The Legacy of Caufield’s!

Since 1920, Caufield’s Novelty, Inc. Has Been The Very Heartbeat of Halloween in Louisville!

If there is one name that is whispered in reverential tones by generations of trick-or-treaters and Halloween fanatics in Louisville, it’s Caufield’s. Currently in its third and largest retail location at 1006 West Main Street, just a block down from the Louisville Slugger Museum and Museum Row, it’s almost unthinkable for most Louisvillians to consider letting a Halloween season pass without a visit to Caufield’s. For long time residents, it would be like passing all 31 days of October without watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” You just don’t do it.

This is the Phantom of the Ville coming to you from the inner sanctum of the historic Caufield’s building, the very nerve center of one of the largest novelty and theatrical distributors in the United States. Not many outside of family and staff get to see the massive behind-the-scenes offices, storage areas and shipping rooms that make up the second floor and creepy basements of the iconic building with the world’s largest vampire bat roosting on its side. Exploring those haunted, hallowed halls and seeing (even touching) some of the vintage Halloween treasures within is the greatest honor I’ve yet been given while working for the Louisville Halloween website. Let me take you with me on a tour!

Behind a secret door just off the showroom floor, I climbed a rickety staircase to meet with current co-owner, Tracy Caufield Johnson. For nearly 100 years now, Caufield’s has remained a locally owned family business. When Irish immigrant, Keran S. Caufield, Sr., first opened the doors of the original location in 1920, he never intended on becoming the King Of Halloween in Louisville. His business plan was to run a successful photography studio, and the studio was indeed a success. So successful, in fact, that there were often people waiting in the outer office.

Keran took a sum of $15 that he received in an accident settlement and invested it by buying a shipment of magic tricks and practical jokes for folks to amuse themselves with while they waited their turn in the photography room. These novelty items were a hit with his customers, and it wasn’t long before he started selling more magic tricks, whoopee cushions and joy buzzers than portrait photos, so Caufield abandoned the photography business and went into novelties and gag gifts business.

The business survived both the Great Depression and the Great Flood of 1937 to eventually expand beyond magic tricks and into holiday and seasonal decorations, costume sales and rentals and theatrical props for the stage and film business.

Tracy Caufield Johnson is the granddaughter of Keran Caufield and Stacy Johnson, and she grew up with the retail store as her childhood second home and playground. While looking around the backroom decorated with vintage Beistle Halloween cutouts, antique novelty gags in their original packaging, creepy zombie props and classic monster masks, I thought, “If these walls could talk–,” only to find out that they can indeed speak through Tracy.

Muhammad Ali was a regular customer when I was a child, and a really talented amateur magician,” she told me when I asked if the store had any famous customers she could talk about. The Greatest was a magician? The Louisville Lip, the greatest boxer who ever lived, could not only throw some of the fastest punches in history but was also a master of the cup and balls trick?

“He’s very good,” she continued. “He came in all the time during his boxing career and mastered just about every trick we had in stock. In fact, he continued doing magic for friends and fans for years. Even when he was dealing with Parkinson’s syndrome and could no longer talk, he could still communicate and interact with his fans by doing magic for them.”

“My favorite memory of Muhammad Ali as a child,” Tracy says, “was when I went to the movies one night with friends at the old Showcase Cinemas on Bardstown Road (*Now sadly torn down and vacant,” The Phantom), and Ali showed up with his wife at the same screening. There were still ten or fifteen minutes before the movie was supposed to start, and the Champ went up to the front of the theater and started performing magic tricks for the audience as a pre-show. The crowd went wild. It was my proudest moment as a Caufield because I recognized all the magic tricks as ones he had bought from us at the store.”

Ali isn’t the only famous magician to have learned the craft through Caufield’s. “Lance Burton and Mac King both worked here as resident magicians,” relates Tracy. “They’re both big Vegas magicians now, but they got their start working here.”

Magic seems to be in the blood in the Ville. One of the most famous memorials in Cave Hill Cemetery is that of Harry Collins, the Frito-Lay Magician, a Louisville native himself who was the primary influence on Lance Burton as a child. Both Burton and King are Kentucky natives. Burton was raised in Louisville and still has family and friends here, but has left his hometown to become one of the most famous and revered magicians not only in Las Vegas, but the entire world. Only David Copperfield rivals his stature in the world of magic.

Mac King has been really good to us, and has always helped promote our business,” said Tracy. “He stays in contact with us regularly and still orders stuff from us occasionally.” Like Jackie Chan, who turned the world of kung fu on its ear by becoming its Clown Prince, King realized his personality wasn’t cut out for the suave, sexy and mysterious image projected by illusionists like Copperfield and Burton, so he focused more on his goofy and contagiously likable, childlike charm and became the King of Magic Comedy.

Manny Ehrlich has been Caufield’s resident magician since the late 90’s, and he has made quite a name for himself as well, recently even entertaining the Demon of KISS, Gene Simmons, when he was in town for the Kentucky Derby. Manny’s performance for Gene was filmed for an episode of “Gene Simmons Family Jewels.” Speaking of the Derby, Tracy tells me that Caufield’s second busiest sales season is Derby season, not only selling Derby decorations to locals and out-of-towners but also shipping Derby products all over the United States through their on-line business.

Early September marks the start of the Halloween season for Caufield’s, and it’s likely the staff is scrambling to get the thousands of costumes, masks and decorations in their stockroom onto the store shelves as you read this. Their world famous Wall of Masks, which has been a Caufield’s staple since the 1960’s, is stocked year round with the latest latex monster and pop culture masks. Many a child’s eyes have become as big as flying saucers trying to take in the sea of science-fiction and monster faces that spans the entire wall of the front showroom.

Back in “The Dungeon,” it’s Halloween all year long. The room is set up with an elaborate display of animated horror props that scare and amuse customers on weekends and during the spooky season. On your way to the Dungeon, you’ll pass through the costume rental room where you can browse and try on hundreds of different costumes.

“This year I believe Superheroes will be the biggest trend for kids and adults,” says Tracy. “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider-man” are the movies Tracy thinks will inspire the most people this year. “We have a Bane mask from ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ that we can’t even keep on the shelves,” she says. The continued popularity of “The Walking Dead” also makes Tracy think that zombies will be hot again this year.

Since 2004, Caufield’s has organized what is quickly becoming one of Louisville’s most beloved spooky season events, the Caufield’s Halloween Parade, which takes place this year on Friday, October 12th at 7 PM along Bardstown Road and Baxter Avenue from Rosewood to Lexington Road in the Highlands. Leading the charge will be the infamous Caufield’s custom 1946 Cadillac Hearse!

Towards the end of my behind-the-scenes tour, Tracy showed me something that nearly blew my mind. On the wall of her office hangs an original 1966 Don Post Monster Mask Calendar. Don Post was one of the greatest makers of latex monster masks in history. Known in the business as The Godfather of Halloween, his family owned company, Don Post Studios, has been making masks for generations. He made the 1975 William Shatner Captain Kirk mask that was slightly altered and painted white to become the face of Michael Myers in John Carpenter’sHalloween.”

The 1966 Don Post Calendar is a Holy Grail for monster fans and Halloween fanatics. I had never seen one in person and I don’t know anyone who actually owns one. Tracy insisted I hold it and flip through its magic pages. It was covered in dust (that I’m still convinced was actually pixie dust), but it was intact and colorful. I found my hands shaking a bit nervously as I thumbed through an original piece of Halloween history in a building filled with Louisville history.

Folks, the Halloween season has begun, and there’s no better way in the Ville to mark the occasion than taking a trip into the heart of Halloween on Main Street at Caufield’s Novelty. I’ll race you there.

The Phantom of The Ville

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