Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Monsters Make the Scene
In my neighborhood, if you wanted to do any serious shopping, you had to head about one mile east down Chicago Avenue to the business district one side or the other of Ashland Avenue.
There, you could find just about anything. Needed groceries? You went to the National at Superior and Ashland. Wanted the latest Led Zeppelin album or a TV stand? Goldblatt’s had you covered. Out of sewing thread or shoe laces? Woolworth’s could help you. A nice shirt for Dad or a nightgown for Mom? Meyer Bros. was the place to go.
And if you were a kid and desired a new model kit to build? You went to The Stork Shop. Or was it called Stork’s? Depended on which kid you asked. Some just called it “The Hobby Shop.” No matter what it was called, you the kid in question was headed to the small storefront with the green awning on Chicago just east of Ashland with his allowance in hand, looking for just the right kit.
And God knows you could find something there, no matter what you liked to build. The shelves of The Stork Shop were stacked floor to ceiling with kits of all kinds. Classic cars. Fighter jets. Life-sized human skulls. Aircraft carriers. Dinosaurs.
And monsters. Lots and lots of monsters.
I never had much interest in cars, planes or ships—never had much skill at building them, either—but I always loved the monster kits, especially the ones made by Aurora Plastics Corp. They had always made the best figure kits, but starting in 1961 with the Frankenstein Monster, they cornered the market on scary things. Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, even King Kong and Godzilla—all prowled the shelves of The Stork Shop.
All were waiting for one of us—one of the little boys who spent his spare moments combing the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland for tidbits about his favorite horror films, who spent his Saturday nights in front of the family Zenith alternately transfixed and freaked out by that week’s serving of fear-filled flicks on Creature Features or Svengoolie--to pony up the two or three dollars and take one of the monsters home.
It was at The Stork Shop, on one of its many, heavily packed shelves that I first encountered Aurora’s Monster Scenes model kits.
If you don’t remember Monster Scenes, that’s OK. Hardly anyone does. The series wasn’t around for very long—launched early in 1971, cancelled before the year was out, with the kits supposedly recalled, though I’m not convinced that part ever really happened. (I saw Monster Scenes kits on local shelves for some time after, and a 1977 issue of Famous Monsters still advertised a couple of the kits for sale.)
From the beginning, Monster Scenes was something of a hodgepodge of classic horror clichés. The first wave of the series consisted of eight kits—four figure kits and four set kits for building dioramas in varied combinations. The idea was to allow kids to customize the kits with multiple sets of arms and legs and set pieces (laboratory equipment, tables, etc.) that could be placed wherever a kid wanted them to be. The four figure kits could also serve as a compromise between action figures and model kits—all four had poseable arms and one had a poseable head.
This was good thinking on Aurora’s part. When they had started to produce monster models a decade earlier, the action figure market didn’t really exist. In 1971, though, kids could play with G.I. Joe, Captain Action (and the various different character outfits you could dress him in) and, newly introduced that same year, superhero figures from Mego. Monster action figures hadn’t really been created yet, and kids wanted them. (I certainly did—I frequently broke my Aurora monster models off of their stands and had them fight one another, only to have to later glue them back on those stands.)
Also? The Monster Scenes kits could easily be snapped together--no more messing with smelly glue and waiting for parts to dry before attempting further assembly.
The four remaining kits provided the sets on which the figure kits would stand. Two of the set kits—The Pain Parlor and Gruesome Goodies—comprise the laboratory, with tables, machinery, test tubes, an operating table and a skeleton (also, like the Monster, made in glow-in-the-dark plastic). Nobody really complained about these. It was the other two set kits—The Pendulum and the Hanging Cage—that made the parents’ groups howl.
It also really didn’t help that there was all sorts of misinformation flying about—for example, claims that the Vampirella kit came with a vial of blood (she didn’t) and that she was naked and had to have her clothing painted on (she was molded in a flesh-colored plastic, but had clothing molded on her body)—and that each box carried a huge burst that proclaimed that the kits had been “Rated X…for Excitement!”
Aurora had unintentionally struck a nerve. The combination of violence--specifically torture--and sex struck the same nerve that led to protests of (and eventually outright censorship of) the horror and crime comics of the 1950s.
Monsters didn’t seem to bother the parents' groups much, but the sex appeal of Vampi and Victim was deemed inappropriate for the age group Monster Scenes was aimed at, and the Victim’s name certainly offended in the age of women’s liberation. But the Pendulum? The Hanging Cage, with steel spikes at the bottom of the cage and hot coals and torture implements nearby? For the protesting parents, these didn't just cross the line--they blew past the line like it wasn't even there.
(Aurora had not learned its lesson from a few years earlier, when they had produced a functioning guillotine model; parents’ groups objected loudly, and the kit was quickly withdrawn from shelves.)
The uproar meant that the second wave of Monster Scenes kits—the far-less-objectionable Dracula, Giant insect and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde—were produced and distributed in only Canada. (I didn’t even know they existed until I read about them in Bob Bruegmann’s Aurora History and Price Guide 20 years later.)
Said uproar also came at the worst time possible: Nabisco had just bought Aurora and certainly didn’t want all that adverse publicity. They ultimately ordered Aurora to pull the plug on Monster Scenes, ensuring that there would be no third wave of kits (which may have included a male Victim/Hero, an Executioner, DC Comics characters like Man-Bat and Lois Lane and even a huge, poseable King Kong).
It even meant that the last two kits in the second wave—the Animal Pit (which would have featured a long stone staircase for Dracula to descend) and a Dungeon set kit—would never see the light of day. Nor would the other Monster Scenes kits, since their molds had been destroyed by Monogram Models, which bought Aurora’s molds when they went out of business in 1977.
Over the years, Monster Scenes attained cult status among modelers and monster fans—yours truly among them.
About 10 years ago, I picked up the four figure kits from the first wave—all of them partially built and/or painted--for about $100. I was thrilled to finally have them all, but instead of building and displaying them, I stuck them in storage. And there they stayed…until my recent stretch of unemployment when, having found them while cleaning house (yes, I do that once in a while…shut up), I went to work building and painting them. (The photos above are those same kits after I’d done my best…or worst…with them.)
I was additionally inspired to work on these kits after all these years by the publication of Aurora Monster Scenes: The Most Controversial Toys of a Generation, an amazingly comprehensive book on the model series and attending controversy, written by Dennis Prince (the current rights holder of Monster Scenes) and Andy Yanchus, the guy who came up with the Monster Scenes concept in the first place.
In a twist worthy of a typical story in Warren’s horror magazines, the Monster Scenes model, crawled out of their collective grave. Prince got together with Moebius Models and, after new molds were tooled, all of the kits from the first wave (and the Giant Insect from the second) have been reissued.
And that’s not all. Remember the Animal Pit and the Dungeon? The two kits that were almost ready to go into production when Nabisco ordered the end of Monster Scenes? According to Prince and Yanchus, the molds for these two kits actually survived Monogram’s purge and, after some additional fine tuning on the long-dormant molds, will finally go into production sometime soon.
Over the years, so many monsters have seemed definitely, irrevocably dead, only to prove that even the deepest and darkest of graves could not hold them down.
And so it has proven to be with Monster Scenes—bless 'em.