0712 Mold a Rama

Photos by: Michael Clinard

This one begins, like so many stories remembered this year, on the mercurial grounds of Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair. It describes the arc, from birth to old age, of one of the most enduring icons of American tourism you may never have heard of. Its name: Mold-A-Rama—a vending machine that makes blow-molded plastic figurines. And it caught on in a big way.

My first encounter with the device was a dozen or so years ago, on a humid Chicago afternoon. Drifting alone inside the Field Museum, I lingered among the glass cases of taxidermic animal specimens, inhaling the naphthalene vapors of old science. Eventually, my stomach began to growl and, not wanting to leave the museum to eat, I headed to the ground floor, where my map showed a McDonald’s. At the bottom of the stairs, I paused to inspect four odd and near-identical vending machines parked just outside the restaurant’s entrance.

Each was the size and shape of a jukebox, with a high back and a sloping foredeck, over which a dome of clear Plexiglas curved, revealing a tangle of robotic intestines. A small shadow box on each machine displayed what it claimed to vend—in every case here a small plastic dinosaur, about the size of a coffee cup. These were cartoonish facsimiles—aglow in lurid hues of orange, red, green, and blue—of specimens I’d seen on the floors above: Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Apatosaurus. A sign emblazoned on the device read in all caps, “Mold-A-Rama.” Since the cash receptacle looked functional, I decided to risk the requested $2. It shuddered immediately, and loudly, to life, startling even the cheeseburger crowd. Under the dome, visible pistons came together, joining the halves of an aluminum mold. After 30 noisy seconds, they separated, revealing a freshly cast orange stegosaurus. An automated spatula scraped the toy into a receptacle for my retrieval. In my hands, it was still warm and redolent with a smell akin to hot crayons. The machine had made this for me; my ardor for these objects was instantaneous.

Among Mold-A-Rama enthusiasts, who refer to the figurines as “MARs,” it’s a familiar tale. I had inadvertently joined the ranks of the many thousands who stumble upon one of these devices in adulthood in one of the handful of places where they still exist. I wanted more.

Invented in the late 1950s, Mold-A-Rama machines have been around for decades, though considering the frequency with which they used to appear on the American landscape, their population has dwindled to a precarious number. If you could examine a map of the United States showing, as points of light, the places where machines still operate, the brightest clusters would appear in the East, dotted throughout central and southern Florida, and in Chicago and its dense suburbs. Twinkles would appear in Ohio and Michigan and, moving west, a few points of light over Texas. Beyond San Antonio, however, you would see a large expanse of darkness—until, that is, you reached a single beacon in Seattle.

The city’s Pacific Science Center is the westernmost outpost for Mold-A-Rama, and though these six machines have been operating at this location only since 2008, few Mold-A-Rama fans—including the experts—know that the return of six machines to Seattle brings their history full circle.

Shortly before the world’s fair opened in April of 1962, Mold-A-Rama’s owners, a Los Angeles company called ARA Services, decided Seattle would be the ideal testing ground for its new devices, which put a space-age spin on the novelty of instant manufacture. Each of the six vending machines they deployed produced a different figurine made from a blend of molten polyethylene and paraffin: the Space Needle, the Alweg Monorail, the Century 21 logo, and a symbol of the Pavilion of Electric Power had obvious ties to the fair’s theme. The two others less so—a laughing Buddha figure called “Hotei” and the three wise monkeys (see/hear/speak no evil). At 25 cents per figure, sales were gratifyingly brisk—impressive enough to guarantee Mold-A-Rama’s spot at the next and larger world’s fair, in Flushing Meadows, New York, in 1964.

For that venue the number of machines multiplied, as did the mold themes: American presidents (Abraham Lincoln), historic icons (the HMS Bounty), assorted dinosaurs. Even the Walt Disney Company invested in a series of Disney-themed mold sets. Mold-A-Rama spread quickly to all manner of tourist destinations during the 1960s and 1970s: zoos, museums, amusement parks, airports, aquariums—anywhere a visitor might be willing to part with a few coins to commemorate their journey, at a time when travel was still very much an event. The heaviest concentrations were on the East Coast, where populations were dense, but Southern California, too, had its share of machines. The Los Angeles Zoo, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, and the Hollywood Bowl gave rise to some of the most popular animal- and architectural-themed Mold-A-Rama figurines among collectors today.

For Mold-A-Rama’s owners, Seattle was the ideal testing ground for putting a space-age spin on the novelty of instant manufacture.  

Eventually, however, the novelty and vitality of many of these venues began to wane. By the late 1980s, Mold-A-Rama had slipped to has-been status, as souvenir merchandising became more aggressive and sophisticated. Machines began to disappear from public view, consigned to deep storage. And most of the unique mold sets vanished with them.

One afternoon in 2008, William Bollman, a 51-year-old patent attorney from Washington, DC, went to the Los Angeles Zoo and saw a Mold-A-Rama machine. Though still functioning, turning out the occasional plastic giraffe, this one had long since been stripped of its original markings, the kicky graphics downgraded to green paint and faux wood framing. Bollman is a collector of coin-operated vending machines and presides over a substantial collection of them from various eras. He had never seen a Mold-A-Rama device and was intrigued. After returning home, he did some quick research and bought a machine from a former vendor, along with 85 retired mold sets—including, remarkably, five of the original six that performed for Seattle fairgoers in 1962 and that hadn’t been seen for nearly half a century.

After setting up the machine in his garage, he began teaching himself how to make it work—finding suppliers for the low-density polyethylene pellets and colored pigments that compose every figurine, filling the hoppers, melting the pellets in a vat, and aligning the mold sets on their pistons. It was a complicated and messy endeavor, but his perseverance eventually yielded professional—looking results.

Bollman realized, however, that the process of manufacture—particularly with 85 mold sets in his quiver—would be expensive and time consuming. He hatched a plan to bring some order and logic to this sideline pursuit—a subscription service he dubbed “Club-A-Rama.” Club members, whose numbers he’d keep manageably low, pay a cost-covering fee to receive a shipment of four different MARs every month. Bollman also built a rudimentary website, moldville.com, to announce reissues and explain their origins.

“The aspect I like best about this hobby is bringing the machines back to life,” Bollman told me. (The noisy air compressor makes even a freshly serviced machine sounds on the verge of total collapse.) “Much of the interest in Mold-A-Ramas today is focused on the souvenirs they produced—just on acquiring them. The figures are highly collectible, and I respect that. But my interest is in the history of the machine, the origin of the molds.”

The thrill of discovering a Mold-A-Rama is the realization that you’ve wandered into a scavenger hunt, where the items you gather are fragile mementos of American heritage. Like a forensic detective, Bollman has managed to piece together backstories and details of provenance that might otherwise have been lost forever; even Mold-A-Rama operators, who own the machines and control their placement, have been surprised by the anecdotes and information he’s collected. In the case of Seattle’s Century 21 mold sets, he unearthed the story of a 10-year-old boy, now 60, who recalls purchasing his own figurines at the Seattle exhibition. He shared a vivid memory of the exhilaration he felt touring the fairgrounds after dark in a Cushman utility truck with his father, a machinist who made general repairs, including on Mold-A-Rama machines themselves, after the crowds had gone home.

The six machines now at Pacific Science Center use a combination of stock mold sets: a rotating menagerie (robot, space capsule, butterfly, steam locomotive, orca, and astronaut among them) and two custom sets the center commissioned in 2009 (a depiction of its Yamasaki-designed arches and a tribute to its display of naked mole rats).

No one knows exactly how many machines or mold sets have actually been created, or where they all might be. “I find these things everywhere,” Bollman explained, “maybe in a barn or shed, often after someone dies, and the spouse, or business, wants to get rid of it. I find machines that I think will be fun to play with. I don’t want museum pieces. Everything is to be used.”

As a popular souvenir, Mold-A-Rama faces a precarious future; its nostalgic clatter may grow fainter still. But at least under Bollman’s attentive watch, it will never quite fall silent.