October 21, 2017

Toys in the Attic: Aurora Monster Models of the 1960s Part 1- History

Aurora Monster Models Part 1
Almost any boy in the 1960s and 70s would have at one time owned an Aurora brand model kit. It was a special time in history. Universal Pictures had just licensed their most famous films for Television broadcast. Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine was bringing the excitement of these films into the hearts of boys not so interested in sports and waning on the ideas of the war hero.1960 saw a small plastics company secure a deal with Universal to manufacture monster model figure kits. The Aurora classic monster models are probably the most important and influential monster products ever made. Aurora's first monster model was Frankenstein which appeared in 1961. Aurora followed with twelve more monster kits over the next five years. These 13 kits are affectionally referred to by collectors as "The Aurora 13.' Whether you've been looking to reclaim the plastic from your past or you're on the prowl for a unique new pastime, collecting Aurora monsters is frightfully good fun. When I was a kid, my bedroom resembled a miniature horror museum. Getting these kits was like owning a piece of the Horror films I loved so much. Building and painting the kits to match the boxes and film made me a monster creator myself, much like Dr. Frankenstein. So don't be afraid, but take heed, once you've gotten your claws on one of Aurora's monsters, it's likely that you won't rest until you've acquired the entire chamber of horror. 

Established in 1950, Aurora Plastics Corporation was designing plastic figurines long before it unveiled its first monster. By 1955, it was a well-established manufacturer of toys and crafts, marketing several successful lines of plastic figure kits, such as "Guys and Gals of All Nations" and "Famous Fighters." But in 1956, monster mania swept the nation, thanks to Universal Pictures releasing its classic monster movies to local television stations. By the time of Aurora's first customer survey (disguised as a contest) in 1960, kit builders were howling for monsters.

Bill Silverstein of Aurora was convinced that plastic monster kits would be a goldmine for the company but the idea was dismissed by management. Undeterred, Silverstein had a Frankenstein box mocked-up ready to pitch the idea whenever the chance arose. Eventually  approval was given for development and and the announcement of one monster kit- "Frankenstein" In February 1962 Aurora placed a painted prototype of the Frankenstein monster in their display at the Hobby Industry Association of America trade show. Legend has it that not a single dealer or distributor showed interest in ordering the new kit until two young boys attending the show with their father spied the model in Aurora's display and were visibly excited as they studied the gruesome creature. Seeing the young boys' response to the figure, distributors' quickly placed orders and the monster crash was on!
1962 Aurora monster brochure with a Dracula pattern that is actually and actor in a costume
Aurora's first monster model "Frankenstein" rolled off the production slab in 1962 and became an immediate success. Retailers sold the kits almost as fast as they could stock them, and the demand prompted Aurora to keep production running 24 hours a day. The company even tooled a second set of molds, turning out three kits per minute--more than 8,000 kits each day!

The success of Frankenstein led Aurora to develop and deliver a total of 13 monster kits within six years. Dracula and The Wolf Man came in 1962, while 1963 gave rise to The Mummy, The Creature, and The Phantom of the Opera. In 1964, Aurora debuted The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, and Godzilla. And in a nod to femme fatales, the Salem Witch and The Bride of Frankenstein were also unveiled. In 1966, Aurora released its final classic monster kit, The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré. This unique release wasn't a movie creature but rather a collaborative effort between Aurora and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

From the start, Aurora carefully devised how it would package and promote its monsters. They commissioned a young talented artist by the name of James Bama to paint box covers for their kits. He brought the b&w film monsters into stunning vivid colors for the first time. James Bama would go on to be regarded as a fine artist in western subject matter. But his early art lived on in the hearts of monster fans for many years. Even to this day his original Universal Monster Kits box art paintings are sold at high prices at auctions. For many collectors today, the kit boxes are often more desirable than the monster inside. Aurora also chose to package its monsters in "long boxes" made of rigid cardboard. These measured 13-by-5-by-2 inches and allowed Bama's full-body renditions of the creatures to be faithfully and fully reproduced.
Aurora's shrewdest move, attributed to the company's marketing director, Bill Silverstein, was to advertise exhaustively within the pages and on back covers of DC monsters and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Die-hard Aurora collectors often haunt comic shops' DC and monster magazine bins for issues featuring Aurora monster ads.

When the hot-rod craze of the '60s hit, Aurora stepped forward to mesh monster with machine. Monster Rods raced into hobby stores, featuring oddball creatures in wacky roadsters, such as Dracula's Dragster, Wolfman's Wagon, and the Mummy's Chariot. Alas, in 1969, Aurora executives determined it was time to spend more energy on nonfigure kits. Rather than produce new monsters, the company decided to reissue its existing line in a new light--monsters that glow in the dark. 

When first issued as Frightening Lightening kits (with the slogan "Frightening Lightening Strikes!"), Aurora's glow monsters were packaged with slightly modified box art but the same old long box. Kids had trouble telling the glow kits from the nonglow offerings. Within six months, Aurora pulled the Frightening Lightening boxes and replaced them with new square boxes (measuring 8-by-8-by-4 inches), heavily retouched artwork, new company logo, and new box splash--"Glows in the Dark." (These are affectionately known as the square box kits or glow kits.) Regardless of the initial box bungle, Aurora's refashioned glow kits injected new life into the monster line and carried sales well on into 1975.

Unfortunately, the box snafu was a harbinger of things to come. In 1971, Aurora introduced a new series of plastic malevolence: Monster Scenes. Consisting of four new figures (Dr. Deadly, Frankenstein, Vampirella, and the Victim) and four ominous settings (The Pain Parlor, The Hanging Cage, The Pendulum, and Gruesome Goodies), the scenes were pitched with the box slogan, "Mix 'em and Match 'em," encouraging kids to make up their own monstrous situations. Unfortunately, the other half of the box slogan read "Rated X...for Excitement." Angered parents and religious groups across the country picketed Aurora's factory. New Aurora owner Nabisco Foods promptly axed Monster Scenes and practically all the company's executive staff--just 2 weeks before Christmas 1971.

By 1975, most kids who were once wooed by Aurora's plastic terrors were now being distracted by muscle cars and the opposite sex. Still, Aurora made a final attempt to revive its monsters, producing beautiful new sculptures of its mainstays in the Monsters of the Movies series. Collectors were treated to imaginative new poses of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and the Creature. Also released were Tokyo titans Rodan and Ghidrah. Sadly, sales were dismal, and plans for future kits were scrapped. Finally, in 1977, amid declining profits and rising costs of raw plastic, Nabisco closed the Aurora Productions operation, closing a truly imaginative chapter of toy history.
From the article "Collecting Aurora Monsters" by Dennis L. Prince 

Aurora ad from Boy's Life 1963
Aurora ad from the back of DC comics
Window streamer for hobby shops.
1964 Aurora ad
Ad from Famous Monsters #45 1967
1969 Aurora ad
Original 13 Aurora Monster kits with Hunchback box variation

Toys in the Attic: Aurora Monster Models of the 1960s

Web: "Collecting Aurora Monsters" Dennis L. Prince
Web: Professor Plastiks "Aurora Monster Kit History"
Print: Aurora Model Kits by Thomas Graham

1 comment:

  1. Nice. I like the photo of the one kid with the German helmets on the shelf.