By James Currie
For almost 50 years, Chicago has been home to one of the greatest Halloween Mask makers in the world. Zagone Studios has been a staple in the horror industry since 1974 when brothers Phil and Bob Zagone decided to make a difference in the mask-making world. Bringing in artist, Bill Ystrom, they sought out to make the best, most comfortable masks in the world. In fact, they are still pushing the boundaries today with innovative changes that mask users appreciate even more. All the while keeping it a family run company with the sons taking over in 2005 ensuring they maintain a continued leader in the premium mask market. And guess what Chicago, it’s all right here in our backyard.
I’ve been a home haunter for most of my life. Since I was a young boy growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area where a neighbor in the hood always did extreme home haunts that we looked forward to every year. It inspired me to do something to my parent’s house and beyond as I flew the coup for better haunt locations.
This year, my 35th year, I was on the hunt for a specific mask I needed for my Halloween haunt. I scoured the web for a screaming man face that wasn’t too cartoony or monster looking. I searched eBay, Amazon and the usual Halloween shops for it and came up empty until one day a random search brought me to a familiar sounding name mask website and a character that was almost exactly what I was looking for. I emailed Zagone Studios and asked about its availability and how soon I could get it as Halloween was fast approaching. They said, “Well if you’re in the Chicago area, come by and pick it up.” They informed me they were just up the road from me in Melrose Park, IL on North Avenue. I couldn’t believe it.
I placed my order, paid for it and waited for my confirmation to come get it. Less than 24 hours later, I get the call. Your mask is ready for pick up. I jump in the car and headed out for it.
Here I was thinking, this was just a reseller that had a little office front that would have the mask ready for me at the counter, WOW was I in for a surprise.
I pulled into the industrial looking strip mall off North Avenue to an unassuming parking lot to see a small ‘Zagone Studios’ sign out front. Again, a little thrown off not realizing that this was indeed THEE, Zagone Studios, not a reseller’s store.
Heading to the front door, I see masks lying around on the floor lobby entryway, posters and artwork on the walls in the reception area and iconic masks know by anyone with a basic love of classic Halloween masks. A woman named Nel, who was carrying a small child, greets me with a smile and hands me my mask I just ordered hours ago. Nel, though not a Zagone, is an adopted friend of family and like a sister to the guys. She’s the Manager of Marketing and Customer Relations and that she does very well.
At this point, I can smell the latex in the air. I can see into other rooms that this is a mask making factory not a storefront. I introduced myself and told her about the home haunt I’ve been doing for almost 20 years called, Freaky Fright on Forest in North Riverside. She said she’s heard of it and asked what I was doing now. I told her more about my idea and what I was doing with other Halloween production work.
Nell could tell I was pretty stoked to be there. I apparently showed my appreciation well enough that she invites me in to take a look around. Just as she does, a man walks by carrying a box of parts and tells him I am a haunted house producer and mask fan. He stops and offers to take me on a tour of the entire factory.
The man was Phil Zagone, Jr, son of the original owner. He took me through the factory showing me the entire process from design, to sculpting, to mold making, to painting and final prep before shipping.
Phil asked what I was there for and I told him a specific mask. I explained it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for but closer than anyone else had. He asked what was wrong with it. I said I was building a period piece character, Ichabod Crane. The hair wasn’t historically right and that I needed either a bald mask or one with white hair that I could pull into a patriotic noble bun. He said, “Well, we can do that.” I paused and stared as he went on to explain how they do custom masks. They own and have all the original molds and can alter each as they are all hand made. He said, “We can do that no problem, just give me a couple weeks and I can get what you need.” I couldn’t believe it. I went from not finding what I needed, to getting a custom made mask.
Some of the notable things Zagone Studios have invented and or perfected in the mask making industry are ½ latex and half hood with Velcro masks, moving latex on stretch fabric, moving mouth with attached baseball cap, elastic harness for full mouth movement, short hair elasticized custom fit hairline, glowing masks and arm/hands and super soft masks with movement. 40 years of innovation and growing with some new ones outlined further in this story.
As we walked around looking at more and more rooms filled with production work, I saw a style I recognized on one table. I asked if he knew an artist named Pete Infelise and that the mask I was looking at on the production floor looked a lot like his style. Side note, Pete is a local mask maker and artist from Svengoolie’s home town of Berrrr-wyn, Illinois that I’ve know for years. I’ve had pieces of his before and they are very unique to his style. Phil said, yeah, I know him and as a matter of fact, that’s one of his designs. All I could think is, small world.
Further down the line Phil shows me a brand new series of masks not available to the public yet. They were the face of Cruella de Vil the animated Disney 101 Dalmation character. It was an exact likeness of a classic two-dimensional cartoon brought to 3D life. Amazing color, texture and paint.
As the tour continues, I see artists painting masks by hand, mold makers pouring plaster of Paris, others pulling latex, people packing up and boxing cases of masks to go out for distribution. It was at this point I meet another Zagone family member.
This time it was Phil’s brother Tony. Tony asked if I’ve seen some of their new designs and products. We walked over to a rack of hands and he proceeds to show me the unique design they’ve created. He said, “We make the most comfortable masks and hands in the world. People have praised us for this design. Our masks are soft and flexible. You can move your head and mouth inside and animate the mask.” He went on with, “Look at these hands. We design these with the idea people are going to be wearing these for long periods of time. We want them to be comfortable. This design allows the actor to scare and perform, but also to hold a drink and not sweat as much as other brands.” I picked them up and tried one on and have to agree, these are like wearing light winter gloves. Not hard plastic that makes your hands instant pools of sweat. He shows me one other unique piece. Alien heads with giant eyes that you can actually see clearly out of but can’t tell there’s a person behind them. Again, high quality materials that are impact resistant and unique coating.
Tony moves on and goes back to work at this point and Phil takes me back to the front, but not before passing the side room were another area is full of completed and prototype masks. I couldn’t help but notice more familiar faces on the tables with one being the old man from the animate movie, Up as well a perfect likeness of Jack Skellington ready to display or wear. One other mask was standing out to me. It was of a realistic, bloodied, bearded mans face that I recognize but couldn’t quite put a name to it. Phil explains it’s a mold made from a famous Hollywood actor but can’t say the name as they only made prototypes of it and it never went into production. I pressed a little harder for a clue. All he could say was it was the main character from a little horror movie called, Mandy. A-HA! I see it know. It was Mr. Cage all right. I can’t imagine how many cool things have been made here like this and then dropped off for whatever reasons.
So now we’re back at the front desk entrance. I see a massive subway size poster on the wall for the 2010 movie, The Town. It was a Ben Affleck bank robbery thriller whose characters were gun toting men in nun’s costumes with rubber masks. I asked, ok, what’s the story here. Phil says with a bit of pride, “Yeah, we made those masks for that movie. As a matter of fact, we’ve done more than most know, as companies will contact us for one off special designed masks for the movies, TV or theatre/haunt productions.”
I am drop-jawed at this point. Dumbfounded I didn’t know about Zagone Studios sooner. I mean, I knew several of their classic masks from years of being in the Halloween business, but I can’t believe they’ve been right here (first in Chicago) now down the road in Melrose Park.
Phil told me it’s been hard these past couple years to keep in business. COVID-19 really took a toll on them for a variety of reasons with materials and shipping but also with lower numbers of customers not dressing up as much pre COVID. He also expressed how owning a brick and mortar building is just not cost effective anymore. That not only the rent, but city and county fees going through the roof, it’s extremely hard to keep the doors open.
Zagone Studios is still a family business operating with less than 40 employees, and surviving despite the global pandemic and economic tribulations. They are doing something most other mask making companies overseas just can’t. Not only with quality, but personalization. You can see how much fun the Zagone family has with this company by watching the funny short videos they post online. There are several posted this month alone featuring family members wearing the latest products including some for the little ones.
Though factory tours are not a thing at Zagone Studios, they do offer pick ups at the front door. You can buy from them direct and save a little money while also giving the money direct to them rather than going through a 3rd party vendor.
It’s almost Halloween. You still have time to get that special mask you’ve been looking for and not have to wait for shipping. Or if you have time and something custom you want made, let them know. You can reach them through their website or Facebook page. When you do, you’ll see first hand how much attention to detail goes into each piece and wonder how you ever lived without them.
Zagone Studios website, click here
Zagone Studios Facebook page, click here