Nostalgia, passion, money drive ‘Star Wars’ toy collectors

SPARTA, Wis. – It was in the early 1990s that Jarrod Roll caught the bug.

He’d been into “Star Wars” as a kid – he was just 4 when his mother took him to see the first movie – but he was a college student at a record swap where he came across a trade newspaper devoted to toy collecting.

“Look at these toys I used to play with,” he said. “I need to get this stuff.”

He went home and dug out a cardboard box full of his own toys.

“Thankfully my mom didn’t do what most moms did,” he told the La Crosse Tribune, “which is get rid of them at a rummage sale.”

The toys weren’t in the condition he’d hoped, but he cleaned and bagged them. Soon he was prowling secondhand toy stores, filling in the missing pieces of his collection.

“There was this bug planted,” he said. “I need to get this stuff again, now that I appreciate it.”

He financed his collecting with student loans and the sale of other toys and eventually acquired all the figures and dozens of vehicles and play sets sold between 1978 and 1984.

With the eagerly awaited seventh episode in the series set to open next month, Roll, director of the Monroe County Local History Room, is putting his collection on display at the Sparta museum. He believes it will be the largest such public display of vintage “Star Wars” toys.

In the days before VCRs, action figures kept the movies alive.

More than simply a way to cash in on the original 1977 film, “Star Wars” figures – licensed to a then-small toy company called Kenner – played a key role in the success of the franchise, which brought in more than $1 billion box office sales with just the first three episodes and has earned more than $4.5 billion to date worldwide.

“The toy culture has . contributed a lot to the movie,” said Jonathan Gray, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Anyone who thinks that the movies were successful just for the movie is forgetting the huge impact that the toys had.”

Few families had VCRs in the 1970s, and the first “Star Wars” didn’t come out on home video until 1982, so fans had to find other ways to sustain their interest for the three years that passed before “Empire Strikes Back” hit the theaters.

But for a few bucks, kids could bring home miniature versions of Luke, Han, Chewbacca and Darth Vader to recreate the movie – and act out their own narratives.

“The universe expanded through the toys,” Gray said. “George Lucas only ever gave us about nine hours of the movies. If you were playing with ‘Star Wars’ toys as a kid, you probably got thousands of hours’ worth of toy play.”

Roll remembers his excitement receiving “Star Wars” toys in the months after seeing the first movie.

“You wrung it out for every drop of ‘Star Wars’ you could get,” Roll said. “The toys allowed you to kind of wrap yourself around and become part of this amazing movie.”

Roll’s experience at that record swap is a familiar story among “Star Wars” toy collectors, who watched the movies as kids in the 1970s and rekindled their passion in the 1990s.

Gus Lopez is the author of five books on “Star Wars” and boasts an extensive collection of “carded” vintage toys – still in the original box – and other movie memorabilia. In 1994, he founded an Internet site where collectors could share information about the products.

While a few prescient baby boomers started collecting “Star Wars” toys when they were first made, Lopez, 50, said the collecting boom really took off as Generation Xers came of age and the online auction site eBay made buying and selling much easier.

“A lot of these people were now in their 20s who grew up with “Star Wars” as a kid and now had disposable income to buy this stuff,” said Lopez, who works as IT director for a Seattle-based e-commerce company.

The release of three new films, starting in 1999, further fueled the interest, and helped drive up prices.

Fountain City, Wisconsin, native Brian Semling turned his hobby into a multimillion-dollar online business that trades in vintage “Star Wars” figures as well as other toys.

The impending release of “The Force Awakens” has ratcheted up interest in the last year, said Travis Stein, purchasing manager for Brian’s Toys.

Some people are thinking of starting a collection while others are wondering if their boxes of old toys might be worth something.

“It’s piqued their curiosity,” Stein said.

Stein said prices have also been growing. A rare vinyl-caped Jawa that might have sold three years ago for a mere $6,000 might now fetch $12,000.