If you’ve ever been driving through the United States and stopped at a rest stop, whether for a tinkle, a can of Coke, or a suspicious hot dog from Nathan’s, you may have seen a Zoltar fortune-telling machine. If you’ve never seen one, the concept is simple: drop a quarter in (that’s 25 cents for you foreigners), make a wish, watch Zoltar come to life and speak his words of wisdom, and then you get a little slip of paper that says “YOUR WISH IS GRANTED.”
If you’ve walked by countless Zoltar machines in your life and never dropped a coin in, I’d suggest giving it a try at least once; it’s an experience that everyone should have if only for how creepy Zoltar’s animatronic movements are.
Whether or not you believe in Zoltar’s clairvoyant abilities or you think he’s just a capitalistic ploy to rob you of your hard-earned quarters, the origins of Zoltar and fortune-telling machines in general are pretty interesting. And if you were wondering, yes, Zoltar machines are pretty much just a thing in the United States. That was kind of a given, though, wasn’t it?
Anyway, in this article, we’ll explore the phenomenon of Zoltar and fortune-telling machines. We’ll look at when they became popular, where they came from, and why people enjoy spending their money on something so extremely creepy and weird.
And if you’ve never been to a highway-side rest stop in the United States and put money into a Zoltar machine, now, when you do, you’ll have a bit of inside knowledge about the background of these machines. So, drop a quarter in, and let’s check out what’s up with these weird machines.
The History of Fortune-Telling Machines
The first-known notable example of a fortune-telling machine was made by Mills Novelty Company around 1904 and was known simply as Verbal Fortune Teller. It’s possible that this was the only machine of this type ever made, as it was not known to be part of any kind of production series.
The machine featured a recorded voice and some fairly creepy animatronic movements. The machine only cost one penny and, when activated, it would tell your fortune from a hidden record player. The Verbal Fortune Teller would also allow you to input whether you were a male or female and would give you a different fortune accordingly.
Other early notable examples of fortune-telling machines included Madame Zita, a Gypsy-style fortune teller in luxuriant attire, Grandmothers Predictions, a wise grandmother who would pass her hands over several stacks of cards and choose the one that correlated with your fortune, and Princess Doraldina, an attractive princess who made lifelike movements while predicting your fortune.
Fast forward to the 1930s and fortune-telling machines could be found all over the United States in penny arcades. But they didn’t just feature fortune-tellers; they were also populated by mummies, skulls, devils, wizards, or pretty much anything that has to do with the supernatural. Then, in 1965, the first-ever Zoltan machine was created, with the name most likely coming from the Hungarian word for “sultan” considering he was dressed like a sultan. No, I’m not talking about Zoltar yet; I’m talking about Zoltan. With that being said, the Zoltar machines that started appearing later were probably direct descendants of the Zoltan machines. However, the Zoltar machines never enjoyed widespread popularity until one particular film made a Zoltar machine its centerpiece.
Zoltar Stars in Big
If you’re interested in the history and lore surrounding Zoltar machines, you need to check out the 1988 film Big. In the film, a twelve-year-old boy named Josh inserts a coin into a Zoltar machine and wishes to be big. As a result, Josh turns into a full-grown adult the next morning, at which point he’s portrayed by Tom Hanks. Josh must then live out the next six weeks of his life as an adult until he can find the Zoltar machine again.
In the meantime, Josh gets a job at a toy company, becomes largely successful, and even begins a romance with a real woman (kind of weird, I know). Eventually, Josh is able to find the Zoltar machine again, at which point he wishes himself to be a kid again.
After the film came out, two things happened. First, Tom Hanks’s career really started to take off. Second, the popularity of fortune-telling machines had a resurgence and, soon, these machines started popping up all over the place, whereas before they could pretty much only be found in arcades.
These days, Zoltar machines are manufactured and distributed by Characters Unlimited, a company that specializes in creating fortune-telling machines. Among the other wacky characters that they produce are Truthful Bear and Del Rio Carlos (who wears a poncho…). The company has been around since 1987, before the movie Big came out, and has a massive stable of different animated characters that serve a large variety of different functions.
No, Characters Unlimited didn’t make the Zoltar machine from the movie Big. That one was essentially just a movie prop, and it functioned very differently than the ones sold by Characters Unlimited. The Zoltar machines that are sold around the world today now have heads that can turn and eyes that can move, and they also dispense the iconic card after telling you your fortune.
According to Olaf Stanton, the owner of Characters Unlimited, every Zoltar machine is custom-made. During the production process, they first start with the cabinet, which is made from wood. Then, they begin to cast the head of the Zoltar character out of latex material. After that, the eyeballs are installed and the face is painted. From there, the machine goes to the wig department, where it receives its legendary goatee.
The next step is a pretty strange one. Zoltar receives his teeth, which are made from a cast of real human teeth. But they aren’t just anyone’s teeth, they’re Olaf Stanton’s teeth. That’s right; every Zoltar machine has the same teeth as the owner of Characters Unlimited. Weird. Finally, once the creepy teeth are put in, they add the components that make Zoltar talk and dispense the cards and he’s all ready to go.
Other Zoltar Pop Culture Appearances
Stemming from the film Big, Zoltar also appeared on the cover of the 2014 album Wishful Thinking by Neck Deep. The entire cover is obviously meant to bring to mind the Tom Hanks film, and the desired effect is certainly achieved.
In an episode of the CBS comedy-drama series Limitless, there is a scene where one of the characters uses a Zoltar machine to tell some guilty members of the military that their fortune is that they’re murders. I watched the scene and it was not good but, hey, I got excited about the Zoltar.
Another appearance of the Zoltar machine in popular media is in Step Up 3D, the third installment in the popular dance film series. The machine appears when the dance crew shows up at an arcade at a fair.
In the Canadian-American Netflix horror series The Order, the exact Zoltar machine from the movie Big appears to grant ironic wishes to those who use it. It’s sort of an inside joke only for people who have seen Big, but it was still fairly entertaining.