Dave Schools is not your typical Hot Wheels collector. Certainly, his passion for toy cars was not why I called him up last fall, when I was writing a story about a new book called Poster Children,” which covers 25 years of concert posters produced by the band Schools co-founded, Widespread Panic. But as we spoke, it became clear that Schools was no mere casual hobbyist. “I’ve been collecting Redlines since I was 4 years old,” he volunteered at one point, “and I have every Wacky Package ever made from when I was a kid.”
“It was that damn Red Baron that pushed the button.”
I expected Schools, a bassist, to be into records (turns out he’s got quite a collection of vinyl), but Wacky Packages? In case you don’t know, Wacky Packs, as they are also called, were trading cards produced by Topps beginning in 1967. The cards were actually the backing for stickers, whose satirical, humorous, gross-out images were part of the genre that gave the world characters like Rat Fink by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and magazines like “Mad.” And for Schools, the cars he collects aren’t just Hot Wheels but Redlines, which were named for the red circles on their tires and were made from 1968 to 1977, Schools’ formative childhood years.
“Maybe one of these days we’ll talk about Hot Wheels,” I suggested at the end of our interview. “We can talk Hot Wheels and Wacky Packages,” he replied, before excusing himself to head to the soundcheck for that evening’s Widespread Panic show.
Recently, I spoke to Schools again from his home in California, where he lives with his “dear and patient” wife, Andrea. We chatted between gigs with a new band called the Hard Working Americans (Widespread Panic heads out on the road in March). I made sure to get good and comfortable as he shared his thoughts on the “collector’s mentality” that has grown out of his childhood passions. Today, his Hot Wheels collection numbers several thousand cars, he’s got every card in the 15 original Wacky Packages series, and his record collection is, well, don’t even get him started.
Collectors Weekly: How’d you get into collecting?
Dave Schools: I was lucky enough to be born in 1964, so I got to be a part of the first wave of the great Hot Wheels, the Redlines. I’ve got pictures from 1970 of my father and uncle setting up my yellow Hot Wheels track on Christmas morning—they seem to be enjoying it more than I was. In elementary school, I did the G.I. Joe thing, the ones with the Kung-Fu Grip, and also got into Wacky Packages. I was turned on to music and vinyl at an early age, too. Once or twice a month, my parents would take me to the Standard drugstore, which stocked the top-40 hits, and allowed me to select a 45. I was a spoiled only child.
Collectors Weekly: Let’s start with Hot Wheels. What drew you to them?
Schools: In Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up, we had the world’s largest nighttime parade. It was part of the National Tobacco Festival. It’s odd in the year 2014 to think about a festival that celebrates cigarettes, but that was Richmond’s economy at the time. My mom wrangled the parade’s Grand Marshall, who was usually Peter Graves or one of the other cast members from “Mission Impossible,” someone like that, so she got to attend the drag race at the Richmond Dragway.
I got to go, too—for a little kid, it was a profound and visceral experience. There was one dragster called the Earthquake that literally shook the ground. They’d pour ammonia on the track, they’d spin their wheels, and it would generate a huge cloud of smoke. And then, bam, off they’d go down the quarter-mile track before popping the parachute. It was like, wow! So I don’t think I had a choice about Hot Wheels. I was corrupted very young.
Collectors Weekly: Why have you focused on the Redlines?
Schools: Well, they were all I knew about. They were the muscle cars, the cars you’d see on the road, plus the Heavyweights series, the cool concept cars, and these strange sort of fantasy cars. It was all very intriguing to a 6-year-old boy. I’d love to have a time machine and go back there, but I got out of collecting Hot Wheels by the time the Redlines era ended in 1977. It just wasn’t for me anymore.
Collectors Weekly: How many did you have when you were a kid?
Schools: I don’t have an exact number. When I was a kid, I had at least two or three of those black Rally Cases shaped like a wheel, each filled with a dozen cars. I remember there was a car wash, parking-garage kind of thing. I had a couple of those. But I played with them. I wasn’t a collector. I liked to do strength tests, as I called it, with a hammer. The cars were steel and so well made. You might be able to break some of the plastic, dent them up a little bit, or break off the wheels, but you couldn’t destroy them. I’m sure they’re still at my mom’s somewhere. I’ll find them someday.
Collectors Weekly: You also started collecting again after Widespread Panic got successful, right?
Schools: Yes, but what really spurred it was the Internet. It was probably around 1998. I was bored and I was surfing around. Topps had reissued Wacky Packages for the third time. I had picked up a few packs at a Target or Wal-Mart or someplace when the band was on the road, so I started going on eBay to look for the old ones.
That’s what led me back to Hot Wheels. Someone had posted a Red Baron, which is a very recognizable Hot Wheels car, the one with the German helmet for a body. It pushed the kid button, the nostalgia button, on me real hard. And that just led me down the path. I had some disposable income, I was single, so, you know.
But it was that damn Red Baron that pushed the button. That’s what started it all. It also led to my first exposure to what I call the “hoarder collector.” I did some research and found a fellow between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, who agreed to sell me a car I was looking for. I went to his house, a very nice house, and he was a normal family guy. But he had a couple of rooms in the house that were stacked floor to ceiling with Hot Wheels. It was unbelievable; there was no sense of rhyme or reason. Took him like an hour to locate the car. I walked out of there dazed and confused.
About a year later, I found out there was going to be a national convention in Atlanta. I was too late to register, but there was a public day, on Easter Sunday of maybe 1999 or 2000, I can’t remember. So I got in my car and drove to the Hyatt in Atlanta where I experienced that maniacal-collectors thing for the first time. You could feel it in the air. By the time I got there, most people were leaving, carting their collections around hand trucks and dollies. But there were still convention cars for sale, and a few vendors had stuck around in case any rubes from the general public showed up. I think Hot Wheels expert Mike Strauss was also there with his incredible collection. But those sorts of events and visits aside, my involvement in this thing is largely due to the advent of the Internet, and I think any collector of stuff like this will tell you how much that changed things.
Collectors Weekly: It leveled the playing field in some respects, don’t you think?
Schools: It did, because it used to be if you were a serious collector, you were limited geographically. If you didn’t live in the L.A. area where Mattel was, then you were limited to other collectors and the parents of other collectors near you. So you were hitting up garage sales. Some collectors literally went door-to-door, just cold knocking to ask if the people inside happened to have any toy cars they wanted to sell. Some collectors made amazing scores that way.
On the East Coast, in Richmond and especially in places like Athens, the classic-toys market was pretty limited. You’d see them in pawn shops or antiques stores, sometimes the Goodwill. Sometimes people had no idea what they had and you’d get a good score, but until the Internet came around, there was no safe way for everybody to just compare things and develop a rating system.
Collectors Weekly: Was it just eBay?
Schools: No. Along the way, I also discovered collectors on bulletin boards. I’ve met some of the top dogs in the hobby that way, and the lengths some of these guys go to satisfy their collecting jones is unbelievable. For example, they’ll use the Freedom of Information Act to get the names of employees at Mattel so they can hunt them down to ask if they have any samples, any personal collections. A lot of collectors are looking for what were called lunch cars, which was when a bunch of employees would design a car on their lunch hour, fabricate it, build it, and pitch it to the bigwigs at Mattel as a new Hot Wheel. Some of these made it in the production, some didn’t. Some of them were simply new color schemes or sticker schemes, what they call “tampos.” It’s pretty amazing.
I’ve got a lot of Hot Wheels friends scattered around the country. They’re just great people. I know a guy who works for the U.S. Postal Service in Modesto, California. We couldn’t be from two more opposite walks of life, but we can talk and laugh about little toy cars for hours. What unifies us is a love of the hobby. I have another friend who collects prototypes of toys. He has an anatomically correct Stretch Armstrong. It was made as a joke for the president of Kenner, but he didn’t think it was funny and had them all destroyed, except for one or two. Some of these guys not only collect Hot Wheels, but they also collect Roman-era coinage, doubloons, things like that. They have collections worth millions and millions of dollars that get auctioned off at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but they love Hot Wheels. I think it’s because it pushes that kid button.
Collectors Weekly: How big is your collection today?
Schools: I probably have a couple thousand cars. I have hundreds of Hot Wheels still in their blister packs. I have complete arcs of models, all the colors and all the color variations. There is some argument in the collecting community as to how some of these off-colors happened. Some people think they’d change the paint while the cars were still moving through the assembly line, so a couple cars would slip through and get painted in a bizarre shade. But color has always been tough one for me because I’m colorblind.
Collectors Weekly: So, do you gravitate to the shapes?
Schools: Yeah, the shapes of the cars, along with the shapes of the main colors on the cars. I really liked the Super Chromes, the shiny, non-color versions. I really like the variations of the tampos on those. And I liked the Heavyweights and Revvers series. But I haven’t been collecting actively in six or seven years because I moved into a smaller place, and moving a couple of thousand Hot Wheels in glass cases is a real problem. I had a much larger house with a lot of wall space for these mirror-backed, Plexiglas, individualized-compartment kind of display cases. People would just laugh when they saw them, but it was the product of several years of being a bachelor. When I wasn’t on the road with the band, I was collecting.
Collectors Weekly: Are most of your cars now in storage?
Schools: Yes, but I keep a lot of my favorites out, including my one-of-a-kind 1968 store display, which has several rare Sweet 16s in some unusual colors, as well as a Deora, which was sort of an El Camino-looking car with surfboards on the back, with a license plate on it that reads “Deora 1.” It’s the only known example with that plate.
Collectors Weekly: When did you get back into Wacky Packages?
Schools: Probably in the mid-1980s. I was at the University of Georgia in Athens. I think Wacky Packages had already been reissued, or there may have been a new series. I’m nowhere near an expert on any of this stuff—they were smaller than the ones I had as a kid, I know that. But Wacky Packages pushed the same button as Hot Wheels, and they were so much more affordable. It was cheap to buy a pack of Wacky Packages and eat that piece of terrible gum, spit it out 10 seconds later when it lost its flavor, and then stick those things, much to your parents’ or grandparents’ chagrin, on everything. For years, I wore a down jacket that had a cloth sticker stuck to it. Of course, when it finally fell off, it had stained the jacket.
Those Wacky Packages stickers were on every school notebook I had. I remember realizing that there were super rare ones in elementary school when the class bully showed up with a Chuck Wagon dog food Wacky Package called Choke Wagon. No one else had one. We’d trade these things like they were baseball cards, so people were offering to do all kinds of things for him, offering to give them their entire collections for this one card. I remember thinking, “Okay, I get it. Some cards are more rare than others.”
Later, companies like Topps and Mattel would salt their series with rarities and variations to satisfy the collectors’ market. But when they were first issued, none of the cards were rare by design. At least, that was not the intent. For Wacky Packages, there were maybe 35 or 40 stickers in a series, but they would print them all at once on a big sheet of 50. So sometimes there would be doubles on the sheets. They would place numbers 1 through 35 on the sheet, leaving space for another 15. That means there’d be 15 cards of which there were more, making the others less common and thus more rare. That’s cool because it happened naturally. Obviously, later, the companies realized there was a serious collectors’ market, and people were selling master sets that they would carefully put together by buying boxes and boxes of these things. So the companies would put foil variants and magnetic variants and flashbacks and different colored borders on them. But I like the old ones. The art’s incredible.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite Wacky Packages?
Schools: For Wacky Packs, I have one of every single card from the first 15 series, the classics, which are carefully cataloged in notebooks stored in plastic bins that are sealed tight. I have all the variants, too. Just like lots of other things, there were a million different ways to get them. There were the Topps cards, the O-Pee-Chee ones in Canada, and cloth stickers. There were brown-backed cards, as well as ones that came packed in loaves of Wonder Bread. I have every one of them, including some of the rare cards they got sued for and had to yank, like the Band-Aid parody. I think Choke Wagon, which we discussed earlier, is one of those.
I’ve also got three Wacky Packages posters that the Topps Vault put on sale through eBay probably 10 years ago. They were around 12 by 18 inches, which means that since they had to be folded to fit into a pack of baseball cards, each poster would have 16 or 24 creases in it.
Topps managed to find some examples that weren’t creased. I’ve got three of those and had them framed. They’re like giant Wacky Packages. One is for a Toadal cereal, making fun of Total cereal, with a great big frog on it. Another was called Milk Foam, which was a treat for dogs that have rabies. The dog is like foaming at the mouth and growling. They were funny, with that “Mad” magazine mentality. If you were a kid in the 1960s and ’70s, you read “Mad,” “Cracked,” and “Flop,” and you collected Wacky Packs. Art Spiegelman did a lot of the art for them.
Collectors Weekly: In retrospect, did the art on Wacky Packages seed your interest in posters for Widespread Panic?
Schools: I think it definitely planted a seed. And being exposed to psychedelic music at an early age, the artwork was such an important part of the LP package, and even, in a lot of cases, on the 45 picture sleeve. So that artwork and a fascination with psychedelic-era music led to a fascination with the art of people like Stanley Mouse, Freak Brothers comics, Robert Williams, and the “Mad” magazine stuff. As an adult, it just seemed so fun. You could be a kid again.
A large part of my childhood was also spent watching Looney Tunes cartoons. Later, I learned that the animators were relegated to this crappy little hut on the Warner Bros. studio lot. They were sort of left alone to smoke their reefer cigarettes, and you could tell they were under the influence, even in the ’40s, with some of those cartoons.
Then I found out that they generally chose the music first, because they had to use music Warner Bros. had published; that’s what was available to them. Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling would do his wacky Spike Jones thing with the music, and then the animators would base their whole idea around the score. It wasn’t that they found music of plucking violins that matching Bugs Bunny tiptoeing through the forest. They had the music first and would integrate Bugs tiptoeing through the forest to sneak up on Elmer Fudd because of it. That was just a revelation to me, and all this stuff has added up to what I do.
Collectors Weekly: What about Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids, or Japanese cards like Pokémon?
Schools: I was amused by Garbage Pail Kids, but they came much later, ’79, ’80, something like that. I wasn’t into the collecting thing so much by then. Pokémon was even later, and it was too salted, with that built-in rarity thing. To me, that took the fun out of it. I mean, there’s a reason why there are less pink Hot Wheels around than other colors. Why did they make pink Hot Wheels when it was mainly a toy for little boys? Because someone in a focus group said there’s a small portion of little girls who wouldn’t mind having these. So there were very few pink Hot Wheels, but they weren’t made to be rare. They were just made in fewer numbers because there were fewer girls who wanted to play with them. Today, people love to collect the pink Hot Wheels. Some people specialize in collecting pink, and that’s kind of cool.
Collectors Weekly: We still haven’t gotten to records. Do you remember your first 45?
Schools: The first one I bought was Deep Purple performing the song “Kentucky Woman,” a Neil Diamond tune. It was on Tetragrammaton Records, their early label, and it was backed with an instrumental called “Hard Road,” which is also called “Wring that Neck.” The A-side was very yelly and screamy, with a lot of “yeah, yeah, yeahs,” heavy organ, and guitar. The B-side was an instrumental. I still have it, although I wouldn’t deign to play it on any real turntable. Another that got a lot of play was Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country,” which was backed with a fuzzed out, acid-rock version of the traditional blues song “One Kind Favor.”
Collectors Weekly: I loved Canned Heat’s version of that song.
Schools: It’s very hard to find on a record. I think what happened to me after listening to all that stuff a thousand times was that my parents couldn’t handle the acid rock. So they began to encourage me to buy Creedence Clearwater Revival singles. I had a steady diet of one a month of those for years: “Proud Mary,” “Up Around the Bend,” “Down on the Corner,” “Green River.” Most people will say they started with The Beatles, but I didn’t get Beatles exposure until I had a sleepover party in third or fourth grade. The “troubled” kid brought over a cassette of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and we listened to it. For us, it was like taking an acid trip, sitting up late at night, listening to it on one of those little, portable cassette players. We felt like we were doing something wrong just by listening to it. It was amazing.
Right now I’m really into original pressings of dub reggae, and I’m not the only one. When I was a senior in high school and a freshman in college, reggae bands were the only ones other than punk rock and cover bands playing bars. The bands would hawk their 12-inch records in plain white sleeves at the shows. But the reggae records that are worth the most were pressed in Jamaica, where there was little or no quality control. The vinyl is crap, the labels are off-center and full of dimples, and, generally, the covers were handmade silkscreens. And if you look on the inside of the covers, you’ll see that they were actually seconds of other covers. They’d just flip the cover around and do another silkscreen on the other side.
I could go on forever about the reasons why I like the sound of vinyl. Mostly it’s visceral. There’s a needle reading two sides of a groove wall that are actually peaks and valleys. It’s like a mountain range that describes the sound, a geographical, topographical representation of the sound. It’s the same way on a piece of magnetic tape. It’s pieces of metal stuck to Mylar, peaks and valleys, not ones and zeroes.
Collectors Weekly: But today, when most people hear vinyl, they’re actually comparing it to an MP3, where much of the data is missing. They’re not necessarily comparing it to a compact disc.
Schools: Exactly. And they’re listening to this music on earbuds or Beats. I mean, God love you, Dr. Dre, you’ve made some amazing music and some forward steps in the digital era, but that sound is fake. The bass you’re hearing, if you listen to an MP3 through Beats headphones, is fake. I’ve still got my Klipsch speakers from the ’80s and an old Denon turntable with a good cartridge and a good tube amp. I was talking to someone in my house the other day, and she just stopped and said, “Why does this music sound so much better?” It was that Kenny Dorham “Afro-Cuban” record from the ’50s. And I said, “Well, because you can feel it.” That was really all I could say.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think people also like vinyl because it feels handcrafted?
Schools: Absolutely. You feel like there’s been a human hand involved in its creation, not only of the record itself and the music, but even the packaging. You’ve got a 12-by-12 inch chance for art. If it’s a gatefold, you got a 24-by-12 inch chance, two sides’ worth, plus the sleeves and labels. Some bands would insert posters and stickers in their albums. You just got a great package.
There’s also a ritual about playing records. You’ve got to get up and lift the needle and decide whether or not to flip the record to listen to the other side, or pick a new one. And there’s a badge of honor that comes with being hip to something that you have to earn the money to go out and get. I had to deliver papers for a week to buy one record. I don’t know if there’s as much appreciation for something when you can just download an entire lifetime’s worth of collecting in a matter of minutes. And it bugs me that a prolific artist like Frank Zappa, with 75 records to his name, that his entire career can go by in the wink of an eye.
Collectors Weekly: But you wouldn’t consider yourself a purist, would you?
Schools: David Cross and Bob Odenkirk had a program called “Mr. Show.” In one of the skits, Cross is telling Odenkirk in a very pretentious way that he only listens to “gramophone music,” and he pulls out a gramophone with the big brass horn and plops it on the table. They’re at a doughnut shop, and he’s like this uber-pretentious hipster who refuses to get in step with what’s happening with modern technology. I’m not one of those guys. Music is always something that has brought me great joy. Like I said, I still have the first 45 I ever got, although I can’t listen to it because I didn’t take good care of my stuff when I was a kid. But I love old records. I love the smell of them. The only thing I don’t like about collecting records is how dirty my hands are after a couple of hours at a pawn shop in Omaha, going through crates. It’s just like filthy, horrible, but I can put up with that.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still hit local record shops when you are on the road?
Schools: Yeah, especially when it’s a side-project thing, like when I was out on tour with Mickey Hart. There would be long periods during the day when the bus would be at the venue and we might not be able to get into it yet. If I didn’t feel like going back to the hotel, Mickey’s drum tech, Mark Alspaugh, and I would go off and search for things. He’s a Beatles fanatic, so he was always looking for Beatles vinyl, of which there’s a lot. I’d be looking for things that I knew were hard to find, to fill in a hole in the collection. It’s fun, because you get a little local color. Sometimes people knew what they had, and boy, did they let you know it. Sometimes people didn’t, though, and you’d get that rush from popping down $3 for something you know damn well could fetch $50 in that condition on eBay or Discogs. That feels good; you feel like you won that day.
Collectors Weekly: It sounds like you like the stuff, but you also like the hunt.
Schools: I do like the hunt, but really just for vinyl these days. There was a time when if I was in a city where I had a friend that had some Wheels, we’d go around and try to find some places. But eBay knocked a lot of brick-and-mortar places out of business. Why would somebody want to pay property tax, or rent and maintenance, when they can store their stuff at their house and have an online store that’s available to the entire world? And the chances of finding good things are less and less because people are aware of what’s collectible, so they’ll basically patrol the waters of Goodwills, Salvation Army stores, and pawn shops like sharks. I’ve asked a lot of pawn-shop owners if they ever get any vinyl in, and they’ll be honest with me, they’ll be like, “Yeah, but we don’t have the good stuff in the store. We have an eBay storefront for that kind of thing.” It’s taken a lot of fun out of the hunt. It’s not as much fun to pore through websites, but if you’re trapped in a hotel room and it’s snowing outside, it’s not a bad way to kill time.
(All photos courtesy Dave Schools, except as noted. Performance photos are by Andy Tennille. Wacky Packages photos via wackypackages.org. Records via discogs.com. Red Baron and Deora cars via redlinecollector.com.)