Halloween in a Box: The Store Bought Costumes of All Our Yesteryears!

Remembering the Golden Age of Ben Cooper and Collegeville Costumes AND Discovering a Priceless Piece of Halloween History!

Do you remember the Golden Age of Trick-or-Treating? I don’t mean the Golden Age of Halloween, which can be traced back as far as the Celtic festival of Samhain, and I don’t mean the traditon of going from door to door begging for treats which also has roots going back several hundred years. I’m talking specifically about the American tradition which has been documented as having its roots in the early 1900’s, but not really becoming a widespread phenomenon until the 1930’s.

I consider the Golden Age of Trick-or-Treating to be roughly from the mid 1950’s through perhaps the mid 1980’s. The Baby Boomers were the first hardcore generation of trick-o-treaters. By the mid 50’s, the concept of going from door-to-door looking for treats or mischief had grown. Most typical American families had a televison set in their homes, and by the mid 1960’s the classic horror pictures made by Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s started playing in people’s homes on Saturday nights via programs such as Shock Theater. Characters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man became cultural icons and were ready made for Halloween dress up play.

That’s about the time that the retail industry saw an opportunity to sell cheap, disposable Halloween costumes to beleaguered parents to save them from having to cut holes in good bed sheets or from having to spend a lot of time and mess on junior’s one night outfit. Kids didn’t seem to mind much either because the colorful artwork and designs of these factory made costumes were cooler than what they could make with a paper bag, an old sheet and some pipe cleaners. They also looked like the characters from the scary movies they loved. The costumes typically consisted of a plastic, vacuformed mask held on by an elastic band and a vinyl smock with an image of the character on it.

Two companies rose above the crowd to become the kings of the boxed, dime store Halloween costume, Collegeville and Ben Cooper, Inc. The Collegeville company generally produced mostly unlicensed, generic costumes like ghosts, witches, skeletons, devils and monsters as well as cowboys, astronauts and princesses. This isn’t to say that Collegeville’s generic costumes were less interesting than Ben Cooper’s costumes. In fact, many of their classic designs are the very icons we first imagine when we think of this era of Halloween costumes.

Ben Cooper had been in the Halloween costume business since the late 1930’s and he had a knack for acquiring great, popular licensed characters to use for his costumes, the first of which was the Walt Disney cartoon characters. If you ever wore a Spider-man or Batman costume in the 1970’s, you were wearing a Ben Cooper costume, while Collegeville was stuck creating charming knock-offs like The Spider and The Bat. Cooper was the guy who licensed the Star Wars franchise from 20th Century Fox and sold a million Darth Vader costumes.

There was a time in the early to mid 1970’s, before the urban myths about razor blades and candy apples and the wild paranoia of overprotective parents put an end to trick-or-treating the way I knew it, that the coming of dusk on October 31st was something wondrous to behold. Just as the sun began to set, you could look out your front window to witness the emergence of a sea of little ghosts and goblins coming out of their suburban houses to claim the night. Homemade hobos joined with bargain bought Batmans from dusk until about 9 PM (with a hard closing of 10 PM), ruling the streets of their neighborhoods and amassing a haul of sweet treasure in the process.

If you were there, and you ever wore a Collegeville or a Ben Cooper costume, then you’re part of a collective, now nearly forgotten and secret club with the same shared memories. You remember the smell of the plastic mask as perspiration built up on your cheeks while running from block to block, the elastic band that held the mask on pulling at your hair and irritating the skin around your ears. You remember the sweat gathering under the hot vinyl smock which may or may not be covered with a rain jacket or a thick winter coat depending on the weather and the demands of your parents.

I remember my first Halloween costume, chosen by me at the dime store and purchased by my mother without much of a fuss. It was a Collegeville H R Pufnstuf costume based on the psychedelic 1969 Sid & Marty Krofft Saturday morning children’s program (SEE PHOTO). It was the first of three store bought costumes I wore, intermixed with costumes I made myself like the Pumpkin-headed ghost made out of a Baskin Robbins Ice Cream bucket and an old sheet, that made up the core of my Golden Age trick-or-treating adventures. The second was a Collegeville Ultraman costume based on the 1960’s Japanese science fiction series that played every afternoon during Funsville on WDRB-41 in the early to mid 1970’s. The last store bought costume I used, and probably one of my last great trick-or-treats, was a Ben Cooper Darth Vader costume. That particular costume wasn’t quite as memorable, as every doorbell I rang also played host to at least two or three other “fake” Darth Vaders that year, all of us breathing heavy to stay in character or from carrying a heavy bag of loot too far.

Now 35 years later, and about 20 odd years after the demise of the Golden Age of Trick-or-Treating and the boxed dime store Halloween costume, the Collegeville and Ben Cooper costumes of that era (at least the ones that survived) have become hot Halloween collectibles. Some mass produced characters can still be found for relatively cheap on ebay, say $10-$20, while more obscure costumes like my H R Pufnstuf can go for hundreds of dollars.

This Halloween has already been a special one for me and it’s still only September. Recently, I found and now own something I never even knew existed as a kid. If I had known about it, I would certainly have wanted to wear it in place of almost every other costume I ever coveted. In order to understand my enthusiasm, you need to understand the impact one man had on my life and my imagination in my formative years. The man’s name is Ray Harryhausen.

Ray Harryhausen was a special effects craftsman and stop-motion animator that did the work of what would later be done by crews of dozens or more all by himself. He sculpted and brought to life some of the most memorable mythological creatures and magical monsters ever projected onto the silver screen including the Medusa and the Kraken from the original “Clash of the Titans” (1981) and the spectacular skeleton army from “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963). But it was his Arabian tales of the great swashbuckling hero, Sinbad, that really fired my imagination as a small child.

I remember a teacher in the fifth grade, while talking about movies in the lunchroom, telling me that he never missed a James Bond movie. I told him I never missed a Sinbad movie. Harryhausen made three Sinbad movies: “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958), “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” (1973) and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” (1977), all distributed by Columbia Pictures.

Just a few weeks ago I stumbled onto this Collegeville Sinbad costume (SEE PHOTOS) while searching ebay for vintage Halloween goodies. I had never seen one before and neither had any of my fellow Halloween and/or Harryhausen fan friends. It turns out that Collegeville licensed the character from Columbia Pictures and released the costume for the Halloween of 1976. This is significant because “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad “ had come out three years prior and “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” wouldn’t be released until the next year. As far as I’m aware, this costume represents one of the only pieces of licensed Harryhausen merchandise made for the retail market before “Clash of the Titans” in 1981. Not only that, but careful examination of the artwork on the vinyl smock reveals an enigma. Sinbad is wearing the medallion that is a piece of the map that leads to the Fountain of Destiny as seen in “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad,” but behind him stands two images of the gold plated Minoton from “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” which hadn’t even come out yet! So this Collegeville costume represents a collectible from both films and an extremely rare piece of Ray Harryhausen memorabilia.

Sharp eyed Harryhausen fan and hardcore Golden Age trick-or-treater, David Conover, who also happens to be the Programming Director for Louisville’s own fantasy/sci-fi/toy and model convention, Wonderfest, recognized the drawing of Sinbad as a likely copy of the Marvel Comics adaption of “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” The cross over mystery deepens!

I hope all of you Golden Age trick-or-treaters out there find something equally amazing in your treat bags and plastic pumpkins this year. This is the Phantom of the Ville, hoping that the magic of Halloweens past give rise to new traditions in the present that will be worthy of another similar article in 20 or 30 years. I’d love for you to post any pictures you’ve saved of you and your friends in your old Halloween costumes on my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/#!/louisvilleafterdark.com!

The Phantom of The Ville

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