As a resident of the UK I’ve heard of, and admired from afar, the US Star Wars collectors’ clubs which have a strong presence at Celebration. I visit the clubs’ booths whenever I can, many of which raise thousands of dollars for local charities on a regular basis. Over the last few years I have witnessed these clubs creating t-shirts and other merchandise, host social events and gatherings, and finally have the most amazing meet-ups at each others’ houses. Over the Labor Day weekend of 2019 I was proud to say that I was given the opportunity to experience one.
So, how did this come about? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. I’m just a regular vintage, and modern, Star Wars collector who happily shares information here on Fantha Tracks or as co-host of The Vintage Rebellion podcast. I had an amazing experience at Celebration Chicago, meeting many old friends and new ones alike and when I returned I longed to do the same at Farthest From later in the year. Not long after Celebration I was made aware of an invite from a member of the Empire State Star Wars Collectors Club (ESSWCC) and I contacted them to find out the details. As it (just!) fit into my holidays it seemed a no-brainer and I booked quickly. Here is the run-down of the weekend.
Note – I have not named some collectors to protect them and their collections.
Friday 30th August
I arrived at Stewart International Airport in New York from Newcastle UK, via Dublin, at approximately 5pm local time. My time was 5 hours ahead so I was pretty tired. I was collected at the airport by Christopher Riehle, one of the event’s organisers, and Lee Harris who travelled all the way from Australia which made my trip seem as though I was going to the local shops. I checked in at the hotel, quick shower and headed out with the full intention of having a quick meet-up and an early night. I was quite nervous as I didn’t know a lot of the attendees, I was told 77 would be there, and was worried about integrating. What would happen if I was ignored? Would I be able to join in with the cliques? What if I was considered an outsider? I needn’t have worried.
My first mistake was passing a room which sounded lively. I went in and was bear hugged by Fonz Napolitano and within 3 minutes was drinking vodka. Fonz is a super cool guy who knows how to have a good time and has an infectious spirit which brings people along with him. I said hello to the growing number of attendees and joined in. Even with my apparently unusual accent we all hit it off immediately, although I suspect some were just nodding to me to be polite and never understood a word.
I had arranged to meet Johnpaul Ragusa, current owner of The Imperial Gunnery, for a purchase I had made of Masters of the Universe figures a few months earlier. I’m sure I only bought 10 or so but somehow I brought 31 home. Add this to the Lord of the Rings items I had shipped to Ron Salvatore and I had a sizeable amount of luggage space taken up already and I hadn’t spent a penny yet. I managed to last until about 11pm and had to call it quits.
Saturday 31st August
So, because I wake early in the morning, in this case 2.00am, I headed back to the lobby at about 4. The receptionist thought I was odd, I am, and we had a good chat. Unsurprisingly there was nobody about so I went for a walk. I assumed that all of New York was the metropolis that we see on TV. Nothing could be farther from the truth as I saw stunning greenery, woods, mountains, trails… it had everything I love.
Around 7.00am I then meet for the first time the group that I spent most of the day with. Narayan Naik, Justin Haynie, Blake Morgan and Dan Loisell were heading to a local flea market at Stormville and had a spare seat in the car. The flea market was huge and yet I was told later that there were still traders arriving and that it was not considered that busy. We headed for the toy dealers, spotting other collectors as we wandered, and saw some vintage Star Wars and other toylines. It gave a great indication as to how it must have looked in the early 1990s. I didn’t pick anything up there but enjoyed an hour or so looking at a lot of antiques, unusual wood products and vintage bric-a-brac.
We had a few hours to kill and I was delighted to hear that the guys wanted to visit Johnpaul’s shop called The Imperial Castle, located in Pawling. The shop is every kids’ dream, nice and clean, tidy and featuring lots of toylines. I picked up some more MOTU and modern figures when I was there. Johnpaul showed us some of his recent pickups and we were delighted to be given the opportunity to see some pretty rare carded figures from his private collection that he brought for us to see. We jokingly took photographs pretending that they were our flea market finds.
Mistake number 2 happened just after this. I was asked if I wanted to see Collector X’s collection. My response should have been “hell, yeah!” but I instead replied, “I’m easy”, after all, I am their guest. We had a little think about what to do and were heading for dinner when Collector X confirmed that we could go over, which we did. “I don’t have a lot on display mind,” we were warned. I have to say that if that collection was “not a lot” then my collection may as well not exist. It was stunning! A full cabinet featuring other toy lines such as MOTU and Knickerbocker Lord of the Rings including carded. There were full runs of unreleased figures and many production items. I was amazed. But then, we were taken down to the basement and saw what can be best described as a homage to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And this was just a small part of the collection!
Boxes and boxes of pre-production and production of all the toylines that I could think of. All of it in exceptional quality and many pieces still in sealed original packing. We spent a lot of time asking questions and our host graciously answered. Although I was only there for an hour or so I am by far the richer for the experience. Possibly my favourite part of the visit was when we were shown an old photo album of store displays and other pieces from the 1990s that he had acquired still living with his parents. I am a story guy and I loved listening to the history of the finds and where they went to. Skipping school to receive two truckloads of carded figures had to be a highlight. Truly worth the cost of the whole trip alone.
By the time we got back to the hotel after lunch, it was nearly time for the panels to start. The first panel was hosted by David Quinn, host of Star Wars Prototypes and Production podcast. It was a fascinating history of how the ESSWCC was founded and featured a rotation of many friends including founders Thomas Quinn and Jason Thomas. I loved this and could relate to everything what was said, from trepidation in the early days to wondering what I’m doing there in the first place. This panel proved that Star Wars has no boundaries, doesn’t discriminate against age, colour, gender, knowledge… anything. We all laughed, smiled and there were genuine tears from a few as to the impact these guys have had on each other, and now me. Be sure to check out the podcast episode when it is released.
The second panel was hosted by my friend Matt George, co-author of the popular book Engineering an Empire. In this panel we learnt the fascinating journey that Matt took in order to make this book happen and he confirmed that volume two is in the works. Can’t wait to pick that up.
Panel three was hosted by Jonathan McElwain who has the most impressive collection of non-action figure related Star Wars items I have seen. Jonathan has written many articles for theswca and is extremely generous of his time when answering my mostly dumb questions. If you have an interest in items such as Dixie Cups, pine-sol or party products then you must make sure you catch one of Jonathan’s panels if you can. You will see images of products that you are unlikely to see again.
The final panel was hosted by uber collector Duncan Jenkins who took us on a journey through his favourite items from his collection. One can listen to Duncan’s stories and easily lose track of time. Again, the stories behind the items are fascinating and Duncan was keen to point out special features of the items which we would have easily missed otherwise.
The night ended with room sales and beers. The room sales were great and I purchased a good amount of items. Everyone had space to move, which is a problem at Celebration, to mingle and chat. It was a great night, with no egos and friends looking out for each other. Just a shame I’d been up since 2.00am otherwise I would have spent more time there. And more money so scrub that.
Sunday 1st September
Woohoo I slept in until 5.00am. After breakfast, I met with Matt George and Lee Harris where we headed off to Ron Salvatore’s house. Ron is a true legend in the hobby who has helped me out immensely many, many times. I’m not going to go into detail but I will say that I described the collection at the time as a living history of Kenner. Initially, I went downstairs into the basement, to view some incredible carded figures and poster displays. When I went upstairs I was gobsmacked viewing amazing condition production items and a vast array of pre-production and prototype pieces. Wax sculpts, acetates, internal paperwork and photography, one of the few chances to see all of these items in one place.
Picture rows of cabinets, beginning with 1977 and moving on right through the toyline. Each section features production and pre-production items which relate to the figures. Small cards tell the stories behind key pieces and point out details such as alternative sculpts or design changes. I could have spent hours there and visited it several times. It was not uncommon to sit outside and hear a collector say “what did you think about …” for me to say “how the hell did I miss that?” and then head back up again.
Store displays are incredibly difficult to display and I was really impressed with the solution. I’ve visited a lot of collections recently and all have given me the inspiration and focus to pause my purchasing, not that it’s happened yet, and to focus on displaying what I have properly. I feel truly blessed to have seen this collection.
The final part of my trip happened next which involved a boat cruise down the Hudson River. I was greeted by some family members of Ron and chatted for awhile about the history of the valley and area we were in, including which movies were shot where and what they thought of VeganFest. This really helped me on the boat journey as I could identify key features such as West Point, the munitions castle and a possible filming location. This was the first chat I could have with Bill Fryer and it is always a delight to talk about the real football with someone from the States.
Indeed, a lot of the conversation over the weekend was not Star Wars related. We talked all things from battle re-enactments, thanks Jason Thomas and Chris Riehle, through to football, families, jobs, places we’ve been. It was just like hanging out with people that we’ve known all of our lives.
Sadly, as mentioned I had to leave at this point as I had work the next day. Within 90 minutes of landing back at Newcastle sadly. I missed the Monday adventure which involved a visit to collector Z’s house and I have been stunned by the photos I have seen. I will certainly return one day to visit this stellar collection.
As I sit and write this a week later, and read all of the messages from others in the group, I have to say that this is one event I will never forget. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming at all times. There was no sense of rivalry or tribalism, indeed the very opposite. I am extremely proud to have visited this event and now consider myself a fully fledged member of a club 3000 miles away with people I now consider friends and family.
There are not too many collectors from the UK heading to Anaheim in 2020 but I have now 77 new friends that I can meet up with. This was the first of The Annual events and it will definitely not be my last. Chatting to Christopher Riehle, one of the chief organisers with his wife Stephanie and Ron Salvatore, he summed it up perfectly by saying “I have not added to my collection recently as I have put my money into this event which is worth far more to me.” Very powerful and true words.
I won’t list all of the collectors that I spent time with and chatted too because there are simply too many and I know I will miss some out by mistake. I will end this though by saying thank you to every one of you and you could not possibly imagine the impact that you have had on me.
Photos (c) Chris Porteous, Narayan Naik, Richard Hutchinson and used with kind permission of the ESSWCC