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Culture Collector

From Fonzie’s jacket to Houdini’s handcuffs, Doug Dreier (’96) curates one of the country’s largest private collections

Story by John Thompson

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The collection includes packets of tobacco containing baseball cards dating back to the late 1890s; the robe of the three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer, Muhammad Ali; Golden Glove awards won by Jim Fregosi of the Angels and and Steve Garvey of the Dodgers; and game-worn jersey from Boston Red Sox Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams and jerseys from Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Duke Snider. | Photo by Nell Campbell
The bat of baseball legend George “Babe” Ruth. | Photo by John Thompson
The first baseball card ever printed: the 1869 Peck And Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings Card. | Photo by John Thompson
The furry headpiece from the Wookiee, Chewbacca, of “Star Wars.” | Photo by John Thompson
An Everlasting Gobstopper from the 1972 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” | Photo by John Thompson

Doug Dreier (’96, English/Theater) never gets tired of the typical reaction: Picture little Charlie Bucket entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory for the first time, eyes as big as saucers with a mixed expression of “holy cow” and “somebody pinch me” written all over his face.

This is the way most visitors react when they walk in the door of The Dreier Collection, one of America’s foremost private collections of American popular culture, often dubbed “The Smithsonian of the West.”

“Walking in and getting handed Babe Ruth’s bat pretty much sets the tone,” Dreier said. “After that, it’s basically one ‘Oh my gosh’ after another for the rest of their tour.”

In a lot of ways, Dreier is a lot like Wonka: As fulltime curator of his family’s collection, he’s a consummate showman and proud host to swarms of eager guests drawn to the rare, amazing artifacts from sports, entertainment, and popular culture – from a fabled Honus Wagner baseball card to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber to Michael Jackson’s blinking, lighted glove. And like the group of children touring the chocolate factory in Roald Dahl’s timeless classic, guests coming through The Dreier Collection leave mesmerized by what they’ve seen while knowing they have only barely scratched its surface.

Located on a breathtaking property high above Santa Barbara, Calif., The Dreier Collection was started by Doug’s father, Chad Dreier, and began as a family hobby of collecting baseball cards and other common (at the time) sports memorabilia. And at its heart, The Dreier Collection remains a family hobby.

“We continue to collect the type of things that interest us,” Dreier says. “One month might see us acquire something for our gems and minerals collection, another might see us add on to what we think is the world’s largest collection of Cracker Jack toys, from the early 1900s to today.”

Their collection includes some of the first-ever Cracker Jack toys, pre-1900 paper dolls.

“You just never know what’s going to be out there,” Dreier says, “which is one of the things that makes this job so fun.”

The Dreiers keep the collection in its own building; they opened the sports section in the summer of 2004 with the other sections – TV, movies, gems and minerals, toys, and books and other items – opening about a year after that. What began with 50 display cases of items in 2004 has grown to around 300 cases now. The collection has really become a private museum, complete with a climate-controlled building, 24-hour security and a significant budget for staffing, maintenance and new acquisitions.

And the collection continues to grow each year. Dreier receives several auction catalogues each week, follows up on tips from private dealers and hears from other collectors interested in selling an item or two – or a whole set.

“Each item is a snapshot in time of American culture, and that’s really the way we look at this collection – that each piece represents a unique slice of the American experience,” he says.

Though Dreier estimates there may be more than 1 million pieces in the collection, his memory for the pieces is encyclopedic and his enthusiasm about each item – from Willy Wonka’s own Everlasting Gobstopper to Fonzie’s leather jacket from “Happy Days” – is infectious.

“Oh man, you gotta see this,” he says.

Pointing to captain Jean-Luc Picard’s chair from the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he begins a story about a visit from a high-ranking Navy official.

“When he saw that chair he just couldn’t wait to sit in it,” Dreier says. “I asked him if he couldn’t just go and sit in the captain’s chair on the real U.S.S. Enterprise, and he said ‘Oh, I can do that anytime.’ It was great.”

A glass cabinet filled with Pez dispensers triggers another typically detailed entry from Dreier, who was a middle school teacher before coming home to manage the family collection.

“Did you know that Pez started as an anti-smoking aid in Austria? They made the dispensers look and feel like lighters, and popping the candy into your mouth from the dispenser was supposed to fool you into thinking you were smoking,” he says. “It didn’t work, but kids loved them, so they went in that direction … oh, and ‘Pez’ is short for the German word for peppermint, which was the flavor of the first candy inside the dispensers.”

The Dreiers share the collection through private tours and charity events, but its location in a residential neighborhood precludes it from being a fully public operation.

“We see 2,000 to 3,000 or so folks through the doors every year, which is great,” he says. “But that’s really about as high as we can go with it right now. Our neighbors really don’t want buses and cars roaring up and down the street full of people coming here, and I don’t blame them.”

As for the future of the collection, Dreier says nothing is written in stone.

“We could sell the whole thing to another collector. We could move it downtown into a public museum spot. We could move it to another city. Or, 10 years from now, my kids could be in here helping me sort baseball cards. Really, there’s just no way of knowing,” he says.

“I do know this: I love this job,” Dreier says. “Something new and fun happens every day. I’d love to be able to share that with my kids and have them one day take over and be in charge of it.

“We’re very committed to it, very honored to be able to preserve this vault of American culture, which, when you get down to it, really is a little piece of all of us.”

To find out how Dreier got involved in the family business, click here. For an audio slideshow of Dreier describing items in the collection, click here.