This year marks the 80th anniversary of the iconic Ben Cooper brand, which was first launched in 1937 by the brothers Ben and Nat Cooper, who broke new ground in their innovative use of licensed pop culture icons from the likes of Disney and Star Wars. More than just redefining the Halloween industry, they helped define what Halloween is in America.
In Part 1 of our extended chat with Nat Cooper’s son Ira Cooper and author Jon Miller, we discussed the rise of Ben Cooper Incorporated, becoming the biggest Halloween market shareholder by the late ‘70s after successfully bridging the gap from theatrical costuming to everyday dress up made affordable enough for everyday people. They paved the way for the pop culture-influenced cosplay culture of today.
The Cooper brothers were also pioneers in licensing some the earliest Disney properties, being among the first in the world to give kids a likeness of Mickey Mouse or Cinderella that they could find at their local drug store.
By the 1980s, they were the kings of Halloween, but the country was changing, as the pop culture icons they helped make famous were now becoming more readily available through all kinds of new products, and grownups began to celebrate the holiday more than ever.
Read on for Part 2 of our interview with Ira Cooper and Jon Miller, and be sure to check back for the third and final installment coming soon!
Part 2: The Reign of Ben Cooper
HDN – So that brings us into the ’80s, and obviously they were in full swing by then. I know at a certain point there were financial issues and Rubie’s eventually bought the company. Can you explain what led up to that happening in the ’90s?
IRA – Well prior to that, there was this whole question of whether Halloween (would survive) attacks from the right wing. Like any political stuff in America, it’s always blown out of proportion, but Halloween was vulnerable because of the short selling season. It became a fear. There were also product safety issues and lawsuits were becoming bigger. So there was a certain amount of entrenchment into what the company did well, and a little less aggressiveness in expansion in some ways.
And Ben and Nat were getting older, and as you get older you get a bit more conservative. But there was the second generation, Robert Cooper and the other Ira Cooper (Ben’s son), coming up, so there was opportunity to innovate.
Rubie’s was not a licensed character company at that point, because Ben Cooper had the licenses. The sum of that innovation was waiting in the wings. The internal economics probably had more to do with their business model than it had to do with their ability to create new product.
The business model was servicing a certain kind of store at a certain price level, and the garment industry was making its own inroads with separate licensing deals. So there were just a lot of factors pulling on the company. And whatever decisions that second generation of Robert and Ira made set the stage for what was either going to be growth or not growth. It’s very hard to stay in a steady state in a business. Whatever decisions they made, they made.
At that point, I was a salesman on the coast. I had always sold more costumes per capita than any other sales group. I felt this commitment to get the product everywhere. It was a great training ground for me, because I became a bit of a specialist in small stores, which in the late ’70s and especially ’80s was a very lucrative market. I started making, designing, and having manufactured other products for other parts of those stores – personal care items, higher end toys, import items. So by that time, Ben Cooper was not my only line and I was no longer dependent on it.
JON – I think from a pop culture perspective, there was a bunch of things happening. Halloween was kind of growing up, to the point where adults were participating. And there was the Tylenol cyanide killer in ’82 that effectively killed Halloween for a couple years. Parents didn’t want to let their kids out so hopefully they’d not end up with poison trick-or-treats.
But I think, if you look at Rubie’s today, it’s kind of all about the sexy nurse or somebody who wants to dress his girlfriend as Batgirl, and the Cooper aesthetic was always family friendly.
I guess as America grew up, the kids who went out got younger and younger, so you had – the Disney licensing, for instance, got younger and younger for tiny tots.
The Coopers did push the envelope once in a while with older and darker material. If you’ll remember in ’79, they did the Alien costume, which is so classic now, but back then it was hugely controversial basing a Cooper costume on an R-rated movie character.
IRA – They were very concerned about that, and I heard Nat and Ben discuss it, whether Disney really wanted to be associated with that other kind of product, not to mention DC and some of the others. Even Disney started to purchase adult films, and some of their first things like Tron were not great successes, because they were not moving deep enough into where America was going.
JON – The whole nature of the Halloween industry is having to grab a license when you’re not sure if something is going to pop in pop culture, and their instincts were right on for a good 50 years before you saw any kind of cracks.
When you think about these guys being on top for so long, you know, Ben and Nat were in their 70s when Star Wars came around, and they went all in on that and it turned out to be a huge success. I give them a lot of credit for hanging on that long and just staying ahead of the trends.
HDN – Am I right that Rubie’s has not done anything with the Ben Cooper name since purchasing the company?
JON – When I reached out to Ira, over a year and half ago, the Ben Cooper brand had been dormant or dead for 25 years. When Ben Cooper went bankrupt and Rubie’s took on assets, they really only took on the lucrative licensing that Ben Cooper had at the time. So ’91 was the year that Ben Cooper went bankrupt, and in ’92 Rubie’s ran with Ben Cooper Costumes for only one season, and then they discontinued it.
HDN – So Halloween of ’92 was the only run Rubie’s did using the Ben Cooper name?
JON – That’s right.
IRA – They were probably free to get the licenses in their own name by that point.
JON – And then Collegeville went bankrupt fairly soon after and was consumed by Rubie’s too. But what’s interesting is Collegeville was the biggest competitor to Ben Cooper all those years, and when I talk to Ira about some of these odd licenses that Ben Cooper took on, which I love – the more fringe characters the better, like they even did the snake catcher from Raiders of the Lost Ark – but the ironic thing is that Nat and Ben would decide to take a character on just to keep it away from Collegeville just in case.
IRA – That’s right. Then once you got it, like Raiders, you couldn’t just make one item. They wanted you to make each character, so your commitment was kind of deeper than you might have expected it was going to be when you made that first decision. When it comes to dress up, when there’s nothing much left on the shelf, kids buy what’s on the shelf.
JON – This is why I forced my mom to go with me to Woolco in September not in October.
HDN – Like you said, sometimes they would have to do certain characters. With something like Star Wars, was it like it is today where they (LucasFilm) would control exactly what characters and tell them, ‘We want you to do these characters and not these others’?
IRA – Well it was a combination, but it wasn’t as thorough as you have today, where every part of design of the costume has to be approved. There were handshake agreements; there were year to year agreements. There was a certain amount of carte blanche with Disney, but eventually if Disney was promoting Fantasia, they would ask that Mickey be switched to that. If they were promoting Pinocchio that year, they would ask that certain art be used. Do we want a Pinocchio box or a Disney box? What’s practical? There were negotiations on that.
In the beginning of Star Wars, there was much less control. By the second movie, there was much more control. It evolved just as the industry evolved.
The Ben Cooper costume fronts are essentially poster fronts. The reason for that – people look at it now and say ‘Oh, how unsophisticated,’ but it was sophisticated for its day because it gave the child a proclamation, a poster, a giant graphic that they were not getting anywhere else. The poster business wasn’t out there. Wallpapers were not being manufactured. (Smart)phones, tablets, computers didn’t exist, so for a child to have that enormous representation of character, it was a big deal.
There were some cases they didn’t, like with Superman, they consistently went for the costume, and I suspect that was a request from the company. But Darth Vader you could get both ways. It just varied.
HDN – It was revolutionary because they couldn’t get it anywhere else. I think, as you mentioned earlier, in the ’90s when Ben Cooper was going through financial issues, other apparel was getting licensed, like more pop culture t-shirts coming out, to where now Star Wars, DC, and Disney are everywhere.
IRA – Well yeah, you had pajama companies who were creating a cape with the pajamas. That was a big controversy for Ben Cooper, with Disney and the other licenses, saying, ‘Is it a pajama or is it a costume? Because we have the license for a costume.’ And I think it was mesmerizing for the Coopers to see that people wanted Spider-Man underwear. Things were changing. I know they were particularly offended when a license was put on a product just for the sake of packaging. It just made no sense.
I remember they would stand in the stores when the first of those products were coming out, and Dad would say, ‘Why would anybody pay to put this on here, let alone the consumer have to pay to buy it, when it has absolutely nothing to do with the character?’
I think they missed how obsessed the public would get with all things pop culture.
JON – One thing I wanted to add, because it was a mystery to me. Some costumes are much more rare than others. The reasons for that are that very often the turnaround time to get these costumes out for Halloween was so short, and Ben and his designers really only had a few photos of a character. Sometimes it was black and white, or sometimes it was just a sketch or a drawing, and so that gave birth to blue Yoda one year and a sliver-helmeted Boba Fett. And then other instances, when you consider they buy a license to use the characters, Ben Cooper was also using a catalog to pre-order to see how many costumes to make of each character, so that dictated how many Tusken Raiders were made.
One of the instances where I think Disney did lean onto the Coopers was when they wanted to make a big deal out of The Black Hole, and that didn’t materialize at the box office, but you still had all those costumes for Halloween.
IRA – Ben and Nat were pretty clever as to how many they made. There are no Halloween closeouts, or there weren’t in those days, and you don’t want stuff coming back around next year. So they got pretty clever at how they mixed up an assortment to keep it going. But they definitely did have to contend with that.
In the final installment of our interview, we will discuss the return of Ben Cooper, as the iconic brand is making a comeback, celebrating the legacy of both the trailblazing company and its unassuming founders, and we’ll find out what Ben and Nat would think of Halloween in 2017 and the culture of cosplay, 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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