Founded in 1939, Ben Cooper Inc. was the manufacturer of choice for children who demanded the very latest in Halloween fashion. So dazzling and far-ranging were their choice of costumes and masks that it blinded not just children but parents into accepting incredibly flammable, unrealistic plastic junk into being worn year in, year out for decades until the 1980s ushered in affordable – some might say “better” – alternatives.
The actual Ben Cooper started out as a songwriter before turning to costume-making for New York theatre productions. This was expanded with the acquisition of A.S. Fishbach, Inc. – part of the deal gave Cooper the licence to produce costumes based on Disney characters. The floodgates duly opened once Cooper saw that people would buy literally anything related to characters they recognised from the big screen. Whilst some deals were officially firmed up, the company thrived through a cheap and cheerful bull-in-a-china-shop rampage through identity-blurring costumes which up-to-the-minute celebrities and characters could quickly replace. Competitors may have had old hands like Popeye, but Cooper had his eyes on whatever the next big thing could be, film companies were happy to discuss terms when they could see their creations being displayed everywhere from corner shops to department stores.
The masks – sharply edged and fixed to your head with the thinnest possible thread of elastic could be bought for mere pennies, though for the committed, costumes could augment your appearance for under £5, made from thin material you’d be brave to put in direct sunlight, never mind near a naked flame. The flimsiness and wildly erratic likeness of the costumes to their film – and more commonly in the 1950s, television – was secondary to being hip to the current viewing trends of your peers. It was easy to bang out something approximating The Lone Ranger quickly, and superheroes could be added to the range almost as quickly as the comics hit the newsagent’s shelves. In fact, they already had a ‘Spider Man’ costume before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko invented the Marvel character, meaning that a licence was a cinch and a rudimentary redesign was all that was required.
Happy Days; Hawaii Five-O; Scooby-Doo; The Muppets; Nixon; Reagan; Star Wars – big, niche, or ridiculous, Ben Cooper covered the lot, and even when they did lose out on a franchise, such as with the case of Jaws, it responded with ‘Shark’. Who could argue? The 80s saw a slight wobble before the company fell off its perch entirely in the 1990s. Inevitably, masks and costumes are now widely collected, with premiums paid for outfits in mint condition or those which were more limited in supply.