In Downtown Benson sits a multi-generational, family-owned business called Benton Card Company; sitting in a geographical footprint that goes back just as far. If you, like me, have previously assumed incorrectly that this might have something to do with greeting cards, then this blog will be enlightening.

I sat down with Ben Cook, third generation owner of Benton Card Company, to talk about this historic business with surprising ties to the entertainment industry with a bright future. Plus, details about their recent TV debut - hot off the presses!

“My great-grandfather started a lot of newspapers in the area. He also, owned the Princess Movie Theater in Downtown Benson. His son, my grandfather, Howard Beasley Benton served as a printer’s apprentice in his newspaper shop and worked at the theater,” Ben starts off.

Also a photographer, when Howard went off to fight in WWII, he took his equipment with him. He charged $5 a photo to take portraits of soldiers who could afford to purchase photographic evidence they had served overseas. After some quick conversion math… that’s about $70 in “today’s money”. As you can imagine, he saved up quite a bit and he came home to manifest his own destiny away from the journalist empire his father had built.

Benton Card Company printing press letters

He came home in 1945 and he traded his inheritance for a printing press from his father on the one condition that he wouldn’t open a competing newspaper. Instead he pivoted to creating layout sheets for printing newspapers. The sheets used a unique type of blue ink which made it possible for journalists to layout their stories into the correctly aligned format for news printing. The special ink would then cause the lines to disappear in the final printing process. His newspaper clients ranged from his own father to USA Today. Howard used his movie theater connections to begin off-set printing for the entertainment field as well. He started to get clients in the pro wrestling and gospel circuits.

“We actually printed Aretha Franklin’s first promo poster, which she couldn’t afford at the time and so my grandfather simply told her to pay him when she was able. That kindness created a decades long partnership, with Benton Card Company as the print company of record for all things Aretha Franklin. Often, with Aretha herself calling to speak to my grandfather directly.”

Music, Movies, & More

Other entertainers followed, many before they were super famous, seeking out promotional material over the years from Ben’s grandfather - JayZ, Bernie Mac, Dolly Parton, and even The King himself, Elvis. Benton Card Company also entered into partnership with RKO Pictures and United Artists, churning out hundreds of movie posters over the decades. Offering a lower cost option by limiting color options within the design. At the time these movie posters were referred to as “window cards”, hence, Benton “Card” Company.

Ben rattles off movie titles, just a few of his grandfather’s many works, “Godzilla vs. The Thing, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, 2001 A Space Odyssey, James Bond movies, Gone with the Wind, and so many more.”

Benton Card Company movie poster racks

They stopped producing movie posters in the early 80’s when studios realized production for movie marketing, including posters, was cheaper in-house. But Benton Card Company continued on as a quality, local print shop - large format vinyl, print products, political signs, and apparel.

The next phase of Benton Card Company involves growth and diversification. Benton Marketing will be a full-scale marketing agency operating alongside the print shop. Ben is also in the process of purchasing a print and advertising business. All three businesses, along with Grndhaus, are now nested under the Benton Corporation umbrella of companies.

“I’ll be using Grndhaus to manage my passion projects, such as maintaining the historic collection of movie posters and selling products based on the original art created by my grandfather, preserving and memorializing that history while still sharing it with movie buffs all over the world.”

Grndhaus is now effectively how Ben does business as Classic Movie Images, the company his grandfather created under which the copyright to the original poster artworks exist. A crash course in copyright law seems tedious, but it is important to remember that Ben’s grandfather was taking parts and pieces of images cut from books provided to him by the studios - actor images, set photos, etc. - and basically creating a brand-new work of art (a movie poster) from those raw materials. Think of it as old-school Photoshop! So, he was the creator (owner) and the printer of those posters.

Ben recalls when his grandfather discovered maybe the posters had value beyond their intended purpose of promotion, “One day, as he was leaving work, he found a man going through the building’s dumpster looking for discarded movie posters and he realized how valuable they might be to people as items with historical or cultural significance, so he started cataloguing them.”

Benton Card Company movie poster for The Great Sinner featuring Ava Gardner

Caretaking a Legacy of Film Promotion

Grndhaus owns the artwork, which is more valuable than the prints, and the right to reprint the artwork, both as posters, and onto things like apparel. You can view and purchase the current Grndhaus inventory here with more to come! You will also find some Grndhaus items in the Ava Garden Museum gift shop since they created some of Ava’s most iconic movie posters: The Barefoot Contessa, Show Boat, The Snows of Kiliminjaro, and Bhowani Junction.

Ben loves movies and it’s nice to discuss film with another connoisseur, someone who just loves cinema not just for the art of it all, but for the sake of being entertained, “These movies are classics and there are people that absolutely love that sort of thing and they don’t want that history to be gone and I feel like we have an opportunity to make that happen for people. To revitalize interest through my grandfather’s artwork in a way that is trendy and will help other people understand cinema history. Like the movie The Spider, which you’ve probably never heard of, but someone needs to know that movie was created and someone will love the artwork. What I’m doing with Grndhaus is a love letter to our history as a company and to American film.”

Regarding the original posters, please keep in mind that interest in the current private collection of original prints is currently for serious collectors and can be seen by appointment only. And speaking of series collectors, Ben and I discussed a special visit he received over a year ago; the stars and production team of the very famous American Pickers TV show visited and filmed in “The Attic”; that’s the space on the second floor of the Benton Card Company building which houses the collection of cards, posters, cut books, and print materials lovingly cared for by Ben, his father, and his grandfather through the years.

“They spent 14 hours shooting and they found some original prints they wanted to buy, but they were also interested in some of the historic printing paraphernalia.”

Watch The Picker himself, Mike Wolfe, make his way through all the fun finds that Benton Card Company’s history has to offer. You can catch the premiere of the episode on February 14th at 9:00 PM on the History Channel. 

Mike Wolfe from American Pickers poses with family