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HomearrowDenverarrowArchivearrow2001arrowMayarrowWeek of May 28, 2001arrowIn Depth: Out of the Office
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From the May 25, 2001 print edition arrowMore Print Edition Stories

Childhood playthings supply excellent material for books

L. Wayne Hicks  

I can't see the logo for Arm & Hammer baking soda without mentally rewriting it as Harm & Hammer.

I blame that on Wacky Packages.

A staple of my childhood, Wacky Packages were baseball card-sized stickers that parodied familiar products. Ritz Crackers became Ratz Crackers, for example. The humor wasn't subtle -- more along the lines of MAD magazine, which poked fun at the establishment as well.

But they were good for a laugh and, now, for some pleasant memories.

Big in the 1960s and '70s, today Wacky Packages remain highly sought-after items for baby boomers now grown up. Unfortunately, because the Wacky Packages were stickers, many wound up adhering to lunch boxes and notebooks. I know all of mine did.

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Today, a single card from the Wacky Packages card can sell for thousands of dollars.

Now collectors can review what they need -- and former collectors can see what they once had -- in a new book, "The Wacky Packages Gallery," by Paul Argyropoulos.

The self-published work is lavishly illustrated and painstakingly researched and the latest effort by Argyropoulos to share his hobby with others. He's also responsible, along with fellow collector Phil Carpenter, for "The Wacky Packages Handbook," which was published in 1996.

Argyropoulos' latest effort to chronicle Wacky Packages focuses extensively on the art involved. Each Wacky Packages card is displayed in color. Argyropoulos also has managed to track down the original artwork used to make some of the cards.

The book covers the 27-year history of Wacky Packages, which bubble gum company Topps introduced in 1967. The most infamous Wacky Packages card is probably Ratz Crackers. Ritz maker Nabisco sent Topps a cease-and-desist letter.

Today Ratz Crackers is the rarest of Wacky Packages cards, with as few as 60 in existence, according to Argyropoulos.

"People are willing to pay $3,700 for it," he said. "It's definitely a very rare card."

It's also the only card Argyropoulos doesn't have in his collection. "I know that it's worth the money," he said. "Personally, I'm not willing to spend money."

A freelance editor for the entertainment television channel E!, Argyropoulos works on the Howard Stern show, "True Hollywood Story" and "Mysteries & Scandals."

He's selling the book for $40 via his Web site, at http://members.aol.com/chokewagon/Gallery.htm.

Chances are, if enough baby boomers are interested in a subject, someone's written a book about it.

That's true in the case of the Pinewood Derby, the Cub Scout tradition of racing small cars on a 30-foot-long track.

Don Murphy, the father of the Pinewood Derby, has told his story at last, nearly a half-century after that first race. He's spelled out the origins of the Scouting tradition in a simple 40-page book, called "Pinewood!" He sells the self-published "Pinewood!" through his Web site, http://www.nogreenbananas.com/, a name he said he chose because he's 83 and can't wait for green bananas to ripen.

It was 1953, and Murphy was looking for a father-son activity he could do with his son, Donn. Young Donn was too young for the Soapbox Derby, so Murphy created a race using miniature cars.

The Management Club of North American Aviation, where Murphy was the company's art director, sponsored that first race.

Within a year, the Pinewood Derby had grown from a single Scout pack in California to across the United States. Now the Pinewood Derby is an important part of the Scouting experience.

But Murphy didn't foresee the popularity of the Pinewood Derby. If he had, he said, he would have gone into the business of selling kits for the cars.

Each Scout works with the simplest of materials: a kit contains a block of pine wood, four nails and four wheels. It's up to each Scout to produce a streamlined car that weighs no more than 5 ounces.

My own Pinewood Derby car has taken a beating over the years.

That's not too surprising; it's been more than 30 years since my Scouting days when I raced in the Pinewood Derby, and that toy car has been hauled from one town to the next since then.

The paint is peeling from the car, and the wheels have fallen off, but my memory remains clear. Making a Pinewood Derby car with my father stands out simply because it was one of the few father-son activities I remember.

My father traveled for his job, and attended college, so he squeezed in activities with each of his four children when he could. He died long ago, but I still remember him toiling over that race car. That's the reason I've kept it for so long.

I had the chance to thank Don Murphy for that memory recently. I'm sure he hears from plenty of other former Cub Scouts with similar memories.

In fact, it was another former Scout, Gary McAulay, who tracked Murphy down and helped him win recognition for his creation. McAulay also counts the time spent building the car with his father among his fondest memories.

I'm still waiting for another childhood memory to surface in book form. That's the story of Major Matt Mason, the original astronaut, a six-inch-tall toy we played with while waiting for NASA's best to make it to the moon.

Collector Joseph Kerezman is working on "The Major Matt Mason Story," which he hopes to have out by Christmas.

He's writing the book with the cooperation of toy maker Mattel Inc., which also gave the world Barbie.

Small wires running through Major Matt Mason allowed youngsters to bend the toy into different positions, but also proved a fatal flaw.

"The only negative thing I can say about it is the wires always broke after a lot of hard play," said Kerezman, a Hollywood costume designer who's writing the book with his wife Karen, a freelance writer. "And for a 30-year-old toy, the fact that I have at least a dozen of them without any broken wires is pretty good."

The Web site figures.com last year surveyed its audience to find the best action figures ever made. Major Matt Mason came in at No. 4. G.I. Joe, the first action figure ever made -- before that no one made "dolls" for boys -- was No. 1.

A Major Matt Mason "action figure" can fetch as much as $500 today.

Major Matt Mason has earned mentions in other books -- he gets considerable attention in the book "Space Toys of the '60s" -- but this is the first time anyone's written exclusively on the good major.

"It all falls into the `hey, I remember that when I was a kid' thing," Kerezman said. "Nostalgia is a really big thing now. That's why G.I. Joe is doing so well now. Most of the people buying him right now aren't kids. They're men in their late 30s to early 40s that played with this in the '60s. This is the same kind of thing. Matt Mason may not have been as popular as G.I. Joe to have survived this long, but there are enough people that had it, I believe there's a market for something like this."

L. Wayne Hicks can be reached at 303-837-3524 or at whicks@bizjournals.com.

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