Back From the Dead

Los Angeles writer Scott S. Smith is the author of "The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death."

Walking through the piled-high aisles of a Halloween Club store last January, it was hard not to recognize a cultural trend in the choice of 16 types of angel costumes, the Voice Master synthesizer ("to disguise your voice to fit your look"), a costume section for pets (Cheerleader? Pirate?), and an electrocution chair, complete with sound effects and a fake dead man.

Halloween isn't just a fall holiday anymore in Southern California. It's becoming a year-round industry, and the two Halloween Clubs--family-owned 19,000-square-foot warehouse stores that are only closed on major holidays, nine miles from each other as the raven flies--might be considered its telltale heart. Their success suggests that the holiday, once on the wane, is emerging as Los Angeles' favorite celebration, annually transforming the Big Orange into the Great Pumpkin. It's no wonder the Halloween Clubs are making a killing.

"The Halloween Club is the sort of thing that only works in L.A. because of all the factors needed to stay in business," says Philip Morris, president of Morris Costumes, the nation's largest costume wholesaler, which counts the Club as a major customer.

The unlikely first family of fright night consists of three Sikh immigrants who saw big potential in the mixture of pagan, Christian and secular customs that make up the American Halloween tradition. Jack Bhasin, 39, oversees the stores; the original opened in Santa Fe Springs in 1994, and the second opened two years later in Commerce. His cousin, Babloo Sawhney, 35, heads Straight from the Grave, a wholesale Halloween products division of their First Imperial Trading Co. that occupies 16,000 square feet of the Commerce store, plus a 100,000-square-foot warehouse nearby. Babloo's father, Jay, 63, handles the finances for all family companies but stays behind the scenes. All wear the spiritually significant turbans and beards of the Sikh religion, which is the world's fifth-largest faith with 20 million believers.

When the family came to Southern California in the early 1980s (Bhasin from London, the Sawhneys from India), only Bhasin had celebrated Halloween. "We came for the weather and the business opportunity," says Bhasin, a slight, yet muscular man, soft-spoken and constantly moving. "I had visited Disneyland and Hollywood, and California seemed like a happy playground."

In 1985, they began opening Aahs! Novelty Cards and Gifts stores, a concept they created, and were astonished by the demand for elaborate Halloween decorations and costumes. In 1992, they formed the separate First Imperial and launched eight area Halloween seasonal specialty shops. Two years later, they decided to consolidate these into the first Halloween Club in Santa Fe Springs and to operate the store year-round.

"People thought we were crazy," Bhasin says. "Even now, Indonesian villagers who make our skull sticks are laughing at why Americans would want so many of such a thing."

The fledging businessmen had a lot to learn. "It's a risky business because you have to plan a year in advance to be sure you have the supplies you need, and misjudgments can't be corrected in time to recover," Morris says. For example, Bhasin says they anticipated brisk sales from Disney's 2002 animated film "Lilo & Stitch," and ordered accordingly, only to realize too late that the film's popularity didn't translate well into costumes that kids wanted to wear. Still, argues Bhasin, risk-taking always has been central to the family's success.

"Jack and Babloo always seem to have four cellphones working at once," says Don Olstinske, director of sales for TransWorld Exhibits, an independent trade show producer that stages an annual Halloween costume and party show. "They know everyone in the industry worldwide."

Over at the Commerce store one day last month, Babloo Sawhney, a big man with an easy laugh, showed off a warehouse and store crammed with costumes, including the Statue of Liberty, "Shrek," a sexy zebra, "Kill Bill" characters, masks that bleed, shadow projectors and 11 kinds of bats. He was especially excited by the response to an inexpensive DVD that the family sells that projects hologram-like images of aliens and maniacs.

It wasn't always so. Halloween went into eclipse in 1959, when the first case of tainted trick-or-treat candy was reported in Fresno. And even though such incidents have been few and far between--only two deaths from tainted candy have been documented nationwide since then--media attention had magnified those incidents into scary urban legends by the mid-1980s, according to Nicholas Rogers, author of "Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night" (Oxford University Press, 2003). Trick-or-treating was even banned in some cities. Hollywood contributed to the paranoia with the 1978 slasher movie "Halloween" and its many sequels.

But Hollywood also helped resurrect the holiday, and not just because it inspired the most popular costumes. Demand among motion-picture prop buyers for year-round access to Halloween items kept First Imperial alive in the early years, and the family was able to draw on the expertise of those working in film special effects, costuming and makeup to create new products. Theme parks (led by Knott's Scary Farm since 1973) created seasonal haunted houses featuring movie villains, and those in part inspired neighborhoods to create their own attractions.

City recreation departments and community organizations have also become big Halloween spenders, now that the holiday has been divorced from its origins in pagan and Christian traditions and morphed into a secular event. (Bhasin says the only complaint about the Halloween Club came from a group of self-proclaimed witches, who objected to the ugliness of a 25-foot blow-up hag on a store roof.) West Hollywood, for example, has an annual Halloween Carnaval that draws about 500,000 revelers.

Today, 90% of American families with children under 13 go trick-or-treating, according to Hallmark Cards Inc., which surveys Halloween practices and spending. That's up from 60% during those dark days in the 1980s, says the Rogers book. All of which has turned Oct. 31 into the nation's second-largest home-decorating holiday and third-largest party occasion, behind New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl, according to Hallmark. The National Retail Federation, a trade organization, predicts $3 billion in retail Halloween sales this year.

What's missing so far in L.A. is widespread public awareness of the Mexican Day of the Dead, a Nov. 1-2 holiday that also combines similar Catholic and pagan traditions and generates its own flood of retail sales. If the Day of the Dead becomes as popular in Southern California as Halloween, then the Sawhneys and Bhasin are looking at a truly monster business.

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