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He prowls the darkened warehouse at midnight, a jowly man whose heavy lids cover eyes that have seen gore, rotting flesh, the dead and the dead that won’t stay that way. In the dim light, Philip Morris moves with the Hitchcockian gait of a man who has beheld the unspeakable. But, wait, is that a gleam in those eyes? Yes. Halloween is near, the best time of the year if you’re one of the nation’s top 10 costume dealers and distributors. According to the Washington, D.C.-based National Retail Federation, $3.3 billion of sales waft around the holiday like a lovesick wisp of sewer gas waiting for an amorous spirit to drift by.
Morris, 71, is the patriarch of the Charlotte family that owns Morris Costumes Inc., which he and wife Amy founded in their basement in 1960. She started out renting and selling costumes he used in a traveling spooks-and-magic show, which often played movie theaters late at night. Even then, business was good. When phoning home that first year, he recalls, “I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t get through. We were the only costume store between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.”
One costume he sold — a $430 gorilla suit — may have made history, of a sort. He claims it clad a hoaxster in the famous 1967 film clip that purportedly shows a sasquatch — Bigfoot — strolling along a California streambed, stealing a glance over its shoulder before disappearing into the underbrush. In 1970, Morris Costumes opened a shop in east Charlotte and, in ’88, moved a few blocks to its 15,000-square-foot store, where it carries about 9,000 costumes for rent and 400 types for sale. Want a witch outfit? It’s yours for $48. A guy can turn into a chick magnet by draping a $28 red foam horseshoe, festooned with yellow polyester baby chickens, around his neck.
Here the surreal is real. Outside, traffic whizzes past on a busy commuter route. Inside, customers brush elbows with gaping ghouls and green aliens. Spider webs drape nooks where grinning corpses beckon with bony fingers. This time of year, few notice the tuxedos and dance apparel the store also carries. In October, its staff grows from nine to 15. Visitors fork over $15 apiece to roam the rooms in the back — Dr. Evil’s Asylum — where actors and animated props pop out of the dark. They might shiver at skeletons, but most never see the backbone of this business.
It lies 15 miles away in a cavernous suburban warehouse the company bought two years ago. Here, 40 employees shuffle the stock of 18,000 different costumes, wigs, accessories and masks, filling orders — about 250,000 items a month — for other retailers, most of them on the Internet. Morris won’t divulge revenue, but the store, which his wife runs, accounts for only about 10%. The warehouse is his lair, where he works with son Scott, 47, and daughter Terri, 48. Her sons Brandon, 16, and Sean, 20, pitch in.
As summer fades into fall, a rumpled Philip Morris haunts the aisles of the warehouse, resurrecting memories of his former lives. He and Amy were high-school sweethearts in Kalamazoo, Mich. Then she was his assistant in his magic show. Fifty-two years ago, he brought his bride to Charlotte, where he was a partner in a booking agency, all the while touring his Terrors of the Unknown Ghost Show and directing circuses. During the ’60s, he hosted Dr. Evil’s Horror Theater, a late-night frightfest on WBTV.
Memorabilia, pictures and posters from these incarnations line the walls and crouch in corners. A clown with the face of a rotting corpse rests in the lobby. A blood-splattered mannequin sprawls on a table. He works here from late afternoon to well past midnight — to avoid interruptions, he says. The eerie gloom is due to burning as few lights as possible to save money. Or so he says. There’s that gleam in his eyes again.