I love gadgets and modern technology as much as anyone, but there are some things in life that are fine just the way they are. For me, that includes the glorious Mold-a-Rama machine, a staple at Chicago’s museums and zoos. You’ll find them elsewhere around the country, too, and for me, they make for the perfect and affordable souvenir.
Last week, I spent a marvelous day at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo with my six-year-old’s class. Near the monkey exhibit, I spotted an ape-making Mold-a-Rama. We dropped $2 into the machine to purchase a green gorilla. We did the same thing at the farm just south of the zoo, where a second Mold-a-Rama creates a blue cow. (We couldn’t find the yellow Lion machine; one zoo worker told us it was gone. Sigh, Check out this sweet Flickr stream of Mold-a-Rama figures.)
I’m not sure why I love these things, but I think it’s this: Mold-a-Rama machines are exactly the same today as they were in the sixties. Some of the molds have changed, or the colors change, but if you were a kid in the 60s or 70s and went to Chicago’s Field Museum, you would purchase very nearly the same product that you buy today.
Here’s a list of where you can find Mold-a-Rama machines across the country. As you can see, they are not very common. (I think a trip to the Milwaukee Zoo may be on tap soon!)
In 2006, I wrote a story about the Chicago family that maintains these precious machines. It’s reprinted below if you’re interested in these timeless wonders.
Old technology proves a modern day classic
September 04, 2006
By Eric Benderoff
Tech Buzz, Chicago Tribune
One of my favorite things in the technology universe doesn’t surf the Web or plug into your ears. The end result doesn’t do anything actually, yet the process has thrilled millions of people for four decades.
Odds are strong that if you’ve visited a zoo or museum since the Johnson administration, you’ve bought at least one of the delightfully kitschy and colorful products these bubble-topped time machines create: an Abe Lincoln bust, a triceratops or a charging rhino.
The best part is they look the same today as they did back when Elvis ruled Las Vegas. Perhaps better, at $1.50 a pop they remain the most affordable souvenirs one can buy during an afternoon marveling at elephants or a World War II-era submarine at the Museum of Science and Industry (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
The Mold-a-Rama machine still delights because you watch the made-on-the-spot process before gingerly picking up your still-warm memento.
I bought five Mold-a-Rama creations this summer, an elephant and rhino from a recent trip to Brookfield Zoo and three dinosaurs from a visit to the Field Museum.
“The Field Museum is all dinosaurs. We used to have a gorilla mold there, but it wasn’t selling very well, so we turned it into a T-Rex mold,” said Bill Jones, who, with his two sons, keeps the 21 Mold-a-Ramas in the Chicago area humming. (A gorilla from the Field Museum recently sold for $85 on eBay, by the way.)
Keeping the machines working is no small feat, considering a Mold-a-Rama machine hasn’t been built in 40 years.
There are 11 Mold-a-Ramas at Brookfield Zoo, two at the Lincoln Park Zoo, four at the Field Museum and four at the Museum of Science Industry, where you can buy Bill’s favorite, a replica of the U-505 submarine.
The William A. Jones Co., based out of Bill’s home in Brookfield, operates 68 Mold-a-Rama machines across the Midwest and in Texas. You can buy a bat mold at the Milwaukee County Zoo, a Komodo dragon in San Antonio or an “antique car” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
“We couldn’t do a Model A or a Model T, so it’s a combination,” said Bill, who got into the business in 1969. “I thought the machines were 40 years old then.”
As the end of summer looms this Labor Day, the efforts of a 70-year-old man who gets to the Field Museum before 6:30 a.m. once a week to make sure a toddler and his dad still can enjoy the spectacle of making a plastic T-Rex should be applauded.
“We’ll all be working Monday,” said Paul Jones, Bill’s 40-year-old son. “We just don’t know where yet.”
The charm of the Mold-a-Rama is its mesmerizing and simple technology. In the left-hand corner of each machine, you see the mold each makes. If you want one, and Bill figures roughly one of every 10 people who pass a Mold-a-Rama do, you pop your money in to activate the machine.
Four hydraulic cams start to move. The first and last closes the two sides of the mold together. Then another cam pushes plastic between the molds, followed by one that blows hot air in to make the figure hollow. Coolant then chills the mold because the figure was cooked between 225 and 250 degrees.
After roughly a minute, the two sides of the mold open, revealing your dinosaur or dolphin, before the final cam, that operates the scrapper, pushes your mold forward and drops it into the holding bin. But you need to wait a moment: It is still too hot to pick up right away, as my son always warns.
The dolphin at Brookfield Zoo is Jones’ top producer.
“It outsells everything,” he said, noting that machine produced 350 molds in one day during the height of summer.
Across the country, there are 130 machines working at 28 locations, said avid Mold-a-Rama collector Brennan Murphy, who owns 600 to 700 of the figures.
Murphy, 45, who grew up in Riverside but now lives in Florida, has 30 different colored T-Rex molds.
“The colors are different than the ones today,” he said.
A Paul Bunyan figure from a Minnesota machine no longer in operation recently fetched $210, the highest price Murphy is aware of someone paying.
“Many are priced consistently over $150,” he said.
On Friday, a “vintage green Sinclair Dinoland Mold-a-Rama triceratops” that “may or may not be from” the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, Murphy said, was listed for $39.99 on eBay. It is marked Sinclair Dinoland along the base, just as today’s Mold-a-Rama’s are marked with the place they are made.
Those words and colors are important, Murphy said, in helping to determine if the mold was made in 1966 or 2006.
The machines still work so well because the Jones family–and descendants of the Irwin family in Florida, the only other remaining operator of dozens of Mold-a-Ramas–take pride in what they do.
“There’s a following of people that have fond memories of these machines,” Paul Jones said. “When you’re working for the 28th day of the month, and it’s 6:30 in the morning, that’s what keeps you going. That and working with my dad.”
Indeed, Paul has been working for his family for 25 years. Before he could drive, his mom would drop him off at Brookfield Zoo so he could do his maintenance rounds.
Bill tripled the number of machines he operates and doubled his sales in 1985, when he bought 55 Mold-a-Ramas from a Minneapolis firm.
The business has been pretty good too. One year, he sold 1 million molds.
“That’s when they were still a buck,” Bill said.
At $1.50 each, he hopes for about $800,000 in revenue this year.
“If we have 100 sales a day at each machine, we’re happy,” Bill said. “But there are a lot of winter days when you’re lucky to get six sales.”
Paul wants to increase prices to $2 to cover material costs that have risen 50 percent in the past two years as oil, a key ingredient in plastic, hovers near $70 a barrel.
The Jones family hasn’t introduced a new mold to a machine since 2004–there were two that year, a ’64 1/2 model year Mustang and an F150 truck, both at the Henry Ford Museum–and most molds operating at the nation’s zoos are original.
A few years ago, the family bought six machines that went up on eBay, but those and a few others need some work.
“Mostly, we only use them for exterior parts, to keep that Mold-a-Rama look,” Paul said. The insides of many machines, including the electrical devices used to push the cams, don’t have original parts.
Paul’s favorite Mold-a-Rama also happens to be the same one as his dad’s: the U-505 sub.
“But I have a different reason,” he said. “That machine has few problems I have to fix.”
If you happen to see Bill or Paul working on Labor Day, remember to thank them for the memories their technical marvels still produce.