Olaf Stanton puts a penny in the slot and gives it a push. Inside the booth, a miner named Pappy comes to life, an electric device opening and closing his jaw. “Howdy! I’m Pappy, and I love crushing me some pennies,” he screeches. “Hee hee hee!” We pick a design, and in seconds we’ve got our penny, squashed flat with a stamp of Texas.
Headed for the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, “Pappy’s Pennies” is one of the many machines Stanton and his team create inside Boulder City factory Characters Unlimited. The lifelike characters vary, from tiny holiday elves and old cowboys to fuzzy polar bears and weathered sea captains. His most famous animatronic creation is the fortune teller Zoltar, its name inspired by the psychic arcade machine Zoltar Speaks, which morphed 12-year-old Josh Baskin into an adult played by Tom Hanks in the 1988 hit Big. But that movie Zoltar “was never meant to be an actual arcade game,” Stanton says. “[It] wasn’t even something that was manufactured. So no one bothered trademarking it. When I searched to see if I could call [my] fortune teller Zoltar [in 2006], the trademark wasn’t taken.”
For the past decade, Zoltar has been Stanton’s Frankenstein of sorts, each uniquely made with an assortment of fortunes, trinkets and gems.
Unsurprisingly, they’re his best sellers.
Inside Characters Unlimited, employee Tom Canterbury is gluing together elf parts for a Christmas display. “He builds bodies,” Stanton’s daughter Karina says matter-of-factly as we wind through shelves of heads, each pair of marbled eyes following our footsteps.
Stanton’s mastery of mannequins dates back more than 30 years, to his teenage days in Idaho, and then Wisconsin, where he helped his stepfather build static figures. After graduating college, Stanton launched his own business building life-size figurines and selling them door-to-door.
“We’d drive around in this big van with 20 characters, looking for places that could use them.” Traveling the country looking for trading posts and seafood restaurants wasn’t glamorous, but it was the first step in the journey. “If we didn’t have a place to stay we’d sleep in between the characters. We slowly graduated into doing trade shows and then people started asking us, ‘Can they move?’ ... It’s just been a real progression.”
In 1986 Stanton moved from Wisconsin to Boulder City with two goals: start a business and raise a family. Since 1987, Characters Unlimited has remained a tight-knit operation, with his kids and their friends at the helm. Karina, a recent UNLV grad, works there part-time between marketing gigs. “The business has always been a part of our lives,” she says. “We’re always looking for places to place Zoltar machines and characters, or ways to contribute.” Her brother, Gunnar, also helps while attending UNLV, and their sister Cally worked there through high school and college.
“Yesterday I had to pick up paint, go to the credit union and go to the seamstress to get an alien costume made,” Karina says as she sits with a severed mannequin head on the table. Perhaps he’ll end up as Zoltar. Or maybe a pirate or a mobster. Armed with a pair of scissors, she runs her fingers through the figure’s long black beard, making sure his ends are even. Snip.
Karina’s next project will be putting the eyebrows on a custom Frida Kahlo fortune teller for Downtown Mexican restaurant Casa Don Juan. “I’m really nervous,” she says. “I have to get it right.”
Even though Stanton has built his business into a Boulder City-based empire, he still makes some mannequins himself.
“I come up with some weird color combinations,” Stanton says, explaining that he’s actually color-blind. “The kids laugh at me.”
“He’ll be like, ‘Is this green?’” Karina says. “And I’m like, ‘That’s pink. You can’t put that on a miner.’”
Adding to the characters’ bizarre DIY charm, each set of Zoltar teeth is made from an actual dental mold of Stanton’s mouth. Weird? Yes. This family business is far from normal, but the Stantons wear their eccentricities with pride.
We pass through the molding area where rows of white, plastered faces sit idly on shelves. The next room houses old, unwanted heads, and hands and feet dangle from the ceiling. Upstairs, a room has been turned into a thrift shop for the figures—a giant wardrobe for almost any fantastical character imaginable. It’s no surprise the factory is one of Boulder City’s most popular Halloween-costume hunting spots.
Stanton’s models are all over the country, from amusement parks like Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California and Ohio’s Cedar Point to Caesars’ Palace and the Fremont Street Experience here in Vegas. Those green extraterrestrials at the Alien Fresh Jerky store in Baker, California are his, too. Each perfectly painted photo-op has been made right here.
As we wind back through the factory into Stanton’s office, I notice newspaper clippings taped to the side of a bookshelf dating to 1978. Olaf Stanton pours plaster into Indian head mold, reads one caption. Above it, a teenage Stanton helps his dad make a sculpture in a room that looks just like this one.
Stanton says it was the fear of failure that made him a success, but as I pass one of his Zoltar machines, I remember that pivotal scene in Big—the fortune teller’s eyes glowing and full of magic. “Your small payment will reap great benefits,” Stanton’s machine bellows. Maybe this was his fortune all along.