Store gives old idea fresh spin

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CHICAGO (Dec. 18, 11:15 a.m. ET) — Rotofugi isn’t your kid’s toy store.

Located on the border of Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods, the designer toy store and art gallery sells a plethora of figures aimed at adult collectors and designed and sculpted by artists, ranging from miniature zombie marshmallows to giant, colorful monsters.

Its newest addition, a rehabbed Mold-A-Rama machine dubbed the Roto-a-Matic, gives customers a chance to get in on the action. (Watch a video showing the machine at work.)

“The whole point, for us, was adapting this kind of interesting old technology to do something that was new and fresh and relevant to what we do, which is toys designed by artists,” said co-owner Kirby Kerr in an interview at Rotofugi.

For those who grew up, or vacationed, in the Midwest and coastal tourist cities, Mold-A-Rama may be familiar. For a few dollars, the machines make plastic souvenirs — usually figures of animals — on demand.

Rotofugi’s machine is a bit different. Instead of a kangaroo or polar bear, the Roto-a-Matic creates art toys.

“I love the thought of using this old technology to do something new and fresh,” Kerr said.

The miniature injection blow molding machine, about half the size of a vending machine, occupies a corner of Rotofugi’s spacious storefront. Customers buy a token for $6, insert it into the Roto-a-Matic, and watch as the machine clatters to life — melted polyethylene wax shoots into an aluminum mold (kept at a chilly 25° F by an antifreeze solution), bursts of air force the plastic to conform to the sides, and in a few minutes, the machine ejects a still-warm, hollow figure.

The Roto-a-Matic is noisy, it’s old and it makes the store smell like melted plastic.

“I love the smell,” Kerr said. “The polyethylene has this odor that’s undeniable,” he said.

Kerr purchased the machine about four years ago and, with some help, spent his weekends cleaning, repairing and overhauling it.

The machine arrived operational, but had a series of problems, most notably a bypassed broken thermostat that kept the plastic constantly heating. Other problems were more minor.

“There wasn’t anything really wrong with it, but various parts needed a lot of maintenance,” he said.

Kerr said he basically stripped the machine and rebuilt it, using largely original parts.

When he hit dead-ends, he called Chicago’s Mold-A-Rama Inc. for help. The family-owned firm operates Mold-A-Rama machines throughout the country.

Though Roto­fugi purchased its machine from a competitor (Mold-A-Rama does not sell machines), Paul Jones, president and co-owner of the company, said he was happy to help.

“The Mold-A-Rama world is small one. It’s better to have friends than enemies,” he said in a phone interview.

Kerr also overhauled the outside of the machine. Its former home was the Los Angeles zoo and the machine was painted forest green, decorated with flat graphics, and didn’t light up. In short, “it didn’t look great.”

“Given that we’re in a more artistic field, we wanted to give it a more visual flair. I think we did a nice job of it,” Kerr said.

Kerr and others spent more than a year of the project learning how to make operational molds.

Rotofugi collaborates with Squibbles Ink Inc., a Chicago-based product-development company, to produce some of its figures, including the Roto-a-Matic molds.

They start with an original physical sculpture, make a 3-D scan, and use computer-aided design to make a pattern for the mold, which is cast in aluminum by another local company.

“We’re using the latest in technology to make a mold for a 1968 machine,” Kerr laughed.

The Roto-a-Matic has been up and running since July. It is currently making the Helper Dragon — a 4½-inch, one-eyed winged creature sculpted by Tim Biskup, an artist in Southern California.

Rotofugi changes the color of the wax every month — figures were “Army man green” in December — and plans to debut a new sculpture in the spring. Long term, the company wants to come out with a new figure every six to nine months, sooner if the design is a popular one.

The store had about $10,000 in startup costs. Plus, making a mold and purchasing resin can be pricey, and Rotofugi pays its artists a royalty. The company needs to sell about 1,000 figures before it can financially justify introducing a new one, he said.

Though customers are encouraged to make their own and enjoy the full experience, the figures are also sold in Rotofugi’s online store.

Rotofugi sold 500 figures in August and September, the first two months of in-store operation, and the Roto-a-Matic has been “universally loved” by the store’s clientele, Kerr said.

“I was excited to see how well our customer base embraced it,” he said. “It’s a crude product. It’s not a highly polished, finished toy; it’s a crappily blow molded souvenir. That’s where its charm lies.”

Like the rest of Rotofugi’s offerings, the machine gives people a chance to own an artist-created piece without spending thousands of dollars, Kerr said.

Art toys tend to be small, accessible and relatively inexpensive, and in the last few years, there’s been a surge of artists that use toys as their primary art form.

“It’s not unlike buying a print or a bronze sculpture. It’s just that the medium is plastic,” he said.

Mold-A-Rama figures, though not created by artists, have their own group of collectors.

Enthusiasts swap souvenirs and buy machines in online auctions, and talk about their favorite figures in Web forums. In the last decade, the Internet also has helped boost the public’s awareness of Mold-A-Rama, Jones said.

It might be nostalgic for some, but Mold-A-Rama is still thriving even if the 50-year-old machines are no longer in their heyday.

According to Jones, Mold-A-Rama’s history is a bit murky because no one’s found private records detailing the events, but these are the basics:

Tike Miller, a Chicago inventor, was running a factory making little wax figurines when he got the idea to start making and selling his toys via vending machine.

Miller developed the technology and sold it to ARA, now Aramark Corp., which launched its Mold-A-Rama Inc. division. ARA planned to take the machines nationwide and collaborated with other companies, including Sinclair Oil Corp.

Sinclair took the machines to the 1964 New York World’s Fair and made green dinosaurs, the company’s logo, as promotional items. Soon they were making souvenirs at gas stations across the country.

Mold-A-Rama also franchised the machines and they began arriving in amusement parks, zoos, museums and other attractions throughout the U.S. — mostly in the Midwest, Florida and California.

By the late 1960s, ARA sold off Mold-A-Rama to franchisees that wanted to keep their accounts running. At the time, Paul Jones’ father, William Jones, was working for a franchise owner with several machines in the Chicagoland area.

In 1971, William Jones bought the business and by the early 1980s he was the largest Mold-A-Rama operator in the Midwest. The Mold-A-Rama trademark expired in 1984 and the Joneses scooped it up in the early ’90s. “Everyone called us Mold-A-Rama anyway,” Paul Jones laughed.

Now the company operates 62 machines throughout the country — from St. Paul, Minn., to San Antonio and as far east as Detroit, he said. Some of those machines are with original clients — Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo and the Museum of Science and Industry have had machines since 1966. Others, like Lewis Tower in Chicago, are newcomers, he added.

There are a few-hundred machines left in the U.S. A competitor, another family-owned business, operates machines in Florida, Seattle and Knoxville, Tenn., he said.

Jones, with the help of a couple employees, visits his 25 Chicago-area machines every day or so. The others, he visits every few months and relies on subcontractors to keep the machines safe and operational the rest of the time. He said both he and his father, now 77, work seven days a week.

Mold-A-Ramas are primarily injection blow molding machines. The vending component is secondary, and “plastics machines don’t always operate perfectly.”

“There’s a reason for regrind,” he said.

The firm’s outdoor machines, especially those in the Midwest, have trouble with temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall. The machines are also affected by attendance patterns. “You can set up a machine for a 100-piece run or a 1,000-piece run; it’s totally different,” he said.

Mold-A-Rama sells its souvenirs for $2. They’re made from a low density PE blend from Honeywell International Inc., the original resin developed for Mold-A-Rama machines, he said.

The company switches molds often, bringing in seasonal designs for Halloween and Christmas, and souvenirs vary by location.

The figures are a mix of old and new designs. Several machines at the Museum of Science and Industry make dinosaurs using the original 1964 mold, while Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., often requests non-traditional figures, like a realistic bust of Ford and a miniature Weinermobile. The company is currently working on a Mold-A-Rama figure of the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in.

Jones plans to keep his company up and running for at least two more generations.

That’s just fine with Kerr.

“It’s just fun and interesting. … [With] what other technology is the product just made in front of your eyes? I’d love it if you could walk into anywhere and make your own souvenir. That would be fantastic,” he said.