Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Gimmicks of William Castle

I think it is safe to say that most film buffs would prefer that movies have success at the box office because they are actually well done, with great scripts, great casts, and great direction. Sadly, that is not always the case. In many instances movies are hits simply because of great marketing. A great marketing campaign can turn even the worst turkey into a bona fide, box office smash. There was perhaps no one better at marketing motion pictures than horror producer, director, and screenwriter William Castle. In fact, Mr. Castle is probably as well known for the various gimmicks he used to promote his films as he is for his films themselves. And Mr. Castle's gimmicks were surprisingly effective, turning his low budget features into modest box office hits. Fortunately, most of William Castle's movies also happened to be quite good.

"The King of Showmanship" literally worked his way up in the entertainment industry. He started working on Broadway while a teenager, where he did everything from acting to designing sets. He was only 18 when he directed his first stage production, the stage version of the classic Dracula. Eventually William Castle left New York City for Hollywood. He was 23 when he made his film debut as an actor, in an uncredited role as a reporter in When Love Is Young (1937). He received his first writing credit in 1942 for the story North to the Klondike. It was in 1943 that he directed his short, "Black Marketing." From the Forties into the Fifties William Castle directed several B-movies, including three different films in "The Whistler" series (including the first one) and three different ones in "The Crime Doctor" series. He broke into production with The Lady From Shanghai (1947), on which he was an associate producer as well as a second unit director.  He produced the TV show Meet McGraw and produced and directed episodes of the TV show Men of Annapolis before he became an independent director and producer.

It was the success of French chiller Diabolique (1955) in the United States that inspired William Castle to produce his own low budget horror movie. William Castle bought the rights to 1951 novel The Marble Forest. Although credited to the pen name Theo Durant, The Marble Forest was actually the creation of several members of a California branch of the Mystery Writers of America, each of who wrote a chapter. It was editor William White (perhaps better known by his pen name, Anthony Boucher) who saw that the book's tone remained consistent from chapter to chapter and made sure continuity was maintained from chapter to chapter. To pay for the film's production costs William Castle and his wife Ellen mortgaged their home.

To promote Macabre (as the adaptation of The Marble Forest was titled) William Castle came up with the first of his many gimmicks. As stated in the film's original trailer, the life of every member of the audiences of Macabre would be insured for $1000 by Lloyd's of London should they die of fright watching the movie. William Castle went the additional step of having nurses present at certain showings of Macabre just in case the unthinkable should happen. Perhaps the most flamboyant part of the promotion of Macabre occurred at a Minneapolis theatre where William Castle had himself sealed inside a coffin. Unfortunately, Mr. Castle would remain locked in the coffin while the theatre ran Macabre. In the end William Castle's gimmicky promotion of Macabre would pay off quite well. With a budget of only around $90,000, the film grossed $5,000,000 in its initial release. Allied Artist promptly struck a deal for another movie from William Castle, as well as another gimmick.

William Castle's next film would also be one of his best known, House on Haunted Hill (1959). While Macabre was based on a novel, House on Haunted Hill was an original screenplay by William Castle's fellow producer Rob White, in which an eccentric millionaire (Frederick Loren played by Vincent Price) invites five people to spend the night in a haunted house with him and his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). House on Haunted Hill would have one of William Castle's more interesting gimmicks, a process called "Emergo." Essentially, Emergo was nothing more or nothing less than a pulley system installed in theatres that would allow a plastic skeleton to fly over the heads of the audience at the proper moment.

As one of William Castle's better movies House on Haunted Hill probably did not need a gimmick, but Emergo certainly didn't hurt. House on Haunted Hill performed even better at the box office than Macabre had. Arguably, it was the film that established William Castle not only as an independent producer, but as a showman extraordinaire.

William Castle's next film would also be one of his best known, and also one of his most original. The Tingler (1959) centred on the titular parasite present in all human beings that feeds on fear and can even shatter the spinal column. It can only be stopped by screaming. The Tingler would star Vincent Price, in his second and last William Castle movie, as the coroner and scientist Dr. Warren Chapin who discovered the Tingler.

In keeping with the characteristics of the film's monster, The Tingler had one of William Castle's more famous gimmicks. A bit of World War II surplus, small motors that had been attached to the wings of aircraft, were attached to the underside of various seats in select theatres. At a point in the film when the Tingler had escaped into a cinema, the lights of the theatre would go dark as Vincent Price in the role of Dr. Chapin warned the audience (both in the movie and in the theatre), "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theatre!" At that point the motors under the seats would be activated, their vibrations simulating the effects of the Tingler. William Castle termed this process "Percepto." While the nature of Percepto was not revealed in the film's advertising or trailers, it was highly touted nonetheless. In promoting The Tingler William Castle did not stop with Percepto. At select theatres he also planted individuals in the audience who would scream and faint at the proper time. The individual who had "fainted" would then leave the theatre by ambulance.

Even without the gimmicks and even given it is one of William Castle's best films, The Tingler would be remembered as it made film history.  It would depict the first portayal of LSD use in a major motion picture. All in the name of science (Dr. Chapin was, after all, researching the existence of the Tingler), at one point Vincent Price's character drops acid.

The gimmick in William Castle's next film, 13 Ghosts (1960), would not be nearly as spectacular as that of The Tingler. The film dealt with a haunted house, hence the ghosts of the title. This leant itself to the film's gimmick, Illusion-O. 13 Ghosts was a black and white film, although the ghosts had been tinted a pale blue. Audience members were then given a special viewer with a red filter and blue filter (similar to 3-D glasses of the time, although the movie was not shot in 3-D). Through the red filter viewers could see the ghosts. If they thought the ghosts were too terrifying, then they could look through the blue filter and they would disappear. Here it must be pointed out that the ghosts could be seen without the special viewer, as repeated showings on television have proven over the years!

William Castle's next film, Homicidal (1961), would start with a rather simple gimmick that would become more complex after the movie's initial showings. At the climax of the film there would be a "Fright Break." At that point the movie would pause for 45 seconds, a clock would be superimposed on the screen, and the sound of a heartbeat would fill the cinema. William Castle's voice then told audience members that those too frightened to watch the rest of the movie could then leave and receive a full refund. Unfortunately for William Castle, the idea of the Fright Break very nearly back fired.

It was at one of the first showings of Homicidal, one in Youngstown, Ohio, that Mr. Castle noticed an inordinately large number of theatre patrons were leaving during the Fright Break and asking for a refund. In all 1% of the film's viewers were leaving during the Fright Break. To solve this problem, William Castle developed the idea of "Coward's Corner." Those who wanted to leave during the Fright Break had to follow a series of yellow foot prints on the floor of the auditorium to the box office. Over the box office hanged a sign which read "Coward's Corner." What is more, the box office or "Coward's Corner" would be bathed in a yellow light and there a recording repeated over and over, ""These cowards are too frightened to see the end of Homicidal. Watch them shiver in the Coward's Corner. Coward...coward....coward." At Coward's Corner there would be a nurse who would take the audience member's blood pressure. Since audience members would have to undergo the humiliation of being branded a coward to receive a refund, the number of people leaving during the Fright Break dropped to less than 1%.

William Castle's next film, Mr. Sardonicus (1961), would again be based on a literary work. The story "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell appeared in the January 1961 issue of Playboy. The story centred on a European baron whose face was frozen in a perpetual grin (a condition called "Risus sarconicus," previously explored in the Victor Hugo book The Man Who Laughs, its various film versions, and The Joker in "Batman" comic books). Studio bosses at Columbia were apparently unhappy that Mr. Sadonicus had a decidedly dark ending, which led to William Castle's gimmick for the film: the Punishment Poll. Audience members were given  a glow in the dark card with a fist with the thumb extended on it. At a certain point in the film viewers were asked whether Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) should be shown mercy (in which case audience members would display their cards with the thumb up) or should receive punishment (in which case audience member would display their cards with the thumb down).

William Castle always insisted that an alternate ending to Mr. Sardonicus, one in which Baron Sardonicus has a happy ending, was filmed. Despite this, it seems unlikely that any other ending than the one in which the baron gets his just desserts ever existed. At the very least none have materialised. Of course, whether an alternate ending to Mr. Sardonicus was filmed is perhaps a moot point. No audience ever voted that Sardonicus should be shown mercy.

William Castle's next film, Zotz!, would be a sharp departure from his previous productions. Zotz! was a fantasy comedy based on the novel of the same name by  Walter Karig. The film centred on a magic coin. Because of this, William Castle had thousands of plastic replica of the Zotz! coin manufactured and distributed to theatres, to be given out both before and during the movie's run. Billboards were also erected in the weeks prior to the film's debut, with only the word "Zotz!" emblazoned on them.

William Castle's next film, 13 Frightened Girls (1963), would lack any real gimmick.  The promotion of the film made a great deal out of William Castle's search for actresses to play the thirteen girls of the title. William Castle's next film, the 1963 remake of The Old Dark House (1932), also featured no gimmicks. Sadly, the era of William Castle's gimmicks, which perhaps reached their peak with House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and Homicidal, was coming to an end. Sadly, both films would not perform as well as William Castle's previous films, leading some critics to believe that he could not have a hit without a gimmick.

Fortunately, William Castle's next film would be a bit more successful. For Strait-Jacket (1964) Mr. Castle was able to cast a screen legend in the film, none other than Joan Crawford. Initially William Castle had wanted Grayson Hall in the lead role in the film, but she wanted to return to the theatre instead. Joan Blondell was then cast in the lead role, but in the end she was prevented from taking the part (stories vary as to why). In the end the role went to Joan Crawford. Because William Castle thought the script was particularly strong Strait-Jacket was intended to have no gimmicks. This having been said, cardboard axes were reportedly given to audience members at certain theatres.

William Castle's next film, The Night Walker (1964), also starred two big name stars: Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck (in her last role for the big screen). It also lacked any sort of gimmick. It would be I Saw What You Did (1965) that would feature William Castle's last big gimmick. I Saw What You Did dealt with teeangers making prank calls (which naturally goes wrong), so William Castle had intended to promote the film with a special phone number that people could call. Unfortunately, the phone company blamed I Saw What You Did for an increase in prank calls leading up to the film's release, so the phone company quickly turned on William Castle. Mr. Castle then came up with another gimmick for the film. Seats in rows of select theatres were outfitted with seatbelts, which would prevent viewers from being "scared out of their seats." The film also featured Joan Crawford. Although top billed, she actually only appeared in the film briefly.

I Saw What You Did featured the last of William Castle's great gimmicks. His next several films, whether directed by him (Let's Kill Uncle, The Busy Body, Shanks, et. al.) or produced by him (Rosemary's Baby, The Riot) included no gimmicks. It was only with the last film produced by William Castle, Bug (1975), that he would return to gimmicks. That having been said, the gimmick of Bug paled in comparison to those of The Tingler or Homicidal--William Castle simply advertised that the film's giant cockroach was insured for $1 million.

William Castle's gimmicks were certainly effective, boosting the box office of B-movies that might have otherwise been ignored by film goers. Indeed, they turned watching a movie into a event, at which a skeleton might fly over one's head or one might feel one's seat vibrating. If there was downside to William Castle's gimmicks, it is that it could be argued that they detracted from the movies themselves. Even today more attention is often paid to Mr. Castle's gimmicks than are to his films.

Indeed, while I have little doubt that gimmicks were much of the fun of watching one of William Castle's movies, the truth is that many of his movies did not need gimmicks at all. His very best films (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Strait-Jacket) boasted good scripts and good casts, with a nice balance of frights and high camp. Today they remain very entertaining films and many of them can quite rightfully be called classics.  William Castle may have earned the title "King of Showmen" because of his gimmicks, but he will be remembered for a series of well done horror B-movies.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mockingbird Lane

I have a confession to make. While I loved The Munsters as a child,  I cannot say that I have been a fan of the show as an adult. At some point when I was a young adult I realised that while the show had a good concept, except for some of the bits performed by Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis in the second season, the show really wasn't that funny. Still, I have always had a soft spot for the show as part of my childhood. It was for that reason that I felt a bit of concern when I heard last year that The Munsters was being revived under the name Mockingbird Lane. Even the fact that Bryan Fuller, creator of one of my favourite shows of all time, Pushing Daisies, did little to ease my fears.

Let's face it. More often than not revivals of television shows do not go well. In fact, the failures far outnumber the successes when it comes to resurrecting old TV series. A perfect example of this is The Munsters itself. In 1988 The Munsters was revived as The Munsters Today. While I did not find The Munsters funny as an adult, I imagine even children would have found The Munsters Today to be a terrible show.  Not only was it horribly unfunny (neither Fred Gwynne nor Al Lewis were there to liven things up), but its production values were strictly bargain basement. Despite this The Munsters Today actually had a longer run than the original show. It ran for three years and produced 72 episodes (two more episodes than the original). Despite this, The Munsters Today has not been repeated very often, nor has it been released on DVD. I suspect the only people who remember The Munsters Today are Munsters fans, who seem to have universally hated it.

Given that many television show revivals are often much, much worse than the originals and that one of the worst offenders in this regard was a revival of The Munsters, my hopes for Mockingbird Lane were not particularly high. Regardless, having fond memories of the original show and being a fan of Bryan Fuller's Pushing Daisies, I just had to watch the pilot tonight, aired as a one hour Halloween special. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. Although fans of the original Munsters might disagree with me, I think the pilot for Mockingbird Lane was better than any single episode of The Munsters. It is a far cry from The Munsters Today.

While Mockingbird Lane takes its inspiration from The Munsters, fans of the original show should not expect Mockingbird Lane to be similar except in the most superficial ways. While The Munsters was a straight forward situation comedy, Mockingbird Lane is a drama with comedic overtones (or perhaps a comedy with dramatic overtones). And The Munsters of Mockingbird Lane differ from the Munsters of, well, The Munsters beyond simply looking more human. The Munsters of the original show thought they were normal and even wanted to be normal. The Munsters of Mockingbird Lane know that they are not normal and, especially in the case of Grandpa (Eddie Izzard), have no particular desire to be normal.

Indeed, while Al Lewis as Grandpa in the original series was much more funny than scary, Grandpa on Mockingbird Lane is much more scary than funny. He actually takes pride in being a vampire who has lived hundreds of years, and finds nothing wrong in drinking the blood of mortals or turning his neighbours into "blood slaves." Fortunately, his daughter Lily (Portia de Rossi) is a bit more restrained. While she also takes pride in being a vampire, she does not drink human blood and seems to want her son Eddie (Mason Cook) to have a somewhat normal childhood. Perhaps the character who differs the most from the original is Herman (Jerry O'Connell). While the Herman of Mockingbird Lane is kind hearted like the original, loves his family like the original, and wants to be normal like the original, he is also a fairly intelligent character. The Herman of Mockingbird Lane is hardly the bumbling father that Hermann was (a sitcom archetype that was old by the time the original Munsters aired). Perhaps the one character on Mockingbird Lane who most resembles the original is Marilyn (Charity Wakefield). On Mockingbird Lane Marilyn is a bubbly, curvy blonde with a definite retro sense of fashion (like the original Marilyn she does not seem to realise that the Fifties never ended). That having been said, the Marilyn of Mockingbird Lane realises the Munsters are hardly a normal family and has no desire for them to be, beyond disapproving of Grandpa's various, vampiric habits.

While I had my doubts that a more serious take on The Munsters would work, even in the hands of someone as talented as Bryan Fuller, I must say that the pilot to Mockingbird Lane proved me wrong. The pilot was very well written, with a fairly good balance of comedy and drama. There is also some very good bits of direction, little wonder as the pilot was directed by executive producer Bryan Singer (director of such feature films as Apt Pupil and X-Men). With a $10 million budget, Mockingbird Lane has incredible production design, with a much more lavish version of The Munsters' mansion from the original series. The special effects also look very good, quite literally feature film quality. Over all, Mockingbird Lane comes off as The Munsters filtered through The Addams Family and Pushing Daisies. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but it very much does.

Indeed, I am rather shocked that NBC didn't pick up Mockingbird Lane, given they picked up the far inferior Revolution. I am hoping that, between the over all positive reception it received on Twitter from what I have seen, and with any luck some good ratings, NBC will pick Mockingbird Lane up for a run later in the season. Given the pilot, it certainly deserves a chance, certainly more of one than many shows NBC currently has on the air.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monster Mash

If ever there was a song identified with Halloween, it is "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers. There were certainly many songs suitable for play at Halloween before it, including such classics as "That Old Black Magic," "Witchcraft," and the more recent "I Put a Spell on You." And there would be many songs befitting the holiday after it, everything from "Spooky" by The Classics IV to "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult, but it would seem that "Monster Mash" is the most popular song during the Halloween season.

"Monster Mash" was written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard L. Capizzi. At the time the two of them were part of a band called The Cordials. As a child he spent much of his time at the cinema in Somerville, Massachusetts, managed by his father. As a result he not only picked up a desire to act and a love of movies, but he also developed a very good impersonation of Boris Karloff's voice. Wanting to become an actor, Mr. Pickett moved to Hollywood when he was an adult While there he joined the vocal group The Cordials. It was one night while The Cordials were performing The Diamonds' song "Little Darlin'", Mr. Pickett did his Boris Karloff impersonation. Bobby Pickett's imitation of Boris Karloff proved to be a hit with the audience. It was Bobby Pickett's friend and fellow Cordial Lenny Capizzi who suggested that they make a novelty record using Mr. Pickett's Karloff impersonation.

Bobby Pickett and Lenny Capizzi considered various dances at the time around which they could base their novelty song around. They ruled out "The Twist," feeling that it was passée.  They eventually settled upon the Mashed Potato, a dance that had been introduced with Dee Dee Sharp's hit song "Mashed Potato Time" and had since figured in several other songs. The Cordials had the good fortune to be heard performing "Monster Mash" by the daughter of record producer Gary S. Paxton, who had produced, among other things, The Hollywood Argyles' novelty hit "Alley Oop." The song was recorded with Bobby Pickett, Lenny Capizzi, Gary S. Paxton, Terry Berg, Johnny McCrae, Leon Russell,  and Rickie Page. It was credited to Bobby "Boris" Pickett and The Crypt-Kickers. Surprisingly for a song that has passed the test of time, "Monster Mash" would be rejected by every record label that Gary S. Paxton took it to. In the end Gary S. Paxon pressed 1000 copies of the record using his own money and then sold it to every radio station he could find who would buy it.

Gary S. Paxton's hard work in promoting "Monster Mash" would pay off very, very well. In only eight weeks "Monster Mash" reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, just in time for Halloween. While the song was a huge hit in the United States, however, it would not repeat that success in the United Kingdom for many years. In 1962 the BBC deemed "Monster Mash" as being "too morbid" and banned it from airplay. It would eventually be released in the UK in 1973, when it reached #3 on the British singles chart in October of that year.

"Monster Mash" would be re-released several times in the United States (generally around Halloween) and actually returned to the charts in 1970 and 1973. "Monster Mash" would also be covered several times by various artists over the years. Even Boris Karloff himself performed the song on the Halloween edition of Shindig! in 1965. Over the years the song has been covered by such bands as The Beach Boys (1964), The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (1969), Vincent Price (1977), The Big O (1988), and The Misfits (1997). The song would provide the basis for a 1995 feature film, Monster Mash, starring Bobby Picket as Dr. Frankenstein.

While many songs fitting Halloween were made before and since "Monster Mash," today it remains the song most identified with the holiday. Indeed, it seems doubtful that any song will ever replace it. With lyrics referencing the classic Universal monsters and special effects evocative of old horror movies, it would seem that it was literally made for the holiday.

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. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Russell Means Passes On

Russell Means, Native American civil rights activist and an actor who appeared in such films as The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Song of Hiawatha (1997), died today, 22 October 2012. He was 72 years old. the cause was oesophageal cancer.

Russell Means was born 10 November 1939 on the the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was Oglala Sioux. He was three years old when his parents moved to San Francisco. He attended four colleges, including Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, but never graduated. His youth was filled with brushes with the law, including bouts with drug addiction and alcoholism. In the Sixties he held a variety of jobs, including janitor, cowboy, dance instructor, and printer. In 1969 he became employed with the Rosebud Sioux tribal council in South Dakota. Later in the year Russell Means moved to Cleveland, Ohio where he became the founding director of a centre that helped Native Americans adjust to life in the city.

Russell Means had first participated in protests for Native American civil rights in 1964 when he was part of the occupation of Alacatraz in 1964 alongside his father. In 1968 he joined the American Indian Movement (AIM). He became the national director of AIM in 1970. Over the years he would be involved in some of the more notable events in the Native American civil rights movement, including AIM's 1970 takeover of Mount Rushmore and the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973.

Russell Means would begin his acting career in 1992, making his film debut as Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans. In the Nineties he appeared in such films as Natural Born Killers (1994), Wagons East (1994), Windrunner (1995), Song of Hiawatha (1997), A League of Old Men (1998), Wind River (2000) , and Thomas & the Magic Railroad (2000).  On television he appeared in the TV movie The Pathfinder and on the TV shows Touched by an Angel, Walker Texas Ranger, Profiler, Remember WENN, and Nash Bridges.

In the Naughts and Teens Russell Means appeared in such films as Cowboy Up (2001), 29 Palms (2002), Black Cloud (2004), Pathfinder (2007), Unearthed (2007), and Rez Bomb (2008). His last film, Tiger Eyes, will be released next year. He appeared in the mini-series Into the West, as well as the television shows Family Law and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Russell Means was a controversial figure even among Native Americans. That having been said, he did bring attention to the fight for Native American civil rights. As an actor he was quite good. He played a number of different roles over the years, from Chingachgook to providing the voice of  Powhatan in Pocahontas (1995). He also proved equally adept at both comedy and drama. As both a civil rights activist and as an actor he won't soon be forgotten.