If you grew up in the 1980s, particularly in the northern suburbs of Syracuse, a trip to Switzerland was a must before Halloween.
The store had everything to make your Halloween a success: makeup demos, candy-making demonstrations, party supplies, cards, candy and, of course, the aisles and aisles of masks and costumes.
Prior to becoming the “Halloween headquarters” of central New York City, Switz’s was founded in 1947 as a “five and ten” store at its locations on Brighton Avenue and South Salina Street.
In 1954, founder Mark Switz opened a store north of Syracuse and closed the downtown store.
Incredibly, Halloween was almost an afterthought in the store for much of its history.
“In the founder’s last years,” a 1989 Post-Standard article said of the old Switz store on Brewerton Road, “a row of Halloween items embellished with little ghosts and other accessories from Halloween became known as “Spook Alley”.
But in the early 1980s, Switz’s son-in-law, Bertel Schmidt, changed everything.
In 1984, Switz’s moved into a new 60,000 square foot Bavarian-style building, crowned by a 21-foot clock tower that could be seen by passing motorists on Route 81.
The moment was fortuitous; the Halloween business was starting to flourish.
“Bert was a big kid,” Switz merchandise manager Gene Tallman told Post-Standard. “He had the foresight to be one of the first to capitalize on what was going on with Halloween.”
He has been to West Germany twice for international toy fairs, and returned with some “advanced creations”.
He brought back a five-member “Skeleton Band” and one that would turn his store into a must-see destination for Halloween fans young and old.
Oscar the Ogre was a mechanical “evil giant” 14 feet tall and 1,700 pounds.
There were only two in the world and Bert Schmidt bought one, hoping the giant monster would find its place in his new store.
“He was barely in shape,” said Tallman. “I think Bert got a little bit of luck there.”
Oscar towered over customers in a huge display at the front of the store, bellowing and swaying above the wide-eyed children. He carried a giant wooden club in his right hand and was decorated with “severed heads” chained to his clothes.
His nickname was “Dark Lord”, which sounded a lot scarier than Oscar.
“I really don’t know how we came up with the name,” Switz operator Barbara Schmidt told the Herald-Journal in 1988. “When we got it, we were just talking about a name and Oscar came along. It’s not a parent’s name or anything like that.
Despite his name, Oscar has become the center of attention in the store.
There were Oscar coloring contests, Oscar shirts, and stuffed toys.
The Oscars exhibit was so popular that passenger coaches often made special stops at Switz for tourists to get a glimpse.
And those who came for Oscar and the “Skeleton Band” explored the aisles of the store for their Halloween costumes and supplies.
It always seemed like Switz had everything you needed for the perfect costume, for any budget.
“At Switz’s,” a story from 1987 read, “you can spend anywhere from 99 cents for a plastic nose to $ 100 for a furry gorilla costume. There are realistic bump, bite, and bruise kits for $ 6.98, featuring a smacked nose, chewed thumb, injured chin, and open sore.
It was no wonder that the busiest day of the year in Switzerland was the Saturday before Halloween.
Bertel Smith was named New York State’s Small Businessperson of the Year in 1986, and that year Switz’s sales grew 20-fold from 20 years earlier.
But it did not last.
In 1992, Switz’s was in pain, forced to leave his magnificent store for a place in the Marketplace Mall.
The recent additions of malls in places like Shoppingtown and the arrival of Wal-Mart in downtown New York have slashed their sales.
Oscar made the trip to the store’s new home. But the magic was gone.
In July 1993, Switz’s announced that it was closing its doors for good.
Oscar was purchased by Richard Wagoner of Cicero, who stored the once fearsome creature in his garage in the hope of selling it.