The True Hollywood Story of a Superstar’s Resurrection
I was just four years old. Color T.V. was coming into its own and televising mainstream movies were the order of the day. And on NBC Friday Night at the Movies, the network aired the 1956 Sci-FI classic, “Forbidden Planet”. Little did I know that my life would be heavily influenced from that day on. Every year my parents would ask me what I wanted for my birthday, and every year it was the same response, I wanted, Robby, the Robot. Not the tin wind up, I wanted the seven-foot tall, Krell designed robot to be my pal, play with me, tilt the house off its foundation, the works. I settled for the tin wind-up and put my obsession for Robby on hold for a few years and got into school, bikes and girls instead. Until 1973, when by chance I saw the original full-size Robby, the Robot on display at a wondrous museum called Movie World in Southern California. All the emotion and desire for the automaton flooded right back in to my obsession zone, only now, I knew I HAD to have him — One way or the other.
But, I had a few obstacles in my way, like I was 16, living at home and had no money. Typical high school student. But, there he was in front of me, Robby , the Robot. How was I going to make this happen? Movie World, the museum had just paid ten thousand for him at the Big 1970 MGM auction when they went into the casino business. Robby was the museums star attraction. There was only one answer, I’ll build one myself. Easier said then done. I was determined to build a replica and fulfill my childhood dream of having my own, seven foot tall Robby, the Robot, but I had never so much as built a model kit in my life. I was into film, and made Super 8 spoofs of “Star Trek” and “Forbidden Planet”. While most guys were into cars, I was into film and robots. I’m 50 and I’m still into film and robots. Unbelievable.
I had one major advantage, I was really young and motivated and didn’t know it couldn’t be done. But, best of all, I had total access to the robot, standing right there in front of me – unguarded. It was a magic time. A vast dark warehouse stuffed to the gills with vintage screen used movie props, and Robby, standing there, just standing their next to his vehicle. A completely surreal experience, just walking through there. The museum was always dark empty and quiet and all these movie memories surrounding you. A treasured memory. This place was remarkable and way ahead of its time. Jim Brucker, the owner bought every prop at every studio auction and inside deal he could lay his hands on. Remember, this was years before movie props become in vogue and venture capitol schemes like Planet Hollywood were non-existent. Movie World was the real deal. This museum had everything. All the cars from The Great Race, the ship from My Favorite Martian, The Seaview, The Heat Rays from The Lost City of Atlantis, the King Kong 33” miniature of Kong in chains, John Lennon’s Bently, Planes from Tora, Tora, Tora, you name it, it was there, and all original. No replicas, no repros, no switched props or molded frauds like some now defunct replica company was passing off. This was the real deal. All in pristine condition.
A fabulous place, great concept for an attraction only one problem, people stayed away in droves. It wasn’t the right time to display or collect classic props. Brucker set his museum right next to Knotts Berry Farm and Disneyland, hoping to capitalize on the tourist trade. But face it, if you live in L.A., it’s a haul to get down to Anaheim and you have to be real motivated to go that far and movie props just weren’t a draw. Tourists were usually too pooped from Disneyland and the hot Anaheim California sun, to walk around a prop museum. A few of us knew what he had there and appreciated it. To me, this was the real Disneyland and the mouse paled in comparison. When I found out Robby was there, I drove 140 miles roundtrip every Saturday for a year to study, measure and photograph him. It was so worth it.
Movie World was vast, as large a three Home Depot type warehouses. – Stuffed to the gills with props. And best of all, (for me, a brazen kid, wild-eyed for the robot), they had only one “Security Guard”. Actually, the guard was just a hillbilly drunk who would walk around every now and again to make sure gravity was still in effect. Besides, I went there so often, I was like a trustee and above reproach. Everyone knew me, so, when I jumped the ropes to measure and examine the robot, it was no big deal. I had friends keep a lookout anyway. I didn’t want to take any chances and get barred from the place. It was like Mission Impossible every weekend and I was the point-man. I never got caught and the secretary never had to disavow me or any of my I.M. crew.
I just wanted Robby. I knew I could never have the real one, so I had to build him somehow. And I was going to make it walk, like in “Forbidden Planet”. I didn’t know how extensively hard this project was all going to be, had I known, I probably never would have started. I had absolutely no model making experience and had never built anything in my life. I had no molds, no machine shop and especially no money to make my Robby. I had to make every part in my garage by trial and error and buy supplies at the local arts and crafts store, a little bit at a time.
Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. I went back to basics. I turned the leg balls out of plaster on a homemade pottery wheel and vacuum formed hemispheres out of styrene in my mother’s kitchen with a scratch-built vacuum table and old canister vacuum cleaner. I then glued the halves together, cut out the top and bottom and slowly assembled a set of legs. I took clay and sculpted feet, then made plaster molds and fiberglassed parts. I carved scrap foam I found in shipping boxes and created the lower abdomen and molded that.
The torso was a monumental task. Try sanding and filling plaster, not to mention, styrene, resins and fiberglass. Yucky! The torso was also turned out of plaster on a turntable; the thing was massive and messy. I needed to make a plaster negative from that turning for glassing. – It weighed a ton. And making the heart box was very hard as you’ll notice the tuck and roll edges, all hand done in clay, then molded and glassed. I used an old bucket for the aperture cover and sheet plastic for the inner angles within the box. For stomach detail, I used the bottom of beer cans, inverted with a light in it. It sounds funny, but it looked like machined aluminum and it was a close match. The arm balls were also turned in plaster, as was every major part. The hands were sculpted in clay, then molded in plaster and then poured in and out to build up thickness out of latex.
The inner-head was put together out of wood and clay and vacuum-formed rings, then molded in plaster. I can’t tell you what a nightmare the dome was. I turned my own dome mold out of plaster over a foam plug and took it to a vacuum form shop. They were very supportive, and after chuckling at my crappy mold, ran me ONE part for $350. Money I borrowed from my older brother. The part sucked, but it worked. The mold was destroyed after one attempt. Making plaster molds may be economical, but it is very messy and time consuming and you have a lot more sanding of the finished part.
In various shop classes in high school, I made wooden forms for vacuum forming parts like the sax valve lights, sax upper detail and eyes. The sax valves were sculpted in clay and resin ones were made from those. I turned my own ear blasters out of aluminum in metal shop and sliced my finger pretty deep. I turned the clear acrylic detail as well. They were foggy and unpolished, but I had them and to me they were just great. No doubt about it, that Robby had a lot of blood sweat and tears in it.
After making the parts as lightweight as I could, so the costume wouldn’t be too heavy to move, the task of articulating the suit became very real. Whereas I had access to Robby, it was only from the outside, so I had no idea how they made everything move. Logically, I knew I had to hinge the toes and put in toe and heel stirrups for the operator. Then tie all the leg balls together, make tracks for the hip section and a harness so the suit can be worn. Without getting into tons of detail, every joint in Robby had to be thought out and worked until he moved freely. Head, body, arms, legs. Each a huge undertaking. Each a unique engineering problem.
Once completed, I realized the Robby costume was a complete death trap. There is no ventilation, an extremely limited field of view for the operator, a very high center of gravity and a complete shock hazard. – Nine neons tubes wired across your face to 15,000 Volts at 40mA – that can stun and even kill. Robby, by nature wants to tip over and fall. – Even the original. Remember, you are in a fiberglass and plastic coffin, with nine poisonous mercury vapor tubes starring at you, one inch away from your face. If you fall face forward, which is how Robby likes to fall, you get a face of glass and mercury in your face and eyes as well as a bunch of steel cams and metal brackets from the sax valve mechanism. Not to mention all the splintering sharp fiberglass edges that will jet into you and two broken wrists. If you fall backwards, you could break your neck and your back and have glass shatter down into your eyes. A Robby costume is best left to the professionals at all times. Kids, don’t try this at home!
As for the mechanisms, I used tinker toys as cams for the sax valves, surplus aircraft motors for the scanners, a solenoid for the flippers, and the gyro’s were spun with a motor and each gyro rotated on a central circular platter and pressure fit on wheels and shafts I modified from Hot Wheels, so as the bell spun, the gyros rotated. Not exactly to MGM standards, but it worked and that’s all that mattered. I made the gyros themselves from thick nylon fishing line and painted clear plastic. I even made my own blaster light bulbs out of resin because those lights were no longer made.
Working non-stop for one full year (after school and weekends) he was done. I had finished my first replica and he made his debut at a Star Trek Convention; Equicon 74’ – to hundreds of cheering fans. It was a great moment for a 17-year-old and a total blast.
I assure you, my first robot was an amateur attempt, but it worked, and it worked well. Plus, I learned so much and honed my skills. And as you can see, from the picture of me in my white tee shirt, I did quite a bit of justice to my favorite movie star.
I couldn’t wait to bring my newly finished Robby to Movie World. – I just had to show the museum staff and the real Robby, that he had a new twin brother. We put him together in the parking lot and walked him into the museum, right past the ticket window. No one was going to ask Robby for a ticket. We passed by the Hobby Shop in the lobby and walked with Robby up to the refreshment stand. By now, a crowd had formed and everyone had a smile on their face. Jim Brucker, the owner came out of his office to see what was going on. He stood there and cracked a crooked smile. At first he thought that it was his display, but this Robby was dark Krell Metal, not CBS silver.
He watched a bit more and scratched his butt. He knew my friends and me because we’d been hanging around there for a year. After a while we tore down the suit and packed it away in the car. I went back in to say goodbye and that’s when he asked me, and I’ll never forget what he said, “Hey, how’s bout’ you fix-up mine, make him nice like yours?” He nudged his head in the direction of the Robby display. I almost shit. I told him I’d have to think about it. We didn’t even talk price. He’d knew I’d do it for nothing. Two seconds later I agreed and faster than you could say warp 9.9; I packed THE ORIGINAL ROBBY, THE ROBOT into my parents 71’ Lincoln Continental and hightailed it out of there, screaming.
But, I didn’t go right home, I took Robby back to MGM in Culver City California, where he was first built and unloaded him on the front steps. I wanted to take a picture. “Robby Returns”, that kind of thing. It was Saturday and no one was around. Just as I was going to shoot the picture, an old guard booted us out of there. After much arguing, we left without exposing any film. Oh well.
I got him home and the first thing I did was pop my friend inside the robot. The same guy who got inside my replica. He was a great robot. This was the first time Robby had walked in a decade. It was awesome. An overused term these days, but truly apropos in this case. As fun as it was to have my own walking Robby replica, it couldn’t hold a candle to having the original in my living room.
After playing Robby and Morbius for a few hours, I powered up all the head systems and he started to sing. The neon tubes still worked, as did every MGM mechanism. Robby smelled like machine oil and lacquer. MGM had used aluminum tracks for the head, torso and legs. Robby was silent when he walked. You’d hear a little creaking plastic, but that was it. Truly a magnificent creation. Robby was silver when I got him, missing an ear, a scanner, blasters, and original heart box detail. His legs and body were warped, his ankles were broken, his dome had yellowed, and he had a dozens of screw holes put in him by uncaring grips who tried to keep him together for whatever shoot he was on. But, he still worked and he was all mine for two months anyway, while I restored him back to glory. I gingerly dismantled him to the bare plastic and sanded down years of bad studio paint jobs. I was in heaven. So much history. A dream realized. I can’t say how cool it was to work on this fabulous thing.
By now, I was quite a skilled mold-maker and very learned in the ways of the robot. As part of the restoration process, I had to mold a lot of Robby to make new parts, and of course, I wanted to upgrade my Robby replica as well. I thought it best as long as I was making repro-parts for him, that I mold every last inch of Robby for preservation and in case I had to fix him again. After all, souvenir hunters were stealing parts from him every week. I spent many a weekends maintaining Robby at the museum. The owner even had me make a new display for him, where I animated the head and lit the neons to a Robby soundtrack. It was a great display.
I continued to be Robby’s care-taker for years to come at the museum. People continued to pull off parts and steal souvenirs from Robby. Many people to this day think they have a piece of the true Robby, when in actuality, they have parts reproduced by me to replace the original stolen parts. A few years went by and finally, the museum had to close its doors. No business. Brucker sold off a lot of his collection, including Robby. Robby was sold to a private collector in Southern California and is in very good and capable hands. Robby is completely retired. It is just too risky to take him out for a show. If he falls, he could suffer irreparable damage as that 60 year old plastic is very brittle. Any media appearances for the last several years has been preformed by my walking suit. It is impossible to tell the two of them apart, so Robby’s personae lives on. I suggest you compare it to having more than one actor for James Bond. —– “My name is Robot, Robby, the Robot”. – Licensed not to kill.
I used my new molds and the secrets of the Krell to build myself a magnificent new walking suit that I still use today. You may have seen my Robby on “The Big Bang Theory”, “The Tonight Show”, “Earth Girls are Easy”, The Love Boat” and “The Ripper Savage Show” an AT&T and GE commercial to name a few. When I molded Robby, in 1974; nobody was collecting props, or cared. After I made my new Robby, the molds were stored and not touched again until 1996 when I decided to license Robby with “Warner Bros. who recently acquired “Forbidden Planet” from Turner Entertainment. Full-size movie collectibles were getting in vogue and I thought there must be others who would want Robby as much as I do. I was right.
After building Robby in high school, I went on to get my Masters Degree in Film Production. I worked at various studios for years in production and decided it was time to open my own production company. A few years later, in 1995, I wanted to build the classic robot from “Lost in Space” – Robot Model B9. After all, this was the other great Bob Kinoshita designed robot and I thought it would be nice if Robby had a little brother. It had been twenty years since I built a robot, but the knowledge and wherewithal still coursed through my veins. I built a magnificent B9. Far superior to what Fox had built for the series. This robot was like a jewel, flawless in every respect. Plus I fully automated him and put in seven microprocessors and a digital audio section. State of the art stuff. People in the industry began to take notice. I started getting requests for full size robots from a lot of people in the entertainment business. People liked the Lost in Space robot, but all my requests were for Robby as many felt B9 was the poor cousin, a 60’s T.V. psychedelic knockoff of a true classic. People in the know really appreciated the classic design of Robby and that’s what they wanted to buy.
Who knew that 30 years later Billionaire Paul Allen would buy the original Lost in Space robot and have me restore it. Actually get the second great Kinoshita robot and take that one apart too and restore him to glory. But, that’s another story….
It was now 1996 and the B9 project was completed. Fully immersed in the robot mode once again, I decided to build another Robby. I thought a Robby statue, fully articulated, remote controlled and computerized would be a great collectible to offer the world as no one has ever done or offered this kind of thing before. Sure, there were plenty of rubber aliens decomposing in peoples homes, but I wanted to make something that could be past down to generations. I whipped out the old plaster molds, which held up remarkably well over the years, made parts from them and spent six months retooling and refining those parts, at great expense. I then had professionally made rubber, fiberglass and aluminum molds commissioned at the finest fabrication shops in the business. Together, we created the superb Robby replicas I manufacture today. I was able to make my new Robby’s, light years ahead both structurally and cosmetically to what MGM made in the 50’s. I spared no expense in tooling, molding, engineering and electronics.
I made a fantastic, fully mechanized and computerized Robby statue that did everything except walk – too dangerous for product sold to the public. I showed it to Warner Bros., they loved it and granted me the first ever license to make full-size Robby’s. This marked the first time a full size Robby, the Robot would be made available to the public in over forty years, and I made it happen. I took my childhood fantasy and turned it into a reality. Now I share my dream and fulfill other peoples desires of having a real Robby all their own. And not just Robby, many other famous robots as well. I do owe everything to Robby – King of the robots. It has been a very satisfying experience all around.