Mold-a-Rama magic

Since 1967, kids have begged parents for the colorful, molded plastic animals at Brookfield Zoo.

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By CHRIS STACH

You, too, can have your own zoo, thanks to the Magic of Mold-A-Rama! What is a Mold-A-Rama? Well, it makes some truly special souvenirs of the Brookfield Zoo, and these you can't buy in any of their gift shops. These are "instant souvenirs," and also you get a free show with them, as they are, in fact, created right before your very eyes.

These souvenirs are the Mold-A-Rama animals, produced at 11 machines that are sometimes hidden away in corners all around the zoo. Coming upon one is like finding a last vestige of what people living in the 1960s thought they might be seeing a lot of in the future (but they rarely did).

The machine's friendly colored letters spell out "Mold-A-Rama," and the see-through bubble top may remind you of the bubble-domed flying cars in that old television cartoon series, "The Jetsons."

When you first see a Mold-A-Rama machine, it looks like a big fat robot without any legs or wheels. Visitors, grown or kid-sized, can operate it simply by putting money in it. Entranced children, at their own eye level, watch the fascinating process, as an automatic factory-in-miniature begins to cast a zoo animal out of raw plastic.

Even people who don't spend a cent to operate the machine cannot help looking at it. There is something positively eye-catching about it. And if someone puts in money, other people stand around to watch, for free, the creation of an animal figurine. Kids beg their parents for one, wheedling shamelessly and implying its educational value, too.

It may seem to longtime local zoo visitors that the machines have been there forever, but that, of course, isn't true. The story of Mold-A-Rama machines began way back in the middle 1950s, when in Phoenix, Ariz., inventor Tike Miller first conceived the notion of a free-standing, plastic molding mini-factory. While working out the bugs, he also produced and mass-marketed dime store plaster-of-Paris figurines, making a fortune from selling them.

Once the Mold-A-Rama process was perfected to his satisfaction, Miller contacted the Automatic Retailers Association, a vending machine company, and licensed his mold-making patent and the associated technology to them.

The ARA operated up to a total of 200 Mold-A-Rama machines, spread out all around the country, as a subsidiary company for eight years. For a quarter you could buy a molded figure of Brer Rabbit in Disneyland, perhaps in Tomorrowland, where the machine would've fit in perfectly with the futuristic atmosphere. At the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York, you could get your own instant dinosaur in seconds.

In 1967, the ARA put 13 Mold-A-Ramas at locations in the Brookfield Zoo, producing animals and a black train locomotive, which was the duplicate of one actually being run at the zoo, for a quarter each.

But within a few years, the ARA lost interest in continuing to what was, to them, mostly a sideline. All machines were shut down and were scheduled to be stripped for usable parts. It looked as if the prospect for continuing the operation of Mold-A-Ramas was, well, looking moldy.

ARA employee Roy Ward thought there was still some money to be made locally with the Mold-A-Ramas, and bought several machines that still remained whole, and also a stock of replacement parts.

By late 1969, all connections with ARA and the Mold-A-Ramas were severed. Ward was tiring of maintaining the machines, which were spread out mostly around the Midwest. He wanted to sell the business and retire.

Also that year, Brookfield resident Bill Jones Sr. was working as an accountant at a vending machine and food service company, thinking that someday he might get a job in the grocery business.

Jones didn't believe he had any particular mechanical expertise, and Mold-A-Ramas were the furthest thing from his mind. Yet Roy Ward's wife, Doris, talked with him about the futuristic machines that could spit hot plastic into molds, and his interest slowly grew.

At first, Ward thought Jones couldn't handle the maintenance end. However, after several months of accompanying Ward on his Saturday trips, some of which were to the Brookfield Zoo, he broke down Ward's resistance. Jones knew how to load the raw plastic, dyes, fix clogs, replace faulty pumps and heaters and repair coolant lines.

"I bought out the guy in 1971 who had the whole Chicago area, and even then I thought the machines were getting old," Jones admits today.

Back then, he had the job of overseeing the continued operation of 23 machines, with over half of them in the zoo. Two of the original machines have since been removed by the request of the zoo, which receives a percentage of the money being fed into the machines.

Currently, there are 11 Mold-A-Rama machines operating at the zoo. The olden days of being charged a quarter for an animal are long gone. Now they cost $1.50.

So what's left?

Numbers 1 and 2: The Lower Seven Seas Pavilion's free viewing area has two machines. The one at the far left makes blue dolphins, and the one at the right makes orange walruses. By the way, the dolphins are the most popular, best selling molded animals in all the country.

Numbers 3 and 4: South of the Children's Zoo, on the cement pad under a canvas awning, there are two machines. These make white polar bears and black panthers.

Numbers 5 and 6: At the Pachyderm (Elephant) House, there are two machines. Inside the east entrance vestibule, you can buy light gray elephants. Inside the west entrance vestibule, you can buy darker gray rhinoceroses. The rhinos are not the greatest sellers, Jones revealed, but they are his personal favorites, because they are the closest to perfect in detailing.

Number 7: In the vestibule of the Australia Building, cute little brown koala bears can be yours.

Number 8: On the southern side of the park, under one of the tents, west of the gift shop, is the machine that makes the green alligators. Said Jones, "This machine, out at the Reptile House, was there for at least 35 years, and that machine has a new paint job and glass dome." So if you want to see what an almost new machine used to look like, head on over, and maybe even wrestle an alligator out of the collection bin.

Number 9 and 10: In the area west of the old book store, now a pet store, the two machines here make black gorillas, and red giraffes.

Number 11: This last machine is located at the Living Coast exhibit, between the two washrooms, and casts, in warm molded plastic, white penguins.

Over the years, some of the Brookfield Zoo's animal molds have been discontinued. So if you have any of these, take care of them, for they are collectible. Some are even traded and sold on the Internet.

Save your yellow lions, from the Lion House; your brown wombats (which were past Zoo Director Peter Crowcroft's personal favorite, but a really poor seller that was removed the day he left the zoo) from the Australia Building; and brown cows (which, together with the yellow lions, are now available at the Lincoln Park Zoo.)

"There was a black sea lion once; not very popular. That thing never sold," said Jones. (I have one, and it looks like a lumpy pillow shoved inside a black plastic garbage bag, or a black sock full of cement. The detailing is minimal.)

"There was a black reindeer we had for Holiday Magic one year," added Jones. "It didn't pay, and wasn't popular enough."

One mold that was not an animal, but a mode of transportation, was the steam engine and coal car figurine, that was a model of the actual train that once ran at the zoo. Generally, this mold was black in color, although variations in purple and even maroon are known to exist.

So how exactly does a Mold-A-Rama machine work? Well, let's say you want a blue dolphin, and you're ready to plunk down your dollar bill and two quarters, or your six quarters. Yes, the machine takes dollar bills.

As the sign says, "Now YOU Can Operate the AMAZING Mold-A-Rama Automatic Miniature Plastic Factory! Make Your Own EXCLUSIVE PRODUCT, Molded in COLORFUL PLASTIC in SECONDS!"

On the left television screen-like window box is the model of the Dolphin. In earlier days, next to it would be another model of the same animal, hand-painted in colors, to show how it could be decorated. Unfortunately, people were always asking how they could get one of the painted ones, too. Jones stated that the animals do take paint remarkably well. The box on the right used to be an information box about the animal, but, now, for several reasons, is blank white and empty.

Underneath the glass dome, it looks like a real factory, too. Well, a downsized one. There's machinery, and two important looking dials on the left, and two black knobs on the right. None of which you are allowed to touch. Now put your money in. Instantly the machine goes to work. The machine gives a loud "klunk," like something just broke inside of it, but that is only the machine starting up.

Even as you wonder what that noise was all about, color-dyed polyethylene plastic pellets are melting at a temperature of 250 degrees Fahrenheit, into a liquid that is pumped through a pipe into the bottom of the mold, which has closed tightly in front of you. The same pipe then blows cold air into the mold, forcing plastic into the every crevice. Gray-black hoses give the machine an almost automotive look, and they carry the coolant to harden the mold. There is no attached water supply to do this.

Then the two halves of the mold separate, and a little scoop lifts and pushes the animal into the collection bin, where you pull open the handle, and pick up your statuette of a warm plastic dolphin, leaping onto a single thick blue wave, with the usual base that reads "Brookfield Zoo" on it.

If you are wondering if the plastic is still in a pliable form, you may pull your Dolphin longer in shape or bend it before the plastic cools so much that you merely break or crack it. Congratulations! You are the proud owner of the first animal in your own private zoo!

Since his early days in the 1970s, when his was a one-man operation, Jones now has the help of his two sons, Bill Jr., and Paul to help keep the machines running and in good order.

Kids still seem to be the most fascinated with the Mold-A-Ramas, which amazes Bill Jones Sr. In an interview with Jim Mueller of the Chicago Tribune in 1993, Jones said, "You'd think kids would be too sophisticated for it today, but they line up [to put their money in] and watch the mold open and close."

Still, he admits, not everyone likes the Mold-A-Ramas.

"You either love 'em, or hate 'em," said Jones.

Maybe, however, they can grow on you, like a mold filling up with soft plastic.

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Thomas Rossi from Sacramento, California  

Posted: September 3rd, 2013 9:02 AM

My niece turned one and she's going to Brookfield Zoo. I live in Sacramento, CA right now and all but forgot about the Brookfield Zoo. The first thing that came to mind was the Mold-a-Rama plastic, green alligator I got in the summer of 1982. We were dirt poor my brother and I begged our mom to get us one. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was early in the morning and the park just opened. We went early to avoid the heat and humidity. The air was cool, humid, with a slight breeze. The smell of the plastic from the machine and animal is something you'll never forget. The plastic is not as acrid as burning rubber. The smell is soporific, calming, unforgettable. Years later the alligator was smashed in the toy box. Me and my brother used the head with our He-Man action figures. I simply couldn't imagine a trip to Brookfield without getting a plastic animal. To me a trip to any old zoo.