Don Post had the droids everyone was looking for. The problem was he didn’t have nearly enough of them.
In the spring of 1977, Post, a commercial mask maker and owner of Don Post Studios, obtained the license for a forthcoming 20th Century Fox release titled Star Wars. The designs of the aliens, robots, and villains of George Lucas’s space opera were ideal for Post, who made high-quality rubber costume masks. But while Post figured the license would be worthwhile, he had no idea it would become the most successful film in history up to that point—or that Halloween 1977 would be a Star Wars bonanza.
“We can’t keep up with the demand,” an exasperated Post told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October 1977. “I can’t make most of my Halloween deliveries. In fact, I’m sold out now through Christmas, but most of the merchants say they’ll take the Star Wars masks no matter when I deliver them.”
It wasn’t just Post. Owing to unforeseen demand and low inventory, there was a severe shortage of all things Star Wars that Halloween. But kids and adults wouldn’t be discouraged so easily, even if dressing as their favorite Jedi or Sith would require some creative solutions.
The tortuous production history of Star Wars is well-traveled movie lore. To achieve his goal of creating a serial adventure, Lucas assembled effects artists at his newly-founded Industrial Light and Magic, enlisted John Williams for the score, and convinced 20th Century Fox his ambition would eventually make sense. In the end, he was proven right. Star Wars and its sequels became modern mythology, rewriting the rules for both blockbusters and licensing tie-in opportunities.
Before the film’s release, however, few people shared Lucas’s enthusiasm. While Kenner agreed to make action figures, they were in no hurry to have them ready for the holiday 1977 season and wound up selling an empty box with a voucher for toys to come.
The scene at Halloween was hardly any better. Fans looking for costumes so they could dress as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, C-3PO, or R2-D2 were given a quick reality check. For one, costumes were and still are typically ordered by retailers months in advance, and retailers largely stuck with proven properties like Batman and Dracula. Second, only two major licensees had been recruited: Don Post and economy costume manufacturer Ben Cooper, which made just three costumes—Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, and C-3PO—available that year.
The Ben Cooper offering was standardized across all their licenses, from superheroes to aliens. Inside a cardboard box with a plastic window was a hard plastic mask secured to the head with a string and a soft plastic costume the consistency of a garbage bag. The mask’s sharp edges frequently dug into the wearer’s face. But at $4 or less, a Cooper offering was better than nothing. Unfortunately, nothing is what most kids got.
“We’re getting an awful lot of requests for Star Wars costumes,” costume store owner Philip Morris told North Carolina’s The Charlotte News. “I’d say we’ve probably had, counting telephone calls, about 600 people call about Star Wars costumes. I would say the Stormtrooper is a very hot character. Darth Vader is probably next, then Chewbacca.” (The latter character the paper described as a “furry half-man, half-animal.”)
Despite the Cooper Star Wars costumes being $1 more than other licenses, stores sold out of them in early October.
The Don Post masks were a bigger headache. In addition to a low production run, the mask maker limited their Chewbacca offering even more, producing just 500 of them because Post was unhappy with the Wookiee’s open-mouthed expression. (That first year, Post made four masks total, including Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, and C-3PO.)
If a store wasn’t sold out of costumes, it was probably because they had never bothered to stock them to begin with. A Charlotte-area J.C. Penney manager told the News that “four out of five” requests for costumes were about Star Wars but the store never bothered ordering any.
For some, the demand grew tiresome. “I'm so sick of answering that we don't have any more Star Wars outfits,” Santa Cruz costume rental shop owner Carol Flemming told The Californian.
With more fans than costumes, anyone who wanted to dress as a Star Wars character had to get creative. One store in New Jersey saw an uptick in the sale of black capes, the better to approximate Darth Vader, while a generic, angular black mask was used for his respirator. There was also a rush on braids, which could be incorporated into a Princess Leia ensemble. Silver and gold greasepaint were used to make for a modest droid costume; one costumer sold a Don Post werewolf mask “because it looked a little like Chewbacca.”
In St. Petersburg, Florida, the McKenzie family lamented the “stupidity” of costume makers failing to anticipate demand and opted to cobble together their own. Darth Vader was made with a Ben Cooper mask and a flashlight with red wrapping paper covering the bulb to craft a lightsaber; a Frisbee doubled as a breastplate for C-3PO; Chewbacca sported the fur “used to decorate the inside of vans.” The husband’s mother-in-law, it was decided, would be one of the monsters.
If a store did get some Post masks, they opted to use the scarcity to their advantage. At the Virginia Ascher Costume Company in St. Louis, their Darth Vader mask was used as part of an elaborate $50 costume rental.
Licensees never repeated the mistakes of that Halloween, and from 1978 onward, there were plenty of Star Wars costumes to be had. But the missed opportunity of ’77 was something Don Post felt. At $45 per mask, he was looking at a windfall.
“If I had 100,000 Star Wars masks in this room now, I could sell them all,” Post said. “How could I know the movie would take off like this?”
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