A Tyrannosaurus rex from a Mold-A-Rama machine at the Field Museum Credit: Jean Lachat/Sun-Times

You don’t go looking for a Mold-A-Rama. That’s not how it works.
It’s true that a Google search will reveal all the locations of these 1960s-era souvenir machines, including at least 20 around Chicago. But ideally you stumble across one, glowing quietly in a vestibule or stairwell, with its translucent bubble dome waiting for you.

When this happens, you’ll likely be in a place that you’ve visited plenty of times before in your life: the zoo, the museum, the skyscraper, the other zoo, the other museum. The place itself doesn’t really matter, even though the ostensible point of Mold-A-Rama is to create a souvenir of that place, a molded object representing it in some way. But then, the object doesn’t really matter either. Mold-A-Rama isn’t about the plastic rhino, or the dolphin or the kangaroo or steam locomotive or dinosaur or bust of Lincoln or John Deere tractor or alligator or German submarine. (It is just a little bit about the gorilla, however. The one from the zoo, waving hello. That one is cool.)

In a Mold-A-Rama machine, the object is interchangeable. It’s just whatever happens to be displayed in the TV-screen-shaped window at the top of the console (oh, Mold-A-Rama, how shrewdly you understand human desire) and touted, rather generically, as an “exclusive product molded in colorful plastic in seconds.” The key word here is exclusive: what’s exclusive about a plastic-injected molded trinket? Only one thing: the moment in which it is created, the liquid of time beginning to set. In seconds.

Scientists say that once you form a memory it changes a little with each subsequent recollection. It’s the same way with my own history of Mold-A-Rama experiences, in that every one bears faint, fingerprint-on-soft-plastic impressions of my earliest encounters, on family visits and school field trips to those zoos and museums: of the peculiar new sounds of crowd noise and footsteps in the echoing vast spaces; of feeling small and simultaneously bored and overwhelmed; of not knowing quite what would happen when somebody (my mother? My older brother?) fed quarters into the machine. And wasn’t there once a time when nothing happened? When the device didn’t work at all?

Every Mold-A-Rama experience is slightly haunted by the ghosts of disappointments past and future: there’s always the chance that one’s exclusive product will emerge from the molds misshapen or headless, or that the injectors will malfunction and extrude molten sludge. (Although I don’t specifically remember this, I must’ve seen an out-of-order unit that had met this fate, and now the idea of it is fused firmly, like melted plastic, to my Mold-A-Rama gestalt.)

Of course, most of the time what happens is that the disconcerting rattle of the machinery starts up, the molds clap together, and just when the chugging motor begins to seem interminable, the product is revealed, briefly and finally (at least once I missed seeing it, didn’t I?), before being shoved into the retrieval bin. Then comes the pungent scorched-plastic smell—memory searing, a toxic madeleine that calls up all kinds of lost associations. For me, these tend to come from the Museum of Science and Industry: whither the walk-through heart, or that weird exhibit with plates of dusty fake food going around and around on conveyor belts? Maybe you have these kinds of thoughts about the zoos. Maybe you remember elephants, the real ones.

Ultimately, though, Mold-A-Rama is about dwelling in the perpetual rather than the past. There’s now a company in Brookfield called Mold-A-Rama Inc., dedicated to keeping the machines running. And while it’s true that your exclusive product—your penguin or lion or fighter jet or Komodo dragon or bison or space shuttle or whatever—doesn’t signify much in and of itself, you might as well take it home and keep it after it has cooled in your hands. Just don’t think of it as a “collectible,” or as kitsch; or God forbid go on eBay and buy “rare” Mold-A-Rama exclusive products of anonymous moments you were never a part of. That said, if you find yourself with three or four or ten of these memory thingies, it’s usually an indication of a life well lived. And if you keep only one, keep the gorilla, always and forever saying hello and good-bye. v