The first 12 Star Wars action figures released by Kenner in 1978.
Photo: Simmons Photography/The Man Who Shot Luke Skywalker
You may have heard that the Force awoken on December 18. To provide an outlet for our excitement, we’ve assembled another Vulture Advent Calendar — in this case, 25 Star Wars–themed stories, one per day until Christmas. None of them will involve midi-chlorians.
Now that we’ve been thrown into a suffocating Sarlacc pit of Star Wars marketing madness, it’s hard to believe there was a time that you couldn’t buy a Millennium Falcon bed at Pottery Barn. But fans who have collected memorabilia since the franchise’s 1977 debut won’t soon forget the days that the fire hose of merchandise had slowed to a trickle.
“As much attention as Star Wars got during the special editions and the prequel releases, this [marketing push] seems to top it all,” said Todd Chamberlain, a collectibles-store owner and Star Wars collecting authority. “Pretty interesting to see how mainstream Star Wars has become, coming from the perspective of someone who still collected at a time, during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when even comic-shop owners would somewhat smirk if I asked about Star Wars, as if it was a dead line.”
Longtime Star Wars collectors aren’t lacking in patience and perseverance, though, and they’re itching for more than the buzz of plucking a brand-new Kylo Ren figure off Target shelves. As one would imagine, collectors spend decades chatting in online forums, tracking eBay listings, and visiting conventions in search of movie props, toy prototypes, rare store displays, and even collectibles they’re not sure actually exist. “The thrill of the chase is always more satisfying than the catch,” said Mark Newbold, co-founder of Jedi News. But if Santa could shorten the hunt and deliver any Star Wars item in the galaxy, here’s what these leading collectors would request.
Original “Early Bird Certificate” set of Star Wars figures
Marjorie Carvalho, co-host, “Star Wars Action News” collecting podcast
Kenner had already acquired the license to produce Star Wars merchandise by the time the first movie obliterated box-office records in the summer of 1977. But the toy-maker wasn’t prepared for the film’s overwhelming success, and there were no action figures already in the works. The toy-production process of mock-ups, sculpting, and prototyping alone would take months, and Christmas was only seven months away. Knowing they didn’t want to miss the first Christmas of Star Wars, Kenner got creative and sold nearly empty boxes in stores.
Inside the box: a Star Wars fan-club card, stickers, a stand for 12 action figures, and a mail-away certificate for four action figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2) that would be shipped sometime between February and June of the following year. Just the promise of Star Wars figures apparently was enough on Christmas morning in 1977. Thousands of kids received the packages and mailed in their requests. An intact box with an unmailed certificate is a rare find today; most, apparently, were ripped open in excitement and eventually redeemed for these early toys.
The toy prototypes of Chewbacca’s family, from The Star Wars Holiday Special
Skye Paine, editor, The Star Wars Collectors Archive; co-host, the “Chive Cast”
Much of the bizarre TV variety-show The Star Wars Holiday Special is set on Chewbacca’s home planet of Kashyyyk, where his wife, father, and son are celebrating the Wookiee holiday Life Day. The special aired just once, and toy-makers weren’t confident that Holiday Special merchandise would sell. “They never made the toys, so these are one-of-a-kind preproduction items,” Paine says, adding that the set of prototypes has “been a grail for decades.”
Lumpy’s Bantha toy from The Star Wars Holiday Special
Amy Sjoberg, blogger, The Star Wars Collectors Archive; co-host, the “Star Wars Collecting Cosmos” podcast
Chewbacca’s son, Lumpy, had his heart broken by the Empire when Imperial investigators decapitated his stuffed bantha, a woolly-mammoth-like creature that first appeared in A New Hope. “Ever since I first saw it, I was fascinated,” Sjoberg says of the toy, the original of which she hadn’t been able to track down. That is, if it even still exists.
“I believe it was originally made out of a footstool, so two years ago, I attempted to make my own,” she said, adding that her creation went to “a very loving home” as part of a Star Wars collector gift exchange. “It is hard to believe that in this day and age, we don’t have a licensed bantha footstool to go with our already-licensed wampa rugs. I think it would help tie the room together.”
Bib Fortuna + Colgate toothpaste
Ron Salvatore, editor, The Star Wars Collectors Archive
In a galaxy far, far away — or maybe just in Spain — Colgate toothpaste was packaged with action figures from Return of the Jedi. “I’ve only seen one example, at Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan museum in Petaluma, California,” Salvatore said. “This must be one of the weirdest action-figure items produced in the ‘80s, and I like weird items.” Ironically, Bib Fortuna, the Twi’lek majordomo of Jabba the Hutt’s Tatooine palace, is one of the Star Wars characters probably most in need of a teeth-brushing.
(Salvatore’s backup choice is even more bizarre, albeit less rare: a 42-inch Chewbacca from a Canadian store display, one of which sold for $5,000 in a Sotheby’s auction earlier this month.)
Sculpting used to create Kenner’s first Luke Skywalker action figure
Todd Chamberlain, owner, Toy Chamber Collectibles; editor, The Star Wars Collectors Archive
“That Luke is really what set me on the path to collecting,” Chamberlain said. “That was the first figure I got on my seventh birthday in 1978.”
Ron Salvatore also named the sculpting as a wish-list item. “Every action figure begins life as a piece of 3-D craftsmanship, usually produced by a sculptor,” Salvatore said. “The original sculpting for the Luke figure, made way back in 1977, is believed to have been created by the legendary Bill Lemon, who worked in a hard, plasticlike medium known as acetate.”
Uncut press sheet of Topps’s 2001 Star Wars Evolution autograph trading cards
Rich Smolen, director of development, Rancho Obi-Wan; owner, RichsCards.com
Within each 36-pack box of Star Wars Evolution cards from 2001, you would find one “autograph” card. This series, from Topps, was the first to feature on-card autographs from actors in the original Star Wars trilogy. “This set kicked off a new era in Star Wars card collecting, as autograph cards are still a very popular Star Wars collectible nearly 15 years later,” Smolen said.
The White Witch Speeder from Droids
James Gallo, owner, Toy & Comic Heaven; author, Coining a Galaxy; editor, The Star Wars Collectors Archive
The White Witch is a landspeeder that appears in the late-’80s cartoon series Star Wars: Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. Toy-maker Kenner was ready to produce multiple lines of Droids toys if the first run sold well, but sales of the initial run were low. One of the unproduced toys that didn’t make it to consumers was the White Witch. “There is none known to exist in the collectors’ market — there may have only been one model made,” Gallo said, adding that it’s the only unproduced Droids toy he doesn’t own.
“Carded” Vlix from Droids
Arnie Carvalho, co-host, “Star Wars Action News” podcast
Droids’ Vlix, the henchman of the villainous Fromm Gang, is another rarity. Though Vlix did at least make it into stores, Tim Veekhoven writes on StarWars.com that “[Brazilian toy-maker] Glasslite’s Vlix is probably the rarest Star Wars action figure offered at retail.” And for a figure to be “carded,” it must still be attached to its original backing-card packaging.
Luke’s A New Hope lightsaber
James Burns, co-founder, Jedi News; co-host, RADIO 1138 and Star Wars Collectors Cast
“I’d like the very first screen-used lightsaber that Obi-Wan passes to Luke in Star Wars,” Burns said. “This would be my ‘holy grail,’ as it means so much and plays a pivotal role in the film.” The last person to buy Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber presumably considered it the holy grail, too: The collector paid $240,000 for it at a California auction house.
R2-D2 projector, by Nikko
Jordan Maison, editor-in-chief, Cinelinx.com
The R2-D2 projector was released in 2008 for $2,000+, while its limited production of 1,000 meant that it sometimes remains out of reach regardless of the price tag. (At the moment, you can buy one for about $4,000 on eBay.) Maison couldn’t deny the appeal of having a personal Artoo in the house, with media capabilities to boot. “Being that my personal focus in Star Wars collecting is gaming/media, this has been on my radar since its announcement in 2007,” he said. “It’s something I’d love to see under my tree from Santa this year.” But if Maison can hold on a little longer, maybe he can get the just-announced R2-D2 refrigerator/projector … which only costs about double at $8,000.