A Star Wars collection that is out of this world

Right now in a basement not very far away …

by Leigh Elmore

When Larry Pillman and his wife, Jeannie, attended the premiere of 'Star Wars' on May 25, 1977 at the Glenwood Theater in Overland Park, KS, little did they know that the movie and its sequels would become such a large part of their lives. Well, Larry's life anyway. Over the decades since the initial movie's release he has accumulated what must be one of the most extensive collections of Star Wars memorabilia in the Midwest.

Larry Pillman displays a ceramic teapot of Luke Skywalker riding a Tauntaun. (photos by Leigh Elmore)

Jeannie requires that his collection not spill over into the main living areas of their Spring Hill, KS home, and that's a pretty tall order.

Descending the stairs to the lower level transports a visitor to "A long time ago, in a galaxy very far away…."

Most of the home's basement level is filled floor to ceiling with Star Wars memorabilia, stacked neatly on metal shelves, hanging on racks, decorating every inch of a small guest bedroom. It looks like a Star Wars store, but nothing is for sale.

A view of the guest room furnishings


The first impression is that Pillman must do nothing but obsess over the now eight films released under the Star Wars banner. While his enthusiasm is great, he actually turned out to be a regular guy who's happily married with three grown children, a long career in the paper industry that's now winding down and with various other hobbies that he pursues such as target shooting and hunting. He's always got a reptilian pet, currently a California King Snake, also, a little dog that looks like an Ewok, named Wicket. But that thrill of the hunt spills over into his Star Wars collection.


An Ewok treehouse that one of Pillman's daughters played with.

"I don't remember being all that excited at the time when the first 'Star Wars' movie came out," Pillman said. "We did get to see it a special showing on the opening weekend." As far as the collection goes, "I see it as an extension of my son Adam's collection. He was five when the first movie came out." Adam started acquiring the action figures released by the toy company Kenner beginning in 1977. "Kenner wasn't even ready with the toys when the movie actually came out. I think it was the first movie released that had a line of toys associated with it," he said.

"Those original Kenner figures and related toys released between 1977 and 1985 have become the gold standard for collectors," Pillman said.

Original Kenner action figures from the late 1970s. The "gold standard," according
to Pillman.

He didn't get serious about collecting until 1989 when he decided to purchase the complete collection of a deceased collector. From there, his holdings began to grow and grow. "Now my son's original collection represents just about 5 percent of what I have," he said. "I have many of the various editions of the same toy, Sears and Penney's had exclusives that only they could sell.

"I know guys who said they put their kids through college by selling parts of their Star Wars collections. But I do it because I love it, not for the investment value," Pillman said.

"I still look for things in antique shops and malls around Kansas City, like Lone Elm Antique Mall and Timeless Treasures. We love them and they know us. There isn't an antique store in in the Kansas City area that we haven't frequented. But it's getting harder to find things that I need in stores. Sometimes price is the issue."

Micro-figures, still in the original box.

Interest and prices on Star Wars related merchandise has had its ups and downs over the 40-year history of the franchise, and various manufacturers have come and gone in that time as well. Today's toys are licensed by The Disney Co., so some expect some resurgence in interest in the new products.

Mike Sellman a columnist for the Junction City Union writes that a day devoted to introducing Star Wars products in stores is called "Force Friday" with the last one occurring on Sept. 1, 2017 two months prior to the release of the latest film, 'The Last Jedi,' in December.

"What other movie has a marketing day all to its own? It's a day gaining as much popularity (if it hasn't already) as Black Friday," Sellman maintains.

The collection fills shelves set up thoughout Pillman's basement.

According to Fortune Magazine, Star Wars toys generated more than $700 million in the U.S. in 2015 when the highly anticipated movie 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' came out in December that same year.

"Toy company Kenner, which became defunct in 2000, first released Star Wars action figures in 1978 following the release of the first movie in 1977. The original line of figures ended in 1985 as sales declined," Sellman noted. "And if there's one word I could use to describe all the Star Wars figures that have come out since then, it would be 'overwhelming'."

Between 1977 to present day, there are approximately 28 different lines (or collections) of Star Wars action figures. Star Wars figures came back to toy shelves in 1995 with 'The Power of the Force' line of toys. 'The Shadows of the Empire' line came next, followed by toys for the movie 1999 Star Wars movie 'The Phantom Menace.' Then the 'Power of the Jedi' line came out, followed by 'Star Wars Saga' series, the 'Clone Wars' series, a line for the animated series. Soon after that, the 'Trilogy Collection' hit stores. The list goes on.

The Dark Tower game by Milton Bradley

Pillman says that the 'Power of the Force' figurines are some of the most desirable carded figures. "But part of the trouble of being a collector is keeping up with the values." For Pillman and most other expert collectors items must be "unpunched (the "chad" still remaining in the hole used for hanging on a rack), in mint condition with no yellowing. "Action figures need to have their original weapons and be unscuffed. People don't want the weapons reproduced later to fill voids," he said.

He relies on Tomart's Price Guide to Worldwide Star Wars Collecting by Stephen J. Sansweet and Linda Baker first published in 1994. "This is the Bible and what got me going," he says. "Sansweet is the expert."

Beyond the toys, Pillman's collection includes anything and everything with a Star Wars character or logo. His rooms are filled with comb sets, skateboards, glasses, Hallmark ornaments, towels, roller skates, nightlights, clothing, Underoos, bedding, drapes.

'Star Wars Evolution' cards by Topps autographed by the actors who portrayed the pictured characters.

Pillman had his birthday recently and proudly displays a birthday card, Star Wars themed of course, from his son Adam. Family members know never to sign cards to Pillman so as to retain original value. He shows a whole stack of birthday and Father's Day cards he has received, all unsigned.

Yet, Pillman is most excited by the original artwork he has collected from leading artists of Star Wars themes including Topps Trading Card artists Ben Abu Saada and Todd Aaron Smith. Pillman owns Topps cards of characters drawn by Abu Saada, with the autographs of the actors who portrayed them, Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Kenny Baker (R2D2). These are 'Star Wars Evolution' cards released by Topps in 2001.


A life-size sculpted head of Chewbacca.

One of his most prized objects is a three-figure study of Princess Leia (as Jabba the Hutt's scantily clad slave) that looks as if it were a photograph not a drawing. He is also very proud of a theater lobby poster for the original 'Star Wars' movie, which shows Luke and Leia, drawn somewhat differently than how they eventually appeared.

"Cards are a big part of the collecting business," he says as he displays a plastic bag of 'Return of the Jedi' card that he found at Lone Elm Antique Mall in Olathe. "There must be 150 characters portrayed on cards and as figures."

Outside of the artwork, one of Pillman's favorite items is a ceramic teapot created in the image of Luke Skywalker riding a Tauntaun. He keeps the unique ceramic pieces in a special display case in his guest room.

Ceramic figures in a special display case. (Drew Butera portrays a fighter pilot). A C3PO music box.

Pillman was delighted to read in last month's Discover Vintage America, that the Milton Bradley game, Star Wars – The Dark Tower is valued between $200 and $700 depending on condition. He proudly displayed the boxed game set next to the Discover clipping.

What doesn't he own? "I'm currently looking for a certain series of Hallmark Christmas tree ornaments relating to 'The Queen's Gambit.' And I would also like to find the Star Wars Tie Interceptor in the box."

Looking around the collection there was one figure who was absent. "Where is Jar Jar Binks?" I asked. "Never!" was Pillman's adamant reply.

 

Larry Pillman in his guest room.


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com

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