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The Cardboard Renaissance Man
By Kurt Kuersteiner (© 2004 Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine

 

They say that New Yorkers rarely notice the Statue of Liberty. It's too close to home to appreciate. That thought occurred to me lately when considering one of the biggest innovators of Non-Sports in recent times, a trailblazer who lived and died ahead of his time, Mark Macaluso.

Long-in-the-tooth Wrapper readers remember Macaluso as the largest Non-Sports mail order dealer in the business. He was always present at nearly every show, usually renting more tables than anyone else. His displays were overflowing with material from the 1960s onward. Stacks of sorting trays offered singles for every series a boomer could possibly remember. If collectors were looking for tough cards to finish a set, it was only a matter of time before they were referred to him.

Macaluso was also a pioneer in the internet. He jumped aboard early on and spent hours answering newsgoup questions about cards, even if there was no sale in it for him. His tag line to every email was, "Have Fun Collecting." He certainly helped many others realize that goal. Long before eBay, he was one of the few sources frustrated collectors had to buy or sell circulated singles, regardless of where they lived.

He was also a main source for many obscure Test cards. Emergency, Room 222, Planet of the Apes test, Flash Gordon test, Brady Bunch test, Six Million Dollar Man test, King Kong test, and The Waltons. If collectors couldn't afford the $75 to $250 price per test card, Macaluso was one of the only American dealers who offered cheaper foreign equivalents. For instance, I couldn't afford the test version of Land of the Giants, so I bought the slightly smaller UK version from Mark for the cost of a single test card. (The same went for Superman In The Jungle.)

Macaluso's inventory was so big, it took a giant warehouse to store it all. Long time friend and associate Harvey Elander recalls, "He built a storage place that was three tractor trailers wide, and two stories tall. It was stuffed with unopened boxes, millions of older singles, roles of uncut vintage wrappers and pallets full of uncut sheets. Most of it was from the 1960s. It was amazing."

At one point, Macaluso offered to sell his inventory to Elander for over a million dollars. It would take several semi-trucks to deliver it. After cataloging everything, Macaluso changed his mind. Perhaps the million plus price wasn't enough, or perhaps he couldn't bare to part with it. Macaluso was still a collector at heart. He had a very impressive wrapper collection full of super rare material that was later destroyed in a fire.

Macaluso probably knew the collector market better than anyone else, and it helped him predict many trends before they occurred. He started out as a comic book dealer and owned three stores. He learned how to spot sleepers and future hits. He began making plastic comic book protectors in his garage, but they started to sell so well that he couldn't' keep up with it. His urged his father to buy a plastics packaging company called Bags Unlimited, then encouraged him to make comic book and single card protectors before it became a big market. He also insisted on 100% virgin plastic while the other guys used PCPs which caused eventual damage and destruction of many a collectible. The company did very well, and continues doing so to this day.

He was the first to see the Wacky Pack revival before anyone else stocked up on them. Some complained that he had cornered the market on key Wacky stickers. But many collectors who grumbled about paying Macaluso too much back then now see those same singles selling for much higher prices on the net.

Macaluso prided himself in providing for his family entirely off the proceeds of trading cards. That meant he had to constantly know the pulse of the industry. Several card companies consulted with him about new products, including Dart Flipcards and Comic Images. He told them what they needed to hear, including the need to reduce their output, stop dumping overstock, and announce how many of each series were made. He also gave his opinions in later issues of The Wrapper via the MARKet Report. Editor Les Davis would call him on the phone, record his comments, and type them up. "All those comments were from the top of his head," Davis recalls, "He rarely used any notes in our interviews. He was that good at it." Davis also remembers how optimistic Macaluso was. "There was no such thing as a bad show for Mark. He always described conventions saying, 'Everyone had smiles on their faces.'"

Macaluso had strong opinions, and caused quite a stir in one issue when he urged readers to vote Republican on the eve of the 1996 presidential election. The Republicans lost that election, but like so many other Macaluso predictions, it eventually happened, just a few years later than he expected.

Another unconventional opinion that has since come to pass was his concern about chase cards. He felt they were ruining the trading card business because they resulted in a glut of base sets and they raised the wholesale cost of boxes beyond the reach of many dealers. Today, it almost seems that trading cards have been taken over by autograph seekers, and the success of a series has less to do with the quality of the art or text, and more to do with how many signature cards it contains.

Macaluso also produced and packaged several popular sets through his own business, the Fantasy Trading Card Company (FTCC). He made the cards sets for Rocketship X-1 (1979), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1980), Marvel Super Heroes First Issue Covers (1984), Three Stooges (1985), Robotech the Macross Saga (1986), another Three Stooges (1989) and Alien Nation (1990). FTCC really foresaw a trend when they produced the cards to three of the Star Trek movies. They did the cards to Star Trek 2 (Wrath of Kahn, 1983), Star Trek 3 (Search for Spock, 1985), and Star Trek 4 (The Voyage Home, 1987). The Star Trek license has since become one of the most lucrative non-sports licenses around, but at the time, Topps wouldn't compete for it and Macaluso picked it up for just $10,000! (That's why the first series was oversized with plain backs, because the seller thought Topps might still want to license it.)

Macaluso designed the cards and wrote the extended text. Rocky Horror was one of his favorite movies, and his comic collecting background made writing the text to Marvel Super Heroes First Issues Covers a natural for him. He was a also a big science fiction fan.

Macaluso came up with the idea of using poly-bags to make packs tamper-free and prevent wax damage. He led the rest of the industry in this regard by nearly a decade. Now, almost everyone uses poly or foil. Before he used poly, Macaluso would hire acquaintances to manually wrap packs, including the famous lip design that adorns The Rocky Horror Picture Show pack.

Macaluso never considered factory sets as legitimate trading cards. For that honor, they had to be available in packs as well, and that also meant a point-of-purchase box. When WTW reprinted several of the classic sets from the 1940s and 1950s, Macaluso arranged to buy their overstock and packaged them in packs and boxes (instead of factory sets). He did this for the reprints of Red Menace (and the extension set), Uncle Sam Home Defense (high numbers), Lone Ranger (high numbers), Horrors of War (high numbers) and Jets, Rockets, Spacemen. Moreover, he did the same thing for the old Dixie lid series of United Nations At War, Defending America, America Attacks, and America's Fighting Forces. Macaluso also helped produce or package other companies products as well, including Fantasy Girls 1 & 2, Dark Shadows, Scream Queens, and the original comic art series Motorcycle Chicks From Mars.

Macaluso collected other things as well. Elander remembers, "He also had lumber, older door handles, locks, anything he could recycle and sell. His back yard was filled with it. On his outside back porch, he had original Horrors of War artwork framed and leaning up against the wall!"

Friends described Macaluso as a devoted Catholic and dedicated family man. He loved animals but was also a people person. He liked to visit with friends while playing cards or bowling. He was an excellent woodworker, and built highly crafted furniture as early as age 17. His life was cut short at age 48 when he died of a sudden heart attack on Christmas morning in 1998. He was survived by his wife, Valerie, and his four children. He also left behind two parents and nine siblings! (He actually had two other siblings as well, a sister who died as an infant and a brother who died at 24 from an aneurysm.) Tragedy struck again a few years later when Macaluso's home caught fire and took the life of a son.

Looking back at Macaluso's career in trading cards, no one thing made him King of the card mountain. Rather, it was the combination of leading so many different areas of the hobby that made him a dominate force. He was a leader in mail order and internet sales, card production, storage materials, packaging ideas and hobby promotion in general. Few people realize he influenced so many different areas in the business, yet he did, and the effect helped the hobby overall. He attracted and kept a lot of new fans collecting cards when non-sports was suffering, and left the hobby in better shape than it was when he started. Like another Italian Renaissance man who dabbled in different areas but excelled at them all, Macaluso was the da Vinci of trading cards. He never got rich from the hobby, but he certainly made it richer.

 

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