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Waxing nostalgic: In 30 seconds, Mold-A-Rama makes memories, toys to last a lifetime

Let's start with that name, a go-go-booted Space Age shout, a classic souvenir as fun to blurt as it is to make, fondle, sniff.

Go on, say it with me:

Mold-A-Rama!

Feels good, doesn't it?

That's not mere fancy talk, either. Just as those sideshow hyphens puckishly promise, this enduring staple of Vacation Wonderland U.S.A. builds to a big finish, spitting out a do-it-yourself memory that's hot to the touch.

Vacation bliss in 30 seconds.

You might have put the smooth, warm plastic to your lips or dared your brother to take a bite, before tossing it in the back of that hideous brown-yellow Chevy Caprice along with your haul from Shell City.

You either made a Mold-A-Rama toy as a kid — a flamingo, a red skull, a gator from Gatorland — or you bought one for a kid, maybe your kid, the circle of nostalgia going 'round and 'round, your life encased in polyethylene.

Existential bliss in 30 seconds.

If you have no idea what we're talking about here, if you haven't had the Mold-A-Rama experience, you're working too hard, walking too fast.

Never seen a Mold-A-Rama machine? No idea where they are? Here's a clue: Mold-A-Rama is located between youth and middle age, between the entrance and the map that says YOU ARE HERE.

You want to slow the clock?

Stop and smell the wax.

As part of its 50th anniversary earlier this spring, Busch Gardens installed six Mold-A-Rama machines around the park, cranking out flamingos, gorillas, elephants. Installed by Florida's last remaining Mold-A-Rama salesman, they were intended to be nostalgic. And yet Mold-A-Rama remains a vital souvenir.

In the modern gift-shop jungle of light-up whirligigs and $50 plushies, the Mold-A-Rama is old-school-a-rama. But there remains a life-affirming allure to the trinkets, the rarest of which (Paul Bunyan, Mann's Chinese Theater, a Space Needle from the '62 World's Fair) go for hundreds of dollars on eBay. There are video testimonials on YouTube, minute-long hoots of winking wonderment.

A getaway thrill akin to the squishing of a penny, Mold-A-Rama was invented in the '50s but quickly abandoned in the '60s, a cheeky tchotchke left for dead. It was born with the sci-fi craze and postwar optimism — it was abandoned in a decade when hope was shattered in the assassination shadows of JFK and MLK.

A brand-new Mold-A-Rama machine — body, cams, antifreeze tanks — hasn't been manufactured in 40 years. But the old ones didn't fade away. Instead, they were bought, sold, fixed by people who loved them; the machines made it through the disco '70s, the greedy '80s, the apathetic '90s. As it turns out, Mold-A-Rama's unchanging allure wasn't hinged on optimism and naivete, but curiosity, wonder. Do not underestimate this lack of evolution.

• • •

Here's how it's always worked: With an ice cream in one hand, or a 5-year-old on your shoulders, you walk up to this curious device, which reminds you of something in Willy Wonka's shop.

Advertised in a silly-solemn starshippian font on the front of the machine are the six stages of Mold-A-Rama derring-do:

H Power Forward

Mold Loading

Air Injecting

Mold Cooling

H Power Reverse

All Systems Go

How can you resist?! You slip in your money — $3 at Busch Gardens, $2 at Lowry Park and MOSI — and watch the gee-whizzery thunk into place. That "H" stands for hydraulics. First, camshafts lock together two sides of an aluminum "mold": a cockatoo, T-rex, a girl on water skis, U-505 submarine; there are hundreds of molds available.

Polyethylene pellets, melted at 225 degrees, are injected into the mold. Air is blown into the sculpture (sounds like you're inside a bathroom hand-dryer now), making the once-solid toy hollow; if you look at the bottom of your sea lion, fighter jet, Harry S Truman, there are two holes, one for drainage, the other for a hold.

Coolant is then pumped into the mold, before that big dramatic scraper chisels free your prize, which kerplunks! into a sliding-glass chamber. The 3-inch toy is now hot and threatening — but fun hot, fun threatening! After all, you made it!

And now for the best part, the part you'll remember years later, when you're grown up and your kids are no longer kids and you have the gray hair to ponder things like this: that Mold-A-Rama smell. That clean, chemical whiff of your new souvenir.

It smells like July, like freedom, like Mom and Dad and summer and youth.

Breathe deep.

• • •

The fuzzy history goes something like this: Mold-A-Rama was invented by an Arizona dreamer with the Dickensian handle of Tike Miller.

In the early '50s, ol' Tike needed to replace a piece of his home nativity scene. But when department stores would only sell him the whole nativity set — not just a small plastic piece — Tike decided to make the darn thing himself. He later licensed the Mold-A-Rama rights to Automatic Retailers of America, which wound up ditching the wax souvenir biz a few years later.

Or right around the time Eldin Irwin got into it.

"Grandpa went to a fair and came home with a machine," says Irwin's grandson, Tim Striggow, who is third-generation Mold-A-Rama. "My grandfather would run president heads at his appliance store until he left to go home at night.

"(Grandpa) never retired from Mold-A-Rama," says Tim, "he just kind of passed away." But not before buying up dozens of machines and then seducing the rest of the family into the biz. That was around 1962.

Now only Tim is left.

"Generation after generation — and now me," says the 40-year-old. It has been his full-time job for most of the past 27 years; he now services 60-some machines in Florida, plus a few others here and there.

Once a week, Striggow hops in his van, a bag of Honeywell polyethylene pellets by his side, and starts driving: Apollo Beach's Manatee Viewing Center, Miami's Metrozoo, all points turista. "The tiger machine in Miami does really well," Striggow says of his top-seller.

One of his favorite machines is at Lowry Park Zoo, where you can buy a Mold-A-Rama likeness of a Florida panther — right next to the real Florida panther. "She'll come around and talk to you," he says smiling. "Her name is Lucy. She'll meow at you."

He spends the rest of his week working out of a giant shed in Lake Wales, Polk County, rebuilding each bubble-topped vending machine with old parts, new parts and family-bred ingenuity.

"He eats, sleeps, dreams Mold-A-Rama," says his wife, Denise Striggow, 44, who routinely pleads with him to leave the machines alone. "He's obsessed."

The King of Mold-A-Rama shrugs his shoulders: "It's tough on machines when they sit, you know? Things break down when you don't use them."

• • •

Striggow figures there are about 300 Mold-A-Ramas — plugged-in or otherwise — left in America, the only country where the machines ever really thrived. Striggow owns about 140; most of the rest belong to Chicago's William Jones, who has machines in several states.

"We're friends," Striggow says. "We help each other. Heck, they're using my aardvark mold at Brookfield Zoo!"

Florida has more active Mold-A-Rama machines than any other state — and that number could increase. Busch Gardens says there's no time limit on how long the machines will stay. Striggow says Busch's sister park SeaWorld is a logical next step. And once he's in Shamu's splash zone, there's always the ultimate destination across I-4:

Disney-A-Rama!

"They had Mold-A-Ramas at Magic Kingdom once, but I don't know when," he says.

Mold-A-Rama should be extinct, but it's not. Same goes with the toys. A few years ago, Striggow changed to a more durable plastic, which means these 21st century suckers won't drip all over the dash of your rental car.

"I've had a bag of these in the van for weeks," says Striggow, holding a small pink flamingo. "The old wax would melt. But the new wax doesn't.

"These things last."

Sean Daly is the Times' pop music critic. He can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Waxing nostalgic: In 30 seconds, Mold-A-Rama makes memories, toys to last a lifetime 07/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 2:31pm]

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