Saturday, January 19, 2008

Allan Melvin R.I.P.

Allan Melvin, best known for playing Corporal Henshaw on The Phil Silvers Show, Sgt. Hacker on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., and Barney Hefner on All in the Family, died Thursday at the age of 84 from cancer.

Allan Melvin was born in Kansas City, Missouri on February 18, 1923. His family moved to New York City while he was still a baby. Melvin graduated from Columbia University with a degree in journalism. After graduation he served in the U. S. Navy. Melvin's entry into show business was in the sound effects department in NBC Radio in 1944. He eventually moved onto acting radio soap operas, at the same time performing a nightclub act in which he did impressions of movie stars. The material for that act was written by his friend Richard Condon, later famous as the author of The Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi's Honour. With his nightclub act he won on the Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts radio show in the late Forties.

It was while he was performing on Broadway as Reed in Stalag 17 in 1952 that he attracted the attention of Phil Silvers. When creator Nat Hiken and star Phil Silvers were casting their new sitcom You'll Never Get Rich, soon renamed The Phil Silvers Show (but better known as Sgt. Bilko), they remembered Melvin and cast him as Sgt. Bilko's right hand man Cpl. Henshaw. Running for four successful years and in syndication ever since, The Phil Silvers Show went on to be regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.

In the Sixties Melvin would play another notable role as a regular on a series, that of Sgt. Hacker on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.. He also guest starred several times on The Dick Van Dyke Show, most often as Rob Petrie's old Army buddy. He also guest starred on such shows as Route 66, McHale's Navy, Make Room for Daddy, and My Favourite Martian. He guest starred on The Andy Griffith Show eight times, each time as a different character.

In the Seventies Allan Melvin would be a regular on All in the Family and its continuation Archie Bunker's Place, playing Archie Bunker's best friend and neighbour Barney Hefner. He also had a recurring role on The Brady Bunch as Sam the Butcher. He guest starred on such shows as Love, American Style and Kung Fu.

With a gift for impressions, Melvin was always in demand for voice over work on many cartoons. He was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the series of Beetle Bailey cartoons made by United Features Syndicate in the early Sixties. He was also the voice of Magilla Gorilla and the voice of Drooper on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. He also did various voices over the years for shows ranging from The Flintstones to Smurfs to DuckTales.

While Melvin appeared in many TV shows over the years and did voice work on many animated cartoons, he only appeared in one movie--With Six You Get Eggroll, released in 1968.

There can be no doubt that Melvin was one of the most familiar faces on American television. His career spanned fifty years and he played roles on several classic sitcoms. Melvin was memorable for more than just his many appearances in television shows, however, as he was truly a gifted actor. On The Phil Silvers Show Cpl. Henshaw was an absolute pushover when it came to Sgt. Bilko, always going along with the sergeant's hair brained schemes. On Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Sgt. Hacker could be an outright bully, Sgt. Carter's none too honest rival. Barney on All in the Family/Archie Bunker's Place could probably best be described as a lovable schlump. Melvin could play characters ranging from loud and abrasive (Sgt. Hacker) to quiet and laid back (Barney) with equal aplomb. This is not to mention Melvin's amazing gift for voices, a gift he not only got to display in his work in cartoons but sometimes on The Phil Silvers Show as well. With the death of Allan Melvin, we have lost one of the truly great character actors in television.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Boy Star, The Toy Mogul, and the Chess Champion

In the past two days three individuals who have some impact on pop culture have passed on, each in very different fields. One was a very young actor. Another was the founder of one of the most famous toy companies in the world And the third was probably the most famous chess champion of all time.

Actor Brad Renfro was found dead Tuesday morning. Foul play was not suspected and an autopsy has been performed to determine the cause of death. He was only 25 years old. He is perhaps best known for his roles in the movies The Client, Apt Pupil, and Ghost World.

Brad Renfro was born in Knoxville, Tennessee on July 25, 1982. Joel Schumacher discovered him when he was only 10 years old and cast him in the role of Mark in The Client. Although he had never acted before, Renfro received stellar notices for his natural acting talent. Over the next few years he was cast in several major motion pictures, including The Cure, Apt Pupil, Ghost World, and The Job. He made one guest appearance on Law and Order: Criminal Intent.

Unfortunately, Renfro sometimes received more headlines from his experiences with the law than he did for his various performances. In 1998, when only 15, he was charged with possessing marijuana and cocaine. In 2000 he and a friend tried to steal a yacht in Florida and had to pay $4000 for repairs to the vessel. In 2006 he was sentenced to ten days in jail after pleading no contest to driving while intoxicated and guilty to possessing heroin.

Although obviously a very troubled youth, Brad Renfro was also an immensely talented one. At ten years of age and without formal acting training, he gave a performance of which few children would have been capable in The Client. He was also impressive as Josh, the poor convenience store clerk who is wholly at the mercy of girls Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson). For me, however, his best performance will always be the one he gave in Apt Pupil. In that film, he played Todd Bowden, the young man who blackmails former Nazi Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen). It was an utterly chilling performance, and one I suspect most young actors Renfro's age would have been incapable of delivering. It is truly sad that Renfro's life and career could not have been longer.

Richard Knerr died from a stroke at the age of 82 on Monday. With Arthur "Spud" Melin he co-founded Wham-O Inc., one of the most famous toy companies in the world.

Richard Knerr was born on June 30, 1925 in San Gabriel, California. He and his co-founder, Arthur Melin, were friends from boyhood. Together they attended the University of Southern California. Not particularly wishing to join their families' respective businesses, they decided to found their own company. That company was founded in the garage of Knerr's parents, where they made slingshots with a power saw they had bought at Sears for all of $7. They sold the slingshots through mail order through various magazines. It was for the sound those slingshots made--Wham-O--that the company was named.

Wham-O followed the slingshot with other unusual sporting goods, such as boomerangs, tomahawks, and crossbows. It was in 1955 that all of this changed. Knerr and Melin met Walter Frederick Morrison in a parking lot selling unusual flying discs he called Pluto Platters. Wham-O bought the rights to Morrison's discs, then Ed Headrick, the company's research and development department, improved them by making them more aerodynamic. Wham-O renamed the disc "Frisbie," a name whose origin is still in debate. Some claim that the name came from Yale college students who used pie tins from the Frisbie Pie Company as flying discs. In interviews Knerr said that the discs were named for a character from a comic strip. Regardless, Wham-O had their first big hit on their hands.

It would not be their last hit by a long shot. Knerr and Melin had learned that in Australia wooden hoops were used in exercise classes. Making similar hoops from plastic, they christened their creation the "Hula Hoop." Introduced in 1958, they sold over 100 million hula hoops in only two years. It was one of the biggest fads of all time. The company would have another fad on their hands in 1965 with the introduction of the SuperBall. Made of an elastomer alloy called Zectron. a SuperBall could under proper conditions be bounced over a three storey building. Introduced in the summer of 1965, seven million SuperBalls had been sold by Christmas. Wham-O would continue their string of successes with the Slip 'N' Slide water slide, Silly String, and Hacky Sack. In 1982 Knerr and Melin sold Wham-O to the Kransco Group Companies for $12 million.

There can be no doubt about the huge impact that Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin had upon American pop culture in the late 20th century. With the Hula Hoop, SuperBall, and Hacky Sack, besides several other successes, they may have been responsible for creating more fads than any other toy company. With the Frisbie, Knerr and Melin had a lasting success. Although its sales would never reach the proportions of the SuperBall or the Hula Hoop at their height, it made up for it with enduring popularity. Certainly, late 20th century America would be a very different place had Knerr never existed.

Whether Bobby Fischer was the greatest chess champion of all time is perhaps debatable. One thing that is not debatable is that Fischer may well have been the most famous, at least in the United States. Fischer died yesterday of kidney failure in Reykjavik. He was 64 years old.

Bobby Fischer was born in Chicago on March 9, 1943. It was in May 1949 that Fischer, only six years old, learned to play chess from instructions that came with a chess set. By age seven he was a member of the Brooklyn Chess Club, He would later be mentored by chess master Hermann Helms and Grandmaster Arnold Denker. At age 13 Fischer's mother hired notable chess coach John W. Collins to teach him. By age 12 Fischer was named a National Master in the United States, the youngest National Master ever. He was only 13 when he won the United States Junior Chess Championship in 1956, becoming the youngest junior chess champion of all time. From 1956 to `1957 Fischer won various championships, until he was invited to compete in the U.S. Chess Championship in New York. It was in January 1958 that he became the youngest United States chess champion of all time at age 14. In winning the championship he was also given the title of International Master, the youngest person to ever receive the title.

Fischer would win all eight U. S. Championships in which he played. He also did well in international tournaments. In semi-retirement from 1963 to 1968, Fischer would make his crowning achievement in 1972 when he defeated Soviet chess prodigy Boris Spassky to become the World Champion. Fischer would lose the title of World Champion in 1975 after forfeiting the title to Russian Anatoly Karpov. Afterwards, Fischer dropped out of sight. He reappeared in 1992 to face his old friend Boris Spassky in Yugoslavia, a match which Fischer won. In doing so he violated a United States ban on doing any business in Yugoslavia. Erratic even in his career as a chess champion, in the latter half of his life, when Fischer would emerge, it was often to issue mad rants against the United States government and Jews (even though his mother was Jewish),

Bobby Fischer was indeed a controversial figure. While still a chess champion he could be difficult and demanding. Later in his life there would be very many who believed him stark raving mad (I must admit, I am one of them). That having been said, he was arguably the greatest chess player from the United States in our history. And he was also arguably one of the greatest chess players that the world would ever know. The movie Searching for Bobby Fischer invoked his name even though the movie is about chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin. The musical Chess appears to have been loosely based on the famous match between Fishcer and Russian Viktor Korchnoi. Fischer became the archetype of the brilliant but troubled chess master. One thing is for certain, for the brilliance he displayed on the chess board early in his life, and perhaps the madness he displayed later in his life, Bobby Fischer won't soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Vampira Has Gone to the Grave

Chances are you don't recognise the name "Maila Nurmi." You might recognise the name "Vampira." Vampira was the character Nurmi played as what was most likely television's "horror host (the macabre and often goofy characters who hosted horror movies on local TV stations)." Maila Nurmi was found dead in her home on January 10. Sources disagree about her date of birth, but she is believed to have been around 85 years old.

Maila Nurmi was born Maila Syrjäniemi in what was then Petsamo, Finland (now part of Russia). While still a toddler her family immigrated to Ohio. At the age of 17 she took the surname of her uncle, Finnish Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, and sought a career in acting. In 1944 Nurmi appeared in Michael Todd's Grand Guignol Spook Scandals, which ran for all of one night. Regardless, she was spotted by director and producer Howard Hawks in the show, who took her to Hollywood in hopes of turning her into the next Lauren Bacall. She was cast in an adaptation of the Russian novel Dreadful Hollow, which remained in development Hell so long that she eventually walked out of her contract. Nurmi took various modelling jobs, posing for Aberto Vargas and Man Ray among others. She was also a dancer in Earl Carroll's revues for many years. Her only acting credit at the time was an uncredited role in the 1947 movie If Winter Comes.

Nurmi's big break would come as a result of attending a Hollywood masquerade ball. Nurmi wore a costume based on the character later called "Morticia" (on the TV show The Addams Family) from Charles Addams' famous cartoons running in the magazine New Yorker. With long finger nails, long black hair, and a long, black slinky dress, Nurmi made an impression on television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr, then working at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. Several months later Stromberg sought Nurmi out and offered her the job of hosting a late night horror movie show. It was Nurmi's husband at the time, television and movie writer Dean Riesner, who came up with the name "Vampira." The Vampira Show debuted on May 1, 1954 on KABC-TV. Vampira would introduce horror movies, tell macabre jokes, and engage in other morbidly humorous antics. The show proved to be an immediate hit. Vampira appeared in such magazines as Life, TV Guide, and Newsweek. She even received a 1954 Emmy nomination for "Most Outstanding Female Personality." Unfortunately, after only a year on the air KABC-TV cancelled The Vampira Show when Nurmi refused to sell them the rights to the character. Vampira moved to rival station KHJ-TV for another brief run. Sadly, as her introductions were aired live, no footage of Vampira on her show survives. The only footage remaining of Nurmi in character as Vampira is a kinescope promoting KHJ-TV to advertisers survived.

Sadly, Nurmi's stint as Vampira would be the height of her career in entertainment. In 1958 she appeared in an uncredited role in the film Too Much, Too Soon. She appeared in Ed Wood's notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, as well as such low budget movies as The Beat Generation, Sex Kittens Go to College, and The Magic Sword in the late Fifties and early Sixties. For the most part, however, her career in show business was over. In the Sixties she scraped out a living by laying linoleum, refinishing furniture, and even cleaning houses. In the early Seventies she opened Vampira's Attic, a boutique where she sold handmade clothing and jewellery. In the Eighties she sued horror host Cassandra Peterson, who hosted Movies Macabre on KHJ-TV as Elvira, alleging that Peterson had ripped off the character of Vampira. The court eventually found in favour of Peterson.

The Eighties and Nineties saw interest in Vampira on the rise once again. Nurmi appeared in the films Population I (1986), Dry (1996), and I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (1998). She also appeared in the documentaries The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. (1996), Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001), and Vampira: About Sex, Death and Taxes (1995), a documentary about herself, as well as others.

Although Maila Nurmi's career as Vampira was actually very brief, she made a fairly large impact on pop culture. This is not simply because there are many who have fond memories of her show, but also because she pioneered the position of horror host at television stations. It was in 1956 that the classic horror movie King Kong aired on television for the first time. When it aired in New York City in May of that year, it was estimated that 90% of all homes with television sets were tuned into the classic film. This success did not go unnoticed on Screen Gems, who struck a deal with Universal to syndicate many of their classic horror movies in a package called Shock. Released to local TV stations in August 1957, Screen Gems provided stations with a promotional kit for Shock in which, among other things, they recommended the use of a host. Naturally many, many stations followed Screen Gems' advice and used hosts on their horror shows, no doubt largely due to the success of Vampira. Vampira would soon be joined by the likes of other famous horror hosts, such as Zacherley and Selwin. And while it is debatable whether Cassandra Peterson plagiarised Numi in creating Elvira, there can be no doubt that Elvira existed because Vampira had paved the way for horror hosts nearly three decades earlier. While Nurmi's career in show business was not long, it did certainly have an impact.

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.

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.