According to my parents, the Great Pumpkin was a Santa Claus-style character who showed up every Halloween night to take a portion of the candy my sister and I had spent the evening gathering. In exchange for our offerings, this candy-starved beast would leave us a toy -- a small price for my mom and dad, who with this scheme were able to simultaneously stanch our already excessive chocolate intake and indulge in their own nausea-inducing candy binge. But even with such rapidly diminishing booty, the holiday was always magic. Better: magic with a sugar buzz.
Unfortunately, at 32 I can't very well pretend to be a witch or Madonna (circa "Borderline") and go door to door on Oct. 31 expecting to be handed Pixy Stix and Gobstoppers. Fortunately, however, there are other ways to recapture the sweetness of Halloweens past.
A Web site called Groovy Candies, for one, sells about 140 different now-obscure sweets from the '50s and '60s (candy buttons!) that are still being churned out by small distributors, to the joy of many obsessive retro-seekers. The site (www.groovycandies.com) recently unveiled a new package, "Happy Candy from the '70s." For $16.95, you get a goody box that includes Pixy Stix, Fun Dip, Wonka Bottlecaps, Freshen-Up Gum and Pop Rocks (the wonderfully explosive candy that fell from grace in the '80s, then returned to the market nicely repackaged, like a star on "Behind the Music"). In 2001 the four-year-old Cleveland-based company sold around 50,000 pounds of nostalgic candy, much of it given as gifts. One of Groovy Candies' most popular items is candy cigarettes -- packs of which, despite anti-smoking crusaders, are still being made by a company in Brooklyn called World Candies.
Other Web sites, like Sweet Nostalgia and Hometown Favorites, cater to the same Goober-starved constituency. Hometown Favorites founder Colleen Chapin says, "People get on the site and say, 'Oooh, I've got to show my kids!' " (Hopefully the kids are nice enough to feign interest as mom goes gaga over Dubble Bubble bubble gum.) "It's a little bit of parents trying to recapture how fun Halloween was for them."
And Hometown Favorites not only offers vintage candy, it also sells games like Operation, the Game of Life and Candy Land. Combine any of those with a few strawberry Charleston Chews and it may as well be 1977 as far as I'm concerned.
But the retro-candy suppliers say that it's not the thirty-somethings but the Baby Boomers who are their biggest customers -- likely the same folks lingering over the record players at Restoration Hardware. Chapin's '50s-themed box has been a hit, packed with products my parents probably ate while watching "The Howdy Doody Show" (Chocolate Single Decker Moon Pies, Cherry Mash, Sen-Sen Breath Refreshments).
Not every candy has needed to make a comeback. Some have stayed around since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. Necco Wafers were made by the New England Confectionery Co. in 1901, and Bit-O-Honey, Mounds candy bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Milk Duds were all introduced in the 1920s. Tootsie Roll Pops came out in 1931, Smarties in 1949. They all survive, contributing to $24 billion worth of candy sales in this country, according to figures from the National Confectioners Association.
Most of it, of course, is stuff produced en masse for drugstores and discount chains. But Groovy Candies is growing every year, says co-owner Scott Hughes. He regularly fills requests for new, super-enthusiastic customers -- some of whom keep him on the phone for an uncomfortably long time to explain why candy necklaces or Mallo Cups remind them of Grandma's porch or their second-grade teacher. Even if there might be a hint of unhealthy regression in all of this nostalgia-seeking, though, it's natural to want to go back to when it made sense that a plate of candy bars could coax toys out of something called the Great Pumpkin.
"There were no responsibilities back then," Hughes agrees. "What the hell did we have to do? We played for 20 hours a day, then went to bed."