Monday, January 14, 2008

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

The Sixties would see Aurora Plastics Corporation at the peak of its success. In the late Fifties Aurora was doing modest business. Not only did the company churn out model planes, ships, tanks, and cars typical of most model makers, but figure kits of knights, Vikings, musketeers, and other warriors as well. The early Sixties would see two events that would turn Aurora into a thriving concern. The first was the company's entry into the slot car business. For much of the Sixties, the United States was gripped by a slot car craze, with sales in the millions. Aurora had the good fortune to be the top slot car maker in America. The second was Aurora's decision to issue figure kits based on movie monsters. Their Movie Monsters series was one of the biggest successes in plastic model history. In the end Aurora became one of the top three plastic model makers in the United States.

Aurora would follow up the success they had with their Movie Monsters series with another set of licensed properties. In 1964 Aurora issued a Superman figure kit. The kit proved to be a hit, so much so that Aurora issued an entire series of model kits based on comic book superheroes. Like the Movie Monster series, Aurora's superheroes series simply made good business sense. It was in 1956 at DC Comics that Julius Schwartz introduced a new version of the Golden Age character, The Flash. In 1961 at Marvel Comics Stan Lee created The Fantastic Four. These two events were not only pivotal in the Silver Age of comic books, but they also led to a superhero craze that dominated much of the Sixties. The superhero craze would result in many Saturday morning superhero cartoons, the Batman TV show, and tons of merchandise, including Aurora's superhero figure kits.

Aurora would follow up their Superman figure kit with figure kits of Batman Superboy, and Wonder Woman in 1965. That year they would also add a superhero who had originated outside comic books, Zorro. In 1966 Aurora would not only add Robin, but would also start adding Marvel Comics characters to their line, including Spider-Man and Captain America. Aurora's superhero line (eventually marketed under the "Comic Scenes" name) proved very successful, selling well into the Seventies.

Movie monsters and comic book superheroes were not the only properties licensed by Aurora. Aside from their kits based on Movie Monsters and superheroes, Aurora may have been best known for their model kits based on various television series. The company would go from having no models based on television series to having an entire section of their catalogue dedicated to them. Much of this was perhaps due to the fact that in the Sixties the American television networks embraced TV series that were outright fantastic in nature--science fiction series such as Star Trek and Lost in Space, imaginative sitcoms such as My Favourite Martian and The Addams Family, and spy shows such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. These series naturally lent themselves more to model kits than, say, I Love Lucy would.

Among the earliest television oriented model kits Aurora issued were those based on the TV series The Addams Family and The Munsters. In 1965 they issued a model of the Addams Family mansion. Around the same time they issued model kits based on the Munsters' living room, the Munsters' Koach, and Dragula (Grandpa Munster's race car). The science fiction TV shows of the era would provide Aurora with several different kits. This was perhaps most true of those shows produced by Irwin Allen. Aurora based kits on the submarine Seaview and the Flying Sub from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Lost in Space would prove to be even more of a source of inspiration for Aurora. They based model kits on the robot and a giant from that show (although, curiously enough, not one of the Jupiter 2 spaceship). Land of the Giants also gave Aurora its fair share of model kits, including ones of a giant rattlesnake and the spaceship Spindrift. One can say what they will about the quality of Irwin Allen's shows, they did provide good sources for model kits.

In 1966 the TV show Batman debuted and soon America was in the grip of Batmania. Quite naturally, Aurora jumped on the bandwagon and created models drawn from both the show and the comic book. They would create model kits based on the Batmobile and the Batcycle from the show, and drew upon the comic book for their model of the Batplane (which never appeared on the show). The action adventure shows of the Sixties would prove to be a boon for Aurora. They made a model of the car called Black Beauty from The Green Hornet, figure kits of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a diorama based on the series The Rat Patrol. Ultimately, Aurora would base model kits on TV shows ranging from The Mod Squad to The Banana Splits to Kolchak: the Night Stalker.

Having licensed properties from television, Aurora also licensed properties from movies beyond the classic horror films as well. Their first licensed properties from films other than monster movies may well have been those from the James Bond series. In 1965 they issued a model kit of Bond's Aston Martin DB-4. They followed it up with figure kits of James Bond and Oddjob from the movie Goldfinger. In the following years Aurora would issue several more model kits based on major motion pictures: the submarine Voyager from the movie Fantastic Voyage; a figure kit of Dr. Dolittle and the pushmi-pullyu (a double headed llama); and a model of the car Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the movie of the same name. Two of Aurora's more popular movie model kits were from 2001: a Space Odyssey: the Moon Bus and the Pan Am Space Clipper.

With many model kits based on various licensed properties, Aurora was doing very well in the mid to late Sixties. It was also during this period that they would have their first brush with controversy. While Aurora had worried about the effects of their Movie Monster series on youngsters, by 1964 they had overcome any such timidity. Aurora planned a series of model kits based on, of all things, Madam Tussaud's Chamber Of Horrors from Tussaud's famous wax museum. The first of these kits was a working model of La Guillotine, which even came with a victim dressed in 18th century French garb who could have his head chopped off. Outcry from concerned parents was immediate. La Guillotine was pulled from production after only six months. Plans for models of The Hanging Tree and The Rack were immediately scrapped. The aborted Madam Tussaud's Chamber Of Horrors series was Aurora's first brush with controversy. Unfortunately, it would not be their last.

Of course, La Guillotine was not the only strange model kit Aurora would release in the Sixties. The late Fifties saw customising cars increasingly grow in popularity. Some of the car customisers, such as George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, would even become famous. By the Sixties there was an absolute craze for customised cars in America. Naturally, this did not go unnoticed by model makers. Revell even went so far as to license Ed Roth's customised cars for model kits. Revell's series of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth model kits proved to be a big hit. Of course, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth was not simply a car customiser, but a cartoonist as well. In fact, it is in Ed Roth where the Sixties customised car craze and monster craze intersect. Roth had created an entire gang of humorous monsters, including Mr. Gasser, Drag Nut, and, the most famous of them all, Rat Fink (a parody of Mickey Mouse). Strangely enough, Revell did not initially license Roth's cartoon characters for use in model kits. That would change when rival model maker Hawk released their Weird-Ohs line. The Weird-Ohs would combine monstrous cartoon characters with wildly designed cars and motorcycles. It was because of the success of Hawk's Weird-Ohs that Revell eventually released model kits featuring Rat Fink, Mr. Gasser, and Roth's other creations.

Such success did not go unnoticed by Aurora, who started combining the classic movie monsters with wild vehicles in 1965. Wolf Man had his Wolf Wagon. The Mummy had his Chariot. Frankenstein had his Flivver. Dracula had his Dragster. Despite the popularity of Aurora's Movie Monster series and the popularity of customised cars, the combination was not a success. Aurora's Monster Hot Rods only lasted a few years before being discontinued. Beyond the Monster Hot Rods, Aurora issued other model kits in the same monstrously humorous vein as Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's creations. Their line of Wacky Action kits included such titles as the Nutty Nose Nipper and the Wacky Back Whacker. Another bizarre but humorous line of kits Aurora issued in the mid Sixties were the Mad Barber, Mad Dentist, and Mad Doctor model kits. At one point Aurora even issued a kit based on Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman. Over all, Aurora's more humorous kits were never as successful as their various movie, television, and comic book tie-ins.

In a more serious vein, Aurora's earliest figure kits were inspired from the pages of history, and in the Sixties they would look to history for inspiration again. They produced kits based on such historical figures such as Jesse James, Captain Kidd, and the men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima. They would eventually issue kits based on a Green Beret, an American Astronaut, George Washington, and even recently deceased President John F. Kennedy.

By the late Sixties Aurora was arguably at the top of its game. It was one of the biggest manufacturers of model kits in America and the biggest manufacturer of slot cars. Unfortunately for Aurora, changes would occur that would ultimately mean disaster for the company. Vice President John Cuomo retired in 1967. Joseph Giammarino was forced to leave Aurora in 1968. The company could have survived both of these events unscathed, but in 1969 Giammarino sold his interest in Aurora to Charles Diker, a former vice president at Revlon, and a group of investors. Diker took Abe Shikes's position as president of Aurora and as a result Shikes left in 1970. Diker immediately set about changing Aurora, believing it could expand beyond model kits and slot cars into toys and games. Diker changed the entire structure of Aurora and immediately started spending more and more money. Charles Diker did manage to increase Aurora's gross sales from $30 million in 1969 to $70 million in 1970. Unfortunately, Diker was also spending more money than Aurora had earned.

While many may be tempted to blame Diker for hurting Aurora's profit margin, in some respects he cannot be blamed for his actions. By 1969 the slot car craze was over and slot car systems were not selling as they had when the craze was at its peak in 1966. Even the sales of model kits had declined from what they had been earlier in the Sixties. It is perhaps for this reason in 1969 that Aurora reissued their classic Movie Monsters in what they called "Frightening Lightning" editions. The Frightening Lightning kits were essentially the same old model kits (except for the Wolf Man, who was given a whole new pose), but with glow in the dark parts added. The Frightening Lightning editions were identifiable by a large lightening bolt on the box, although the cover art remained the same. When it was discovered that customers were confusing the Frightening Lightning editions with the traditional Movie Monsters model kits, Aurora changed the cover art and did away with the "Frightening Lightning" tag line. The glow in the dark kits would prove popular, continuing to sell until 1975.

Despite the success of the glow in the dark monster kits and its various movie and TV tie ins, things would only go from bad to worse for Aurora. In 1971 food giant Nabisco bought Aurora. As a result the company lost the autonomy it had enjoyed ever since it had been founded. As it was, Nabisco's purchase of Aurora could not have come at a worse time, as the company was about to endure its worst controversy in its history. In fact, there are some who believe that Aurora could have created the most controversial line of toys of all time.

It was in 1971 that Aurora introduced its new line of model kits, Monster Scenes. These kits were snap together (no glue required), and had been scaled down to 1/13th scale from the original Movie Monster kits. The series consisted of four figure kits. Aurora issued a new Frankenstein Monster kit (again erroneously called "Frankenstein") for Monster Scenes, as well as a figure kit of a mad scientist called Dr. Deadly. It would be the other two figure kits that would create much of the controversy over the Monster Scenes series. One was a figure kit of Vampirella, the scantily clad, voluptuous heroine from Warren Publishing's horror magazines. The other was a figure kit of a woman dressed in a brief top and an early prototype of Daisy Dukes simply called "the Victim." As if issuing model kits of the shapely Vampirella and a woman simply referred to as "the Victim" wasn't enough to invite controversy, Aurora simply added fuel to the fire with Monster Scenes' four accessory kits. Of these kits, the Pain Parlour and Gruesome Goodies were the most innocuous. Despite its ominous name, the Pain Parlour simply consisted of a hanging skeleton, an operating table, and an electronic console panel. Gruesome Goodies featured a table, lab equipment, a skull, and a generator. The other two accessory kits were a good deal more sinister. The Hanging Cage not only included a hanging cage and the winch and pulley from which it hung, but a "forge" filled with hot coals and a removable poker, as well as a sword. The Pendulum was exactly that--a pendulum of the sort from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum," complete with swinging pendulum blade.

Now one would think that most people would not let any of these ideas get past the drawing board, but Aurora not only moved forward with Monster Scenes, but made it their big new series for 1971. Monster Scenes was given a prime spot in the front of Aurora's 1971 catalogue. The company even issued a Monster Scenes catalogue for dealers. Aurora also launched a large advertising campaign, which only made matters worse. The centrepiece of the campaign was an ad which ran in DC comic books and Warren comic magazines of the era. Taking the form of a comic strip, the ad details Dr. Deadly sending the Frankenstein Monster and Vampirella out for "a girl victim for the experiment." The trio then abducts said girl victim, to whose cries for help Vampirella simply responds "Don't Worry. This is New York. No one will help her." The girl is taken back to the lab where Dr. Deadly plots to turn her into a fly. As if the ads which run in comic books weren't bad enough, Aurora marked the Monster Scenes boxes with the legend "Rated X...for Excitement."

Outcry over the Monster Scenes model kits was swift and immediate. And looking back it was perfectly understandable why. The voluptuous Vampirella and buxom "Victim," both scantily clad, were no doubt too sexually provocative for many religious organisations and parents' groups. The mere presence of a kit of a female figure called "the Victim" was enough for women's groups to accuse Aurora of encouraging the victimisation of women. Newspaper letter writing campaigns against Monster Scenes soon took place. A parents' group was formed with the express purpose of protesting the toys. Even Rowan and Martin's Laugh In gave Aurora their Fickle Finger of Fate award (an award given for dubious achievements by the rich and powerful). For that matter, Warren Publishing brought up objections to the series, as Vampirella, a heroine in her own magazine, was being portrayed as an abject villain in materials for the kits. The protests came to a head in November 1971 when the National Organisation for Women picketed Nabisco's headquarters. It was later that November that Aurora axed production of the Monster Scenes series in the United States and immediately recalled all kits remaining in stores. Plans for the Dungeon and the Animal Pit to be added to the series were naturally scrapped.

Curiously, given the controversy of the kits, Monster Scenes continued to sell in Canada, although "The Victim" was renamed "Dr. Deadly's Daughter," while the name "Gruesome Goodies" was now applied to the Pain Parlour and the Gruesome Goodies were renamed "the Lab Tables." Apparently, Monster Scenes enjoyed some success in Canada, as other kits were added to the series there: Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the Giant Insect. Monster Scenes apparently never caused the controversy in Canada that it did here in the States, although it was not manufactured there long either.

Aurora would pay dearly for the Monster Scenes debacle. Aurora's reputation as a model kit manufacturer was seriously damaged, as many saw the company as having tried to sell sex and sadism to young boys. Nabisco fired Aurora's creative staff, seriously affecting the company's production. The situation would perhaps not have been quite so dire if Aurora was not already losing money. Even another popular series could not save Aurora. In 1971 the company introduced their popular Prehistoric Scenes series. Despite their name, Prehistoric Scenes actually departed from history as we know it, featuring cavemen facing off against dinosaurs. Regardless, the Prehistoric Scenes series proved to be one of Aurora's bigger successes, with a large following to this day.

Despite the success of Prehistoric Scenes, Aurora continued to lose money throughout the Seventies. In an attempt to bring in new revenue, Aurora introduced a new line called Monsters of the Movies in 1975. They created entirely new model kits for the classic monsters, including the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They also issued kits for two Japanese movie monsters for the first time: Rodan and Ghidrah. These kits were even more detailed than Aurora's previous monster kits. Despite this, Monsters of the Movies did not sell well.

With Aurora continuing to lose money, Nabisco replaced Charles Diker as the company's president with Boyd W. Brown, the former president of Mattel in Canada in 1975. By 1977 Aurora was in such dire condition that it primarily became the American distributor for European model kit companies Esci and Heller. Out of the 48 pages of their final, 1977 catalogue, only sixteen pages were dedicated to Aurora's products (the rest of the catalogue being dedicated to models from Esci and Heller). In 1978 Nabisco closed Aurora down after 27 years in business, selling their moulds to Monogram. Sadly, not all of the moulds would survive. A train shipping Aurora's moulds from New York to Monogram's home of Chicago was involved in an accident, irreparably damaging many of the moulds. Fortunately, most of the moulds for Aurora's classic kits survived.

Aurora experienced one of the most meteoric rises and falls in the history of the model kit industry. From 1950 to 1960 Aurora went from a company which manufactured a wide array of plastic goods to a thriving manufacturer of model kits and slot cars. From 1960 to 1970 Aurora became one of the top three model kit makers in America. Despite this, by 1978 Aurora had ceased operations. It was not one thing that killed Aurora, but came down to three different factors, each of which took their toll on the company.

Foremost among these was the change in Aurora's leadership in 1969. In the hands of President Abe Shikes and John Cuomo, Aurora had become a thriving concern with some of the best selling model kits and the best selling slot car system in the business. After Charles Diker took over the company, Aurora consistently lost money. He had visions of modernising the company, even hiring scores of MBAs and changing the company's structure, yet Aurora was spending more money than it was earning. As is often the case, a company often has to do more than produce good products, it has to be run on sound business principles as well.

Indeed, had Aurora not been in the dire financial situation in which it was in 1971, it might not have been so seriously hurt by the Monster Scenes fiasco. When Nabisco fired Aurora's creative staff as a result of the furore over Monster Scenes, it seriously hurt Aurora's ability to produce a large number of quality model kits. Naturally, this in turn affected the company's profit margin. The Monster Scenes model kits also hurt Aurora's reputation in a way that the controversy over La Guillotine in 1964 never had. Afterwards there were probably many in the general public who viewed Aurora as bent on selling sick and twisted products to the nation's youth. And there can be little doubt that the Monster Scenes brouhaha did not endear the company to its new owners, Nabisco.

Of course, Aurora's financial situation might not have been so dire and the Monster Scenes controversy may not have hurt so much if it wasn't for the shrinking model kit industry. Following World War II, the plastic model industry had experienced phenomenal growth. The hobby of plastic model building grew steadily starting in the Fifties, perhaps reaching its peak in the mid to late Sixties. Although model kit building remained popular into the Seventies, its popularity was not what it once was. Aurora was not the only model kit company losing money in the Seventies. In 1969 Testor Corporation, manufacturers of modelling glue and paints, bought Hawk Model Company. AMT, makers of the popular Enterprise (from the TV show Star Trek) model kit, would be bought by Lesney in 1977 and later sold to Ertl in 1981. In 1978 even Revell, one of the top three model kit companies, reported a net loss of $2.5 million. As the Seventies passed into the Eighties the popularity of model building would only continue to decline. Today model building, once one of the most popular hobbies among boys, is primarily the pursuit of slightly older devotees.

As to Aurora, many of its classic kits would be reissued several times over the years. Monogram would reissue many of the Movie Monster kits, the comic book superhero kits, the Prehistoric Scenes kits, and a few other kits. More recently Polar Lights has reissued many of Aurora's classic model kits, including many of the television tie ins (such as the Seaview from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to The Munsters' living room). There has even arisen a thriving industry of garage kits reproducing many of Aurora's model kits, including the notorious Monster Scenes series.

Although it only lasted 27 years, Aurora left a lasting legacy in the model kit industry. They were the first company to shrink wrap their kits' components. They were also among the first model kit companies to go into licensing in a big way. Their Movie Monsters series remains among the best selling and best loved model kits in the history of model building. Although the company ceased to exist thirty years ago, there can be little doubt that they will be remembered for a long time to come.


Jim Marquis said...

I wasn't much into models but I did have Batman.

Snave said...

I always loved building models but I should have left the painting of them to other people! 8-)> I used to have a Frankenstein, and I used lots of Testor products. It seems like the Revell models I had were of battleships, and after my friends and I built those, we would blow them up with firecrackers or set them afire in the water. I am pretty sure Aurora made the old HO scale Model Motoring sets. I had one of those too... great, great stuff. Thanks for the information on a great old company!

Terence Towles Canote said...

Snave, it was Aurora who made the old HO scale Motor Modelling sets. I think my brother had a few. It seems like we bought only certain types of models from certain companies for the most part. Revell for battleships and aeroplanes. Monogram for cars. Aurora for figure kits. And we used enough Testor products that I think we must have singlehandedly kept them afloat in the Seventies...