Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
What do Donald Trump, Ghost Adventures host Zak Bagans, and porn star Ron Jeremy have in common?
They've all dispensed prophesies from inside coin-operated fortunetelling machines.
Or their animatronic likenesses have. All are products of Characters Unlimited, a $1.25 million business in Boulder City, Nevada, the hot desert town originally built to house laborers on the Hoover Dam. A few of the company's more traditional fortunetellers--turbaned and louche-bearded--speckle storefronts in this gambling-dry city. But fortunes augur luck, so the figures are predictably more plentiful in Las Vegas, 26 miles to the northwest. There they ply their mantic trade in the shopping areas of casinos like Caesars Palace, Planet Hollywood, the Venetian, and Circus Circus (which has five), and in front of multiple Houdini's Magic Shops.
The custom Bagans and Jeremy machines are also on display in Vegas, at the soon-to-open Haunted Museum and the Erotic Heritage Museum, respectively. The Trump facsimile, like the original, is at home in New York City. Commissioned by some Brooklyn artists, Fortuneteller Trump materialized on the streets of Manhattan in October to dispense characteristic verbal bombast and "Misfortune" cards outside a mosque, a Mexican restaurant, Planned Parenthood, and other politically charged locations.
"They put it right in front of Trump Tower. The security guards were wondering what the hell they were going to do with this thing," says Olaf Stanton, co-founder and president of Characters Unlimited. Stanton, who voted for Trump, doubts the president bears him any ill will. "He would understand I'm just a businessman trying to make a living," says Stanton. "I'm not going to turn down $8,000 for a machine if somebody wants to buy it."
Roughly 10,000 of Stanton's characters--some, like the fortunetellers, ensconced in glass-fronted cabinets, others freestanding or sitting--populate arcades, restaurants, gift shops, casinos, and other venues around the world. They include pirates and princes, cops and criminals, dinosaurs, leprechauns, and talking trees. The figures are popular among amusement park operators who lack Country Bear Jamboree budgets. "We are the go-to people for animatronic characters that don't cost tens of thousands of dollars," says Stanton. "People in the industry that make sophisticated animatronics will send customers our way who want to spend $6,000 instead of $60,000."
Fortunetelling machines account for roughly half the company's $1.25 million annual revenue. Stanton's most popular prophet by far is Zoltar, a tribute to the arcade machine in the 1988 movie Big that kicked Tom Hanks into premature adulthood.
Unlike most of Stanton's figures, which are meant to deliver product information or lure passersby into a business, Zoltar is considered a game and requires $1 to engage. "They can take in $2,500 a month in a good touristy location," says Stanton, who in some instances shares revenue with a venue's owner.
A dozen of Stanton's products--including Zoltar, a penny-crushing machine, and a talking bear, moose, and buffalo--are scattered around the waterpark attraction Wilderness Resort, in the Wisconsin Dells, which entertains 1.6 million guests each year. "They make you laugh, and kids love them," says owner and president Tom Lucke, who has been a Characters Unlimited customer since the early '90s. "Olaf knows how to get people to pull that dollar out of their pocket."
Kitsch and kin
If Stanton turned his life into an independent movie, he could sell it at Sundance.
He grew up in the Wisconsin Dells, a tourist mecca of dazzling scenery and eye-rolling kitsch. The Stanton clan profited from both. His father's family owned the Riverview Boat Line, for which Stanton sold tickets in the summers. He also washed dishes and, at age 7 or 8, shined shoes at his parents' restaurant, Call of the Wild, a themed establishment with North Woods decor and taxidermy animal displays that included a bear cub on a swing.
Stanton's parents divorced, and his mother later married a traveling salesman named Hank Dominic. The family moved to Arizona and then to Idaho for the winters, returning right before tourist season when the Dells sprang back to life.
Dominic made life-sized figures of cowboys, sea captains, pirates, and other characters, which he sold door-to-door. "They were great advertising tools for touristy businesses," says Stanton. "You would put one out front and people would stop and take a picture with it and then go inside and buy something." On the family's Idaho ranch, Dominic taught Olaf and his brother Doug to make the figures: casting plaster of Paris heads in rubber molds, building torsos from plywood, jointed arms and legs from 2X4's, and padding the whole with fiberglass insulation. They sold the figures for $400 to $600, or traded them.
In the early 1980s, Stanton graduated with a business degree from the University of Wisconsin and moved with his high-school-sweetheart wife to Boulder City. There he joined Doug, who had launched a business virtually identical to Dominic's, building figures in the backyard and garage of a rented duplex. The brothers scrounged thrift shops for costumes, which they would swap out if, for example, they needed to repurpose some old miners because they were running out of pirates.
Stanton's wife and two cats accompanied him on sales trips around the country. When business wasn't good enough to stay in hotels, "We would pull over, move the characters enough to make room, and lie down and sleep between them," says Stanton.
The gift of gab
In 1988, Stanton attended his first trade show, for the National Restaurant Association, in Chicago. The next year that show produced the Stanton brothers' first major sale. A real-estate-developer-turned-producer was pulling together a series of historical dioramas for an exhibit called "Here's Chicago" at the city's old water tower. He hired Characters Unlimited to create them.
A centerpiece was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. "We had 12 dead gangsters bloodied up and laid in various positions and machine gun sounds when people walked in," says Stanton. But the tableau proved controversial: "Display Glorifies Gangster Era," read the headline of an article in the Chicago Tribune. "I thought it was cool just because we got a mention in the paper," says Stanton. "It was the first time we saw we could have an impact."
Orders rolled in and with them, inquiries. Was it possible to make the figures move? To make them talk?
At a trade show in Vegas, the Stantons sat next to a guy selling a handheld sweeper, who told them he could give the characters voices. He took a head back to his garage and installed the kind of tiny gear motor used in remote-control cars and planes to open and close the jaw and an endless loop cassette tape on which messages could be recorded. To coordinate the jaw movements with the voice he adapted a technology used in the disco era to sync music and lights.
The brothers also recruited a Vegas special effects artist who welded a nut and bolt onto a figure's neck and attached a motor to make the head swivel. "It was crude, but it worked," says Stanton.
The Stantons debuted their talking figures in 1990 at the restaurant show. "We sold about a half dozen of them. But a few weeks later, people started calling and said the jaw quit moving," says Stanton. The company's willingness to take back and improve its early talking figures earned it many repeat customers.
Still, the occasional glitch remained. At the amusement park industry's largest trade show that same year, Doug Stanton was demo-ing an old miner for a prospective customer when Olaf Stanton noticed that something about its movements seemed off. He went behind the figure and opened its back. "As soon as I lifted the shirt, it burst into flames," says Stanton. "One of the most embarrassing things that can happen is you are trying to sell something while it is on fire."
Stanton bought out his brother in 1997. In 2002, the company introduced its first fortunetellers, who waved their palms over glowing crystal balls and delivered heavily accented bromides before spitting a card out of a slot. Stanton wanted to call his fortuneteller Zoltar, which he knew would appeal to the many fans of Big. Fearing a lawsuit, he settled for Swami. However, in 2005 he found out the name Zoltar was available, and was able to get a trademark for it.
Today, Zoltars are everywhere tourists congregate, including at 25 Ripley's Believe It or Not museums. Stanton says he is talking to a couple of movie companies about making another film based on a fortunetelling machine.
Over the years, Stanton has contracted with many local craftspeople and mechanics who work on their balconies or out of their garages. There, they build everything from fortunetellers' cabinets to animated animal characters. A company in Florida supplies Characters Unlimited's motors. A business in Tennessee writes scripts and records voices.
But most of the manufacturing takes place in a 5,000-square-foot facility, where five employees build and stockpile bodies as well as heads and hands, now made of rigid latex and polyurethane, respectively. Each order is custom-made. You can buy a basic talking character ($3,535) or a deluxe fully animated character ($4,990) or design your own from an extensive à la carte menu. Side-to-side eye movements, for example, cost $595. Arm or head movement is $625. So is breathing.
You can also have a figure made in your own image or in the image of a loved one. The former option is popular with business owners such as Kalahari Resorts founder Todd Nelson, whose simulacrum sits waving in a Jeep above the bar at his Poconos property. As for the latter: "A guy whose mother died missed her so much he wanted a likeness to sit in a rocking chair in his home," says Stanton. "He sent me her false teeth and her eyeglasses and her original clothing. It kind of reminded me of Psycho."
Stanton says the fascination with all things digital has done nothing to dent enthusiasm for his more retro technology. One daughter is employed full time at the company and a son works summers there. Stanton has no idea whether any of his children will eventually want to take over, but the business will be here for them if they do. The goal, he says, is "to make it interesting enough and profitable enough that my family and employees will want to be here for many years to come."