Distortions Unlimited finds Halloween a treat

GREELEY — Lifeless bodies lying in the entry way of Distortions Unlimited Corp. create an unsettling but appropriate decor for the nation˜s largest manufacturer of rubber masks, props and displays.

The heavy, sweet smell of latex fills the dark hallway that leads to company president Ed Edmunds˜ office, and his cluttered desk and the incessant ring of the telephone indicate that the busy season has arrived.

As Halloween approaches, Distortions swings into high gear. From an innocuous looking building in southeast Greeley, the company churns out thousands of ghoulish creations ordered by distributors and retailers worldwide — quite a feat for a company with markedly humble beginnings.

Edmunds, who came to Colorado at age 17, started Distortions in a one-bedroom apartment in 1978. Now the company operates out of a 21,000-square-foot building where Edmunds and his wife and partner, Marsha, employ more than 50 people. Distortions has grown by as much as 1,000 percent some years, Edmunds said, and though some years have been stronger than others, the demand for products is so great that the company is in perpetual catch-up mode.

Edmunds attributes Distortions˜ success in part to a fortuitous shift in the way Americans celebrate Halloween, which came just as the business was starting.

“Halloween has totally changed as a holiday,” he said. “When I was growing up it was a kids˜ holiday, and I believe two things stopped that: The public feeling vulnerable when the Tylenol scare hit and the fallacy of razor blades in apples.

“There hasn˜t been one documented case of that happening, but fear brought Halloween off the streets and into parties. Then adults started getting involved and having their own parties. Bars started having costume contests, and Halloween became a holiday for everyone.”

The shift meant more business for Distortions because their products are more expensive and more gruesome than what might be considered suitable for children.

In addition, a booming haunted-house industry has opened up a whole new area of opportunity for the company, Edmunds said.

Distortions˜ stationary and automated displays for haunted houses include original designs and licensed replicas of famous movie monsters from “Independence Day,” “Aliens” and “Alien 3.”

Automated displays such as a 12-foot, track-mounted alligator that charges its victims at high speed, a life-like figure strapped in an electric chair who thrashes and screams amid smoke and lights, and an 8-foot-tall dragon that roars and breathes smoke sell for as much as $12,000.

To try out some of their products, the Edmunds opened the Dark Museum haunted house in Greeley in 1994. In 1995, they moved the attraction to a 24,000-square-foot site near the Denver Coliseum, where the Brutal Planet Haunted House, as it is now known, operates from mid-October through Nov. 1.

The Edmunds share creative and managerial responsibilities in what Ed calls a well-balanced, 50-50 partnership. Edmunds says he and his wife enjoy the creative aspect of their business, but the business side has been a challenge.

“We˜ve had different managers and tried a lot of things,” he said, “but we˜re in a different era now. People don˜t stay in jobs like they used to. Those who come in thinking it˜ be cool to make monsters don˜t think it˜s so cool after the 1,000th one.”

For that reason, Edmunds says he hires more crafts people than artists — people who will stick with the routine.

On the creative end, Edmunds keeps a few simple rules in mind.

“First, I ask myself, ÔWould I want this product?˜ If the answer˜s yes, then we have to make it reasonable and feasible. We might come up with something and say this is wonderful, but we have to determine if it˜s workable,” he said

Above all, in order for a product to be successful, it must elicit an emotional reaction, Edmunds said. “I don˜t care if they laugh or scream, as long as they react.”

With their team of artists and sculptors, the Edmunds create 30 or 40 new products a year, ranging from masks to monsters. Their creations have a shelf life, Edmunds said, because unlike the traditional witch˜s hat or clown wig that˜s good year after year, people want the newest rubber products.

They can take a mask from concept to production within a week and do the same for a large display in about a month. But as the Edmunds try to outdo themselves and take the company to new heights, more technological expertise is required.

The company outsources some of its computerized automation work to Innovation Automated Systems Inc., a Loveland-based custom automation firm that installs and programs the computers and armature that animates the dragon, alien or other figure.

Tim Braun, vice president of Innovation, said Distortions is in the middle of the spectrum between low and high tech.

“I don˜t think their industry is quite ready for what we˜re doing because of the difference in cost,” Braun said. “A nonautomated dragon may cost $2,000, while an automated one costs $10,000.

“Distortions is starting to grow in that direction,” Braun added, “but it˜s taken Ed some time to bite.”

Development costs are also daunting. Braun said it may cost $5,000 to engineer a product before even one is sold, but such expense may be necessary for the company to remain competitive.

Competition comes primarily from manufacturers in other countries. In places such as China and Mexico, there are companies bigger than Distortions putting out good products and paying their workers perhaps $2 a day, as opposed to $10 an hour, Edmunds said.

Still, Distortions is able to maintain an edge on the bigger displays that are hard to ship.

One of the company˜s biggest and most successful pieces is the Queen Alien from “Aliens” and “Alien 3.” The latex and foam monster made from the original molds from the film stands 16 feet tall, weighs almost 800 pounds and sells for about $35,000.

“How do you top that?” Edmunds wonders, though he is already conjuring ways to do just that.Lesson learnedThe challenge: To continually introduce new products that are original, sensational and affordable.The solution: With an eye on Hollywood and cultural trends,create a whole spectrum of products both stationary and automated to suit different budgets and tastes.

GREELEY — Lifeless bodies lying in the entry way of Distortions Unlimited Corp. create an unsettling but appropriate decor for the nation˜s largest manufacturer of rubber masks, props and displays.

The heavy, sweet smell of latex fills the dark hallway that leads to company president Ed Edmunds˜ office, and his cluttered desk and the incessant ring of the telephone indicate that the busy season has arrived.

As Halloween approaches, Distortions swings into high gear. From an innocuous looking building in southeast Greeley, the company churns out thousands of ghoulish creations ordered by distributors and retailers worldwide — quite a feat for a company with markedly humble beginnings.

Edmunds, who came to Colorado at age 17, started Distortions in a one-bedroom apartment in 1978. Now the company operates out of a 21,000-square-foot building where Edmunds and his wife and partner, Marsha, employ more than 50 people. Distortions has grown by as much as 1,000 percent some years, Edmunds said, and though some years have been stronger than others, the demand for products is so great that the company is in perpetual catch-up mode.

Edmunds attributes Distortions˜ success in part to a fortuitous shift in the way Americans celebrate Halloween, which came just as the business was starting.

“Halloween has totally changed as a holiday,” he said. “When I was growing up it was a kids˜ holiday, and I believe two things stopped that: The public feeling vulnerable when the Tylenol scare hit and the fallacy of razor blades in apples.

“There hasn˜t been one documented case of…