Davy Crockett, Paladin (from Have Gun--Will Travel),  Zorro, and even Rin Tin Tin.  Collegeville made costumes based on Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Famous Studios/Harvey Comics characters (Casper the Friendly Ghost and so on), Popeye and related characters, Mandrake the Magician, characters from Space Patrol, and Brett Maverick (from Maverick). Halco had its share of licensed characters too, such as various characters from Terrytoons (such as Mighty Mouse), Steve Canyon, the characters from Gunsmoke, and The Chipmunks.

Of course, here it should be pointed out that while Ben Coooper Inc. was best known for Halloween costumes, it would expand into making a few toys as well. The company made a variety of playsuits that were often more realistic and sophisticated than its Halloween costumes. In the Fifties they made playsuits for Superman, Bat Masterson, and Zorro. In the Sixties, with Batmania sweeping the United States, they manufactured a Batman playsuit. One of their more enduring toys were Jigglers. Jigglers were rubber figures with strings attached that would jiggle when one bounced the strings up and down. Initially the Jigglers were of traditional Halloween figures (bats, skeletons, and so on), although they would expand to include superheroes and other characters. They also manufactured a series of rubber toys called "Creature People (essentially a cross between a human and some creepy critter)" and even toy cars (their "Lock-Ups" series).

While licensing would come to dominate the Halloween costume industry during the Fifties, it would become an absolute gold rush during the Sixties. While Ben Cooper Inc. would continue to look to television for licensed properties during the Sixties, the company also looked to comic books. Superman had been a popular costume throughout the Fifties, and in 1964 he would be joined by Batman. Ben Cooper Inc. would even be responsible for the first bit of merchandise under the Marvel Comics imprint. Throughout the Fifties Ben Cooper had made its own "Spiderman" costume. When Marvel Comics introduced Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962, they naturally trademarked the name. This meant Ben Cooper could no longer use the name  "Spiderman" for a costume. Given that was the case, Ben Cooper simply licensed Spider-Man from Marvel Comics and created the first Spider-Man Halloween costume. The character had only had his own title for a few months at that time! By 1966 Ben Cooper's line of superhero costumes would include not only Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, but also characters such as Green Lantern, the Flash, Captain America, and Thor. Ben Cooper Inc. would even become the first company to trademark the word "super hero," so important was their superhero line in their sales in the mid-Sixties.

Of course, Ben Cooper Inc. made more than superhero costumes in the Sixties. They continued to manufacture costumes based on television properties, including The Beverly Hillbillies, The Flintstones, BewitchedAstro Boy, Dark Shadows, Daniel Boone, and many more. In 1963 the company even introduced its first costumes based on real people, namely President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Following JFK's assassination on 22 November 1963, the company had to destroy literally thousands of the costumes. In 1964 they would introduce their now much sought after costumes of The Beatles. It was also in the Sixties that Ben Cooper Inc. introduced its Glitter Glo line of costumes (costumes with reflective material that made them easier to see in automobile headlights).

Like Ben Cooper Inc., Collegeville would continue to look to television for costumes. During the Sixties Collegeville made costumes based on such shows as The Outer Limits, Star Trek (the much sought after Mr. Spock costume from 1967), Flipper, Lassie, T.H.E. Cat, and various others. In addition to the various Warner Brothers characters, Collegeville also made costumes based on such properties as various King Features Syndicate characters (Flash Gordon, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician), various Harvey Comics characters, (Casper the Friendly Ghost, Wendy the Good Little Witch), The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, and Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Halco would also continue to draw inspiration from television, with costumes from such shows as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Kildare, Cimarron Strip, I Love Lucy, and others. Halco also produced costumes based on a number of other licensed properties, including the comic strip Dick Tracy, the action figure G. I. Joe, the action figure Major Matt Mason, the Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra, and Tom & Jerry.

Of course, from the Fifties to the Eighties there would still be a place for the traditional ghouls and goblins of Halloween. Throughout the years Ben Cooper Inc., Collegeville, and Halco would produce more than their fair share of witches, ghosts, Frankenstein's Creatures, vampires, zombies, and so on. The licence for the classic Universal Monsters would change from company to company over the years, so that both Ben Cooper Inc. and Collegeville had a chance to make costumes based on Universal's versions of Frankenstein's Creature, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. Of course, even when one of the three major companies did not have the rights to the Universal characters, they would produce costumes that were slightly similar. For example, in the mid-Sixties Collegeville produced a costume they simply called "The Monster" that looked similar to Universal's conception of Frankenstein's Creature. Ben Cooper Inc. would do the same when Collegeville had the rights to the Universal Monsters.

The Seventies would see very little change for the three major Halloween costume manufacturers. Ben Cooper Inc. continued to dominate the market and continued to control some of the most desirable licensed properties: DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and the much desired Universal Monsters. Collegeville continued with their usual properties (the Warner Brothers cartoon characters and Harvey Comics characters), as well as putting out  costumes based on various Sid and Marty Krofft shows (H.R. Pufnstuf). Halco put out costumes based on older television shows (The Beverly Hillbilllies), The Lone Ranger, Tom & Jerry, and comic strips such as  Li'l Abner. Not surprisingly television properties continued to provide the bases for costumes. Ben Cooper manufactured costumes based on such properties as The Six Million Dollar Man, Happy Days, Little House on the Prairie, and Land of the Lost. Collegeville put out costumes based on the Gerry Anderson shows U.F.O. Space: 1999, and Battlestar Galactica. Among the stranger costumes of the Seventies were the ones Collegeville based on the band KISS.

One significant development during the Seventies was that the Halloween costumes manufacturers turned increasingly to movies for sources of inspiration. To a degree this was nothing new. Ben Cooper Inc. had been making costumes based on various Disney movie characters since the Thirties (indeed, Snow White was among the earliest movie characters to have a costume based on her). And, of course, theatrical cartoon characters, from Bugs Bunny to Mighty Mouse, had provided fodder for costumes for Collegeville, Halco, and Ben Cooper through the years. In the Sixties, with a spy craze having swept the U.S., Ben Cooper put out a James Bond costume. That having been said, the Seventies saw even more costumes based on movies than any decade before. Collegeville introduced costumes based on such films as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Jaws (as hard as it is to believe), and Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings. Ben Cooper Inc. would win the Star Wars licence, although it only manufactured three costumes based on the film in 1977. They would also make costumes based on The Planet of the Apes franchise. Ben Cooper would invite some controversy when they made a costume based on the movie Alien, making it the first costume ever based on an R rated movie.

Sadly, the Eighties would not be kind to Ben Cooper Inc. and Collegeville. On 29 September 1982 a twelve year old Illinois girl died after taking a capsule of Extra-Strength Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide. Over the course of the next few days six more people in the Chicago area would die from doses of Tylenol that contained cyanide. On 5 October 1982 Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall of Tylenol products. As the first major case of product tampering in American history, not only would the Chicago Tylenol murders result in pharmaceutical companies developing new, tamper resistant packaging, but it would have a serious impact on the holiday of Halloween as it was celebrated in 1982. Parents, fearful that similar product tampering might occur with regards to candy, refused to take their children out trick or treating that year. As a result Halloween costume sales dropped dramatically. In 1983 eight different Halloween costume manufacturers (including Ben Cooper) and the Toy Manufacturers of America formed the Halloween Celebration Committee in an effort to save the holiday. The Halloween Celebration Committee published a pamphlet entitled "13 Great Ways to Celebrate Halloween" in an effort to revitalise the holiday.

In the end the Tylenol cyanide scare would prove to only be a bump in the road for Ben Cooper and Collegeville. The sale of Halloween costumes would steadily increase in the years following 1982. Unfortunately, this did not mean that what were once the two top Halloween costume manufacturers would continue to thrive. In particular, Ben Cooper Inc. found itself beginning to fail in the Eighties. The Eighties would see a trend towards latex masks of the sort Don Post Studios had made since 1938 and a concurrent trend towards more realistic, more sophisticated costumes. Once faced only with competition from Collegeveille Flag and  J. Halpern Company, in the Eighties Ben Cooper Inc. found itself competing with younger companies such as Rubies Costume Company. Rubies Costume Company had been founded in 1950 as Rubies Candy Store in Queens, New York. Rubies expanded into novelty and joke products as the Fifties progressed, so that it changed its name to Rubies Fun House in 1959. In 1967 Rubies opened a costume rental department and in 1972 the company changed their name again to Rubies Costume Company. It was in 1973 that they entered into the mass production of Halloween costumes.

In the end the financial difficulties Ben Cooper Inc. experienced in the late Eighties became so severe that the company filed for bankruptcy on 13 March 1988. Worse yet, on 6 January 1989 a fire broke out at the Ben Cooper's plant in Roseville, Georgia, destroying $ 2 million to $3 million worth of inventory, according to the company. To make matters worse, the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania (with whom Ben Cooper had their coverage) refused to cover the damage, alleging that Ben Cooper Inc. had misrepresented the amount of damage the fire actually caused. Initially the bankruptcy court refused to hear Ben Cooper's claims against ICSP, although the company appealed the court's ruling. Eventually the courts would rule that Ben Cooper's claim against ICSP could be heard by the bankruptcy court.

Ben Cooper Inc. would emerge from bankruptcy in April 1989. Unfortunately, this would not be the end of their problems. In early January 1991 the company was moving from Brooklyn, New York (where they had spent the entirety of their history) to Greensboro, North Carolina so that they could be closer to Southern textile factories. The company planned to put $6 million into their new Greensboro facility and intended to apply for a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant to help with costs. Unfortunately the company would not last. On 30 October 1991 (ironically, the day before Halloween), Ben Cooper Inc. once more filed bankruptcy. It was in 1992 that Ben Cooper Inc. was bought out by competitor Rubies Costumes Company. After fifty five years, Ben Cooper Inc. was out of business.

Despite such profitable licences as The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ET, The Extraterrestrial, Barney, and the Universal Monsters, Collegeville would find its fortunes in decline with the Nineties. In 1994 Collegeville took out a good number of loans from Meridian Bank, with the intent of paying them with the profits made from Halloween that year. Unfortunately, that summer Collegeville failed to win the licence for the popular "Power Rangers" franchise. As a result Collegeville's profits fell short by around $10 to $12 million and they defaulted on their loans to Meridian Bank.

It would seem 1994 proved to be a very bad year for Collegeville. That same year a court determined that costumes made by Collegeville and competitor Rubies Costume Company were not flame retardant as claimed and did not comply with the Flammable Fabrics Act (here it must be noted that Ben Cooper Inc. had claimed their costumes were flame retardant for years). In the end both companies had to pay $75,000 in court costs and civil penalties from the lawsuits In then end Rubies Costume Company bought Collegeville at an auction in 1996.

As to  J. Halpern Company, in 1967 it was merged into Kusan Inc., a manufacturer of die cast and plastic products for cars, appliances, toys, and so on. Kusan Inc. closed the J. Halpern division in 1977, after which it was bought by its current ownership. Halco survives to this day, primarily manufacturing Santa Claus suits, as well as costumes for Santa's helpers and the Easter Bunny.

While many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have fond memories of the costumes manufactured by Ben Cooper Inc., Collegeville, and Halco, they also admit the downsides of those costumes. The plastic smocks (I've also heard them called "jumpsuits") were, at most, made in only three sizes: small, medium, and large. For that reason it was very rare that a costume fit the child wearing it, and many children found they had to wear them over their clothes. They also were not very comfortable. It was also a rare thing that the costume actually resembled the garb worn by any particular character. Characters such as Superman, Batman, and The Green Hornet, whose costumes somewhat resembled the suits they wore in the comic books or on television, were the exception to the rule. Usually the costumes (particularly those made by Ben Cooper) would portray a scene with the character on the smock. Even when a costume resembled that worn by a character, the name would be printed boldly on the costume (in the case of Batman, it was in the centre of the bat insignia). The masks that came with the costume were made of moulded plastic and held on by a thin, white, elastic band. By and large they were uncomfortable to wear. Even on a cold day they were hot, so that sweat would eventually build up on one's face. It was also often hard to breath while wearing the mask.

Whatever the shortcomings of the costumes made by Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco, they also had several advantages. First and foremost, they were affordable. In 1963 a Halco costume could be bought for as little as $1.49 (about $10.80 in 2011). Second, they were convenient. Today we tend to think of the late Forties to the Seventies as a more relaxed time when people were not so busy. And while this might be true to some degree, the fact is that even in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies parents often found many demands on their time. For parents with no time to make costumes for their children, then, the mass produced costumes from Ben Cooper, Halco, and Collegevile were an ideal solution. For a few dollars one's child had a costume that required no work on the part of the parent other than buying it at the store. Third, the costumes from Ben Cooper, Collegeville, and Halco allowed children to be their favourite comic book, comic strip, or television characters with little difficulty. Even for a mother or father who was skilled at sewing, creating a Superman costume could be a daunting task, but for a few dollars one could buy his or her child a Superman costume that somewhat resembled the one worn by the character in comic books. Here I must point out that one could buy masks separately from the costumes, so that one could make his or her own costume and still have a mask that resembled one's favourite character. For instance, a Casper the Friendly Ghost mask from Collegeville could be combined with a white, one piece, footed outfit to created a fairly good Capser the Friendly Ghost costume. Fourth, between Ben Cooper, Colllegeville, and Halco there were a wide variety of costumes to be had. In the Sixties a child could be anything from Mr. Spock to Sgt. Troy from the TV show Rat Patrol.

Of course, given that the costumes from Ben Cooper Inc., Collegeville, and Halco were largely similar in terms of how they were made, it seems notable that Ben Cooper Inc. was the leader in the Halloween costume industry for the entirety of its history. Even in 1991, when the company had just emerged from bankruptcy, it still controlled around 70 to 80 percent of the market with regards to Halloween costumes based on licensed characters. Of course, as pointed out above, Ben Cooper Inc. was not the first Halloween costume company to deal with licensed characters--Halco had done so even before Ben Cooper Inc. was founded. I rather suspect that much of the company's success was rooted in the fact that it received the licence to produce costumes based on the Disney characters the very year it was founded. Today, when we largely take the Disney characters for granted, it is easy to forget how popular the various Disney characters were in the Thirties. What is more, the popularity of Disney at the time went well beyond Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Until Gone With the Wind overtook it, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs was the highest grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation it is still in the top ten highest grossing films of all time). Although I have no data to really support this, I have to wonder that the profits that Ben Cooper Inc. made from Disney related costumes did not give them the money to get the rights to the most popular characters when it came to licensing.

Regardless of whether having the licences for Disney proved important in Ben Cooper's success, there was another, perhaps more important factor in the company's dominance of the Halloween costume market. Quite simply, Ben Cooper Inc. had a knack for getting licences for what would become the next big thing. As discussed above, Ben Cooper Inc. bought the rights to create a Spider-Man costume when the character had only had his own title for a few months. While Spider-Man was not well known in 1963, however, he would become one of the most popular comic book characters in only a few years. It was in 1964 that Ben Cooper licensed Batman, a 25 year old character whose titles were on the verge of cancellation. Two years later the Batman TV series would become an outright phenomenon, with merchandise related to the character flying off store shelves. In the Seventies Ben Cooper Inc. received the licences for Star Wars characters before Star Wars became one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Whether Ben Cooper Inc. simply had an eye for what could become the next big thing or whether there was a good deal of luck involved, the fact that Ben Cooper licensed TV shows and movies before they became popular probably played a role in their dominance of the Halloween costume market.

Having been bought by Rubies Costume Company, Ben Cooper Inc. no longer exists. Also having been bought by Rubies Costume Company, Collegeville exists merely as a division of that company, Collegeville/Imagineering. Halco still exists, but no longer manufactures Halloween costumes. Regardless, for many the three companies remain synonymous with Halloween. For literally decades they dominated the Halloween costume market to the point that the majority of Halloween costumes may have been made by them. Although two of the companies no longer exist and one no longer makes Halloween costumes, they won't soon be forgotten. 


Catastrophe Comics said...

If anyone is interested, and happens to see this post in time, I currently have one of the 1950's Ben Cooper Spider-man Costumes listed on eBay! Even if you're not looking to buy, it's still cool to check this out, since it's rarely seen anywhere (not sure how many of these even exist today??):

Shlomo Says said...

Looks like many of these costume companies were founded and owned by Jewish merchants - Rubies, Halpern, Fischbach, etc. It is also worth noting that Jewish Americans were among the main manufacturers/purveyors in the toy and candy industries.

Unknown said...

Just saw an old episode of what’s my line from 1973, they had Harry Mirsky as the contestant. Host Larry Blyden remarked at the end, when everyone had a Santa suit on that it was the year for Jewish Santa Claus’s as Mirsky, Gene Shallet, Soupy Sales and Blyden were all Jews dressed up as Santa.