By Bob Uphues
It was way back in 1966 — according to the oldest records in the company's files — that the first Mold-A-Rama machines made their appearance at Brookfield Zoo. To children and adults alike, the brightly colored plastic animals — molded before their very eyes and scraped by a mechanical spatula into the vending bin — proved irresistible.
Next year will mark the 50th year of the machines' lure at Brookfield Zoo, and the local company responsible for operating and maintaining the Mold-A-Rama devices has decided to celebrate the occasion.
On Sept. 1, the company's Facebook page announced that it was going to create a special animal mold as a gift to the zoo, and it's looking to the public to help determine what that animal should be.
"We want to make sure it's a popular mold that people will buy," said Paul Jones, who has been working in the business alongside his father, Bill, for the past 35 years. "We're going to buy this for the zoo like an anniversary present."
On the first day of Facebook commenting — that's where the company would like the suggestions posted — there were plenty of suggestions: Cookie the Cockatoo, a peacock, bison and red panda among others.
Paul Jones, 49, said the company doesn't want to make a different version of an animal they already have, nor do they want to copy an animal that's in production elsewhere — sorry, cockatoo fans, there's one available in Florida already.
"The bison idea sounds interesting," Jones said, adding that the company will make its decision later this year.
"Our goal is to get all of the suggestions organized by the end of November and then meet with the zoo and decide," Jones said.
It takes about six months to manufacture the mold, which means it won't be ready to unveil to the public until the summer of 2016. Jones said the company is also talking with the zoo about the possibility of some sort of event to celebrate Mold-A-Rama's 50th anniversary there.
It'd be a fitting sendoff for Bill Jones, who bought the Chicago area's Mold-A-Rama machines in 1971 and plans to retire from the business this December when he turns 80.
The Mold-A-Rama machines date back to the 1950s, invented by an Illinois man named Tike Miller who sold the technology to a company called ARA (now known as Aramark), which produced scores of the machines and placed them at various tourist destinations around the country.
The machines made their first appearance at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and were a hit two years later at the New York World's Fair, where the green Apatosaurus dinosaur (still available at the Field Museum) was a big hit.
ARA, according to Jones, was forced to spin off Mold-A-Rama as part of an antitrust ruling, and the Mold-A-Rama machines were purchased by independent operators like Roy Ward, who bought about a dozen machines from ARA when they dissolved the Mold-A-Rama division. Bill Jones bought Ward's machines in 1971, forming the William A. Jones Co.
In the 1980s, Bill Jones bought out another major Mold-A-Rama operator based out of Minnesota and, in doing so, became one of the largest Mold-A-Rama operators in the nation with about 60 machines pumping out everything from the Chicago skyline to a bust of Abe Lincoln to an F16 fighter jet. The price has gone up some — from 50 cents back in the 1960s to $2 today — but it's still a bargain souvenir.
In addition to the Chicago-area zoos and museums, the company has machines at the Milwaukee County Zoo; the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota; the San Antonio Zoo; the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; the Willis Tower in Chicago; and the Harry Caray Sport's Museum in Water Tower Place, Chicago.
When he bought the machines in 1971, Bill Jones and his family lived on the North Side of Chicago. But after spending most of his time commuting from his home to Brookfield Zoo to take care of the Mold-A-Rama machines, the family moved to Brookfield.
"Since I was 11, I lived two blocks from Brookfield Zoo," said Paul Jones, who has since moved farther west.
His dad operated the business out of his Brookfield home and employed Paul as a machine inspector by the time he was 13.
"I'd check the machines at the zoo and then I'd call and get a ride home," said Paul, who added that as a young adult there was an undeniable attraction to the family business: "I could roll out of bed, walk downstairs and be at work."
In 2011, the company changed its name from the William A. Jones Co. to Mold-A-Rama Inc. and moved out of the Jones house into an office on 31st Street in Brookfield. They also have a mechanical warehouse in Lyons where machines are repaired.
"We've grown the company quite a bit," Paul said. "It's a lot to be proud of."
The company's Facebook page can be found here.