‘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
Grauman’s Chinese Theater
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 in action!
Mold-A-Rama memories harden like molded plastic
The History of Injection Molding at Mold-A-Rama
Remembering the Mold-A-Rama
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Yes, he just wants a guy to beat up his feet. Very particular, that one. I’m ultra honored to have ‘TMS’ placed in that unbelievable company. I’m blushing and bowing. Literally. Oh, man, how much do I want to go peek at and scrounge around in the dead Holy Land? A lot. Thank you! ** David Saä, Hello David whom I’ve now finally met! As far as I’m concerned, that one is yours to visit, strike, or whatever your heart (or whatever) desires. ** Steevee, Hi. Well, because we’ve been auditioning for various parts, and there hasn’t so much repetition of a single stretch of dialogue to become tiresome. But, in general, I would say that it’s very useful and helpful to see/hear different guys voice the dialogue because it allows us to find out how broadly the lines work, how tricky they are, what kind of voice and tone of voice best makes the lines do what we want them to do, etc. Ultimately, in addition to the basic task of finding actors, we’ve been using the auditions to understand the best ways to present the texts in the film, if that makes sense. I guess you won’t end up seeing ‘Nocturama’, but I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it when you do. I had an odd experience with it in that while I was watching it, it just kind of irritated me, but then it had an interesting afterburn where, thinking back on it and absorbing it, I ended up liking it a lot. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Oh, it was fine about the audition. We have more coming up on Monday. Yes, so far it seems somewhat possible that I might get this latest apartment, but I’ve felt that way before, and I was wrong, so fingers stranglingly crossed. Working on your book! I declare that you had the world’s best day! Yesterday was apartment stuff and film stuff, the usual. Tomorrow we have a big meeting with the technical crew who will be working on our film, and Zac and Michael (plus me to whatever degree) have to break the script down into a shot list so we can figure out how long each scene will need, shooting time-wise, and start to think about the order in which the scenes will be shot. So there was talk and stuff about that and much more of that today. I can’t think of anything especially fun or unusual that happened yesterday. But it was all right. And today, yours? ** Sypha, I definitely think of you as someone who is well read in sci-fi lit, although it’s true that probably 90% of literate people are more well read in that area than me. Only a slight exaggeration. Speaking of which, and I forgot the until this very moment — otherwise I would slipped it into my day report to Dora — that I was on the metro yesterday, and someone said, ‘Hi, Dennis’, and it was William Gibson who I haven’t seen since about 1994 when we did a reading together. So I got to chat and catch up with him for a minute. He is such a great, nice guy. Oh, I think writers working in genre are writers just as serious and to be taken just as seriously as writers who write freeform or whatever else, for sure. I’m with you on MIDI. Yep. ** Kier, Maestro! Not a bad batch of slaves this month, I agree. Some of them almost wrote excellent poems. I can’t remember what Capricorns are supposed to be this morning. Hard working, loyal, ambitious, steady, other stuff. But I remember it was weird how reflective it seemed to be of me. Although I do remember that Capricorns are supposed to be very stubborn, and I’m not sure if I’m that. I should probably ask other people I know about that. No, I didn’t know you’ve become a plant connoisseur and acquirer. That’s cool. My LA pal and roommate Joel is like that but I think about cacti and succulents. Every time I go visit my LA pad, it’s more and more jungled-out with dry weather plants. Fire rabbit sounds nice. Funny combo of words, cool. Okay, writing prompt, let’s see … Okay, this is pretty old, and I think you’ve probably seen it, but I was thinking about it the other day, and it still gets to me for some reason, and knowing your experiences with the farm, I don’t know … What about this prompt? ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi, Ben. Back to work, eh? Wow, has it been that long? Time is so, so strange. How was your first day of full, connective re-employment then? Was it the veritable getting back on the horse kind of thing? ** Jeff J, Hi. There is a semi-common if still pretty niche fetish among the slave guys for getting haircuts or having their heads shaved. It must be tough since I would imagine that means they would only be able to ‘get laid’ every few months or so. Mm, I don’t know if I have a particular favorite Diane Williams book. I think for me she’s one of those writers I read because her prose is so sharp and particular, so I just pick up a book of hers to get that hit and the instructiveness I like. I haven’t read a book by her that I haven’t really enjoyed. Hi back to Jeremy if you speak to him again. Thanks, and me too about the apartment stuff. It’s getting critical. There might be an actual possibility on the table, but I won’t know for a few days, I don’t think. ** Bill, Hi, Bill! Thanks, thanks, about the film stuff (going well) and the apartment stuff (not so much, but slightly better maybe). Well, as I do, I did slightly disguise the artist’s location and other tiny details to protect him, but he is Australian. ‘Floe Demo’ is gorgeous! Whoa, however beset you are with grunt work, your brain, etc. are still in superb shape. And that’s the piece using the escort hands, no? I see hands in there. Ooh. I’m going to embed it. Awesome, Bill! Everyone, Less than an inch or two below these words you will see an embedded video that is a new work by the great Bill Hsu called ‘Floe demo’, and, if I’m not incorrect, it incorporates, within its materials and beauty, certain hands from certain escorts as seen on this very blog! You will be doing yourselves a great disfavor if you don’t click Play and watch. Thank you, Bill! I needed that! ** Right. I don’t remember what came over me, but I decided to devote a post to the Mold-A-Rama machines I seem to have had a special fascination with back when they were around. See if I’ve managed to pique your interest. See you tomorrow.
Bill Hsu ‘Floe demo’ (version 2/26/17)