by Martin Cage
Cast your mind back to a forgotten day, a forgotten time. A time when children safely played outside, a time when CD’s, video games, mobile phones and DVD’s were a fantasy of science fiction. A time when kitchen tables were covered with newspaper and the smell of polystyrene cement and enamel paints hung in the air for these were the days of the MonsterKid.
Aurora Plastics Corporation was formed in 1950 by engineer Joseph Giammarino and business man Abe Shikes and first set up shop in Brooklyn, New York. Although initially starting out as a contract manufacturer of injection moulded plastics, Aurora changed in 1952 with the hiring of John Cuomo and their decision to manufacture their own line of plastic model kits. With a move to West Hempstead, Long Island in 1954 they released their first line of kits, WW1, WW2 fighter planes, other classic aircraft and helicopters, modern jet fighters, warships, battleships, sailing ships and classic cars. Aurora instantly became a rival to Monogram and Revell by creating smaller, less detailed kits at a lower selling price.
In 1956/57 Universal Studios allowed their classic Horror Movies to be syndicated to US television networks. For the first time ever monster greats like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman were seen in the living rooms across the country. Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney Jnr appeared on the screen of TV’s everywhere. In 1958 publisher James Warren and editor Forrest J. Ackerman released the first edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a genre specific magazine devoted to the world of monster movies. Then in 1961, after a survey disguised as a competition, Aurora released their first monster model figure kit and the world of the MonsterKid was complete. Standing at around 7 inches tall when built and made up of 25 pieces of molded light grey plastic, Frankenstein (Kit #423); the kit depicted the monster walking over a grassy grave with the title “Frankenstein” etched into the tombstone. changed the world of Aurora and the world of model kit building forever. Aurora also employed the services of now legendary artist James Bama (who also did many covers for Famous Monsters of Filmland) to create the box art. Packaged in the now famous long box ( 13” x 5” x 2” ) to show the full beauty of Bama’s art, the kit even featured promotional text,“ About Frankenstein” on the instruction sheet so not only could you build your favourite monster, you could read about him and get to know him too! The kit itself was a monstrous success, with at one point over 8000 kits a day being produced and a second set of moulds having to be made due to the first set wearing out.
After the incredible success of Frankenstein, Aurora was quick to keep the ball rolling and in 1962 they released Dracula (Kit #424, moulded in black plastic) and The Wolfman (Kit #425, moulded in dark grey plastic) Again Bama was brought in to do the artwork. For Dracula he showed Lugosi stood in front of a wall of his castle and for The Wolfman he showed a pointy eared Werewolf (more like Oliver Reed than Chaney Jnr) peering from behind a tree. The kits themselves were totally different but I don’t think anybody cared as both the art and the kits were truly fantastic. For the kit Dracula stood on a grassy, muddy base next to an old dying tree, from which hung bats. He even had his ring and medallion. The Wolfman was stood on rocks, his hands raised, ready to rip the throat from some poor victim. His base had a skull and rats and both kits had the names of the respective characters embellished on the bases. With the inclusions of bats, rats, skulls etc, you were not just buying a figure model; you were buying a whole scene and diorama.
1963 was the year of triple terror. It saw the release of The Mummy, The Creature and The Phantom of The Opera. For the first time too, the kits actually looked a lot like the box art. The Mummy (Kit #427, moulded in light grey) was based more on the Tom Tyler / Lon Chaney Jnr versions with the title character dragging his bandaged self across some Egyptian ruins, one arm bandaged up to his chest with the other outstretched ready to choke the life from some unsuspecting model builder. The base even featured a cobra, although it was not wrapped around the leg as on the box art. The Creature (Kit #426 moulded in metallic green) is a favourite amongst collectors, no doubt due to the fact it was based on one of Universals first original monsters and not one based on lore or literature. The kit itself is a faithful and pretty accurate rendition of the costume used in the movie and depicts the Gillman stood on a swampy, watery base with viper wrapped around a gnarly branch, a skeleton hand and a large lizard with protruding tongue. While the figure itself is accurate, the base is one of artistic license but it really sets the whole think off. The Phantom of The Opera (Kit #428, moulded in black plastic) was based more on James Cagney’s performance as Lon Chaney in the 1957 film ‘The Man of A Thousand Faces’ than Chaney’s performance itself. The kit shows the Phantom holding his mask aloft allowing his horrible facial features to be fully on view. The base features rocks, rats and some unfortunate victim behind dungeon style bars at foot level and makes for yet another stunning, stylized monster scene.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong and Godzilla all appeared in 1964. The Hunchback (Kit #460, Moulded in tan plastic) caused a bit of a controversy upon its original release. James Bama based his original artwork on a publicity shot of the Anthony Quinn version of the movie. Quinn then tried to sue and Aurora had Bama change the hair and face quite drastically to make it as far away from Quinn’s likeness as possible. Boxed versions with the Quinn artwork do exist but it may cost a kidney or two to buy them. The actual Hunchback kit features him hairy chested, tied to a turning wheel with his exposed hump showing the signs of his recent lashings and an agonized look upon his face. The base is a little bland by Aurora standards but the features on the figure more than make up for this. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Kit # 462, moulded in white plastic) featured the title character through mid transformation, with his non changed arm holding his throat and his hairy changed arm holding the potion to the lips on his changed face. There is a nice little lab display base with this featuring table, chair and a few lab beakers and phials. King Kong (Kit #468, moulded in black and brown plastic) was Auroras first ‘big monster’. Up until now all the monsters had been based on human sized characters and done in around 1/8th scale. Kong was approximately 1/30th or 1/32nd scale and features the mighty ape storming through his jungle base while holding Anne Darrow in his right hand. The base was quite intricate with all its palms and trees but the kit did suffer from scale issues when comparing the size of the trees to the figure of Darrow in Kong’s hand. But then again I don’t think people actually cared as they were more than happy to have a King Kong kit in the first place. One also has to see the humour of the poor monitor type lizard that seems to be getting trod on by Kong’s giant foot. Godzilla (Kit # 469, moulded in pinky / purple plastic) was the second ‘big monster’ and was licensed through Toho Studios and stood around 1/200 scale. Although the likeness did not really do the big lizard justice the kit it was quite impressive and depicted Big G stomping through a city base complete with destroyed and damaged skyscrapers. The details on the buildings were pretty intricate and detailed in their own right. 1964 also saw the Master Model Maker contest. Aurora teamed up with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and Universal pictures to set the contest. Entrants were required to create a custom figures and dioramas from the Aurora monster range. Each contestant received a Master Monster Maker certificate and the top entries, a plastic Master Monster Maker plaque. The actual winner featured a King Kong kit diorama complete with train wreck setting and startled onlookers and was used as the cover for Famous Monsters #32.
The first female figures arrived from Aurora in 1965 and contained two of the most detailed model kit bases to be released. The Bride of Frankenstein (Kit #482, moulded in light grey plastic) was a sight to behold and featured a great version of Elsa Blanchester lying upon the laboratory operating table. The diorama base features electrodes, lab equipment, organs in a tray and some terrific textured stone walls. When built and painted, The Bride is really an impressive display piece, even if it is slightly smaller scale at 1/10th. The Witch (Kit #483, moulded in black plastic) was even smaller in scale at approx 1/12th but it had to be because of the incredibly stunning diorama base. This was Aurora’s first of the thirteen monsters that was not based on a movie character. Often referred to as The Salem Witch, to this day, the base remains one of the most intricate and detailed bases ever to be released in a plastic model kit. Rats, bats, bottles, flames, textured walls, cobbled floor, cobwebs, cleavers spoons, snakes, bubbling witches broth, it had it all. This kit was truly a painter’s paradise!
1966 saw the last of the original thirteen monsters. The Forgotten Prisoner of Castle Mare (Kit#442, moulded in light grey) was a joint effort with Aurora teaming up with Famous Monsters magazine. Going back to 1/8th scale the kit depicts the bones of a long forgotten prisoner who has been left to rot away in eternity. The base featured dungeon walls, chains, rat, skeleton hand and spider. As this was an original character it gave the builder many options to use their own imagination on the pain job, although I have seen many examples of paint work based on the wonderful James Bama box art.
Between 1969 and 1975 Aurora re-released twelve of the thirteen monsters (the Bride was missing due to damage on the moulds) in Frightening Lightening versions and Glow in The Dark versions. At first the Frightening Lightening versions did not sell well as they were packaged in the same long boxes as the originals, just with a frightening lightening logo on the front of the boxes which seemed to confuse potential customers. So they were repackaged in square boxes, the Aurora logo was changed and a glow in the dark bubble was added. James Bama was called in to change the original box art, in some cases drastically, to suit the new square boxes and the glow monsters were born.
One of the reasons behind Aurora’s success was their advertising. Adds were taken out in Famous Monsters and DC comics. People actually search out issues of theses comics and mags just to collect the Aurora adds. Retailers were supplied with banners and professionally built and painted kits. The designs on some the banners were an art form in their own right. In 1977 Aurora was sold by its then owner Nabisco to Monogram. In Aurora legend, the train carrying the moulds to Monogram and many of the moulds were badly damaged or destroyed, although nobody knows which. In the past 20 years the building of model kits has seen a resurgence, although not by MonsterKids but by MonsterAdults. The Aurora kits have been re-issued many times by companies like Revell, Monogram, Polar Lights, Atlantis and Moebius. In fact Moebius Models and Monarch Models are producing original design monsters in the vein of the old Aurora monsters. So, if you have some free time or are just looking for a monster related hobby, then why not get out the glue and paint and build yourself a plastic monster!!
Martin Cage originally from England moved out to Thailand in 2005 after re-training to become a teacher. Martin has been a life long toy collector and horror film addict. He now produces his own line of Custom Horror film collectable figures.