OKLAHOMA CITY — In zoos, museums, and other attractions around the United States, visitors can still get a retro souvenir for just a couple of bucks. The last Mold-A-Rama machine was built in the 1960s, an instant-sculpture vending machine that uses blow molding to create a plastic animal, car, or other curio right before the customer’s eyes, all designed decades before 3D printing was invented.
Like the smashed penny machine, Mold-A-Ramas are the kind of ubiquitous souvenir you can take for granted, and not notice until they’re gone. In 2010, the Oklahoma City Zoo removed its machines, and currently its Zoozeum, an on-site museum on the zoo’s history, is hosting a small display on the Mold-A-Rama. “Because of the lengthy repair process, the Oklahoma City Zoo ended its leasing contract in 2010,” the display text states. “Requests from guests encourage the idea that Mold-A-Rama machines may return to the zoo someday.”
Their dolphin, panther, train, bears, monkeys, sea lions, elephants, giraffes, rhinoceros, gorilla, and lion stand alongside an example of the domed Mold-A-Rama machine, whose shape evokes a UFO. The zoo’s display notes that, the “machine’s flashing lights and a countdown meter suited Americans’ infatuation with outer space.”
The creation of the Mold-A-Rama is credited to Tike Miller in Phoenix, Arizona, who, according to lore, initially just wanted to fix his Nativity scene for the holidays. His curiosity in plaster casting in the 1950s led him to vacuum molding, a process which he eventually sold to the Automatic Retailers of America (ARA). According to Rob Lammle at Mental Floss, by “1971, ARA had sold off all the machines to a handful of independent operators. Only two operators remain today: Mold-A-Rama Inc. near Chicago and Mold-A-Matic in the Tampa area.”
While those are the machine’s mechanical origins, its popularity is rooted in the World’s Fairs. At the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the Mold-A-Rama debuted to the public with a souvenir Space Needle, and a few years later at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Mold-A-Ramas were scattered around the grounds, with dinosaurs at the Sinclair exhibit, religious totems at the Vatican’s pavilion, and a bust of Abraham Lincoln with the Illinois display. Soon Mold-A-Ramas were dispersed around the United States, particularly in the Midwest and South.
Many of the machines have disappeared, and the rarest figures command prices hundreds of dollars more than their initial quarter to two dollar fee (a mermaid from Weeki Watchee Florida Springs is going for $225 on eBay). Each plastic sculpture takes about 30 seconds to make, with the process visible beneath the dome. First there is the hydraulic moving of the mold, then the injection of the polyethylene pellets melted at 225 degrees Fahrenheit, the push of hollowing air, and finally the refrigerated coolant that makes the piece accessible to the touch, while delivering a warm object that smells like freshly melted wax.
Here’s a video from the Henry Ford museum in Michigan demonstrating one of their machines:
On the Mold-A-Mania site you can see images of some of the hundreds of models created over the years, like a 1965 Ford Mustang from the Henry Ford, a manatee from the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, an alligator wrestler from Gatorland in Orlando, and a space shuttle from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Third Man Records (founded by Jack White) in Nashville recently added its own Mold-A-Rama machine, including a model of its mobile record store. Mold-A-Rama.com keeps track of the state of each machine and their operating locations, including the San Antonio Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo, Museum of Science and Industry, Henry Ford, Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and Milwaukee Zoo.
Where the machines survive, they are a reminder of a mid-century form of affordable art. The Mold-A-Rama captured postwar space age enthusiasm in its design, along with the wonder for the possibilities of technology in its engineering.
The Mold-A-Rama display is on view at the Zoozeum in the Oklahoma City Zoo (2101 NE 50th Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma).