Rubber masks of Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton glare down from the walls. An elderly customer comes up to the register with a fistful of red clown noses. "Well, back to the mustaches," an employee sighs to herself as she gets to work sorting.
It's Halloween time at Mallatt's Pharmacy and Costume on Monroe Street. And it's a very big deal.
Mallatt's costume buyer Karen Brown-Larimore says the store, one of four locations in Wisconsin, will rent between 500 and 800 costumes this Halloween and sell thousands more. And that doesn't count all the wigs, fake noses, makeup kits and other accessories that line several aisles throughout the store.
Mallatt's reputation as a destination spot for Halloween lovers dates back to the late 1920s, Brown-Larimore said. The store was on State Street, and UW theater students would come there looking for stage makeup to use in their productions. The tradition continued after the store moved to the west side in the 1940s.
Halloween is a year-round proposition for Brown-Larimore and Mallatt's; every January, she heads to Texas for a massive Halloween costume show to place orders for the following Halloween. Representatives from all the big movie studios are there, hyping their upcoming superhero summer movies as the hot costumes of fall.
But buying so early, Brown-Larimore can't possibly predict what the pop culture zeitgeist will be talking about in September or October. Who could have predicted back in January that folks would come in looking for Big Bird costumes or binders?
"There'll be an event or popular character that you don't know about until later," she said. "You just either hurry and scramble and try to find the perfect wig, or you have it to create it."
After presidential candidate Mitt Romney vowed to end federal funding for public television, despite remarking "I love Big Bird" in the first debate, the feathered friend of "Sesame Street" became a hot property. Mallatt's sells costumes all over the country through its website, and even sent a Big Bird costume to National Public Radio's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Romney's line about "binders full of women" from the second debate became another pop culture meme, but folks haven't been looking for oversized binder outfits at Mallatts, perhaps because it's the sort of thing you have to make at home. In addition to politically themed masks, also big this year are "replacement ref" costumes; Mallatt's had just one left in stock, complete with dark glasses and white cane. And both girls and women have been coming in looking for blond wigs and beauty pageant sashes to dress like Honey Boo Boo, the reality show star.
Brown-Larimore estimates that one in four customers comes into the store knowing exactly what they want to be, and store employees help them find just the right wig or accessory to make the costume.
"All of the employees here love a challenge," she said. "We might ask if you have a picture, or we might look on Google and print out a picture of what you want to be. 'How about this wig, how about these glasses?'"
Things are just as busy in the "Halloween Town" section over at the St. Vincent de Paul store on Williamson Street. Store manager Regan Rule said that he had over 40 gigantic boxes of donated costumes, uniforms, wedding dresses and other Halloween-related items, and started putting them out on the floor in August.
"The formal wear is moving really well," Rule said. "Your wedding dresses and prom dresses. Corpse brides are popular. I had one guy in here last week buying a big formal dress, and he was figuring out a way to make a jellyfish costume out of it."
Although they do have an aisle of pre-packaged costumes, it's the old military costumes, wedding dresses and retro duds that seem to hold the most appeal for creative east siders. Grab an old postal uniform, a pair of scissors, and some stage makeup, and you've got your zombie mailman costume good to go.
"Especially last minute, people just come in and grab something that's already made," said employee Anna Grove, who calls herself a "Halloween Townie." "Tear it up, rip it up, bleed it up and use it for Halloween."
Still, the Halloween Town items aren't just used as costumes. Some customers buy old hippie duds with the intention of wearing them year-round, Rule said. And, with wedding dresses going for $15.50 each (marked down from $25), cost-conscious brides will find something in the Halloween aisle for their big day.
No wonder that St. Vincent de Paul Madison's associate executive director, Ernie Stetenfeld, says Halloween is the store's biggest season.
But for most, it's a place to wander through the racks of donated clothes from every era and every walk of life and wait for that perfect costume idea to spark.
"You're only limited by your imagination," Rule said. "You can walk up and down the aisles, and it's like an assembly line of alter egos."
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