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A Brief History of Mold-A-Rama

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Moldville

Long before 3D printing was a thing, kids of all ages were plunking quarters into Mold-A-Rama vending machines to get plastic sculptures made right before their eyes. Let’s take a look back at the history of these mid-century manufacturing marvels.

Big Idea, Small Figures

Mold-a-Mania

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.

The Future of Manufacturing

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. ARA hoped that wasn’t too far from the truth; the souvenir market started as merely a proof of concept for ARA, who had loftier plans to offer on-demand products like dishes, vases, ashtrays, pocket combs, and even jewelry available any time at the push of a button.

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. Disney and Pepsi partnered to offer figures like Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, and Pluto, complete with highly-customized Mold-A-Rama units featuring miniature Disney characters that appeared to be operating parts of the machine. Across the various exhibits and pavilions, figures such as dolphins, alligators, NASA’s Space Lab and Project Mercury space capsule, presidential busts, and more were available for 50 cents each.

Mold-A-Rama went international in 1967 when it was featured at the Montreal World’s Fair, Expo ’67. There, eager Canucks could pick up a plastic Royal Canadian Mounted Police figure, an Eiffel Tower, or a logo of the Fair on a maple leaf.

From Lions to Lincoln and Lawrence Welk

Mold-A-Rama machines began popping up everywhere. 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.

While no one is sure precisely how many moldsets have been produced for Mold-A-Rama machines, Bill Bollman of moldville.com has found 196 unique designs used between 1962 and 1967. The count gets a little muddy after that because multiple companies were creating molds, but he estimates there are around 300 unique moldsets.

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.

Your Own Mold-A-Rama

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.

Collecting Molded Memories

Because the figures were made of fragile plastic and often seen as a tchotchke, few original era Mold-A-Rama figures exist today. Original Sinclair dinosaurs from the New York World’s Fair can go for over $50 on eBay, but the vast majority of vintage figures fall somewhere in the $15 to $20 range.

eBay

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.

All images courtesy of Moldville.com unless otherwise specified

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Pop Culture
Wise Quacks: A History of the Rubber Duck
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In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.


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Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over 1 million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].

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13 Rich Facts About Dynasty
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ABC

Glitz, glamour, and murder! The 1980s nighttime soap Dynasty captured the zeitgeist with a one-percenting oil family, the Carringtons, living large in Denver, of all places. The show, created by Esther and Richard Shapiro, premiered on January 12, 1981, to capitalize on competing nighttime soap Dallas. But what set Dynasty apart was its unabashed catfights, characters dripping with diamonds, and the progressiveness of its casting.

The show didn’t become a top 10 hit until season two, when Blake Carrington’s (John Forsythe) ex-wife Alexis (Joan Collins) strutted into town, upending the family and picking many knock-down, drag-out fights with Blake’s current wife, Krystle (Linda Evans). After becoming the number one show in America in 1985—and airing in 80 countries—Dynasty spun off into The Colbys, which only lasted two seasons.

By the spring of 1989, Dynasty’s popularity had begun to wane; after nine seasons and 220 episodes, the Carringtons were told to pack their bags. Because of the abrupt cancelation, the show returned with a two-part miniseries in October 1991. Try as they might, shows like Desperate Housewives, Empire, or any of The Real Housewives can’t hold a candle to Dynasty’s opulent legacy. Here are 13 saucy facts about the iconic TV show (which made a comeback last year).

1. THE SHOW WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED OIL.

The Shapiros wanted to make a show about the 1979 oil crisis, but they instead created an “American fantasy.” “We thought people had seen enough stories where families fell apart,” Esther Shapiro told New York magazine. “We wanted a strong, 19th-century sort of family where people were in conflict but loved each other in spite of everything. We found that the audience wasn’t very interested in the oil workers’ stories. But people were just fascinated by what was going on inside that castle.”

Dallas tapped into a similar market, but Dynasty flipped the story. “Dallas, it seems to me, is more male-oriented and rural,” Esther said. “It has a lot more to do with business wheeling and dealing than with family. The women tend to be pretty passive. Our women, though, are anything but passive … and anything but victims.”

2. ANGIE DICKINSON WAS OFFERED THE PART OF KRYSTLE.

Back when the show was still called Oil, Angie Dickinson was offered the role of Krystle, which she turned down. Without realizing Oil had become Dynasty, she asked Aaron Spelling about it at a party, a while after the show began airing. “Aaron nearly fell backwards,” Dickinson told People. “He said, ‘Well, it’s on every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, and it’s called Dynasty.’” Spelling decided to offer Dickinson another role, this time as Lady Ashley Mitchell, but she turned that part down, too. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t. There are too many ladies already. I would want it to be my show.’”

Evans, for one, was grateful to Dickinson. “I’ve thanked God endlessly, but I owe a special thanks to Angie Dickinson for turning down the part of Krystle,” Evans wrote in her memoir. “Since then, we’ve become friends, so I was able to thank Angie myself.”

3. ALEXIS WAS THE FEMALE J.R. EWING.

“A lot of what [Alexis] was like was from [Dallas’s] J.R.,” Collins said on Watch What Happens Live. “And when I first came into the show, they compared me to J.R.” On 2006’s Dynasty Reunion: Catfights and Caviar, Collins further explained her conniving yet somewhat lovable character. “I think it was the first time that audiences saw on television a woman who could be evil and manipulating and downright nasty, and have a lot of charm and sexuality.”

4. IT FEATURED ONE OF MAINSTREAM TELEVISION’S EARLIEST GAY CHARACTERS. 

Jack Coleman as Steven Carrington in 'Dynasty'
Jack Coleman as Steven Carrington
ABC

Steven Carrington—played first by Al Corley, then by Jack Coleman—was Blake Carrington’s gay son (though he did have relationships with women, too). The idea of having an openly gay character on TV seemed like a good idea, but Dynasty’s producers kept Steven’s storylines rather tame and ambiguous, which didn’t sit well with Corley. The actor often complained in interviews how “Steven doesn't have any fun. He doesn’t laugh; he has no humor,” which prompted producers to replace him at the end of season two. In order to have Corley exit the show, the writers had Steven become disfigured after he was involved in an oil rig explosion. After some magical plastic surgery, Coleman reemerged as the new and improved Steven.

“My feeling was that I was in a kind of a situation where I was expected to be a spokesman, and I was never comfortable being a spokesman,” Coleman told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s just the kind of position you wind up in when a character is long-running. You not only have to defend the character but the situation to the entire country. Ultimately I saw Steven as a man who was unsure of his sexuality and from time to time was attracted to women. He was caught between worlds.”

Despite his mixed feelings about playing a conflicted gay character, Corley felt like he made a difference. “I had no idea how important this character was to a lot of people,” Corley said on the Dynasty Reunion. “The letters that I got that said, ‘This is the first thing I’ve ever seen where I can actually go to my parents and I can tell them, hey, look, there’s somebody else. There’s a face to all of this.’”

5. THE SHOW’S COSTUME DESIGNER, NOLAN MILLER, RESURRECTED SHOULDER PADS.

Joan Crawford’s 1940s attire of hats, slim-fitting dresses, and gloves was a big inspiration on Dynasty’s costume designer, Nolan Miller. “Everything was coordinated: Each dress had its own particular hat, purse, gloves, shoes, and it never varied,” Esther Shapiro told New York magazine. “Joan Crawford didn’t mix and match. We decided to take it one step further: Alexis would never wear the same thing twice. In fact, no one on Dynasty would.” Miller had a weekly wardrobe budget of $35,000, and designed 3000 outfits during the show’s run.

Collins suggested to Miller that he needed to copy haute couture designers like Yves Saint Laurent “and have high style, and so they started doing that with me, which is when they started bringing out the big shoulder pads, early in 1983,” Collins told PBS. “When I started getting very dressed up for every single scene, even in the boudoir, they loved it so much that every actress also was dressed up to the nines.”

6. DYNASTY MERCHANDISE GROSSED MORE THAN $400 MILLION.

A show about moneyed people wearing nice things translated into the public being able to purchase some of the show’s glitz. A line of Dynasty merchandise was released, which included $3 pantyhose, $150 Forever Krystle perfume, $500 tuxedos, $800 ball gowns, $10,000 handmade Alexis and Krystle dolls, and a $200,000 chinchilla coat. Crafty fans of the show could also buy Miller’s patterns through McCall’s Pattern Co. and make the fancy dresses themselves.

7. THE CAST DIDN’T KNOW THE OUTCOME OF THE MOLDAVIAN MASSACRE.

More than 60 million people tuned in to watch Dynasty’s season five finale, on May 15, 1985. The cliffhanger involved a Game of Thrones Red Wedding-like massacre in Moldavia, where terrorists crashed Amanda’s (Catherine Oxenberg) wedding to Prince Michael—whom she did not want to marry—and unleashed bullets onto the unsuspecting wedding attendees. “We had no idea who was going to live or die. None of us knew,” Collins said during the Dynasty Reunion. “Because we knew if you were really bloodied up, that was it. Might as well call your agent and say, ‘I need a job’ … It was very funny, actually.”

Fans had to wait until the sixth season premiered on September 25, 1985 to learn that none of the main cast died—just supporting characters Lady Ashley Mitchell (the second role that Dickinson turned down, which Ali MacGraw played) and Luke Fuller (Billy Campbell). The stunt was so popular, T-shirts imprinted with “I survived the Moldavian Massacre” were sold.

8. ROCK HUDSON’S APPEARANCE GENERATED SOME CONTROVERSY.

In 1985, there were still a lot of misconceptions about AIDS, with many people believing you could catch the virus from saliva. Between 1984 and 1985, Rock Hudson appeared on nine episodes of Dynasty as Evans’ lover, Daniel Reece. During filming, the producers didn’t know Hudson had AIDS (he died on October 2, 1985). The characters shared an open-mouth kiss, and Evans couldn’t understand why he didn’t lay it on her. “Instead of passionately kissing me, Rock just barely brushed his lips over mine and then backed away,” she said.

"Is it possible," asked one reporter, "that Rock Hudson transmitted AIDS to actress Linda Evans during love scenes [on Dynasty]?” To protect actors, the Screen Actors Guild wrote a letter that “recommended against kissing that involves the exchange of saliva with members of the AIDS high-risk groups—homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs.”

9. DIAHANN CARROLL HOPED THE SERIES WOULD BREAK THE COLOR LINE. 

Diahann Carroll in 'Dynasty'
ABC

Diahann Carroll joined the cast as Dominique Deveraux during season four, and at the time was the only African-American with a recurring role on a nighttime serial. “Our intention is to play the characters in 1984 with an emphasis on character, not color,” Esther Shapiro told People. Carroll had attended a Golden Globes party where she met Dynasty's executive producer Aaron Spelling. He liked her so much, “We virtually closed the deal that night while having a drink at the bar,” Spelling said. 

Carroll felt the time was right for not only a black actress to appear on a mainstream soap, but also for a storyline of interracial romance to manifest. “They’ve done everything,” she said. “They've done incest, homosexuality, murder. I think they’re slowly inching their way toward interracial. I want to be wealthy and ruthless. I want to be the first black b*tch on television.” Carroll played the role for another season on Dynasty and two seasons on The Colbys before briefly returning to Dynasty in season seven.

10. YOU CAN VISIT THE DYNASTY MANSION.

The show was based in Denver but parts of it were filmed near San Francisco. The Filoli Estate in Woodside, California was a stand-in for the Carrington’s gigantic home. The specs: 36,000 square feet, 43 rooms, 17 bathrooms, and 17 fireplaces. This May, the estate’s 16-acre garden will host the Filoli Flower Show, which will display 50,000 tulips and 15,000 daffodils for the public to marvel at. If you’re a member of Filoli, you can visit the premises at any time—not just once a year.

11. THE LILY POND SCENE OCCURRED IN SHALLOW WATER.

Dynasty’s most famous catfight is one that took place in a lily pond and entailed Krystle and Alexis ripping each other to shreds—while wearing gowns! Evans wrote that they filmed the scene at an estate in Pasadena, in shallow water. “It looked like we were in six feet of water but in reality we were in only two and a half feet, and fighting on our knees! It felt absurd and we struggled all day to make it look authentic. When at the end of the day the director yelled ‘cut and print,’ we stood up looking like a couple of drowned rats. The crew spontaneously broke out in applause and laughter … Joan loved the verbal fights—I hated them. I loved the physical confrontations—she loathed them. We did them all—for nine years!”

12. A DYNASTY MOVIE WAS IN THE WORKS.

In 2011, the creators of Dynasty announced they were working on a script for a prequel set in 1961, to be released in theaters in 2012. That didn’t happen, clearly, but the plot surrounded a younger Blake Carrington. “We’re taking Blake Carrington back to his young manhood and when he met Alexis, and setting the movie in the Mad Men-era of the 1960s,” Esther Shapiro said. “It will give us the opportunity to start fresh, without the constraints that television placed on our characters in the series.”

“Our intention is, if this works, to make this a franchise because people want to see the others,” co-creator Richard Shapiro told ABC. “People are asking about Krystle and so forth.”

13. IT JUST GOT A SMALL-SCREEN REBOOT.

In May 2017, the CW announced that it would be bringing a reboot of the series back to the small screen, courtesy of Gossip Girl creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. The series made its premiere in October 2017, and will return to complete its first season on January 17, 2018.

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