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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Meet The Coopers: The Jewish Family Responsible for Halloween

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Ah! The trusty costume-in-a-bag. The fail-safe last-minute resort. Enter any Halloween store today and you’ll see walls stocked with costumes in cellophane bags. But in 1937, two Jewish brothers saw potential in an untapped market, when Halloween was a little-known holiday, a speck on the calendar.

They’d go on to create Ben Cooper, Inc. and revolutionize the Halloween costume industry. If you were born before the ’90s, chances are you probably sported one of their budget-friendly vinyl costumes. Their company reportedly owned nearly 80% of the Halloween market in the ‘60s, moving a remarkable 2.5 million units in 1963.

Ben and Nat Cooper in costume showroom (Courtesy of Ira Cooper)

Ben and Nat Cooper were the products of Ellis Island Jewry, raised on the Lower East Side. Their father was a fairly successful restaurateur, but Ben and Nat both yearned for something of their own.

“They wanted to assimilate,” Ira Cooper, Nat’s son, told the Journal. This was the groundwork that inspired two Jewish brothers to pursue the shmatteh business and dominate a Pagan holiday.

Maybe this “otherness,” their desire to assimilate, allowed them to observe cultural trends from an outsider’s perspective. Maybe their Jewish roots equipped them with the resources and acumen to revolutionize a holiday that wasn’t even theirs.

For Ira, growing up under the Halloween legacy wasn’t a big deal in the household. “We polished the silver for Passover, we didn’t polish it for Halloween,” he told the Journal.

What made Ben Cooper, Inc. so successful, besides the affordable price point, was their character licensing. Rather than offer generic costumes of ghouls and goblins, the Coopers took it a step further. In 1937, Disney released their first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

“They took the train out to California and met with Walt [Disney],” said Ira. On that trip, the brothers got a license to start manufacturing Snow White costumes. Simple as that. “It was a handshake deal,” Ira said.

Soon after, the brothers went on a licensing spree. Of course, other costume manufacturers followed suit, but Cooper, Inc. was ahead of the curve, securing licenses for comic books like Batman and Superman, nabbing licenses for TV shows like Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days. They even licensed Star Wars.

In the 1950s, they started producing lines of their own made-up superhero concoctions (and trademarking the word “Super-Hero” along the way). They had a Snake Man, a Bug Man, and, yes, a Spider Man (circa 1954)- eight years before Stan Lee and Steve Ditko would publish their Peter Parker franchise. Now, a Ben Cooper, Inc. Spider Man costume goes for a whopping $20,000.

“It was one of those serendipitous things that happened at the same time,” Ira said about the Spider Man fluke.

In 1991, Ben Cooper, Inc. filed for bankruptcy and was eventually bought by their competitor Rubie’s Costume Co. However, the company has since celebrated a homecoming, and Ben Cooper, Inc. is now Ben Cooper, LLC, run by Ira Cooper and Jon Miller.

When asked if he would dress up for Halloween, Ira responded, “God, no!”

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