Ritually, every Halloween the green, chauffeur-driven Oldsmobile cruises slowly through the back streets of Woodmere, Long Island looking for small bands of trick or treaters. In the back seat, 73-year-old Ben Cooper swivels anxiously, then breaks into a grin when he spots neighborhood children decked out as Darth Vader or the Hulk. "I don't want mothers to think I'm some kind of a nut," points out Cooper whose interest is, indeed, above reproach. He happens to be founder and president of the U.S.'s largest Halloween costume company, Ben Cooper, Inc.
These days flashy new media characters from television, comic books and the movies—all of them licensed by Cooper in high-pressure deals—are the life of his annual collection. To spot early comers ahead of the competition, Ben screens pilots of upcoming TV shows. In the last few months TV's Mork (plans for Mindy are still under wraps) has been nipping fast at the heels of big sellers like Star War's Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and Princess Leia. Other favorites include Wonder Woman, Batman, Spiderman and—enjoying a comeback—Dracula. This season Cooper is introducing its version of the monster from Alien—the first R-rated movie with a kiddie tie-in. He also still turns out plenty of tried-and-true characters. "I have a particular affinity," he concedes, "for Mickey Mouse."
The entire line of flame-retardant capes, playsuits (sizes 4-14), ponchos and masks sells for $2 to $5 in K marts, Kresge's, Woolworth's and other chain stores across the U.S.
Ben, born on New York's Lower East Side, was 7 when a neighbor gave him his first costume—a red devil suit. Rather than follow his father into the restaurant business, he studied accounting at City College and then briefly had a go at songwriting. "I gave it up," he grimaces. "I decided I wanted to eat regularly."
In 1927 he founded his own theatrical design business, creating costumes and sets for Harlem's legendary Cotton Club and the Ziegfeld Follies. With vaudeville on the way out, he switched to the expanding Halloween market and in 1937 signed a licensing arrangement with Walt Disney for Snow White. Other early hits during the 1940s and '50s were Superman, Zorro and Davy Crockett. There are also miscalculations, some tragic. In 1963 Cooper had to destroy an inventory of several thousand JFK and Jackie masks.
Halloween's costume king gets plenty of help nowadays from his sons Bob, 40, who is in charge of sales, and Ira, 35, the firm's production supervisor, not to mention advice and shy requests from his six grandchildren. What Ben dreads most is November 1, when a pall falls over the factory. "Suddenly it gets frighteningly quiet," he says wistfully. "It makes me feel like a defeated candidate."
Who're his hottest sellers? The 'Star Wars' crew