the early 1900's, the town of Owatonna, Minnesota became
the adopted home of Russian immigrant Albert Olkon. The
well-known merchant had a young son, Ivan, whose fascination
with the circus would endure throughout his lifetime.
In those days, residents of Owatonna knew Ivan as the
kid who conducted circus parades down Cedar street using
a coaster wagon ridden by stuffed animals and Charlie
Chaplin dolls. The parade would lead the way to the Olkon
"Big Top", the barn behind the family's residence
on School and Cedar Streets.
In 1916, Albert sold his
store and moved his family to St. Paul where he began
a real estate and finance business. As the years passed,
his son grew up to attend the University of Wisconsin,
later entering the law school of the University of Minnesota.
While a student, he formed a band called "Van's Toreadors",
having long-since cast off the ethnicity of his given
first name, preferring the more American-sounding "Van".
no passion in the legal profession, Van was drawn toward
creative interests. His decision to leave law school was
also motivated by the onset of the Depression in 1929.
Faced with the collapse of his father's finance business
and the need to earn a living, Van began working for a
business that sold lithographs of ice cream sundaes to
drug stores. It gave him the idea of making fully dimensional
replica sundaes of wax for display in store windows. Using
his mother's basement as a factory, he developed a formula
for a non-melting wax of which he produced a varied line
of realistic food display items. From real fruits and
other foods he built plaster molds in which to cast the
wax. His wife once baked thirty pumpkin pies until Van
judged one perfect enough to become his master pie mold.
In 1932, he established the Display Food Co., which became
internationally known for its reproduction food items
used in store windows and educational exhibits. Food companies
like Borden and Purina were anxious to use the replica
chickens, pineapples and cakes in their advertising, as
well as ice cream that wouldn't melt under the lights
in a photographic studio.
Olkon then sought a more
effective way of showcasing his food items and began creating
animated displays with clowns, seals and bears, which
became the basis of his
that motion attracted attention and caused people to stop,
look and buy. The gyrating circus characters became more
popular than the ice cream sundaes that they balanced atop
In 1938, Van Olkon founded
Animated Display Creators, Inc. at 11 South 6th St. in Minneapolis,
later opening branch offices in New York, Chicago and Los
Angeles. ADC produced displays for department stores and
manufacturing and food industries, with an emphasis on the
dairy business. Christmas displays were also a popular part
of the line. Among many others trademarks, ADC produced
moving likenesses of Elsie the cow for Borden and feathered
parrots for Poll Parrot Shoes. Wall Drug, the tourist attraction
that still operates in South Dakota, featured a number of
ADC displays, such as a mechanical pianist. Olkon spent
most of his time traveling to promote the displays, eventually
employing four salesmen, each equipped with his own trailer
containing up to eight displays for demonstration. During
ADC's span of operation, thousands of displays were produced,
with as many as 100 employees working at the Minneapolis
factory at its peak. Over the years, ADC products were exhibited
all across the US and in eighteen foreign countries.