The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Mold-A-Rama Day *

* (restored)



‘In the winter of 1937, J.H. “Tike” Miller of Quincy, Illinois, was digging out his family’s Christmas decorations when he noticed that one of the figures from his nativity scene had broken. But the department store where he bought the scene didn’t sell the figures individually; if he wanted a replacement piece, he’d have to buy a whole new set.

‘Miller and his wife sculpted and painted a new plaster figure themselves and, seeing a problem that needed fixing, he started his own company to sell nativity figures and other small statues at local novelty shops. A few years later, World War II broke out across Europe, blocking the import of nativity decorations from the world’s number one supplier, Germany. This put the J.H. Miller Company in a prime position to step in and become the leading American manufacturer of nativity sets for years to come.

‘Sometime in 1955, Miller’s company moved away from plaster and started using plastic injection molding. The process melted polyethylene pellets at about 225 degrees and then injected the resulting liquid into a two-piece mold. Before the plastic could completely cool, a blast of high-pressure air would push any remaining liquid out a drainage hole in the bottom of the mold, leaving the sculpture hollow. Next, antifreeze was pumped inside and then drained to cool and harden the waxy plastic shell. The mold separated and the finished figure was ready. The whole process took less than a minute to complete.

‘The new method was cheaper than plaster casting, which gave Miller the freedom to experiment and expand his line of figurines. He created a series of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, jungle animals, and the popular “Earth Invaders,” now known as the “Miller Aliens,” which include the Purple People Eater, inspired by the hit novelty song.

‘Despite a series of successful figures, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1959. However, this provided an opportunity for Tike to further develop an idea he’d had to convert his patented injection molding machine into an on-demand figure vending machine. Working with Chicago’s Automatic Retailers of America (ARA), which would later become Aramark, Miller licensed the technology that became Mold-A-Rama.

‘Debuting at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the bubble-topped machines created waxy, plastic models of the Fair’s showcase building, the Space Needle, as well as a monorail, a Buddha, a 3D sculpture of the Fair’s logo, and other fun designs. At 50 cents each (approximately $4 today), the souvenirs weren’t cheap, but the experience of watching the statue created before your eyes must have convinced fairgoers they were seeing the future of manufacturing.

‘Although its showing in Seattle was strong, it was the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City that put Mold-A-Rama on the map. Some estimates say there were as many as 150 machines in various corporate exhibits over the course of the Fair’s two years. Multiple units were set up inside the Sinclair Oil “Dinoland” Exhibit, producing a plastic Apatosaurus that resembled Sinclair’s iconic mascot, as well as various colors of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and other prehistoric beasts for 50 cents each.

‘Mold-A-Rama machines began popping up everywhere in 1967. Popular tourist destinations like museums, zoos, and amusement parks had machines for souvenir seekers. But you could also find the familiar bubble tops in department stores like Sears, rest stops on interstate highways, and in some corner drugstores.

‘In all, somewhere around 200 Mold-A-Rama machines were made by ARA between 1962 and 1969, when they decided to get out of the plastic figurine business. One factor for their decision could have been the large investment of $3600 (approximately $28,000 today) to build each machine. In addition to the initial expense, the plastic pellets had to be refilled often and mechanical parts had to be replaced frequently, requiring a staff of trained technicians that traveled between multiple locations. Whatever their reasoning, by 1971, ARA had sold off all the machines to a handful of independent operators. Only two operators remain today: Mold-A-Rama Inc. near Chicago and Mold-A-Matic in the Tampa area.

‘Mold-A-Rama Inc. has about 60 machines in popular Windy City spots like the Brookfield Zoo, the Field Museum, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Willis Tower. (They have machines at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the San Antonio Zoo, and the Milwaukee County Zoo, too.) There are about 70 Mold-A-Matic brand machines that can be found in places like Busch Gardens, Zoo Miami, the Central Florida Zoo, Gatorland, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Mote Aquarium, and the famous Seaquarium, among many others. While the price for modern figures has gone up to an average cost of $2, it’s still cheaper than a stuffed animal.

‘There are a few individual collectors who have their own Mold-A-Rama machines, including Bob Bollman of moldville.com. In 2012 and 2013, Bollman created Club-A-Rama, offering newly-cast figurines from his original machine and his personal collection of molds, as well as a selection of molds borrowed from Mold-A-Matic. At $5 each, Bollman sent out a new figure every week plus a bonus figure, including many designs that have rarely been seen since the Mold-A-Rama heyday. He hasn’t renewed the concept for 2014, but he’s still offering a daily giveaway of figures on his Facebook page, so you have a chance to get your hands on one of these rare collectibles.

Rotofugi, a high-end toy store in Chicago, bought a vintage Mold-A-Rama machine and completely restored it in order to produce new figures sculpted by modern artists. Rechristened the Roto-A-Matic, the machine currently produces “Helper Dragon” figures by Tim Biskup for $6 each. Unfortunately, the process of producing the molds is more time-consuming and expensive than they had originally hoped, so after nearly two years, this is the only figure they’ve been able to offer. However, it is available in a variety of colors and can be purchased in-store or online.

‘One of the most sought-after pieces is the Fairy Castle that was available exclusively at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The figure was a highly-detailed representation of the famous miniature house created by silent film star Colleen Moore. The mold is so detailed that the statues often came out looking a little sloppy. The mold was retired shortly after it was installed, making the figures especially hard to find today. In January, a good quality white Fairy Castle sold on eBay for $153. Another recent eBay sale saw a figure depicting the Better Living Center from the New York World’s Fair go for $259. Because the figure was only produced at the Fair, and is one of only a handful that doubles as a coin bank, the Better Living Center design has become very collectible.

‘The Holy Grail of Mold-A-Rama collectors is an original 1958 Purple People Eater. The signature piece of the Miller Aliens line is so rare that one in good condition sold in 2012 for $809 on eBay. Not a bad return on a 25 cent investment.

‘With only a few companies still operating these 50-year-old machines, it’s hard to say how much longer Mold-A-Rama figures will be around. With modern 3D scanning and printing technologies, these souvenirs of a bygone era may become more common if people start printing them at home. But even if you can make your own figure anytime you like, nothing will ever replace the memories of watching those space-age vending machines create something from nothing right before your very eyes.’ — Rob Lammle

 

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Action


Triceratops


Willis Tower


Penguin


Weinermobile


Mickey Mouse


King Kong


Space shuttle


Giraffe


Abraham Lincoln


Mermaid


Grauman’s Chinese Theater

 

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Further

Mold-A-Rama
Mold-A-Rama Locations
Smelly, plastic and nostalgic
MOLD-A-RAMA – WBEZ Interactive
Dinosaur Mold-A-Rama Still Going
How Mold-A-Rama Works
Mold-A-Ramas Still in Operation
Mold-A-Rama: An Affordable Art Machine That’s Survived Half a Century
Mold-A-Rama Madness!
Mold-A-Rama in action!
Mold-A-Rama memories harden like molded plastic
Replication Devices
The History of Injection Molding at Mold-A-Rama
Remembering the Mold-A-Rama

 

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Its things

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** _Black_Acrylic, To the rescue! I especially need some Therapy from Play central this weekend, so thank you. Everyone, Surely you’re on the Play therapy train to glory by now, but, if not, hop on board, or, if so, join me and the other cool cats. _Black_Acrylic: ‘The new episode of Play Therapy is online here via Tak Tent Radio! Ben ‘Jack Your Body’ Robinson is back to bring you Italo, vintage French Synth-pop and even some new bedroom Shoegazey sounds as well.’ ** Jack Skelley, Jack-k-k-k-k! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a happier human being than Cage soaking in that hatred. Mishap, rallied? Tell me about in a mere handful of hours! xoxo. ** David Ehrenstein, Ah, thanks! Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein passes along a link to a podcast sponsored by Film Comment during which Terrence Davies discusses his new film ‘Benediction’, and this is that link. ** Nightcrawler, Greetings, traverser of darkness. Thank you. Ah, great, thanks for the Merzbow tip. I’ve been wanting to plunge back into his work, and I know where. And some Keith Brewer too. Sounds great! Yeah, making that scrapbook was really helpful. I’m not even sure how, but using found stuff to investigate myself, or I guess more to investigate why I chose that stuff and then why collaging/juxtaposing it in certain ways excited me was super formative. So I totally get why you’re doing that too, and I obviously strongly encourage you to build something with it. Do you think you want to write or do you have another medium more in mind? Or is finding the right medium part of the search? I guess in some ways that was true for me at the point I made ‘Gone’ — I wanted to write fiction, but I was also open to other avenues — and why writing fiction was where it took me is still mysterious to me. Anyway, that sounds exciting. Let me know how that goes if you feel like it. Have a swell, mental-action packed weekend. ** Steve Erickson, I’m sorry to hear that about your friend. Do you know or can you say what occasioned his mental fracturing? I am supplementing the fundraising by trying to raise some funds for the film on my own, but not very successfully so far. I can’t answer the second question openly at the moment. I’ll test the Blackhaine, thank you. I don’t know it. ** John Newton, Thank you for your invitation. I was just hanging out with someone who lives in Philadelphia the other day. I asked him if there was such a thing as a vegetarian Philly Cheese Steak, but he didn’t know. I’m glad you liked her photos. Wow, that’s a nice photo you and the dog. Your matching beards are a treat among other things. Mm, I might do an August Sander post, sure. I’ll look into it. There isn’t French funding for a film shot in English outside of France. No, the state of California doesn’t support weird films. We’re trying not to crowdfund because it’s an extreme amount of work and not likely to succeed given the amount of money we need to raise and the huge glut of film projects seeking money that way. We’re stuck with trying foundations and individuals. We did look into the FM track, and it’s the record company’s property, and they require much too much money for us. We’ll just pick an entirely new track from a much less famous source. It’ll be fine, I think. Thank you lot for asking and caring and suggesting, Have a fine weekend. ** Okay. I found Mold-A-Rama machines very exciting as a young person when they were ubiquitous at entertainment attractions, and now they’re all but dead entities for the obvious reason, and I made a post about them ages ago, and I decided to give it a rebirth. That’s that. See you on Monday.

6 Comments

  1. David Ehrenstein

    These all look like gigantic pieces of candy,

  2. Nightcrawler

    I hope you enjoy those Merzbow recordings. They capture, to take the title of a bondage magazine, a sense of “suspense and mystery” that is quite special (to me, at least).

    I am thinking that writing will be my path, but recently I have been thinking (maybe fantasizing is a better word) about experimenting with film as well. Currently, I am on track to do academic work, but in some ways that seems very uninspiring. I would really like to do some form of writing that would fall somewhere under the broad category of “creative nonfiction” with a collage-like style. I intend to use scrapbooking to really focus on gathering sources, ideas, and key images more than anything.

    If you don’t mind me asking, was “Gone” the only scrapbook that you compiled? Was it a sort of formative one and done thing, or did you carry the practice on through your writing career?

    Thanks as always for the inspiration!

  3. Billy

    This post is really cool and it reminds me of this trope you get in kids’ cartoons where a person goes into a press and comes out in a uniform or something. Mars Attacks had just such a moment:
    https://youtu.be/Ggpbk5ZMj7s around 1.59.

    By which I mean it has this very futuristic feel, I suppose? I can totally see the appeal. Maybe it’s the How It’s Made quality of the post; I don’t know if you ever had those shows where they went through the manufacturing process for steins or barber’s poles or something like that? Oddly soothing.

  4. Steve Erickson

    I have a suggestion re: the film, best taken to E-mail. I seem to have lost your address – could you give it to me again?

    My friend started having severe problems with anxiety and insomnia once the pandemic began. However, I think he gave me a relatively sanitized version of his mental health. After his hospitalization, I heard a much more harrowing account from mutual friends, where he stopped washing his clothes or dishes for a month before realizing he could no longer deal with living on his own. One major problem is that he’s suffering from intense delusions to this day.

    Pop science YouTuber Tom Scott just posted a video in which he overcomes his phobia of riding rollercoasters!

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it would be about mould. These molds are surely preferable I think.

    Happy to report that as of yesterday morning I am now an uncle! Elliott James Robinson was born 5 weeks early but he’s a solid 6lb weight and mother and baby are both doing well. I look forward to meeting this new arrival soon.

  6. John Newton

    I remember seeing the moldarama machines at theme parks in Florida in 1988 or 1989. If I ever had any of the figures they were given to friends, or to a thrift store when I moved.

    Yes there are vegetarian and vegan cheese steaks in Philadelphia. I am not vegetarian or vegan but I do not see the point in eating meat for every single meal or putting lots of meat or any into various recipes.

    Yes that was Greta she got scared of me the second time I ate shrooms. I guess she did not like my dilated eyes? My cat could have cared less, just looked at me, stretched, yawned, and took a nap. Did you ever take Psilocybin mushrooms? They were life changing and exciting as was LSD but now that I am no longer a teen or young adult I find it more interesting not to use anything but caffeine. I drink coffee, green tea, oolong, black Turkish tea it is super strong and a concentrated decoction, and I sometimes drink yerba mate but I cut way back and stopped as I was not sleeping and drinking 2-3 liters of it daily. Of course I drink water as well. Do you still smoke cigarettes? Which brands do or did you smoke? Do the French still smoke Gitanes and Gauloises? Vaping has now become super popular. I never smoked tobacco or marijuana/hash daily as it was expensive and I was into running, riding a bike, and swimming for fun, exercise, and when I did not have a car.

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