Sunday, April 3, 2011

Aurora Monsters DVD Review (Unabridged) Part One

In Monsters from the Vault #28 we ran a review on Cortlandt Hull's DVD, The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze that Gripped the World. Due to space limitations in the issue, approximately half the review had to be cut to fit it in the allowed space in the issue. On March 30th the DVD was awarded the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Best Independent Film or Documentary of 2010 (it tied with Larry Blaimire's fantastic double feature of The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy Night). So to help celebrate its win we've decided to run the complete uncut review here. So without further delay, here's Part One of the review.

The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze That Gripped the World. Available from The Witch’s Dungeon, 90 Battle Street, Bristol, CT 06010. To order send check or money order (payable to Cortlandt Hull) to the address above or visit or $20.00 SRP.

Reviewed by Marian Owens Clatterbaugh

Watching The Aurora Monsters: The Model Craze that Gripped the World, it struck me how easily I would have traded some precious 1960s hours with my Marx Fort Apache Stockade play set for some time with the Aurora monster model kits, had I been aware of them at the time. Dedicated to the artists and sculptors of Aurora Plastics Corporation, this 105-minute DVD features in-depth interviews with thirteen artists (painters, sculptors, illustrators, modelers, and actors), who relate informative and inspiring accounts of their first introduction to the Aurora model kits and how that experience influenced their life's work.

Set up as a horror host show, the documentary was written, produced, and directed by Cortlandt Hull and Dennis Vincent, and their artistry is evident in the film's entertaining effects, vivid color graphics, and seamless flow from one artist's story to the next. Between each interview, the film returns to host Zacherley the Cool Ghoul, greatest of the original horror hosts, and his assistant, Gorgo the Gargoyle (brought to life by artist, puppeteer, and Associate Producer Bill Diamond). At the start, Zacherley is busy working on a formula, given to him by his old friend Zenobia The Gypsy Witch, to clear out Gorgo's sinuses from all his time serving as a castle downspout. In comes Gorgo, dragging an old chest from the attic and pulling out a Frankenstein Monster Aurora kit with the inquiry, Do you want these? (Oh, if only our parents had asked that question before cleaning house!) After his consternation over the close call and poor Gorgo's unawareness of Aurora, Zacherley begins his narrative, accompanied by an elegant collage of vintage movie posters, rare photographs, sketches, and promotional material (even an appearance by the legendary Bob Burns as Kogar, promoting the 1960s Aurora Monster Kit Contest).

Vintage Aurora Ad
The Aurora monster kit story began with the 1957 horror film revival and the release to television of the Universal classics in a weekly package called Shock! Theater, which included such thrillers as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man, and was introduced by John Zacherle as Roland in the Philadelphia area and, later, as Zacherley in New York, plus a variety of other horror hosts on stations across the country.

With the creation of Famous Monsters of Filmland in 1958 by Forrest J Ackerman and James Warren, young Monster Kids got a behind-the-scenes look, with articles on the actors who brought to life their favorite classic monsters from the 1930s and '40s and the icons who helped to create and bring them to the screen.

As loved as the films, television shows, and magazine articles and photographs were by young horror fans, the omission of the classic horror genre from the toy offerings of the day became evident. At that time, film merchandizing was almost nonexistent, with only a few items such as rubber masks and Castle Films' 8-mm film condensations available. Monster Kids wanted souvenirs of their beloved monsters to bring into their homes.

Enter Aurora Plastics Corporation of New York. Aurora was started in 1950 by Joseph Giammarino and Abe Shikes, with John Cuomo joining in 1952. Primarily known for its models of fighter jets, battleships, and knights in armor but with a marketing eye toward the youthful enthusiasms of the day, Aurora came up with the idea of making monster model kits. The company acquired a license from Universal Studios, and in 1961 a model kit of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster was the first in a line of thirteen that were produced through the early 1970s. Sculptor Bill Lemon created the first monster model as well as most of the others in the line, including Dracula, Wolf Man, Creature, Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera.

Orders began pouring in to the small model company in West Hempstead, Long Island, and production ran around the clock in "The Monster Korner" to keep up with demands from hobby shops, department stores, and monster magazine orders. To add even more cache to the kits, Aurora hired artist James Bama to paint the box art, which became as memorable and collectible as the models themselves.

The "Monster Korner" in West Hempstead, Long Island
Renowned American realist artist James Bama, now 82, started his career as an illustrator for a large New York advertising firm. He began producing the artwork for the Aurora kits when he was 35, around the time he was also painting the covers for the reprinted Doc Savage magazine novels. Bama describes himself as having been in the right place at the right time—5 years old when Dracula was released and over the next few years thrilled (and frightened) by The Mummy, Frankenstein, King Kong, and The Invisible Man—with his art career no doubt formed by his childhood memories of such horror movies.

Of the dozens of artists in the large studio in which Bama worked, due to a fluke (or his artistic style) he was selected to produce the artwork for the Aurora monster kit job. Bama started producing the art as fast as possible and painted the first 22 horror model kits. While mostly working from still photographs, his wife, Lynne, posed as The Witch for the one box cover for which he used a real-life model.

Box Painting
Built-up Witch Model
Monster Kids everywhere can relate to Bama's fond memories of painting the art for the early monster kits, as well as his disappointment over the line's later deterioration with spinoffs such as paint-by-number kits and full-color wallets not from the artwork but based on it. One of the first controversial Aurora model kits, The Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors Guillotine ("New!!! It Really Works! Harmless Fun!") elicited a storm of parental protest because of the head being chopped off. The uproar over the Guillotine was so great that plans for others of that ilk were shelved.

A striking revelation is that Bama had not, until the time of the interview, seen the models and kits. They had never been offered to him and he never thought of asking for them, considering them more of a job than a collector's item, and marveling that he is now a hero among Monster Kids—a "childhood fantasy come true"! As often happens, the artist receives a very minor share of the profits from the success he or she has helped to create. In this regard, however, Bama relates an inspiring message for other artists.

Bama Frankenstein Monster Painting
James Bama now paints portraits of local people and Native Americans in his studio in Wapiti, Wyoming. In his comparatively rustic life after 42-1/2 years in Manhattan, he jokingly tells his wife that "if we run out of oil, water, food, there will still be Doc Savage and Monster Kid fans til eternity."

Andrew Yanchus, Aurora Project Manager, is up next. Yanchus joined Aurora in 1965 and was part of the research and design team for nine years, designing and sculpting patterns for Model Motoring, Cigarbox, and Speedline Cars. He oversaw the development of lines such as Monster Scenes, Prehistoric Scenes, and Comic Scenes.

Yanchus relates a fascinating history of the Monster Scenes Snap-Together Custom Builder Kits ("Every family has its skeleton, but Aurora's has more than most….Creepy Castle Dungeons, Late Late Show Movie Sets, Mad Monster Laboratories…From 4 years old to 400, Aurora's MONSTER SCENES. Weird!"). He recalls the challenges of dealing with James Warren, whose Creepy and Vampirella characters were being considered for kits by Aurora.

With the success of one of their first Monster Scenes kits, "Dr. Deadly" the Mad Scientist kit, Aurora got to work on Monster Scenes Series Two: Dracula, Jekyll/Hyde, Giant Insect. Meanwhile, all sorts of controversy raged on about the "Terror Toys," "Torture Toys," "blood, sex, violence" themes. Amid the uproar, Aurora started scaling back on some of the more provocative themes. They were now into the 1970s, however, and the company was owned by Nabisco, whose management’s response to the bad publicity did not bode well for Aurora.

Monster Scenes Uproar!
One of last projects Yanchus was involved with at Aurora was the New Aurora Science Fiction Series. He describes how the market research ended up showing that kids were more interested in vehicles than in figures, a blow to him because his research and design group had had plans for producing "Robby The Robot," "Metaluna Mutant," and "Gort," with their two top sculptors, Bill Lemon and Ray Meyers, lined up. Later, Yanchus' interest in comic books led him to meeting and hiring up-and-coming concept artist Dave Cockrum, who as a modeler himself knew exactly what other modelers would want (a Creature "Monsters of the Movies" model, anyone?).

The next of the iconic Aurora artists, master sculptor Ray Meyers, also has created hundreds of works for such clients as Disney, The Franklin Mint, and Fisher-Price. But monster kit enthusiasts celebrate him for his sculpts of the Bride of Frankenstein, The Phantom, Godzilla, Ghidrah (although a favorite, would now add "flames spitting out of his mouth"), and many others.

Recalling how he got started as a boy—with a cake of Ivory soap—carving various figures, Meyers enthusiastically relates the much more technical aspects of creating his later masterpieces for Aurora. He remembers working closely with Bill Lemon, whom he describes as "a very apt student—turned out to be a crackerjack figurine maker."

Meyers "just can’t get over the fact that all of these monster kits that Aurora was making some years and years ago are still around and popular and really doing well—I didn’t think that was possible [for those kits] to last that long." It is very satisfying to him (and to monster kit fans) that his work is still on the market and selling.

Meanwhile, back in the lab…

Our host, Zacherley, “was inspired watching James Bama—had to try my hand at this Frankenstein model, but something doesn't look quite right—I wonder why that is, Gorgo?"

"Hey, master, it looks like one of these films may be helpful."

"Well, perhaps I could use a few pointers."

And master model builder and painter Michael Rutherford is off and running in a 1-minute time lapse demo of the making of a Henry Hull Werewolf of London model. Got that, Zach?! Rutherford, who also performs in Kiss tribute band Rock and Roll Over, "created the official buildups for Aurora as well as many garage kit companies, such as Monsters in Motion's "Box Art Tributes."

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