The story of Ben Cooper Costumes is in many ways the story of Halloween in America, but even more than that, it is the story of America itself over the last 80 years.
The brothers Ben and Nat Cooper are the Wright brothers of the Halloween industry, a practical pair of visionary pioneers who changed the world thanks to a combination of drive and necessity. They gave birth to a new era of marketing opportunities through the advent of licensing, and they opened a doorway from theatrical level professional costuming to affordable costumes for everyone, which would lead to today’s cosplay artists, not to mention an entire culture of Halloween at large.
As fellow Halloween historian and author Jon Miller says, it’s the story of “how a Jewish immigrant family got their start and realized the American dream by taking over Halloween.”
Today, in 2017, it’s hard to imagine a world where your favorite cultural icons are not readily selling their brands through countless products available to the public, but when Ben and Nat Cooper gambled on names like Disney and Star Wars before most of the general public knew who or what they were, it was revolutionary.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of Ben Cooper Costumes, originally launched by the Cooper brothers in 1937, and the iconic brand is making a comeback, celebrating the legacy of both the trailblazing company and its unassuming founders.
Nat Cooper’s son, Ira Cooper, is leading the re-launch, along with his daughter Shifra-Estelle Cooper and writer Jon Miller. Halloween Daily News recently enjoyed an extended and fun chat with Ira and Jon about the history and the future of Ben Cooper Costumes. This isn’t just a story about the success of a groundbreaking company. It is an epic tale of the rise of Halloween as we know it in America.
Read on for Part 1 of our interview with Ira Cooper and Jon Miller, and be sure to check back for the second and third installments in the coming weeks!
Part I: The Rise of Ben Cooper
HDN – Ira, what are some of your earliest memories growing up in this family and around this company?
IRA – Well, basically it was our identity. I’m the son of Nat Cooper, who was partners with Ben. The basic history is that Nat was off to World War II while Ben, who had a deferment, was starting the business. They had other ventures together, but the costume company was the one that caught on.
So by the time I was born – Dad got married late, he was 38 – so by the time I was born it was 1954, and so the Coopers’ identity with Ben Cooper Incorporated was here. And so we grew up as that is what the family did.
So, you know, Saturday mornings, in my earliest memories, we went to the factory with Dad and you got to kind of play around a little bit, because on a Saturday most of the factory was closed in the early years. So you got to play around and see everything. And that’s what we did.
There’s no time in which business wasn’t being discussed at some point during the day in the family. It was not considered unusual to discuss business all the time.
And my mother was a business person herself before she had kids, so she was very interested in what went on. In fact I think she’d liked to have known more than she knew even. But Dad was a private person. And if Ben came over, and Ben also has a son named Ira, even if we were going out on the boat or going fishing or going to the beach, business was still discussed at some point.”
HDN – Looking back 80 years ago, in 1937 when they launched, and you look at the history of the Halloween holiday in this country, it’s definitely right in line with the time that the holiday itself was coming into its own. So Ben and Nat were obviously on the forefront of that and visionaries in that area. I guess there was never time when you weren’t aware that the family, the company, the costumes, and Halloween were all one.
IRA – Yeah, and also, Halloween is in a funny place, in terms of the industry. Is it a toy? Or is it a novelty? There were some stores and some companies that lumped Halloween in with the candy business. That’s when shelf space started to matter.
From the earliest times, I think what Nat and Ben recognized is – and they were not totally unique in this recognition – that kids like to dress up. I think that Ben and Nat looked at what they were doing (previously), which was theater costumes, and Dad always said, ‘If an actress busted a seam in Chicago, we had to get on a train and bring her a new costume.’ But to do that was limited by what they could do with their own two hands. And so this question (came up) of how do you become more mass produced.
And the examples were there, because the Army was using sewing companies to make hundreds of thousands of pairs of pants, so mass production was in the air. And Mickey (Mouse) was the obvious bellwether for that. There were people who all of the sudden wanted to have Mickey Mouse masks and dress up or whatever. Ben and Nat and (the Fishback Company, aka Playmaster), they were all friends, and I think they all sort of got it. Then they went on from there.
Ben often said, ‘If it’s good masquerade, it makes a good costume. We don’t have to worry that much about whether we’ve got the absolute best seller. We need a range of items.’ I think it evolved from that, from the idea of dress up.
You can look at old archive Halloween photos of people dressing up, and it’s odd stuff. It’s a little creepy.
JON – It’s a lot creepy.
HDN – I think they definitely brought a lot of the fun aspects into it with a lot of their designs, and definitely with their licenses. You mentioned Mickey, and I don’t know who was first, but they were certainly on the forefront of licensing properties like Disney, Marvel, and DC for these costumes. Now it’s everywhere like that, but it was pretty revolutionary at the time.
IRA – Yeah, there was lightness to it. Ben was very insistent that they not do a lot of really dark kind of things. And the Disney stuff fit that perfectly. I mean, there’s the subtext of certain psychological human conditions in Disney, but it’s done with a very deft touch. Being contemporaries of and knowing Walt (Disney), Ben and Nat really followed that lead with their own ideas.
They were really masters at turning someone else’s masterpiece into something for the common person.
And Superman was next. After Disney, Superman was the next big one. At that time, there was no DC Comics, it was National Periodicals.
JON – I just wanted to add – having done a lot of research on Halloween and Ben Cooper – I think Ben Cooper saw the market (for licensed costumes) a long time before any other company, let alone for Halloween. Some people thought they were crazy wanting to do a Mickey Mouse costume for Halloween. Nobody saw the potential that the Cooper brothers did.
IRA – They may not have even seen it as Halloween. They may have seen it simply as dress up.
HDN – And the idea of everyday dress up is such a forerunner to today when there’s cosplay and conventions, and they really were ahead of their time in their thinking on that.
JON – And the care and attention, too. They took a lot of time designing the costumes that the Walt Disneys of the world would appreciate and sign off on. I think that was the crux of their success over the decades, working with licensing companies. They really gave their all to those costumes.
IRA – Believe it or not, people look back on it now and say it’s cheap or this or that, but they were really bridging the gap between theater and vaudeville (for) everyday dress up. The people who went to vaudeville didn’t have a lot of money, the people who went to the theater of course did. And you can see the difference in archive photos. You can see clown outfits on some kids and then you’ll see other kids who are in what is essentially a potato sack.
I think coming from where they did, on the Lower East Side, first generation born here, they were sleeping four kids to a bedroom when they grew up, and they had an aunt living there at the same time. So I think they had a real sense of who they were going to make this stuff for. If you look at the history of New York, it was quite the melting pot, very progressive, with immigrant people and changes, factories were all over the East Side, all the sewing factories. And that’s where their factory was. I think all of this just evolved.
So what people see now as cheap, back then they saw as deluxe. I’m looking at a 1940s Disney costume here, and there was great attention put into the glitter and the sewing and the trim. I know when they were pressed to make very low priced items, in the inflation years of the ’70s, Ben was very insistent that the seams were still serged, even on the inexpensive rayon garments .
HDN – For a kid, during those years, it was everything you could imagine.
IRA – I think if they can be faulted for anything, it was not pushing the market into higher priced items. At one point, the company was just at an age where it was following its own ability and what it had become. I think they were on their way to doing that, but there were other factors that were causing their decline.
Rubie’s is a good example of a company that knows how to push the market and create a kind of innovation that people are willing to pay for.
(Rubie’s would eventually purchase Ben Cooper Inc. in 1992, but we’ll get to that later.)
HDN – Going back to Disney, do you remember any stories of them directly dealing with Walt? They were obviously inspired by him in some ways. Did he have direct input on the costumes?
IRA – My sense of it is that Walt was a pretty busy man. The times that Ben and Nat interacted with him was when they would go out to California and meet with him. There was a time in the early ’60s, I must have been about 7 or 8 years old, where we had lunch in the Disney dining room, and they had previously met with him. So when he came into lunch, we were instructed not to go over and say hello. But it was clear that everybody knew each other.
I think in the early years, when Snow White and Cinderella and all those things were coming out, I think those were critical meetings, where there were real decisions made on what they were going to produce for the company. And there was always a difference of what was produced for sale in Disneyland, which came later, and what was going to be out in the marketplace.
And there was also a very careful orchestration of not having Walt advertise product. He didn’t sit around with products around him. He had some memorabilia on the early TV shows, but he was never hawking product. There was a real separation and yet there had to have been cooperation.
The walls of the early office were lined with original (film) cells signed by Walt to Ben and Nat.
JON – From Snow White.
IRA – Yeah.
JON – I know, from research, that Nat and Ben went out to meet, ostensibly, Walt, when Disney had their studios at Hyperion in Los Angeles, so that would have been (around the time of) Steamboat Willy becoming Mickey and then Snow White being a huge first animated feature.
So it was really the jewel in the Cooper crown to have the licenses from the beginning. The quality of the Disney costumes was such that – Cooper had the biggest market share for Halloween, and that was even reflected in the quality of the costume boxes that the Coopers made for their Halloween costumes.
The Disney Halloween costume boxes are really coveted today too, as collectibles, in addition to the costumes.
IRA – They moved into how to attach glitter to a costume and how to mass produce that, how to create cellophane boxes so that they could display the mask, how to create a mask that looked better in the box. They had masks that were, in a way, kind of form fitting to the face, but they didn’t look good in the box. So pioneering that came along.
Again, people look at it now, but back when it was innovative and creative, it was a major display step. This self-contained box shows the product off in a way that literally self-displayed it in the store.
Stores didn’t want to hang the stuff for a lot of reasons, most of which was space. In those days, Halloween was a much shorter selling period.
And they were also willing to change the designs. If you look year to year, there are five or six generations of Donald Duck over a 10 year period. There are changes to Mickey that continue over 40 years.
So it’s no wonder that, whoever went shopping for Superman, whether they came to the Coopers or the Coopers went to them – I suspect it was the latter – there was no question who was going to get that license.
HDN – They were the best game in town by then.
IRA – And they had a substantial sewing factory. Even in the early days there had to have been a hundred sewing operators. So it was a buzzing, buzzing factory.
And it was a good place to work, because there are many stories about Ben and Nat and how they treated their workers. You didn’t ask for a raise, you got a raise.
In the next installment of our interview, we will discuss the reign of Ben Cooper, as the brothers are among the first to embrace a little film called Star Wars, venture to the dark side with their first R-rated license (Alien), and clash with new competitors in the licensing market that they helped to create. And we will also have news on Jon Miller’s upcoming book documenting the official history of Ben Cooper Costumes, all coming soon to HalloweenDailyNews.com.
If you have stories or photos of you and your Ben Cooper costumes, be sure to share in the comments below!
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