Sunday, January 13, 2008

Aurora: the Company That Monsters Built...And Destroyed Part One

Growing up among my hobbies was building plastic model kits. I was not alone in this. From the Fifties into the Seventies, building models was among the most popular hobbies among young men. In these days of video games, computers, and digital satellite television, it is easy to underestimate just how popular model building was among youngsters. In the Fifties, when model building was nearly at its height, a survey revealed that 80% of boys considered modelling their number one hobby. By the time I started building model kits in the Seventies, its popularity had declined somewhat, but it was still a fairly common hobby among young men. In junior high I remember most of us boys built models.

Scale models have existed for centuries. Ship models were made in Ancient Egypt as long ago as 5000 years. In Europe ship models go back as far as the 12th century CE. Since most ships were built without formal plans, shipwrights would build a model to show customers what the vessel might look like. Eventually seamen would take to building their own ship models for pleasure. By the early Twentieth century, model ship kits had gone on the market for the general public. These models were generally made of wood, with a few metal parts (such as anchors, rigging blocks, et. al.). Before World War II plastic was used to a limited degree to make model kits. As early as 1936 British manufacturer Frog was making model aeroplane kits using cellulose acetate. That having been said, it would not be until after World War II that plastic model kits would become a flourishing industry. The years during and following the war saw several companies enter the industry, among them Airfix, AMT, Kitmaster, Monogram, and Revell.

Among these companies was Aurora Plastics Corporation. Entering the plastic model kit field in the Fifties, by the Sixties they were one of the biggest companies in the industry. Like other scale model companies, Aurora manufactured their fair share of models of ships, planes, tanks, and cars, but their speciality was what are called "figure kits." Figure kits are kits with which one can build a scale model representing a human being or animal. Manufacturing their first figure kits in the Fifties, by the Sixties Aurora was the undisputed leader in the field. This was largely due to their extensive use of licensed properties, beginning with their Movies Monsters line featuring the monsters from the old Universal horror movies. By the mid Sixties Aurora was churning out several figure kits based on licensed properties, including DC Comics superheroes, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Lost in Space, and the James Bond movies. Amazingly enough, while Aurora was one of the top manufacturers of plastic model kits in the Sixties, it would cease to exist by the Seventies. In all, it exsited for only 27 years. It was perhaps the most meteoric rise and fall of any plastic model company in the business.

Aurora Plastics Corporation was born as a result of the post-war boom in injection moulding. The company was founded in 1950 by Abe Shikes, a shrewd businessman whose family had fled Russia for Brooklyn when he was young, and Joseph Giammarino, an engineer with a degree from Brooklyn Polytech, along with silent partner Gennaro Giammarino, Sr.(Joseph's cousin). Later, in 1952, Abe Shikes and Joseph Giammarino would be joined by John Cuomo, a salesman and 10% owner who would become vice president of the company. The business began very humbly in a converted garage in Brooklyn on 62nd Street. In its earliest days Aurora made a diverse array of plastic household goods. They entered the toy business fairly early through a bit of a fluke. Aurora had purchased a job lot of coat hangers that turned out to be too thin to adequately support any sort of heavy clothing. So that this merchandise wouldn't go to waste, Aurora simply turned the hangers into a cheap toy bow and arrow set. The bow and arrow set sold briskly and soon Aurora was manufacturing other plastic toys as well.

It would be in 1952, however, that the company would enter the business which would make them an unqualified success. While shopping for birdseed in a general store, Abe Shikes observed some plastic model kits and noted the rather expensive price tag attached to them. Realising that Aurora was perfectly capable of manufacturing such kits, he convinced his partners that they should enter the plastic model business. Their first two model kits were reproductions of the Grumman F9F Panther jet fighter and the Lockheed F-90 jet fighter. In both instances the model kits appear to have been copies of those manufactured by another plastic model kit company, Hawk. Afterwards Aurora would no longer copy the work of other companies. Given their business accumen, it would appear that they did not have to.

Quite simply, Aurora had struck upon a formula for success. They reduced the scale and the number of parts in their models. As a result, Aurora's models were easier for younger model builders to put together. This also allowed them to sell their model kits at a cheaper price than other companies; in many instances their kits were 75% cheaper than those of their competitors. Their Grumman F9F Panther model kit sold for only 69 cents. This made Aurora's kits much more affordable and easier for young boys to buy than those of other other companies. Aurora also introduced two innovations into the model kit industry. One was that the price of each model kit was printed directly on the box. This kept retailers from jacking up the price of Aurora's kits and insured that they would remain at a low price. Another was that the parts for each kit were shrink wrapped in clear plastic. By shrink wrapping the parts, Aurora assured its customers that each of their model kits would be complete and none of the parts would be missing. Printing the price of model kits directly on the box never quite caught on in the rest of the plastic model industry, although shrink wrapping the kits would eventually become an industry standard.

Having entered the plastic model business, Aurora experienced unprecedented growth. Eventually their business grew to the point where they had to move to bigger premises, to an old bakery converted for their needs. By 1954 Aurora had grown to where it had a dozen different kits on the market. This meant that the company had to move again. This time it would be to a modern factory, with no less than twelve injection moulding machines, located at 44 Cherry Valley Road. in West Hempstead, New York. Not only was Aurora manufacturing more model kits, but they were also producing a greater variety of model kits as well. Having started in 1952 with model planes, in 1953 the company started manufacturing model ships as well. Nineteen fifty six would see Aurora add model tanks to their line. In 1957 their line of model kits would expand to include cars and trucks.

It was in 1956 that Aurora started manufacturing figure kits. Their first figure kit was the Silver Knight, the first in what was then called their "Famous Warrior Series." The Silver Knight proved to be one of Aurora's biggest successes and the company was launched on the path that would make them one of the three biggest model kit manufacturers of the Sixties. The Silver Knight would be joined by other knight figures, such as the Black Knight and the Red Knight, as well as figures of a Viking, a Musketeer, a Gladiator, a Confederate raider, and various United States servicemen. It was in 1957 that Aurora attempted to draw girls into the hobby of model building through their figure kits. That year they introduced their Guys and Gals of Different Nations line, starting with a figure of a Dutch boy. The line would eventually expand to include a Scottish Lad, a Native American chief, a Chinese Mandarin, and so on. The base of each model kit in the Guys and Gals of Different Nations line, with the exception of the Native American figures, would include a relief map of the figure's home country. The Guys and Gals of Different Nations line never quite took off and was discontinued by 1960. In 1960 Aurora once more tried to lure girls into the hobby with their line of Butterflies of the World kits. These kits proved no more successful than the Guys and Gals of Different Nations line.

In the Sixties Aurora manufactured more than simply plastic model kits. Nineteen sixty saw Aurora enter the field of slot car racing systems. Slot cars had existed in some form since 1912 when they were first manufactured by model train maker Lionel. Lionel's car kits were extremely expensive for the era, nearly the equivalent of one day's pay for the era. It is perhaps for that reason that Lionel ceased manufacturing them after 1915. Louis Marx & Co. would introduce its own slot cars in 1935. Unfortunately, Marx's slot car system would see little success. World War II and various economic factors would prevent slot car racing from really developing as a hobby for nearly two decades. It was in the mid-Fifties in Britain that slot car racing really began to take off. It was at that time that companies such as VIP and MRCC (Model Road Racing Cars) tentatively introduced their own slot car racing kits. It was in 1957 that slot car racing began to catch on as a hobby, when Minimodels Ltd. introduced its Scalextric slot car racing system. The following year Scalextric would expand into the United States. Looking to the sales of Scalextric's slot car system, American manufacturers soon got into the business, including AMT, A. C. Gilbert & Co., Lionel, and Louis Marx & Co.

Aurora would be drawn into the slot car business because of a development by English engineer Derek Brand, who created a tiny vibrator motor that could power slot cars. It was in 1959 that Playcraft (a division of Metoy) introduced cars with these motors at the Brighton Toy Fair, an event which Abe Shikes and Joseph Giammarino of Aurora happened to attend. The two men were amazed by Playcraft's slot cars. Giammarino asked Playcraft for a licence to produce its slot car system in the United States. Playcraft rejected this request, considering Aurora too small to produce the necessary number of slot car racing kits to make a profit. Playcraft then tried interesting other American toy companies in their system, among them A. C. Gilbert & Co. and Mattel. After being rejected by other American companies, Playcraft finally granted Aurora the licence to bring their slot car racing system to the United States. Aurora introduced the slot car system in 1960 under the name "Model Motoring." Aurora's Model Motoring slot car system proved to an enormous success and fueled a slot car craze in the United States that reached its peak in 1966, when over three million Americans were engaged in the hobby. Aurora would make changes in their slot cars over the years. The original vibrator motors of Aurora's slot cars were prone to overheat, so in 1963 they were replaced by a "pancake" motor, also developed by Derek Brand. Aurora would continue to be the top manufacturer in the slot car field, even after the slot car craze of the Sixties died down.

By 1962 Aurora manufactured a diverse array of model kits. Like many model kit companies of the time they produced their fair share of model ships, planes, tanks, and street rods. Their figure kits for which they would become best known was equally diverse. In addition to their popular Knights figures, Aurora would launch their Wild Life series with model kits of a horse called Black Fury (introduced in 1960), a black bear with cubs, and a white tail deer. More importantly, it was that year that a figure kit was introduced that would make Aurora a legend in the plastic model industry. It was in 1960 that Aurora's Marketing Director Bill Silverstein conducted a survey that was also a contest. In each box an entry form was placed which asked for suggestions for new model kits. The individual who came up with the best suggestion would be declared the winner of the contest. After receiving over 3000 entries, the winner was a boy who suggested a line of figure kits based on classic movie monsters. Bill Silverstein loved the idea, especially after having seen a long line of boys waiting to see a double feature of two classic Universal horror movies.

Looking back, it is easy to see that Silverstein's instincts were right on target. It was in the mid-Fifties that Screen Gems struck a $20 million, ten year deal with Universal-International to syndicate 550 of their films made prior to 1948 to local television markets. Among these movies were Universal's classic horror films, from Frankenstein to House of Horrors. Screen Gems packaged 52 different horror movies, including Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man under the title Shock! and released them to TV stations in August of 1957. The Shock! package not only proved to be a success, but it also proved to be an outright phenomenon, producing a monster craze among American boys that would last from the late Fifties nearly into the early Seventies. Results of the monster craze ranged from the first appearance of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland (first published in 1958) to the TV show The Munsters. With boys in the early Sixties absolutely crazy about the classic movie monsters, it must have seemed obvious to Silverstein that a series of figure kits based on such would be a roaring success.

Despite the monster craze gripping American youth at the time, Silverstein seemed to be the only person at Aurora who thought a series of model kits based on famous movie monsters was a good idea. Vice President John Cuomo opposed it for two reasons. First, he found the subject matter itself disturbing. Second, he thought that getting the necessary licensing rights and then making the necessary royalty payments would be needlessly time consuming. President Abe Shikes was not convinced that model kits based on movie monsters was such a good idea either. Despite the resistance from others at Aurora, Silverstein persisted. He even consulted with child psychologists who thought that a figure kit of a movie monster would not be harmful to children. At last Abe Shikes approved the idea and Aurora went about producing the first of its Movie Monsters series. Ads in trade magazines stressed that Aurora had researched the idea thoroughly and found that movie monsters were a form of catharsis for youngsters, allowing them to release their fears and hostilities harmlessly. They also decided to release the first kit, a figure of the Frankenstein monster, as a test case. In a box with an illustration by James Bana (most famous for illustrating the covers of Bantam's Doc Savage reprints), the Frankenstein Monster figure kit (on the box and other materials erroneously referred to, as is often the case, simply as "Frankenstein") went on the market in late 1961. The kit proved to be a smash hit, so much so that Aurora found it difficult to keep up with demand. At the height of the kit's success, Aurora was producing an estimated 8000 Frankenstein Monster kits a day.

With the success of the Frankenstein monster kit, Aurora added several more figures to their Movie Monsters series. They introduced Dracula and Wolf Man figures in 1962, followed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, and the Phantom of the Opera in 1963. By the mid-Sixties Aurora's Movie Monster figure kits were at the height of their success. And the line not only included such Universal monsters as Frankenstein and the Phantom of the Opera, but had expanded to include King Kong, Godzilla, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Aurora in conjunction with Famous Monsters of Filmland even held a contest for the best rebuilt monster figure kit. In 1964 they tried a Gigantic Frankenstein figure kit, which stood all of two foot tall. It was one of the few monster oriented figure kits that was not an absolute success. This was perhaps because of its price tag. At a whopping $4.95, its price tag was too steep for most young boys.

Aurora's Movie Monsters series was historic for Aurora in more than the fact that it was an unqualified success. It also marked the first time that Aurora had based model kits upon licensed properties. Licensed properties would become an important part of Aurora's business in the mid to late Sixties. The company would eventually manufacture model kits based on superheroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. among others), TV shows (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Lost in Space, The Rat Patrol, among others), movies (the James Bond series, 2001: a Space Odyssey, Dr. Doolittle, among others). Its monster figure kits and other kits based on licensed properties propelled Aurora to its place in the Sixties as one of the top three model kit companies in the United States.

Surprisingly, Aurora's Movie Monster series created little controversy given their subject matter. There were concerns from a few parents over what they perceived as somewhat disturbing material for plastic model kits, but ultimately there were no large scale protests or widespread public outcry. It would seem that Abe Shikes and John Cuomo's concerns over adverse reactions to the Movie Monsters series were then unwarranted. That having been said, Aurora would see more than its share of controversy in the years to come. And one of those controversies would play a role in destroying the company.

1 comment:

Squirrel said...

My sister and i used to make models -- we blew one up with an M80 and our parents found out... not good.