Saturday, June 10, 2023

Collecting: A love story

Animatronic musician facilitates ‘happily ever after’ for Greenville couple

Dan Weger’s extensive collection of memorabilia features several members of the animatronic band, Rock-a-Fire Explosion, a crowd favorite at Showbiz Pizza restaurants of the 1980s. — DN Photo | Mike Taylor

Every night’s a party at Dan and Mindy’s place. Drawn by flashing stage lights and raucous music, the floor fills with young dancers strutting their stuff with wild abandon.

The band, strangely immobile, cranks out familiar tunes as the dancers sing along. Hundreds of eyes, most set in faces any American would recognize, watch from the wings.

Though the party is held on a quiet Greenville side street, it is attended nightly by Hollywood’s elite. Michael Jackson, Hulk Hogan, Harrison Ford, Pee-wee Herman, the entire cast of “The Wizard of Oz” … they’re all there.

Mindy and Dan Weger of Greenville were brought together through their shared interest in animatronic musicians once seen at Showbiz Pizza restaurants. — Submitted photo

Then it’s time for bed. At least one of the dancers has school in the morning. The other’s still a little cranky from missing her afternoon nap. But the end-of-day dance floor gyrations will help the girls, Naomi, 10, and Mazzy, 1,  get to sleep.

After that, Dan and Mindy Weger — aka “Mom and Dad” — can relax for the evening.

“We turn on the colored lights and put on some of the old Showbiz Pizza 45 vinyl records and let the kids get their energy out before bedtime,” Dan says. “(It’s) pretty cool they have a mini-Disneyland in the basement.”

Mini-Disneyland is an apt way to describe Dan’s collection of memorabilia, a collection he has been building since childhood. It began in the early 1980s, with a few “Star Wars” and G.I. Joe action figures, most hand-me-downs from cousins or else garage sale finds.

Like a lot of kids, Dan developed an almost totemistic attachment to his fledgling collection. They became a source of comfort, a touchstone for earlier memories, a way of holding on, however tenuously, to the past.

“I think a lot of it is nostalgia,” Dan explains. “A way to relive the past and bring back fond memories of childhood. Although there is most definitely an adrenaline rush finding toy treasure in the wild.”

The years passed and Dan’s assemblage continued to grow. Much of his free time was spent in search of bigger and better finds. Yard sales, flea markets, Ebay; all proved fertile ground in which to dig.

Dan’s passion for the hobby never waned; this is altogether obvious when viewing his collection. As Dan grew older, the collectibles grew ever more impressive, more valuable. His Pee-wee Herman doll (autographed by actor Paul Reubens) alone is a find many collectors would trade their mother for.

Dan Weger poses with daughter Mazzy, 1, in front of a small sampling of his extensive memorabilia collection. — DN Photo | Mike Taylor

For Dan, though, it’s not really about the monetary value. It’s about the emotional resonance these items evoke, especially when seen “in formation,” lining every square inch of free basement shelf space. Some carry more meaning, some less, but all hold a place in his memory.

Of course, every collection has a centerpiece, the Hope Diamond in the crown of odds-and-ends. For Dan, that diamond is his animatronic band, rescued from the junk heap of a Showbiz Pizza restaurant.

Anyone who raised kids (or was a kid) in the ’80s will remember the robotic cast: Billy Bob, Dook LaRue, Mitzi Mozzarella and of course the enigmatic Fatz Geronimo on piano. While a generation of birthday-partying children snarfed pizza and drank soda, Fatz and the rest of The Rock-a-Fire Explosion blasted out their versions of the hits of the day.

Dan was one of the kids who stood stageside, enraptured by these larger-than-life animatronic musicians.

“As a child, I remember going to Showbiz Pizza for my cousin Pat Kulas’ birthday party and seeing the animatronic band,” Dan remembers. “The lights were low and the music was loud, it was like being at a real concert. I was instantly fascinated with the music-playing robots.”

That fascination followed him into adulthood and when Dan heard that the band from a Showbiz location was slated for destruction — the restaurant was converting into a Chuck E Cheese — he made his move.

“The Rock-a-Fire Explosion Showbiz Pizza stuff is for sure my most treasured and valuable,” Dan says. “They were meant to be destroyed when they changed to Chuck E Cheese, so they are almost impossible to find and if you do they are in the hundreds of dollars for small toys and collectables and thousands of dollars for the costumes and animatronics.”

Several dolls of Pee-wee Herman share a spot of honor in Dan Weger’s memorabilia collection, including one (not pictured) autographed by actor Paul Reubens, who created the character. — DN Photo | Mike Taylor

Dan was able to seal the deal because he is friends with Aaron Fechter, a Florida resident who created the animatronic characters and is still working on a commercial future for his robot band. Some of Dan’s collection came directly from Fechter.

Though the acquisition of the robotic band members was a coup for Dan, it represented only the start of the story, one with a very happy ending.

It had been about 20 years since Dan had seen Mindy. The two attended Belding High School in 2000. Mindy’s father had coached the Little League baseball team Dan played on.

They knew each other casually, but never dated. After school, they lost touch entirely.

Then one night Mindy and her daughter, Naomi, were watching a documentary on YouTube, all about the Showbiz/Chuck E Cheese era.

“The video showed old footage of animatronics being torn out of restaurants and thrown away,” Mindy says. “This really upset her. I remember her saying, ‘Now I’ll never get to see a real Billy Bob.’ That’s when I remembered that Dan, someone I had graduated with, had a Billy Bob animatronic in his house.”

Mindy and Dan’s two youngest kids, Mazzy, left and Naomi, 10, pose in front of a large plexiglass character salvaged from a chain burger restaurant. — Submitted photo

Mindy had seen Dan’s Facebook posts about his acquisition. She knew he lived locally, so she reached out to him on — in true Showbiz fashion — his birthday.

“I said ‘Happy birthday,’” Mindy says. “‘Do you still have a Billy Bob animatronic, by chance? See, I’ve got this kid …’”

Dan was happy to arrange a tour of his collection. And as Mindy says, “The rest is history.” The two were married and just over a year ago saw their family increase by one with the addition of daughter Mazzy.

Mindy, who teaches English and Jacket Video Production at Greenville High School, was never a collector before reconnecting with Dan. However, she has definitely gotten on board with the effort since then. Dan’s previous home was large and his collection — much bigger at the time — occupied most of it. The move to Mindy’s Greenville home would require some downsizing. But not too much, Mindy insisted.

“During the merge I told him, ‘The basement is yours,’” Mindy explains. “I wanted him to keep and display as many treasures as possible.

“Many items in his collection are toys from his actual childhood. At some point, he decided to keep his toys in the box, unopened, (which) must have been tough.”

Mindy recognizes Dan’s passion for collecting and supports him in the pursuit.

“He has dreams sometimes about finding great ’80s toys at yard sales,” she says. “It took him seven years to collect all four King Vitamin cereal boxes, which are now framed downstairs. He was thrilled when he found the final box a few months ago.”

Dan Weger’s collection of memorabilia includes hundreds of toys and action figures he has been collecting since childhood. — DN Photo | Mike Taylor

Both of Dan’s sons from a previous marriage — Gavin, 17 and Rilo, 14 — have also been bitten by the collecting bug. They both collect Garbage Pail Kids cards. Gavin also collects basketball cards while Rilo’s interests lie in anything Beatles, as well as old vinyl records.

One might think a houseful of collectors would create an awful, cluttered mess, but such is not the case. Each individual artifact is carefully and lovingly displayed.

“I like to keep everything displayed and neat,” Dan says. “I was always told it wasn’t worth having if you couldn’t see it displayed. I try to make it fun and rearrange while dusting.”

Dusting is something he does a lot of. Dan doesn’t mind. It gives him a chance to spend time strolling down Memory Lane, remembering those simpler childhood days, when a new G.I. Joe meant weeks of happiness.

And of course, he’s altogether aware of how lucky he is, that his passion for collecting led him eventually to the love of his life, Mindy.  To commemorate this good fortune, Dan — a musician since childhood — recently recorded an album of original songs dedicated to his wife.

“He has done just that,” Mindy says. “His first batch of CDs just arrived in the mail and he has plans to put it on vinyl. All the songs were inspired by our journey together so far. It’s quite something.

“We had never dated in school and I would have never thought in a million years that we’d end up together. Life is full of surprises.”

The CDs will soon be for sale. Who knows? They may wind up being a collector’s item.

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