(Baltimore City Paper, April 13, 1999)
Thomas Atkinson vividly remembers the summer day back in 1977 when his life changed forever. He and a friend were dropped off at the Towson Theater. The letters on the marquee read Star Wars-a movie that was about to blow the 12-year-old science-fiction fan away.
"It was the film I had been waiting all my short life to see," Atkinson recalls.
Soon after, Atkinson went out and bought an R2-D2 action figure for about two bucks. Twenty-two years (and two sequels) later, Atkinson has nearly 5,000 Star Wars items in a collection worth more than $70,000. Today he is curator of the Star Toys Museum, a place Atkinson describes as the world's only museum dedicated to Star Wars toys, merchandise, and memorabilia.
"Cluttered" doesn't begin to describe the interior of the clapboard Linthicum house Atkinson shares with longtime companion Don Saker and roommate Dan Corcoran (pictured, from left). Atkinson, a boyish-looking 34-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair and leather sandals on his feet, leads me into the house's parlor-turned-galactic-playpen. Glass and wooden display cases, spilling over with legions of Ewoks, Wookies, Yodas, and other Star Wars characters, crowd the room. An armada of space ships dangles from the acoustic-tiled ceiling, which is dominated by a 70-pound Millennium Falcon Extraordinaire.
"I wouldn't hazard a guess has to how many different Star Wars products have been made," says Atkinson, who, when not tending to his outer-space empire, delivers pizzas for a living. "But we've got a pretty good representation of it."
Along with all of the Star Wars toys, there is lots of other Star Wars stuff-everything from FEEL THE FORCE boxer shorts to baby-Ewok pencil erasers. There is a Star Wars peanut-butter-cookie box, there is Star Wars bath foam, wallpaper, and kiddie furniture, and there are Star Wars bed sheets, curtains, wristwatches, yo-yos, kites, and key chains.
Some of the items sold under the Star Wars imprimatur amaze even Atkinson. "This is a kind of weird juxtaposition," he says, holding up a talking Darth Vader Christmas ornament. Near yuletide Darth sits the Star Wars version of Monopoly, another puzzling product. "Buying and selling real estate just doesn't seem to be a big thing in the Star Wars universe," Atkinson says with a playful smile.
Many items are carefully labeled (so novices will know a "Tatooine Playset With Sarlacc Pit" from a "Dewback Lizard With Stormtrooper"), and Atkinson's collection is cataloged down to the last android. Of course, gone are the days when you could score a Star Wars piece for a couple of bucks. Many of the items in his collection are rare and pricey, such as the die-cast metal TIE Bomber (circa 1980) Atkinson has in its original box. He paid $200 for it 12 years ago. Now, he says, it's worth at least a grand. Manufacturing snafus can also make items desirable, as is the case with a certain bubblegum card.
"It's got a picture of C-3PO sporting what look for all of the world like an erection," Atkinson says. "The card made it out on the market, but was quickly changed-and also quickly collected."
Atkinson gets most of his exhibits at science-fiction conventions and through Internet auctions. (It's not always a matter of buying the stuff, though; he recently pulled some Star Wars promotional pieces from a Taco Bell Dumpster.) Patrons interested in supporting his enterprise can make tax-deductible donations-the museum was officially organized as a tax-exempt nonprofit last year. Star Toys now has a board of directors and lists actor Michael Sheard (Admiral Ozzel in The Empire Strikes Back) on its advisory council.
Atkinson is hardly alone in his obsessive undertaking. (Five Star Wars-items price guides are available, and scores of Web sites are devoted to the hobby.) "One reason I wanted make a museum and a corporate entity was to get recognition and draw the attention of other collectors," he says. "As far as I know, no [collector] ever invited people into their home to see the stuff, which was one of the things I thought was important."
Last year Atkinson obtained a new item a day on average, and that rate is bound to jump come May 19, when Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, the first of three planned new Star Wars movies, debuts.
"It's a little scary to think about all the new stuff," Atkinson says. But as surely as the universe is expanding, so is the museum, which recently spilled out of the parlor and into an adjacent room that's been dubbed "the West Wing." Atkinson is creating the sort of toy-filled fun house many of us dreamed about in grade school.
"I have to grow older," he says. "but I don't have to grow up."
The Star Toys Museum has a Web site at www.meerkatmeade.com. To arrange a visit to this galaxy far, far away (but only minutes from the Beltway!), call (410) 859-1261. Admission is free.
Updated on April 13, 1999