Lions, gorillas and dinosaurs, oh my!
Brookfield father and son find they were cast in the same mold
In a world where it seems every device changes yearly, or more often, it is striking to stumble upon a machine that looks and performs just as it has for half a century.
“That’s one of our goals,” says Mold-A-Rama president Paul Jones, “To make it look the same.”
Visitors who watch a waxy plastic figure molded on-demand in zoos, museums and skyscrapers can’t help stopping and staring. Yes, that’s the exact same machine you remember from your — and Jones’ — youth.
The Brookfield resident has literally spent his life with Mold-A-Rama. He was just six years old when his dad, William Jones, an accounting supervisor at a downtown Chicago company who hated commuting from Park Ridge, seized on an opportunity. A co-worker preparing to retire was married to Roy Ward, an original Mold-A-Rama, Inc. employee. Ward had bought a few machines and two Chicago locations when the company was dissolved. But he, too, was ready to retire.
William bought Ward’s Mold-A-Rama machines in 1971 — a move widely criticized by his own family.
“A lot of them thought he was crazy to leave a steady job to go do this,” Paul says.
It worked out well for both William and Paul.
“Once I was eight or nine, I got to go with dad to work because my brother was only four and my one sister was five. It was always advantageous for my dad to take one kid to help my mom.
“I always liked to go — I got a little special treatment. We got to go to the zoo before it opened and go behind the scenes.”
Brookfield Zoo was — and is — Mold-A-Rama’s biggest and busiest account. Back then, every time a bent coin jammed a machine, William’s pager would buzz. The treks back to Brookfield from the northern suburb were frustrating.
“Our family needed a bigger house anyway, so in 1977 or ‘78 we moved to Brookfield, a half-mile from the zoo. We’ve been there ever since. That way, when my dad got called, he was right there.”
The business was run out of that house until 2013, when Paul bought a storefront a half-block away so William, 82, who retired two years ago, could “live a normal life without seeing me come and go every day,” says Paul.
The pair worked together for 37 years, since Paul was 15 and William first sent him alone to the zoo with a toolbox and paper towels. He worked weekends and summers through high school.
Later, “I worked alongside him. We each had tasks. I liked to take things apart, and he taught me to put things back together.”
Things are still holding together. Paul owns 62 machines in nine locations across five states. The out-of-state machines were bought in the 1980s after another franchisee retired. There are Mold-A-Ramas in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and . . . Texas.
Texas? The franchise account was in San Antonio, planned for a World’s Fair in 1968 that never happened.
The original 40 to 50 animal molds made by Mold-A-Rama are still used, from gorillas to lions and dinosaurs. A decade ago, the Willis Tower ordered a mold of the skyscraper — the company’s best-seller.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s not the tallest anymore. If you’re at Willis Tower, you want that one,” says Paul.
He receives e-mails weekly from people who want to buy a machine for their house. But the machines, made by Lion Manufacturing Company along with slot and gaming machines, haven’t been produced since 1964, when Bally Manufacturing bought the company and closed the Chicago plant.
“They’re 52 years old and still working,” Paul says. “We rebuild the machines and make them run like they’re brand new.”
One small change — all now take credit cards as well as coins, $1 and $5 bills.
In addition to Brookfield Zoo, machines are located at the Field Museum, Lincoln Park and Milwaukee zoos, and the Museum of Science and Industry, which features a train, a submarine, a space shuttle, an F-16 fighter plane and the newest mold — a chick coming out of an egg.
“Anyone who grew up in this area knows Mold-A-Rama,” says Paul.
Mold-A-Rama has one full-time employee and a few contractors. Paul’s two children, meanwhile, have broken the family business mold — they work in other careers.
“I told my kids what my dad told me, ‘Go out and build yourself a Plan B. You never know when this is going to end.’” Still don’t.Edit Module