I took this on the Backstage Studio Tour – the “Catastrophe Canyon” ride – in 1991, at what was then still known as the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Orlando. (Spring break trip, sophomore year at Bowling Green. My friend Mike and I were visiting Adam.)
Center stage, naturally, goes to the Spinner from Blade Runner. To the right of the light post is a car from Total Recall, and cut off there at the far left is the Coyote X from – remember, ’80s fans? – Hardcastle and McCormick.
All three were still there (though they’d been relocated and were much more weather-worn), when I worked on that tour a couple years later, from around 1993 to 1995. IT’s been a few years, though, since I’ve been on this tour, so I have no idea if these relics are still hanging around.
Somehow, I let almost three months pass since I last uploaded and organized a batch of my cross-country road trip photos, so this weekend I went through and processed some more.
There are three days’ worth of pictures here, although Saturday and Sunday June 19 and 20 are underrepresented photo-wise: It was a weekend just packed with greatness, hanging out with friends and just enjoying the west coast and the experience of being someplace totally new to me, but so much of that joy was just in the company and the moments, and not the sort of thing that gets captured through a camera lens. So the few images from those days almost serve as memory-triggers more than anything else.
Take this one, for instance:
You see The Donut Man on Rt. 66 in Glendora, California.
I get thrown back to a day that began with a gorgeous drive up the coast from San Diego; several hours group-geeking at Frank and Son, where I found a flashback-inducing Imperious Leader action figure; a late lunch at Q Noodle House and a drive to The Donut Man for some fresh-strawberry-filled donuts. (Our original plans had called for introducing me to shaved snow at Class 302, but of course the day’s first batch was gone when we got there.) A spontaneous trip to a nearby comic shop, and then an evening of more hanging out and visiting new friends and nerding out.
I left for the drive back to San Diego late the next morning, and after a brief nap, I spent the afternoon and evening swimming with my host friends and having an absolutely fantastic dinner and some wine out on their front patio as night fell. Again, it was just a terrific, warm-the-soul sort of day, and yet the only pictures you’ll find are the ones I snapped just after supper – the last sunset of spring:
On Monday, June 21, Jenn and Kelsey made their own (much quicker) trip across the U.S.A., and after they caught up on a bit of sleep, the three of us spent several hours in the afternoon at Balboa Park and a few that evening at Seaport Village. The whole day’s worth of photos is here.
Here’s the moon over the Coronado Bridge:
18 years ago, Steve Sansweet – who’s leaving his position at Lucasfilm next spring – validated a tiny, almost-forgotten piece of my childhood.
From Collect All 21! –
During this second surge of Star Wars stuff, my family and I paid a visit to grandma over in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Among Upper Sandusky’s claims to fame are an old Wyandot Indian mill, a cemetery headstone recognized by Ripley’s Believe It or Not because it says “Feb. 31”, and being the home of a character in the Infocom text adventure “Leather Goddesses of Phobos” when those games were the computer geek rage in the 1980s.
My grandma was a librarian at the Carnegie Public Library in Upper, so I spent a lot of time there. Classic old brick building with narrow staircases and a basement that felt dark all the time. I can almost imagine into existence the wood and plaster and book-page smell of the place.
Up near the front door was a glass case where people would display collections of things, and on one visit, my grandma wanted me to see the collection of Star Wars toys in there. And that’s where I saw something that would confound me for years: an action figure that looked kind of like the short, red-suited Snaggletooth I had – same face, same hands, same belt buckle design – but this guy was tall and blue and had shiny silver moon boots.
I stared at this thing, trying to figure out what it was and where it had come from and why wasn’t it in any of the Kenner Star Wars catalog booklets and how, good God, could I get my hands on one?
I remember telling my friends about it, and none of them had seen or heard of one of these things either, and I probably sounded like that kid on my street talking about his supposed Grand Moff Tarkin toothbrush. It didn’t help that I never saw another Blue Snaggletooth as a kid.
I was eight or nine years old at the time. Fast-forward to 1992, when I’m 21 and in the middle of a difficult stretch of my life. Walking toward a Waldenbooks in a Toledo, Ohio mall, I see this staring out at me from a storefront display:
Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible by Stephen J. Sansweet.
Though it’s hard to remember, this was a time when there weren’t whole shelves full of Star Wars books and piles of Expanded Universe comics – so seeing this black-and-gold Darth Vader visage was a very cool sort of shock.
Inside is the incredibly detailed story of how the Kenner Star Wars guys I loved as a kid had come to life. And as I flipped through these pages, taken back years by the pictures of action figures and spaceships and sketches and models, here’s the one that had me giddy:
Because there it was: That BLUE Snaggletooth that I hadn’t seen or heard of in ages, and which part of me had maybe started to believe had been a figment of my imagination after all. It was REAL – and it had a HISTORY – and I wished somehow I could reach back through time to those incredulous looks I got from my friends when I was talking about this figure and point them to that page and say, “See? Seee?!?!”
I still think this is the best book Sansweet’s ever done, partly because it holds a special place in my memory, and partly because from a purely journalistic point of view, his writing and reporting roots shine through in the interviews and research and the level of work he put into in covering the early Star Wars merchandising history – work which hadn’t been done by anyone at that point. I think it’s fair to say a large part of the roots of vintage collecting archaeology trace back to this book, and I know it played a big role in re-igniting my own memories and fandom.
I got to meet Steve for the first time at Celebration V in August, and had him sign that very same and by now well-worn paperback. “Gee,” he wrote inside the cover, next to a smiley face, “can’t you afford a better condition book?”
Not one that would be worth as much to me as this one.
Yes, we mostly call them woollybears, but having just learned the scientific name, I’ve fallen in love with it.
Kelsey and I took my mom’s dogs for a walk through the wilds of Carroll County, Ohio, last weekend, where we met this crawly (watch him hit the afterburners at about the 12-second mark):
and just enjoyed a spectacular cloudless October afternoon.
It’s awfully easy to lump us Star Wars fans into two major generational groups: Those of us who saw the original theatrical releases as kids, and those who have spent their collective childhood growing up on the prequels and The Clone Wars cartoons.
What this glosses over, though, is that even though it was out of the public eye for a big chunk of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, Star Wars never really went away: It just lived rather quietly on VHS tapes and television broadcasts, and the saga’s fans who grew up in that time fall into kind of a squishy era of missing out on the originals, but having moved beyond the grade-school wonder mindset by the time the prequels came out.
Tony Pacitti was one of those kids, and his book, My Best Friend Is A Wookiee: One Boy’s Journey to Find His Place in The Galaxy, makes for a fun coming-of-age read that really captures that in-between-time, both in terms of Star Wars and in the awkward and painful and still hilarious years of late kid-dom.
You can probably imagine my reaction a couple months back when I got an email from fellow GeekDad writer Jonathan Liu which read, in part, “Hey, I’m sending you this Star Wars fan memoir I picked up at San Diego Comic Con.” (Yes, it was pretty much, “Star Wars fan memoir? Sonofabitchinfrakkinmundanenoodle…”)
And then I saw that Jonathan had not only had Tony sign it for me, but that Tony had actually written something nice about Collect All 21! in the inscription, and dammit, I couldn’t be mad anymore, especially after I couldn’t put down My Best Friend Is A Wookiee for the next couple days. (We also got to meet face-to-face at Celebration V not too long afterward, which was cool: Tony’s a nice guy, and if you get the chance, you should try to catch him at a reading or a con or a signing.)
I enjoyed his book on a couple levels. I’m a sucker for personal nostalgia that’s unafraid to take on the really crappy side of the middle-and-high-school years, for starters. (Which reminds me: This is an R-rated book. Seriously. Tony’s done a superb job of channeling his inner-12-year-old and then his sometimes-troublemaking-teenager and the result is an honest and often foul-mouthed recollection, and truth be told, some of the wincing I did was mostly at remembering the way my friends and I sometimes talked and acted when no adults were around.)
Of course, the Star Wars enthusiasm is hugely common ground, and even with our generational differences, there are still many familiar moments of saga-related awesome. His own Lucas-inspired parody project – a school paper on the digestive system titled “Indiana Skywalker and the Rectum of Doom” – took me back to the way my friend Jacob and I reinvented Empire with all manner of juvenile humor and later defaced his Jedi storybook with silver magic markers, howling with laughter the whole time.
Tony’s book and his story and his childhood differ from my own in so many ways – and yet, because there was this movie, this Star Wars thing, which occupied an important spot in both our lives, reading My Best Friend Is A Wookiee was a lot like those occasions I’ve had over the years hanging out with friends and reminiscing and geeking out about bizarre moments and half-forgotten times. Especially if you’re a Star Wars fan, it’s not just what’s in the pages: It’s what they’ll wake up in your own head.
On Saturday, I made my second consecutive trip to JediCon WV in Wheeling, and I was blessed with another sunny day for driving through the southeast Ohio hills at the time of year when the leaves are turning. As last year, I found myself a good stretch of roads I’d never traveled before, just so I could enjoy the trip, and to put myself in a nostalgic mood for my Collect All 21! reading, I set my Pandora station to Journey and – when my phone signal was inevitably lost in the valleys – queued up a series of Retroist podcasts on stuff like The A-Team and WarGames.
There were many more costumers in attendance this year – and it’s hard to tell, but the youngest person in that photo, almost at the far right edge, being held by his mom? He’s wearing a toddler Vader outfit. \m/ – several of whom changed through two or three outfits over the course of the day.
Loved catching up with the people I’d met last year and meeting new friends, and I had worked up a new presentation and set of readings for this year, which seemed to go over well. There was video shot, so hopefully I’ll have a clip or two to share soon.
Talked a lot of nostalgia, of course, and check THIS out:
Okay, so that’s one of the worst toys to come out of the original line, but this particular example on one of the dealer’s shelves just put a huge smile on my face because those are CHILDREN’S PALACE (or Child World, depending on your region) clearance stickers! The bandolier that I dug up during my Peter Panda days had almost this exact same set of labels plastered on it – with one difference: Mine had one more markdown sticker, ’cause I only paid NINETY CENTS for it.
The Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum was its usual throwback self, especially when I spotted a Green Machine that still made me jealous thirty years after seeing them on our neighborhood street. And hey, three words: TRUE FONZIE ACTION.
A small set of photos is here. They don’t do justice, of course, to the pleasure of spending a day with fellow Star Wars fans and kids of the ’80s – but then again, that’d be a tall order. Even for The A-Team.
I found out yesterday that my childhood friend Mike Darrow died recently.
My family had just moved to Lake Township in the summer of 1976, so when I started first grade, I didn’t know any kids other than the handful who lived on my own street. Mike was one of the first friends I made at my new school and remained one of my very best friends for the next four years or so.
He taught me how to play chess – and I never beat him.
He showed me how to recognize the monarch butterfly caterpillars munching on milkweed plants in the field at the end of our street, and how to identify their cocoons.
One summer, we spent a week away from our parents at Camp Tippecanoe, hiking and swimming and making fun of girls and trying to catch snakes and salamanders.
Mike was also probably the most fearless and independent kid I knew, but not at all in a show-off way. It was just that nothing – heights, snakes, spiders, darkness – seemed to rattle him. Once, while we were visiting Mohican State Park (I think) with his parents, Mike spotted a couple climbable trees at the river’s edge: They were on opposite banks, but their branches meshed in an arch over the water, and Mike just knew he could scale one and descend the other, safely crossing the river.
And he was right.
On another state park trip, we watched him inch ever so patiently onto a teetering, half-submerged log along a lake shore, trying to catch a turtle sunning itself way out on the far branches.
He’s all through Collect All 21, of course, one of the very few kids whose enthusiasm for Star Wars reached the same insane level as mine. Mike was the inspiration for invisible alien saxophone playing, playground Hoth re-creations, and the use of “Deese!” as an enthusiastic exclamation short for “Decent!”
There really is something incredible and impactful about an elementary-school friendship, I think, even if it doesn’t last or evolve, simply because for many of us, these are the times when we take those first steps into discovering who we are and what gets us hyper and what bores us and what we think is hilarious and what keeps us up late at night wondering.
Somewhere in the years between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Mike and I grew apart. It wasn’t until late in high school that I really talked to him again. Fittingly, it was over Star Wars: He had figured out how to grab screen captures from a VCR onto the fancy new Apple Macintoshes in the art room mezzanine, and we spent a few afternoons watching the trilogy and collecting images from my cable-recorded VHS tape.
Two decades later, in the summer of 2008, I wanted to give Mike a copy of Collect All 21, and thanks to his sister, we met up at a local Borders. We spent almost three hours talking about science fiction and Japanese stories and giant robots and cartoons and literature and fossil hunting and exploring the woods and swamps near his house when we were kids.
That afternoon led to this surprise not long afterward, and another geeky phone call, which was the last time I spoke with him.
In the big picture, I knew Mike for something like barely 11 percent of his whole life, mostly an awfully long time ago in a haze of sunny days and field hikes and spaceships and sleepovers and action figures.
And though my memories are undoubtedly imperfect, I’m glad they’re still here. And I’m lucky I had a friend like Mike who made them happen.
You know what snuck up on me?
I really enjoyed my first trip to Wheeling for the 2009 show, so I happily accepted the invitation to share some more Collect All 21! memories this fall – and check THIS out: Former Kenner toy photographer Kim Simmons – “The Man Who Shot Luke Skywalker” – is not only coming back to this year’s JediCon, he designed this amazing toy-populated Empire Strikes Back-inspired poster as a commemorative bonus:
I mean, come ON – that’ s just Too. Freaking. Cool.
Kim will be giving another retrospective on his Kenner years, and Star Wars animator Jon Seay is expected to attend with some pieces of the original Death Star to show off. Besides, how much of an excuse do you need, really, to spend a fall day hanging out with some fellow Star Wars fans in a fun and truly nostalgia-inducing atmosphere?