Made in Chicago: Mold-A-Rama

Lisa Fielding
November 05, 2018 - 6:00 am
Paul Jones of Mold-A-Rama

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- It's a familiar sight and sound to many native Chicagoans. The coin drop, the motor, the smell and the warm touch.

"It is one of the most unique vending machines you'll ever see," said Paul Jones, President, Mold-A-Rama Inc.

Anyone who grew up in Chicago knows Mold-A-Rama. "Mold-A-Ramas have been around Chicagoland for more than 50 years," Jones said.

Jones' father, William A. Jones, bought the Brookfield-based company back in 1971.

"They're at all the bigger institutions -- the Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, Brookfield Zoo, Willis Tower – have Mold-A-Rama," he said.  "My dad actually was an accountant. Another accountant was getting ready to retire and her husband owned some of these machines, so he bought them from them and the rest is history."

Kids with Mold-A-Ram
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

As a child, Jones used to travel with his father as he made his rounds.

"It was fun because I got to go to all the museums. Slowly as time went on, I got curious about how the machine works. I'm mechanically inclined, so I kind of fell into it."

The retro machines make plastic souvenirs right before your eyes.

"It's a plastic injection machine that creates your souvenir right there on the spot, in about a minute."

Now it's Jones's job to make sure they're all still working properly and maintaining the 60 machines around the country and the 27 in Chicago.

"It's 1960's technology at its best," he laughed.

Owner inspecting Mold A Rama machine
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

For generations, the machines have doled out smelly, plastic souvenirs.

"Back when I got them, they were a quarter, I think," Amy Mountifield of Chicago said. She said she used to collect them.

"That smell was always the first memory of it. Watching it being oozed into its mold and then touching it when it was hot."

Now she does the same with her kids.

"No matter where we go -- here, Science and Industry -- they always want them. We have a huge collection." she said.

Mold-A-Rama
WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

The machines are so “retro,” they don't even make them anymore. The last one was made in 1964. Jones said they repair and refurbish a lot of them inside their Lisle workshop, but he insists they are pretty durable, and were ahead of their time back in the day.

"People will come up to us and say, is that a 3D printer? And we say, this was the original 3D printer.”

Mold-A-Ramas are still popular. They now sell for $3 each for a gorilla, a dolphin, a bison or even a replica of the Willis Tower. But Jones says it's more than just a souvenir.

"The experience is part of it. Watching it being made and then when it comes out and it's warm, all the different sounds and the smell. Everybody says that plastic smell brings them back to when they were a kid."

Jones added that the mold is also about nostalgia, a reminder of the places you've been, and the things you've seen, a piece of history, which continues to stand the test of time.

WBBM Newsradio/Lisa Fielding

"The look is all the same. We've been operating the same color machines for 50 years. We try to nail that as best we can so that when people come around the corner and they see it, they know exactly what it is. We keep it as original as possible."

Jones said the only modern technology they've had to add is credit card swipers, a sign of the times where the past adapts to the future.

Mold-A-Rama machines are in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas.

For more information, visit the Mold-A-Rama website.