Remembrances of things to come

Memorabilia: For Thomas Atkinson, collecting `Star Wars' toys is something of a mission.

May 18, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

There are visible seams down Leia's sides where the front and back molds meet. The leg-body joints are crude. For a weapon, Leia carries what appears to be a generic German Luger. However, despite the figure's crudity, there is no doubt that Hungarian children enjoyed them ...

-- A bootleg Hungarian Princess Leia doll, as described in the journal of the "Star Toys Museum"

And we mustn't forget the tortilla chips. Among the 5,000 pieces of "Star Wars" ephemera in Thomas Atkinson's museum, a Papa John's pizza box holds the single greatest tribute to the pop phenomenon that is "Star Wars."

Direct from Spain, tortilla chips in the shape of Star Wars characters have been lovingly shellacked. Look, there's Darth Vader! And that chip there, a spitting, cheesy image of R2-D2. Anyone bring the Jabba dip?

We have entered another dimension in a faraway galaxy called Linthicum. Down Camp Meade Road from a Papa John's restaurant (where museum curator Atkinson works -- "gives me plenty of cash to buy toys"), the Star Toys Museum has taken command of a mild-mannered, two-story home. The house never stood a chance.

Atkinson has been collecting "Star Wars" stuff for 22 of his 34 years. He and his roommate, Don Sakers, moved into this house five years ago. "We unpacked the `Star Wars' toys first," Atkinson says. "We always do."

Then they picked out the biggest room. "This is the museum room," they decreed.

In the museum, visitors (by appointment only) can see, touch and experience a Chewbacca Frisbee, a pewter Yoda head, a Darth Vader speakerphone, a "Star Wars" computer mouse, "Star Wars" PEZ dispenser, "Star Wars" Fruit Snacks ("a high source of Vitamin C"), a Yoda door hanger, a "Star Wars" sand art kit, a Luke Skywalker toothbrush and -- if you don't already own one -- an Admiral Ackbar bookmark.

"We're talking about building an addition," Atkinson says.

Somewhere he keeps videos of the "Star Wars" films. But what fun are those? Atkinson -- the Maryland son of a merchant marine who collected whatever merchant marines collect -- doesn't sit around between pizza shifts and continually watch the "Star Wars" movies. That would be weird. He's obsessed, but he's not a fanatic about it.

Mainly, he cruises science fiction conventions and Web sites looking for deals on "Star Wars" toys. There is no criteria for acceptance into his now incorporated, nonprofit museum ("Now we can hold our head high and beg people for money and toys"). Tacky is not in his vocabulary. Everything has a home in this house of a true star child, Thomas Atkinson, curator.

A close call

If not for George Lucas, this might have become the Logan's Run Museum. In 1976, 11-year-old Atkinson saw the futuristic and fun adventure "Logan's Run." But for Atkinson, a kid who longed for adventures by land, sea and air, "Logan's Run" only primed his pump for the "religious" event he would experience the following year.

For the astronomical price of $4, Atkinson and a buddy saw "Star Wars" at the old Towson Cinema. It was not opening day. There was no merchandise sold in the lobby. It was simply a birthday present from his parents. And, he says, "it was the movie I had been waiting all of my 12 years to see." He sat through it twice.

And the rest is one man's life. Deliberately, methodically, he began collecting Star Wars stuff. He's seen the first "Star Wars" movie 50 times. "My dad came along with me once. He sat in the back and fell asleep." When "The Empire Strikes Back" was released in 1980, Atkinson was there on opening day.

Now, on the eve of the release of "Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," Atkinson is remarkably calm. "I kept an eye on it early on. But I paid less attention to it lately," he says. He doesn't want to know the plot or any details -- "I want to be surprised." He doesn't care that Time, Newsweek and Variety and others have panned "Menace." Criticism is a moot exercise in the mind of a "Star Wars" museum curator.

We didn't trust Atkinson's nonchalance about the movie's opening. He was a little too cool about the most anticipated movie since the last most anticipated movie. Turns out, his plan is to see "Menace" at 12: 01 Wednesday, the first showing at The Senator. That's 12: 01 in the a.m.

He's already stocked his museum with "Menace" merchandise, including the action figures of Darth Maul (the new villain), Queen Amidala and Qui-Gon Jinn. And because dental hygiene is always important, there's a new tube of Colgate C-3PO toothpaste.

The whole place, his whole hobby, begs many questions:

Does George Lucas know you exist?

"We sent him two letters." On a museum letterhead. A form letter came back wishing the museum luck.

How much is all this stuff worth?

$70,000.

Do you like any other movie?

"The Matrix."

Do you play with your Star Wars toys?

"I'll pick up a spaceship and fly it around."

What did you want to be when you grew up?

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