Boulder City - The Magazine is a monthly publication full of information about Boulder City and Southern Nevada. Boulder City - The Magazine features the Boulder City Home Guide, a real estate guide to Boulder City and Southern Nevada.
Boulder City - The Magazine® November/December 2004 Issue

Spotlight on Business

Cover Story
by Ev Chase

Cavorting With The Unreal
Olaf Stanton has been messing around with strange looking dummies since he was 14-years-old. It all began with a jewelry and dummy drummer who stopped to eat at his mother's family resturant in a small Wisconsin tourist town - that drummer set Stanton on a course toward a life career of new creations and make believe.

Little did Olaf know 20-some odd years later, life-size Cowboys, Indians, and Pirates would be the foundation of a thriving family business in another small town - Boulder City, Nevada.

According to Olaf's version, it began when "some guy came through town selling Indian jewelry, artifacts, tomahawks and life size dummies of Cowboys, Indians, Pirates and stuff. He set up a show in my mother's restaurant selling turquoise jewelry,"

In time, a new adventure and a unique education began for Olaf and his family when his mother married the jewelry drummer. They all moved west to southern Arizona where they opened a gift shop called the "Sitting Indian Store."

Olaf's new stepfather, who had been making Cowboy and Indian characters for years, taught Olaf and his brother Doug how to make the molds to cast heads and bodies for these and other life-size characters.

The two brothers worked for their stepfather learning dummy art and gaining experience while they were attending high school. Olaf, wanting more than just the knowledge of dummies, garnered a business degree from the University of Wisconsin. As fate would have it, he ended up in Boulder City.

"I received a Business Administration degree," Olaf says, "and after graduation I had to get a job or try something on my own. My brother happened to be in Boulder City making characters in his back yard and in the garage of a rented house. He would then take his characters and travel around the country selling them.

"Doug had friends here in Boulder City and he came to visit and ended up staying and working the business."

Olaf signed on working with Doug for 10 years before buying his brother's share of the business. It wasn't long after the buyout Olaf began rethinking his business plan.

Getting orders from customers one, two, or three at a time wasn't efficient, and it was time consuming.

"It occurred to me," Olaf says, "that we should be traveling to trade shows and having the buyers come to us instead of traveling around and trying to sell to them one at a time."

Characters Unlimited's first trade show was in Chicago and reasonably successful, but as time went on they decided not to limit their presence to just trade shows relavent to their attention-getting product.

"We got into gift shows, furniture shows, and even car dealer shows," Stanton says."

Because of the successful move with the shows, they began thinking about what more they could do to enhance their product and broaden their sales.

"At first we were only doing static characters until we met a guy who saw our characters at a show. He said he could make the character's mouth move.

"He took one of our dummy's heads and made the mouth move to words. It was pretty cool."

Cool was in. Although the first dummy sold with a moving mouth and speaking words, it lasted about two weeks before it broke down. It took some effort, but they learned how to make them more reliable.

Since that beginning, Characters Unlimited has branched off into making birds and animals and other custom work.

"We are doing, not just talking heads," Olaf says, "but head and eye movement, breathing, and arm movement.

"There is a gentleman we work with in Las Vegas who is a talented sculpture. He creates different types of mechanisms providing a variety of movements. We have hooked up with him and now we can offer almost anything people want - dummies of course, but cartoons, trees, etc."

The etc., it appears (some of which appear framed on these pages), is what keeps Characters Unlimited successful as well as interesting to clients and the artisans who develop them.

Although sales are still "mostly single orders" it is the trade shows, many of which are in Las Vegas, saving Stanton time, travel expense, and of course the loss of "quality time" when away from family and friends.

"Our single orders are mostly a mom and pop businesses looking for an attraction setting them apart and giving the people something to talk about.

"We have people writing us letters stating they have increased their business 20 or 30 percent because they have the characters around. It's good word of mouth advertising.

"In Branson MO, one of our customers has a character called 'Branson Bob' who is placed out in front of the store everyday. One day they moved the character around the corner to another store because they needed help increasing store traffic.

"The original store business dropped 25 percent the next month. Finally they figured out it was because of the character. When they brought Branson Bob back to the original store, the sales went back up."

The upside to that story came at the next trade show, according to Olaf.

"When they saw me at the next show in Las Vegas, their first stop was our booth to buy another character."

The downside, other than the situation with Branson Bob, is that there is not normally a big repeat market.

"When we sell a character to a small business, they have it forever. "Olaf says. "We have people who have had characters for 15 years. But there are people who send their characters back for refurbishing, new motors and clean up etc. We repair them and send them back as good as new."

Back to the upside if one likes to travel abroad, we can find Olaf in Canada, Australia, Russia, and parts of Europe working his trade shows and looking for new product.

"We picked up a line of characters that are made from solid urethan and come out of a mold," Olaf says. "This fellow from Michigan makes them. I said to him we're doing 25 shows a year and you're just doing this Halloween show, why don't you let me take a sample and sell these for you."

Just when I was feeling sorry for Olaf, because he was working so hard, he begins a new success story with someone elses goods.

"We've become his biggest outlet, we're selling them to markets he never dreamed of. In the past he had been selling only to the Halloween business. We're selling them to department stores, car dealers, furniture stores, gift shops and people for their own home."

Olaf knew a few things about himself. When he graduated from college with a degree in Business Administration he knew he didn't want to work for someone else. He thought of several professions, he even considered teaching skiing professionally.

"I could have been a lot of things," he says, "but I just fell into this."

Learn more about Character's Unlimited at

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