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October 18, 2019

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Birthplace of animatronic Zoltar? Boulder City

Business owner began making ‘dummies’ 22 years ago in a warehouse

Characters Unlimited

Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Home News

Troy Shaffer works on the motor inside the torso of the animated “Old Pappy,” one of the most popular characters at Characters Unlimited in Boulder City. Shaffer has worked at Characters Unlimited for 12 years.

A Cast of Characters in Boulder City

A famous Zoltar fortune teller machine with eye, mouth, head and arm movement is completed and ready for purchase at Characters Unlimited in Boulder City. Launch slideshow »

'Big' Movie Trailer

A Look at Characters Unlimited

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The mystical Zoltar knows and tells all.

But Zoltar, the shifty-eyed, turbaned fortune teller that made a name for himself in the 1988 Tom Hanks movie "Big" and takes quarters in exchange for your future, doesn't come from ancient, faraway lands.

Most robotic Zoltars are born in Boulder City — crafted from start to finish in a warehouse tucked back into the town's industrial area.

They come from Characters Unlimited, and they have life-sized cowboys, wizards and talking chickens for kin.

Owner Olaf Stanton learned to mold dummies as a teenager in Wisconsin, where he helped his stepfather make Native American mannequins for stores and restaurants.

After earning a college business degree, Stanton came to Boulder City 22 years ago to make the dummies, as he fondly calls them, with his brother.

The two added motors and speakers to the figures, and after some trial and error, created a business out of selling custom and standard animatronics. He has since bought his brother out.

The brothers did not make the Zoltar used in "Big," but the company does own the trademark now, Stanton said.

The dummies they make can be used for all sorts of purposes other than fortune telling.

For example, one character the brothers made looked like a sheriff and sat behind the counter clerk at a South Central Los Angeles convenience store that was frequently robbed. The figure had a camera for an eyeball to film people in the store. The characters in the museum at St. Jude's Ranch for Children were also the brothers' handiwork.

In the Characters Unlimited warehouse, plaster molds of heads dry in one corner, hands of all types hang from the ceiling, and electrical wires sprout from the beginnings of wooden torsos.

Stanton starts with the sculpture of a head, molds it, cuts out the jaw and eyes for movable parts, and builds a body around it. His brother-in-law, a Henderson police officer, provided a muscular forearm as a model, and some characters' hands are molded after one employee's.

In the loft above the workspace hangs every costume imaginable for any character — shoes picked up at thrift stores, wigs and accessories from jewelry to hats to animals.

Stanton ships the machines as far away as Canada. About a dozen can be found around Las Vegas, and Michael Jackson reportedly bought one for his home from Caesars Palace, Stanton said.

Two of the fortune tellers stayed in Boulder City: one called the Big Kahuna by the Coffee Cup Cafe and a Zoltar at Grandma Daisy's Candy and Ice Cream Parlor. Stanton also has made figures for a couple of large homes in the Hemenway Valley.

He attends trade shows once a month, and keeps busy with customers he attracts from all over. He said he can usually create a character and have it shipped out in three to five weeks.

Stanton said his business hasn't seen as much of a dip as others' during the down economy. The characters seem to draw people.

"Put a talking character in your store, and the next week you'll see the same people coming back," he said. "These things pay for themselves sometimes."

Cassie Tomlin can be reached at 948-2073 or [email protected].

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