Paul Jones has gone to the Museum of Science of Science and Industry so often over the last four decades to service the Mold-A-Rama machines scattered throughout the institution that he can walk the place blindfolded.
There’s the gray submarine mold near the entrance to the U-505 exhibit, the yellow baby chicks mold across from the hatchery, the green tractor by the farm exhibit, the black steam engine by the train exhibit and even a red Chicago skyline near the silver elevator.
Visitors love plunking down a few bucks to take home a warm, fresh-from-the-machine souvenir, a memory of the classic exhibits at the MSI.
Little did Jones, who grew up in Brookfield and operates Mold-A-Rama out of the company’s 31st Street headquarters, ever think his machines and colorful plastic models would make for a museum exhibit all on their own.
But on Nov. 2 the Museum of Science and Industry flipped the switch on its brand-new exhibit celebrating Brookfield-based Mold-A-Rama, featuring more than 150 models – many of which you’ve probably never seen before.
The exhibit also provides an inside look into how the models are made and there are four Mold-A-Rama machines from which you can take home a souvenir – a silver robot, created especially for the Robot revolution exhibit at MSI in 2007; a green monorail originally made for the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle; a blue HMS Bounty ship, made to coincide with the release of the 1962 film “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando; and a white angel designed to be a Christmas tree ornament.
The exhibit is located on the lower level of the east galleries in the space that formerly housed the circus exhibit. It’ll be on display and is included with the regular price of museum admission until at least fall 2023.
“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Jones, who started working alongside his father, William, servicing machines at the age of 13 and now heads the operation. “I grew up going to the museum and being around all of the exhibits. It was never a goal to become an exhibit, it just morphed into something that could be an exhibit.”
Jones said MSI had approached him about a possible exhibit at least a decade ago, but he balked at the concept, which was to gather all 60 of his company’s vintage machines in one place.
“Part of the marketing plan [for Mold-A-Rama] is that we’re the first kiosk outside an exhibit. That way people start to collect them,” Jones said. “If you put them all together, the most common thing would be for someone to just pick one. We want you to buy them all.”
But over the last five or six months, Jones has worked with museum staff to put together the Mold-A-Rama exhibit, which does include four machines producing molds for purchase. Five other machines are near other exhibits in the museum.
“I’ve been going down there [to service machines] since I was 16 and there are people I’ve gotten to know for 30, 40 years,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of family pride down there.”
While it just opened on Nov. 3, when the museum announced the Mold-A-Rama exhibit, it generated a ton of chatter on social media. Within two days, an MSI post on Facebook about the exhibit generated more than 1,300 likes, with hundreds of comments and shares.
“People on our Facebook post are talking about traveling to Chicago to see it,” said Peter Vega, deputy director of communications and engagement for the Museum of Science and Industry. “People get really excited about this stuff.”
The museum, which is in the midst of an exhibit refresh since the arrival of new CEO Chevy Humphrey in 2021, approached Mold-A-Rama about the new exhibit. Not only does Mold-A-Rama have a longtime relationship with the museum, its machines are a snapshot of mid-20th century manufacturing innovation and the models are iconic collectibles.
“We knew that we would get a lot of public response on the nostalgia of what these objects mean to people,” Vega said. “And we wanted to share a bit of the history that is unknown about how it came to be.”
The machines first grabbed the public’s attention at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, whose monorail was the subject of a popular Mold-A-Rama model, which the new exhibit makes available for purchase.
“We imagine that people coming in are going to be excited, because it hasn’t been released in a while, and not in Chicago at all,” Vega said.
Although it’s not available for purchase – and will never be because the original mold cracked – a very rare Mold-A-Rama model on display is the Colleen Moore Fairy Castle, based on the beloved exhibit at MSI.
The incredibly detailed replica of the silent film star’s oversize doll house was something of a “black eye” for Mold-A-Rama, said Jones. The chunky model tended to break apart as the machine turned it out of the mold. Mold-A-Rama discontinued the mold after just a couple of years, making the surviving fairy castles highly collectible.
Of course, there’s also a photo booth at the exhibit where visitors can pose with their Mold-A-Rama models and share the photos on social media.
For more information visit msichicago.org/explore/whats-here/exhibits/mold-a-rama.