How strong was the Star Wars frenzy in 1977? That year a stylized version of the Star Wars movie poster blew past the top-selling poster of all time, that of Charlie’s Angels star and blond sex symbol Farrah Fawcett (look her up in Wikipedia, kids!). So is it any wonder that everyone wanted to be a character from a far-away galaxy that Halloween?
In addition to countless homemade costumes, two early licensees were there to serve: Don Post Studios for full-face masks and helmets, and Ben Cooper Inc., the country’s largest Halloween costume company. But while the Don Post line was higher quality, a bit more pricey, and always aimed at teenagers and adults, Ben Cooper products were clearly inexpensive, disposable, and for kids. And all of that gives them a certain retro, nostalgic feel today. Compared to the elaborate costumes that current cosplayers purchase or make for themselves — meant to be as accurate as those seen in the movies — the early versions appear a bit…bizarre.
For one thing, they’re fairly crude. They consist of a three-dimensional thin-plastic face mask held on by elastic string and one or two pieces of thin treated cloth or vinyl-like material that tie together in the back like a hospital gown. And instead of graphics to help make you look like the actual character you’re portraying, there was usually art of the costume itself or of the full character along with the name — just in case you or your friends forgot who you were! Can you imagine a contemporary six-foot-three 501st Sith Lord covered all in black with a large name tag on his chest box saying: Hi! I’m Darth Vader?
Why are C-3PO and Boba Fett waving? R2-D2 with a face mask. Really? There were only three costumes ready for the first Halloween: Lord Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and Golden Robot/C-3PO. The prices were reasonable enough: $3.99 in the box. Other costumes started appearing long before the second Halloween. The company also made sturdier playsuits for day-to-day roleplaying.
They were clearly popular, and the styles even changed a bit over time. There’s a wonderful fan-fed Flickr set, Growing Up Star Wars: 1977-1985, that has a great bunch of Halloween photos from back in the day. Like these:
Sometimes mistakes were made because of the secrecy surrounding the movies and the long lead time it took to get products made. For example, which of the two released Yoda masks (one was in a Star Wars box with a paper label for The Empire Strikes back) do you prefer?
(Those of you who selected turquoise-face Yoda with pink lips and eyelashes may pat yourselves on the back and congratulate yourselves for having a sense of high-fashion, if not accuracy.)
Today, Ben Cooper costumes are collectibles, although so many were made that they don’t really bring high prices. In fact, they’re inexpensive enough to have some fun with today, even if you’re an adult…with a very small-frame body like my buddy Shane Turgeon in Edmonton. For two Halloween parties in two years he actually wore old Ben Cooper costumes he had picked up. They made for sparkling conversation. Unfortunately, for a G-rated website, we really can’t show you the full reasons why — but suffice it to say, Shane is very nervy!
Steve Sansweet is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit membership museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and http://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan.