The days continue to grow shorter or longer depending on where you reside in the world and have culminated together like a beautiful concerto and alas, the day of days, All Hallow’s Eve, Hallowe’en, Samhain, All Saint’s Eve, Hallowmas, the Festival of the Dead has arrived. For the pagans and witches among us, this is the most sacred night of the year. It is a time for merriment, reflection, harvest, bounty and predictions as one year ends and another is about to begin.
This is the one night of the year where it is supposed the veil between the living and dead becomes most thin allowing profound connections to loved ones who have ended their earthly journeys. Perhaps this is where some of the more sinister and macabre aspects of this day originated. There is such a fascinating array of symbolism, tradition and lore that has managed to hold fast for millennia. Nearly every aspect of this day can be traced back to the ancient Celtic peoples and to some extent the Romans who subsequently conquered the Celts. My aim was to provide a detailed history of the day beginning with the Celtic origins, on to festivals of Pomona in Roman times to Christianity’s influence today but time has not been on my side. Perhaps next year.
I find it fitting that today I relate back to the post that initiated this month’s series of musings related to Hallowe’en and autumn. Reflecting back on these words, I mentioned that Ira Cooper, nephew of Ben Cooper discovered my original post all those years ago and today I have for you a tremendous gift. Ira has kindly and graciously taken the time to provide an early history of his uncle’s costume business. What you are about to read covers the early years of the Ben Cooper costume business. Before I present Ira’s words, I wanted to take a moment to humbly and sincerely thank Ira Cooper for taking the time to put into words the origins of his uncle’s business. I am grateful for his generous spirit by allowing me to share these words with you here today — Halloween 2014. For anyone growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, the Ben Cooper costume was just as much a part of Halloween as anything else including the candy in the plastic bags. Thank you Ira.
Ben Cooper Narrative Part I
I may not be totally accurate with this narrative as some people are deceased, and memory can be self-editing for one’s personal agenda! But basically here it goes. I am the only son, and I have two sisters, of Nathan Cooper, who was Ben Cooper’s brother.
Nathan was a partner with his elder brother Ben who, as far as I know, started the business in some manner, the details of which were never directly told to me, but the details I have gleaned are below.
The story I know is that during the 1940’s draft (WW2) Nat was single and so likely to be drafted. Ben was married and already had a son, so was unlikely to be drafted. Nat therefore decided to go to OCS thereby making it more likely that he would not be cannon fodder. At least not right away. As it turned out, not at all, thank God.
Apparently Ben borrowed some money from his mother, Bess, and I was told she might have orchestrated the partnership, what with Nat’s return from war. I was also told, somewhat as an aside, that Nat and Ben had a business failure prior to starting the costume company. This failure resulted in a bankruptcy, which Nat took on in order to protect Ben in some way. I do not know the timing of this, and really I cannot guarantee its accuracy- but I suppose it could have happened before Nat’s enlistment. The idea seemed to have been that a stint in the army would help lesson the impact a bankruptcy might have in those times. For Ben, it may have been more important that he not have that hanging over his head as he started a business. But the timing of this scenario is off a bit. I got all of this from one of Ben and Nat’s sisters. I got none of it first hand from either Ben or Nathan.
I recall that the story we kids were told was that Ben started the business during the war, and Nat joined him when he got home. An aunt, in a position to know, took some pains to disabuse me of this simplified story and said that, in fact, Nat had to become partners with Ben because he would not have been able to get credit on his own, due to taking on the aforementioned bankruptcy- which she insisted was done to protect Ben. It certainly explains a lot of behaviors over the years, but I cannot corroborate anything since, with many family businesses that involve siblings, relationships go awry and motivations are generally suspect. Perhaps my own as well.
Nevertheless, at the start the company was making theatre costumes and Ben was supposedly the creative side while Nat was the salesman. I think this is generally true, though not entirely.
I often heard them say that when a theatre company went on the road, it was not uncommon for one of the brothers to follow, at some critical juncture, with a repaired or freshened up costume by taking however many trains were necessary to get wherever they needed to meet the actors.
Nat was a very quiet and conservative person. Ben was often heralded (and perhaps shielded) as a patriarch. If one spoke with him, one would have been impressed with what seemed to be a completely guileless manner, and a personal and charming way of doing business. Nat was the same. It was great to grow up in their shadow, and even though one ‘finds out’ things that bring parents and relatives down to a human scale, the culture from which the two brothers came was enticing for its humanity and heritage.
There were two factories that I know personally. There was a first facility in lower Manhattan, which I was too young to know. The two I know of were at Bush Terminal in Brooklyn, which is around 3rd avenue and 30th-36th streets. The first at 32nd street was an expansion from Manhattan, and the second was an expansion again. I would estimate that the first move happened in 1950 or so, the second in 1960. I would estimate that the largest space leased including warehouse, production, and shipping was about 350,000 square feet.
Bush Terminal buildings are still there, though many are converted to other than factory uses. They date from WW1 and are made of what was termed ‘blue stone.’ This extra tough, extra thick cement (with some sort of large aggregate in it) was meant to withstand possible bombings and such so as to keep the US ability to produce war goods safe from destruction. I know that if one had to drill a hole in a factory wall (as opposed to cinder block dividers that made up the internal offices) it was an arduous task. My father said that for a big hole, such as an air conditioner, jackhammers were used!
As a factory space in a crowded city, the task of production involved moving raw materials and finished goods laterally and vertically amongst 6 floors. The elevators were typical of the time, and the building was memorable for its odors of paint, glue, plastic, and humanity. At any one time there could be as many as 750 employees though more typically it was less. Topps chewing gum was down the street, as was a pickle factory, and a biscuit bakery. As I child, I can say that the smells, morning and evening, were memorable.
Many of the people felt great attachment to the original brothers (Ben and Nat) and had great things to say about their generosity and considerate ways of doing business. Some were put through school, many were trained from starting positions, and few left willingly, at least until the mantle passed to a younger generation. There were also many colorful characters who, while they may have stayed in their original jobs for years, had personalities that were memorable.
More on production and the people who worked there in a later installment.
The end of WW2 meant more materials were available for leisure/luxury goods, movies were replacing theatres, and cartoons were coming into fashion. The first cartoon of real importance was, I suppose, Mickey Mouse. It represented a major artistic and technological achievement. Not that Walt Disney was always easy to work for, or so the legend goes. I know that the brothers knew him, but I don’t think it was much more than business-as-needed. We all visited Disneyland and the studios at a time when one was treated ‘special’ and so met stars, had lunch in the corporate dining room (with Walt a table away- and with a bevy of young women) and Dick Van Dyke stopping by to say hello; we later were able to watch him in the filming of Robinson Crusoe. Again, all of these people were as charming and nice to our family as could be.
One, or both of the brothers thought about making a Mickey Mouse costume. This was an un-heard of idea and must have seemed crazy. We were always led to believe that this was Ben’s idea- though given what we observed of Nat’s contributions over the years I am not as convinced of this as I once was. I saw Nat design costumes, toys, and the like. And I was told, again by a sister, that his real contribution was marketing and bringing the merchandise to large (for the time) retailers- which itself caused design and price changes to match the growing American appetite for consumer goods.
I recall many original celluloid stills from the original (yes, original) Disney movies such as Snow White, Cinderella, etc. hanging on the walls of the factory and showroom. They were autographed with Walt’s personal signature and mentioned Ben Cooper- either the company or Ben himself, I can’t say.
When the company entered its first bankruptcy (Ben’s sons were President and VP by that time) such significant memorabilia had begun to disappear. I still have a ‘cell’ from the original Bull Winkle made out to Nat. Certainly it does not compare in value to the Disney ones, except of course, to me.
- Halloween through a Child’s Eyes
- The Romans and The Festival of Pomona