It’s the smell many of us remember, the warm waxy scent that’s a memory trigger of childhood, evoking recollections of school field trips to the museum, vacations to amusement parks, family outings at the zoo.
It is the memory of quarters begged from parents, clutched in sweaty fists before being shoved into a jukebox-sized vending machine that calls itself the Mold-A-Rama and bills itself as an “automatic miniature plastic factory” — one that you could watch at work.
Through a clear, bubble-shaped top, you see the hydraulic pistons push two halves of a metal mold together. Temperature and pressure dials twitch as chilled water, compressed air and molten plastic hum through tubes. Then the pistons open to reveal a small, freshly molded plastic souvenir: a zoo animal, a spaceship, a statue of a president.
The toy drops into a hopper and you pick it up, still warm, like a freshly baked cookie, except that it smells like a warm crayon. This, you think, is way better than a squashed penny.
Mold-A-Rama machines have been a Minnesota mainstay for decades. Once they could be found just about everywhere: in dime stores, movie theaters, train stations, the State Fair, the Mall of America and every tourist attraction worthy of the name.
But over the years, they gradually disappeared. Now the only public place in the state where you can find the nearly 60-year-old machines is St. Paul’s Como Park Zoo, where they’ve churned out hundreds of thousands of souvenirs over the decades.
For collectors, there’s nothing more retro-cool than these 3-D printers of the baby boomer generation. Getting a plastic gorilla, lion, polar bear or sea lion is reason enough to visit the zoo, even if they have to travel hundreds of miles to do it.
For the most mold-manic fans, it’s not enough to just collect a souvenir. They want their own memory-making machine.
“Even in the ’70s it was an amazing thing to watch,” said Dave Slabiak, a Mounds View pinball and arcade machine collector who owns what may be the only Mold-A-Rama in a private collection in Minnesota. “When this thing came out, there was awe. You see photos of people out there just looking at them.”
These days, Slabiak’s machine makes a public appearance on Halloween, when he pushes it out to the driveway so neighborhood kids can make their own little plastic gorillas — and something else: “It makes something that’s almost like magic,” he said.
A fun business
The origins of Mold-A-Rama start with a guy named J.H. “Tike” Miller, a Quincy, Ill., resident who had a factory business making novelty figurines for dime stores. His figurines were first made out of painted plaster, then a waxy plastic using injection molding machines.
In the late 1950s, Miller developed a toy molding machine that could be taken off the factory floor to sell souvenirs directly to the consumer. Automatic Retailers of America bought the concept and debuted Mold-A-Rama vending machines at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, then the New York World’s Fair in 1964.
Those machines, which cranked out toys for a quarter, quickly spread to the rest of the country, including Minnesota, which got its first one (it made tiny reindeer, angels and Santa’s helpers) in November 1962.
By summer 1963, Mold-A-Ramas were at the Minnesota State Fair, making plastic elephants outside the Republican Party booth and statues of President John F. Kennedy to promote the DFL. They made it as far north as Bemidji, where a Paul Bunyan figurine was made that decades later would become a rare collectible, reportedly worth $200.
For years, a Twin Cities resident named Paul Nathanson was Minnesota’s Mold-A-Rama man — a district manager for Mold-A-Rama Inc. and an original franchise operator.
Automatic Retailers of America eventually dissolved its Mold-A-Rama division, but Nathanson was one of a handful of people in the country who kept dozens of the machines going. In addition to Minnesota, he owned and operated machines at zoos and other attractions in Wisconsin Dells, Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City.
At the Como Zoo, Nathanson’s Mold-A-Rama machines turned out a chest-pounding gorilla figure labeled “Don & Donna,” a big cat named “Doc the Lion,” along with Sparky the sea lion and Sapphire the elephant.
“He was very loyal to Como Zoo,” said Nathanson’s son Ross. “It was a fun business.”
At one point, however, Como Zoo lost its Mold-A-Rama machines. Accounts vary on what happened.
In a 2007 city of St. Paul video, Jackie Sticha, head of Como Friends, the zoo’s nonprofit fundraising organization, said the machines were taken out in the late 1970s because they were leaking oil and were “too toxic.”
But in 1985, St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Don Boxmeyer wrote that there wasn’t room made for them in the zoo’s new primate, cat and marine mammal exhibits. According to that story, Nathanson pulled out the machines and went into semiretirement.
Nathanson ended up selling 54 Mold-A-Rama machines and his zoo accounts to Bill Jones, who had started a company to operate Mold-A-Rama machines in Chicago-area zoos and museums. That more than tripled the number of machines owned by Jones’ company, which took over the Mold-A-Rama name, making it the biggest operator of Mold-A-Rama machines in the Midwest.
Nathanson died in 1989 at the age of 69. Over the years Jones said he would get requests to return the Mold-A-Rama machines to the Como Zoo. He finally did so in 2006, installing four machines. They charge $3 to produce lions, sea lions, polar bears and a waving gorilla, one of the oldest Mold-A-Rama designs, modeled after an original Tike Miller toy.
A Mold-A-Rama road trip
That’s why Korinthia Klein, her husband and three kids made the trip to Como Zoo from their home in Milwaukee in August 2016.
For about six years, Klein’s family has traveled around the country on a quest to collect all the Mold-A-Rama toys that are still being sold at tourist attractions, stowing their plastic treasures in a cooler so they don’t melt during road trips.
They struggled during a rainstorm to get mermaid-making mold machines at the Weeki Wachee show in Florida to accept wet dollar bills. At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, they got a waving green gorilla. At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., the kids were under strict instructions not to waste time learning anything so the family could find all the Mold-A-Ramas there, including Rosa Parks’ bus, John F. Kennedy’s limousine, a Ford Mustang and the Wienermobile.
Klein said her family has collected more than 140 different molds, but she’d still like to get a wombat mold that used to be at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago.
“We’ve really enjoyed our Mold-A-Rama adventures,” she said. “If I were in charge at zoos and science centers all over, I would want Mold-A-Ramas in there.”
She’s not alone. There are Facebook groups like the Society for the Appreciation of Molded Plastic Souvenirs that facilitate collecting rare Mold-A-Rama depictions of everything from Sen. Barry Goldwater to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
It would be hard to collect them all.
Bill Jones’ son, Paul, the current president of Mold-A-Rama Inc., said he thinks as many as 1,000 to 1,500 Mold-A-Rama machines were made in the 1960s. Many were scrapped when the original Mold-A-Rama company went out of business.
Now just two main companies are still operating the machines: the Chicago-area Mold-A-Rama Inc., owned by the Joneses, and Florida-based Unique Souvenirs, which has rebranded its machines as the Mold-a-Matic. Between the two of them, there are probably fewer than 200 machines in tourist attractions across the country.
Recently, however, some restored Mold-A-Rama machines have been making their way, one by one, into the hands of collectors and businesses.
Musician Jack White has mold machines in his Third Man Records locations in Detroit and Nashville, making a cherry red model of White’s 1964 Montgomery Ward Airline guitar and a yellow record store van.
Moviemaker J.J. Abrams has a Mold-A-Rama machine that makes plastic replicas of his production company’s Bad Robot logo.
After a long absence, the Seattle Space Needle acquired a Mold-A-Rama machine about a year ago. Now tourists can once again buy the same souvenirs first sold there in 1962.
Korinthia Klein, the Milwaukee collector, ended up buying a neglected machine that had been making otters at the Knoxville Zoo. She’s a luthier and she wants her machines to make tiny violins at her violin shop.
Slabiak, the Mounds View collector, bought his machine from the Florida Mold-a-Matic company about 10 years ago for about $6,500. It didn’t work and bore scars from its life in public, including graffiti scratched into the plastic top that read, “Eric was here May 11, 1965.”
“It was, for all intents and purposes, junk,” Slabiak said.
But he got it working, down to the lights that flash a Space Age-y “All Systems Go” and a Cape Canaveral-style countdown. There’s even futuristic theremin sound effects and a recording of a barker touting “the World’s Fair wonder machine!”
Paul Jones said a working machine today is worth about $25,000, and demand is strong from people or institutions seeking them. “I get requests almost every day, one or two a week,” he said.
But he won’t sell them. His focus is maintaining machines in profit-sharing lease arrangements at the tourist sites. He estimates that one out of five people who walk into a museum or zoo equipped with a Mold-A-Rama will go home with a plastic mold.
“When the zoo is full in the summertime on a beautiful summer day, those machines will run almost nonstop,” he said.
“There’s more interest in it. I think a lot of it has to do with the internet,” said his father, Bill Jones. “I really never expected it to last this long.”