Entertainment circa 1910
In the days before the ubiquitous media that we have today, the only entertainment was live. In the early part of the 20th century before TV, and even radio, entertainment was delivered live at a local theatre. While film was emerging to compete with live shows, the most popular form of entertainment at the time was vaudeville.
Most every city in North America had a live theatre purpose-built for vaudeville. In Toronto, The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres contain the last remaining double-decker vaudeville venue in the world. The double-decker, in other words, is one theatre stacked on top of another.
Vaudeville is essentially variety entertainment. Stage shows would consist of a variety of acts that would be assembled together into a show. With no real connection between acts, jugglers, singers, magicians, comedians and more would run continuously. By the turn of the century, patrons could pay one price and stay for as long as they liked.
All this variety going on needed a lot of costumes. In the heart of the New York theatre district, two brothers, Ben and Nat Cooper were putting one costume together at a time. Frustrated by the slow pace of garment-quality piecemeal costumes, the brothers looked for new mass production ventures.
Enter Disney and the growing popularity of “trick or treating” in the 30s. The Cooper brothers believed they had found their niche. Taking advantage of the new business scheme of licensing another company’s characters, Ben Cooper Inc. acquired the rights to manufacture costumes based on Disney’s Mickey Mouse in 1937. They started slowly at first adding more characters to eventually movie monsters and comic characters.
Gone were the slowly embroidered handmade garments for vaudeville. The new mass-produced costumes were simple silk-screened designs of popular characters that usually included a vacuum formed mask.
By the 70s Ben Cooper Inc. dominated the Halloween children’s market controlling up to 80% of the market. Most people who grew up in the 70s will fondly remember the brightly-coloured costumes packed in their display boxes.
Arguably, the pinnacle of their keen eye for pop culture came in 1977 with the addition of the Star Wars license. Jerry Seinfeld would affectionately reminisce about his Superman costume in his stand up comedy routine. Superman, too, was a Ben Cooper Inc. license.
Today with the popularity of fan culture, dressing up in character costumes has never been more popular. While the costumes have improved from the early days, Cosplay, as it is known, is a popular feature of conventions, like Comic-Con.
To a certain extent, vaudeville fell out of style by the end of the 1920s in favor of movies. Vaudeville would find new audiences on television in the form of variety shows. Today’s late night talk shows are another example of the vaudeville formula. The costumes that were inspired by this bygone era, however, live on every Halloween on the streets of North America.
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