Allied MFG Co

By | Wednesday, May 12, 2021 1 comment
The other day, I mentioned that some unusual dealings with the Allied MFG. This is only a comic-adjecent story at best, but I do find the events infinitely fascinating and it makes me wonder about the legality of the licensing deals involved.

What would become known as the Komic Kamera was patented by 18-year-old Harold B. Shapiro in 1934. His invention wasn't entirely novel, and his patent application even states that it's basically just a modification of an invention patented by Harry Zimmerman the year before. The reason how/why Shapiro was able to find and re-engineer the device so quickly was because Zimmerman was an employee of Allied MFG Co... which was owned by Benjamin Shapiro, Harold's father. It was Benjamin who brokered the licensing deals needed to create film strips based on comic characters like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Krazy Kat, and others. It seems as if the agreements were larger than just the film strips as Allied made other toys based on some of the characters, one of the other more popular ones being The Playstone Funnies Kasting Kit which allowed kids to create three-dimensional molded figures. In fact, many of Allied's products around this time featured licensed characters.

But, of note here is that because Allied used Harold's design instead of Zimmerman's, the royalties could stay within the family. (Indeed, Harold was still living at home with his parents, Benjamin and Louise.) There's no proof of any wrong-doing here, but it does strike me as a little sketchy at best.

Benjamin and Louise Shapiro
Cut to a few years later, a couple days after Christmas 1936. Benjamin's wife Louise opened their apartment's front door, expecting a visiting friend, when two masked men barged in, held Benjamin and Louise at gunpoint (with Harold sleeping in the other room), and stole $6000 worth of cash and jewlery. (That'd be a little over $100,000 today.) The Shapiros were one of the more well-off families in the building, so targeting them over, say, the neighbors makes sense. But knowing who they were, which apartment they were in, and seemingly that Louise would likely just open the door expecting a friend at the time also seems a bit sketchy, as if they had some inside information.

Not known to the police at this time, Louise had actually been the victim of virtually the exact same crime exactly six years earlier. Right around Christmas 1930, two men barged into her and Benjamin's apartment and stole $7500 in jewelry and cash. Harold would only have been 14 at the time, and Benjamin seemed to conveniently not be home.

A couple days after the 1936 burglary, a couple of cops came across a pair of questionable-looking guys about a mile up the road from the Shapiro's place. As the police approached to question them, one not-subtly tried hiding a small package behind a lamppost. When the police checked it, they found the stolen jewelry, and they promptly arrested the two men.

Once at the station, one of the men, Robert Lewison, confessed to the robbery. In fact, he sang like a songbird and noted the inside man who actually plotted the whole thing was by-now-21-year-old Harold Shapiro! Lewison also identified his partner in the burglary, and the other man who was arrested was considered an accomplice, though he wasn't at the scene himself.

It turns out Harold had met all three at a local boxing gym. Once they learned where he lived, they pressured him for information on who best to rob and how, since there were a number of wealthier families in the area. Harold offered up his own parents, and they spent over a week planning the operation. Harold openly confessed both to the police and in court.

Interestingly, while Benjamin and Louise did initially assist the police and filed charges against the three "thugs", they repeatedly and actively opted not to press charges against Harold. He was ultimately only indicted by the State Attorney. It was at this point where Benjamin and Louise stopped. They stopped helping the police altogether, they openly ignored the judge's orders to appear in court for any of the four men, they routinely took vacations from their Chicago home to New York and Biloxi during court dates... It got to the point where the Assistant State's Attorney had to threaten conspiracy charges against Benjamin and Louise!

The couple basically used every stalling technique imagineable -- including Louise suddenly falling ill on court days -- and it eventually paid off. Nothing was ever brought to trial, and all four men escaped any jail time. Of course, all of this distracted them from running the actual business and Allied eventually folded in the late '30s. But Benjamin created a new company, Acme Plastic Toys, just a couple years later doing basically the same thing. Somewhat more surprisng, though... Harold, now in his mid-20s, was made vice-president. Indeed, within a few more years, Benjamin and Louise retired to Miami while Harold ran the business. Even after Acme was bought out by Thomas MFG Corp after World War II, Harold stayed on until his early retirement.

Benjamin's nearly over-the-top efforts to avoid even implicating his son -- coupled with the unsolved 1930 burglary -- make me wonder if he in fact was the real mastermind behind both crimes. Did he stage the 1930 burglary to turn a nice profit to help him launch Allied? Did he later relay that story to Harold, who wanted to emulate his father? Was Benjamin protecting Harold so his 1930 crime wouln't get discovered? Or did he actually directly instruct Harold, thinking he could get away with it a second time? If Benjamin and/or Harold were willing to go to such lengths against their own family, what kind of shady behavior was involved in brokering those character licensing deals? I think there's a LOT of questions here that seem to have been swept under the rug back in the day.

Benjamin lived to the age of 86, dying in 1982, while Harold lasted until 1998, passing away at 82.
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Billy Hogan said...

Wow, what a crazy story! It sounds like it was a slightly dysfunctional family.