May 2007 will mark thirty years since the original theatrical release of Star Wars. John Booth, who at age six converted his thumbs and index fingers from cowboy shooters to Han Solo-inspired blasters, is raking together his memories of the saga in a series of essays for Field's Edge.The series begins here.
I’m lucky to have two brothers who are seven and eight years younger than me.
Lucky because it meant I got Star Wars all to myself during the early years, and lucky again because later on, when I was supposed to be outgrowing my Star Wars toy addiction – say, the last year before Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 – Nick and Adam had grown into Star Wars territory, so the pipeline from Kenner to our basement never went dry. Though they both moved on to Transformers and Micro Machines and other stuff after the Star Wars phenomenon faded, it’s thanks to them that I have some of the later toys like the Ewok Village Playset and the Imperial Shuttle and the Speeder Bikes and the B-Wing and Jabba the Hutt.
The last Kenner toy I specifically asked for was the Y-Wing, and I remember Mom giving me a “Really? Aren’t you a little old for that?” kind of look. Might have even been a direct question.
Maybe so. After all, the Y-Wing came out around the same time Jedi did, so I was 12 years old turning 13 when I asked for it. Couldn’t help it. This thing was light years ahead of the old X-Wing, and armed with not only that squealing laser cannon, but a rotating top turret and a plastic bomb to drop from its underbelly, and a socket behind the cockpit for Artoo units. I may not have actually role-played with my figures anymore, but I did send that ship on many a run over card houses built in our living room, and somewhere in our family albums there’s a snapshot of me using the ship to dive-bomb Nick (I think) and his Knight Rider-inspired remote-control black Camaro.
Growing out of Star Wars was happening all around me. Mike D. and I weren’t close friends anymore, my other Star Wars-obsessed pal, Jacob, had moved down to Cincinnati, and after the final chapter of the saga came out, things just seemed to be quieting down.
I kept my fandom mostly low-key in those years, breaking out only the occasional quote, like a “Mine! Or I will help you not!” during a tug of war over a pencil.
In seventh grade, the Scholastic book order form that was delivered to our English class once a month included the Return of the Jedi Sketchbook. I placed my order for it, only to have my money returned a week or so later when the teacher told me that the class hadn’t met the minimum order amount. I think I responded with something along the lines that my birthday was coming up anyway, so no big deal.
“And,” she told me in what was supposed to be a consolatory tone but instead just sounded incredibly condescending, “maybe you’ll be over your Jedi phase by then.” I did, in fact, get a five-dollar Waldenbooks gift certificate for my birthday that year, and I did go to Belden Village and use it to buy that sketchbook, which cost me about $1.25 as a result. Jedi phase, indeed.
Still, for most of middle school and high school, my Star Wars bug was kind of holed up, nearly dormant, nibbling on the occasional leaf scrap that fell its way. A girl I dated when I was 16, for instance, had a dad who was an executive at a record store chain, and in her basement, in a box of discarded record albums, I found the Return of the Jedi soundtrack, which she gave to me. And when the local newspaper ran an Associated Press story headlined “‘Star Wars’ still with us after 10 years,” I clipped it out and saved it. (Yes, I still have it.)
Literally and metaphorically, the Star Wars habit went into the closet: My surviving toys were arranged as best I could fit them on the shelves in the walk-in closet I had in my bedroom: There was my original banged-up display for the first dozen action figures, and my small metal Millennium Falcon, and a Tauntaun and my Landspeeder, which was now missing its top engine pod. I used that blue sticky-tack stuff to attach prints from the Star Wars Portfolio to the wall, along with a collage I made by cutting up the photos from a bunch of my action figure packages and sticking them to what had been part of my Y-Wing Box. (I also had a folding chair, a boom box, and an old television tray-table in there, where I’d sit and write with Mom’s Smith-Corona typewriter while listening to cassette tapes.)
When I was in high school, I got a job at the Children’s Palace down by the mall. For most of the 1980s, this was the toy store we had to beg our parents to take us to. At the time, it seemed absolutely monstrous – it had faux castle towers on its façade, which helped – because the only other toy stores were Kay-Bee Toys and Hobby Center in the mall, both of which seemed so small and cramped when compared with Children’s Palace and its acres of toys stretching impossibly high into a distantly buzzing haze of fluorescent lighting. I can remember when the place had its own Star Wars section, a canyon wall of black and silver packaging, that familiar logo reproduced into infinity. You’d stretch an arm back between rows of figures hanging on their pegs, craning your neck and pushing each toy aside just slightly to see the one behind it, looking for the one you didn’t have.
Later, when the toys were on clearance, I found a huge pile of Rancor Monsters at the rear of the store, marked down to five bucks each, and I bought one to replace Nick and Adam’s, which I’d broken an arm off of.
Toys R Us would later move in right across the street and pretty quickly drive Children’s Palace out of business.
I worked nights and weekends, starting as a seasonal employee before Christmas of 1988, straightening merchandise, re-stocking shelves. I stayed part-time there for the next two or three years, mostly working the floor and spending some time in the warehouse, unloading trucks and pulling items like bicycles and swingsets for customers, who had to drive around the back of the building to pick up the big-ticket purchases.
I also spent time in the Peter Panda suit. Peter Panda was the corporate mascot, and once a month or so, someone was asked to put on the suit and spend a work shift wandering the aisles and either making kids smile or inadvertently scaring the shit out of them. The panda suit was a huge, padded thing, hot and heavy, but I liked volunteering to wear it. For one thing, it meant not having to interact with the customers, because Pete wasn’t allowed to speak. No having to fake a smile, either, thanks to the one sewn into the oversized panda face. (Though I have to admit, I smiled at about two hours’ worth of little kids during my first time in the suit before I realized it was just wasted effort. In one of my later Panda stints, I stood largely motionless outside to promote a sidewalk sale and actually put on headphones and listened to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine.) Panda time also earned the wearer something like a 10-minute break for every 20 minutes on duty, which really made a four-hour weeknight shift fly past.
I even talked my bosses into letting me borrow the thing to wear to my then-girlfriend’s high school graduation party, which was fun, especially driving over to her house wearing the body of the suit, with my huge, furry bear paw cocked nonchalantly out the window as I tried my best to work the gas and brake pedals while wearing costume tennis shoes with soles the size of turkey platters.
There wasn’t a defined Star Wars section at Children’s Palace anymore by the time I worked there – the big crazes during my tenure were The Real Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but for awhile, there was still some Star Wars stuff to be found sulking on the clearance shelves and squirreled away in the piles of old merchandise on the shelf-tops. I remember pegs at floor level displaying Return of the Jedi badges and pencil cases, just above some Emperor’s Royal Guard plastic banks. They were all as far away from the rest of the real toys as you could get, sandwiched between the baby bottles and teething rings and the bicycle department.
Using one of the big metal ladders – they were more like staircases on wheels – I fished around the stuff on top of the shelves in the action figure aisle and came up with a Chewbacca Bandolier, a Kenner Micro Death Star Compactor Playset, and a Laser Rifle Carry Case to hold action figures. (There was an Indiana Jones truck up there that I should’ve bought, too.) And during a warehouse shift, I was poking around in the loft up near the ceiling and found a big cardboard box with “C-3PO Cases” written in marker on the side. Inside was a single shiny-as-new action figure case. I was amazed to find that clearance prices for this stuff were still in the computer system: The Bandolier cost me 90 cents; the Micro Death Star $2.90, and the carrying cases were, I think, $1.90 each. And I either bought or swiped (sorry, CP executives) an Emperor’s Royal Guard ink stamper and the Parker Brothers Return of the Jedi Play for Power card game.
Finding Star Wars merchandise was like unearthing a rare prize on an archaeological dig, but I still opened them up and threw away the packaging, which makes me wince a little now, but then I think that because I did open those toys, it means I still saw them at least partially through the eyes of that seven-year-old I had been when Star Wars first came out. They were still toys to me, and not collectibles, and that’s something I’ve tried to keep hold of.
I took all these things home and set them in my closet with the rest of my Kenner leftovers. The miniature-scale Death Star may have gotten a publicly-visible spot on one of my bookshelves, out of fondness for its long-deceased big brother. None of them is really a cool Star Wars toy: There’s a reason they were on clearance and still gathering dust in Children’s Palace several years after Jedi’s theatrical release. But I still have most of them, because they remind me of a time when Star Wars had left the public eye and was kind of a secret treasure.
I would be a college student at Bowling Green State University before interest in the original trilogy began its resurgence in bookstores and comic shops. “Star Wars is back,” people started to whisper.
Some of us just brought our toys back out of the closet and smiled, knowing it had never left.
Here are the links to the rest of Remembering Star Wars:
Part I: Summer, 1977
Part II: The Droids We Were Looking For
Part IV: Into A Larger World
Part V: Collect All 21!
Part VI: A Certain Point of View
Part VII: A Pack-A-Day Habit
Part VIII: Size Matters Not
Part IX: Along A Different Path