The time has come to infect the Classic Horror Film Board with the dreaded Topstone virus. I have been carrying this virus for several years. Actually, we all carry it. If you grew up during the 40-year period from the mid-1950s through 1995, the virus is in you. It's lying dormant, waiting to erupt into full-blown infection. All it takes is one look at a grainy old photo, a vintage TV snippet, or a monster magazine ad. A memory is triggered. Trick-or-treating as you hyperventilated behind a smelly latex face. Playing "monster" with your friends in the backyard. Your first October visit to Ben Franklin or Skaggs, rushing to find the Halloween aisle and the waiting pile of newly shipped rubber monsters.
Growing up, I never had a Don Post mask. I'm not sure if I even saw one in person before I reached adulthood. The Don Post masks were unattainable holy grails in a Famous Monsters ad. They existed in a hazy dream world. But Topstone masks existed in reality. They were a tangible, three-dimensional participant in my life. I owned them. I wore them. I played with them. They were part of what made Halloween Halloween.
But I didn't just wear them for Oct. 31. I kept my Topstones in my wooden toy box, along with my action figures and bendies and jigglers and stuffed toys. Topstone masks were toys, and I played with them all year round. Why just pretend to be a werewolf when you could don the Topstone Teenage Werewolf mask and be one "for real."
If you don't know what Topstone masks are, just think back to your youth. Remember those cheap, thin, crudely painted rubber masks they sold in discount stores every Halloween? Remember those masks advertised in Famous Monsters magazine and comic book ads, the ones that used illustrations instead of photographs? Those were Topstones.
The Topstone Rubber Toy Co. was originally based in Bethel, Conn. It began manufacturing masks in the 1930s. By 1950, it had employed artist Keith Ward. Famous for illustrating books like the "Dick and Jane" series and "The Black Stallion," Ward also worked in the advertising business, designing characters like Elsie the Borden Cow. In his later years, Ward became a respected Impressionist landscape painter and art teacher. Ward died in 2000.
Ward spent 10 years designing masks for Topstone and other companies like Bayshore (which Topstone would eventually acquire). Ward was based out of a home studio in New Canaan, Conn. During the 1950s, Ward created iconic Topstone characters, including "Horror," a one-eyed zombie that would eventually become known as the "Shock Monster." The Ward menagerie included a sultry female Vampire; a bald, emaciated Ghoul; a Neanderthal-style Caveman and a scraggily, snarling Gorilla; as well as devils, skulls, pirates, witches and even an early pseudo-gill man.
Shortly after Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine premiered in 1958, Topstone masks became a staple of the Captain Company mail-order pages. Warren Publishing based the ad images on Keith Ward's original illustrations, which had already been published in catalogs and trade ads. The vivid illustrations and hyperbolic descriptions promised lurid excitement on an epic scale. But when kids ordered the masks, they were often disappointed to find that what arrived in their mailbox scarcely lived up to the ad hype. They got over it. As soon as they pulled the masks over their heads and started chasing their siblings, their imaginations easily compensated for the masks' deficiencies.
Topstone masks began popping up in movies, TV shows, non-mask advertising, promotional events, stage acts; practically anytime someone needed a "monster mask," they would grab a Topstone. They became the default, all-purpose, go-to Halloween mask.
In 1961, 20-year-old Mel Goldberg took over as president and owner of Topstone. His future father-in-law had acquired the company and decided Goldberg had the industrious spirit needed to run it. Until this time, Topstone had made its masks in the United States. Goldberg determined this was no longer economically feasible due to the labor-intensive nature of pouring, trimming and painting the masks by hand. He moved production to countries like Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In time, Topstone would also open plants in Sri Lanka and Mexico.
By 1970, Topstone had moved its operations to Danbury Conn. It would change its name to Topstone Industries, dropping "Rubber Toy Co."
The company continued producing the Keith Ward masks throughout its history. It would add dozens more characters, selling millions of masks. But the best sellers would always be the original Ward lineup. In the 1980s, Topstone introduced resculpted versions of the Ward masks. Though they no longer bore the mark of the artist's hand, the characters lived on. In a 1986 Associated Press interview, Goldberg said Topstone continued to produce these characters because children had grown up with them. Now adults, they wanted to buy the masks they remembered from their childhood.
Topstone closed its doors in 1995 when it was purchased by the Paper Magic Company, the same company that now owns Don Post Studios.
But Topstone lives on, thanks to collectors who have obtained the company's original masters and used them to strike new molds. From these, they have produced newly poured masks cast in thick latex, usually painted by professional artists. The new masks retain the detail of Keith Ward's original sculpts, leading collectors to re-evaluate the artistry behind his Topstone creations. Meanwhile, the original production masks have all but disappeared. While many 80s/90s masks survive, nearly all of the 50s-70s original Keith Ward masks have rotted away. All that is left are a few dozen surviving specimens, hundreds of old photographs, a few film snippets, and the fading childhood memories of thousands of monster kids.