In a galaxy far, far away (well, Sparta, Wisconsin), I entered the city’s local history museum, much to the chagrin of my children.
“Wait ... I thought you said we were getting ice cream,” my son said upon entering.
“Yeah ... do they even serve ice cream here?” my daughter asked.
“We’ll get to the ice cream,” I said. “But first, I thought maybe we could check out a few —” I paused to build suspense, “antique toys!”
They are intrigued, despite being a little perturbed about the lack of ice cream.
We entered the museum’s main room, which resembled a highlight reel from my youth. The space overflowed with Lincoln Logs and Lite-Brites, Care Bears and Barbies and Raggedy Ann. Off to the left was a functioning Atari, where my children soon grew puzzled by a game of Pong.
“So ... you just hit the dot then?” my son asked, reaching for the joystick.
“Video games have come a long way,” I explained.
“Welcome to the museum,” called a voice from behind. “I see your kids found Pong.”
“I’m not sure they know what to do with it,” I said, “but they found it.”
After a few minutes of small talk with 48-year-old Monroe County historian Jarrod Roll, I mention that we’d come from Eau Claire.
“I was just in Eau Claire!” he said.
“What brought you there?”
Fast forward four months, and Jarrod and I reunite at the Chippewa Valley Museum, where he has just put the finishing touches on “Nostalgia Awakens,” his Star Wars exhibit, which features every original action figure produced by Kenner for the original Star Wars trilogy. They are all there, from Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca, to lesser-known characters like Prune Face, Paploo and Klaatu.
Though I’d been impressed by Jarrod’s curated toys exhibit in Sparta, one look around the gallery at the Chippewa Valley Museum confirms his true passion: not just any old toys, but Star Wars toys.
For Jarrod, his Star Wars obsessions began just as it did for most, with a trip to the movies. In 1977, 4-year-old Jarrod took his seat alongside his mother in a Hartford, Wisconsin theater, and soon found himself transported to Tatooine and beyond.
“I came out of there, and my mind was racing,” Jarrod says. “I wanted to get my hands on what I’d just experienced.” Unfortunately, Kenner, who had been awarded the licensing for Star Wars toys, would need a full year to create them.
“We had to keep the story alive in our own way,” Jarrod explains, which for him meant enlisting the help of his brother and their neighborhood friends, all of whom reached for their lightsabers (read: backyard sticks) and embarked upon one adventure after another to save The Galactic Republic.
But by the mid-1980s, it seemed The Galactic Republic had been saved for the last time — at least as the films were concerned. Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, and there were no new films on the horizon.
As a result, Star Wars toys began falling out of favor, replaced by new toys with a bit more relevancy. Enter a platoon of G.I. Joe’s and Cabbage Patch Kids and Transformers — one must-have toy after another, all of which left Star Wars toys moving at the speed of Han Solo trapped in carbonite. Even Jarrod lost interest; he’d simply aged out of the carefree days of playing with toys.
But in 1991, shortly from graduating from high school, the force awakened within him yet again. One day he stumbled upon a buy-and-sell publication for antique toys, including an array of requests for Star Wars toys.
“A light just went off in my head,” Jarrod says. “My childhood toys had secondary market value.”
And so began one man’s quest to collect the Star Wars Kenner toys in full, right on down to the very last droid. The journey was long, and required more than a little horse trading, and internet sleuthing, and second-guessing, but in the end, Jarrod completed his collection — the only one of its kind anywhere in the world.
Through December 31, those of us in the Chippewa Valley can now bear witness to the fruits of Jarrod’s 30-year labor. A labor — and exhibit — that’s about far more than toys.
“We trivialize things when we say, ‘Oh, that’s just a toy,’” Jarrod says. In doing so, we overlook their unspoken power. Toys, after all, are our story starters, and our time machines, and the rocket fuel for our imaginations. They teach us how to play nice with others, how to make our own fun, and how to dream far bigger than the biggest movie screen.
“They connect us to each other, and they connect us to our past,” Jarrod says.
Peering around the room, I weigh my next words carefully.
“So why does it all matter?”
“Well,” Jarrod smiles, “in the big scheme of things, it doesn’t. But what makes it enjoyable is the way people can connect over something that isn’t controversial. Something happens when people from my generation look at all this,” he says, motioning toward his exhibit. “They’re automatically transported to a happy place from their past. It gives them a little injection of something positive.”
These days, we could all use an injection of something positive. I’ll take every Wookiee, Ewok and Porg I can get. But all the better when that injection of positivity comes from a man whose great joy is bringing joy to others by way of his toys.
“When you see all this, I want it to be like Christmas morning for you again,” Jarrod says. “I want to take people back to that moment when they’ve just assembled everything, and everything’s fresh and clean and complete. That moment before little brothers start losing stuff, or vacuum cleaners start sucking up the pieces. That’s why it’s so important that everything here is complete,” Jarrod tells me.
In completing the collection, we complete the memory, too.
Right on down to the very last droid.