Friday, February 20, 2015

Limelight Collector Interview #3 - Bill Wills

Just north of Kenner Town...

Focus: Luke Skywalker (Jedi Knight)
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Fratastic Collector Rating: Super Focus Collector

Pete writes:

With our third installment of the monthly collector/collection limelight we'll review our first of many focus collections, and get to play a little vintage vocabulary. To begin the discussion this month, I thought it would be prudent to discuss just what a focus truly is.    

The center of interest or activity.

Star Wars Focus
The special sauce that Space Freaks crave in the category of plastic crack...

For the uninitiated, a focus is simply a niche in the hobby that a collector chooses to dedicate their collecting time to. Some examples include: collecting only items from a particular movie, a particular character, a specific type of product (vehicles, figures, etc.); it can be trying to be a completest (one of everything), or even simply focusing on loose or packaged items. The majority of collectors out there have some type of focus at the core of their collection. Most do veer off into other items, and even other figure or collectible lines. Having that strategy keeps a lot of collectors on target (no pun intended) and keeps their collections from getting out of control. Just looking around at my fellow Space Freaks on the 'Chive Cast, I collect ROTJ items, Mike collects Luke Hoth and Luke Bespin, Stephen B. Danley collects B-Wing Pilot and B-Wing items, and Skye collects ways to slam AFA…and Chewy in his spare time. 

It’s not necessary, but having a focus for your collection has definitely become commonplace in this hobby. Because of this trend, the vast majority of our future interviews will deal with “focus” collections, and thus I thought it would be prudent to make sure all collecting aficionados and casual readers were familiar with the term and the trend in collecting in general.
This month’s limelight subject, Bill Wills, has a unique story about his collection, how he got started, and how it’s evolved through his life. With it being a focus collection, it’s easier to dig into all aspects of the collection and really celebrate the great ensemble that he’s been able to assemble over the years.

As Bill and I conversed, we started at the best place to begin -- the early years of his collecting.

FP: What are some of your earliest memories of Star Wars?

BW: I remember seeing all the movies in a theater. I remember when ESB came out and my mom bought me a figure -- I can’t even remember which one, they were so tough to find. One day I rode my bike down to the Kroger’s and they had a full spinner of figures. I didn’t have enough to pick one up, so I went back to my grandma’s and was able to persuade my uncle who was there to loan me a few bucks so I could buy one.

FP: How did you start to collect?

BW: I was born in the 70s, so I had first-hand experience with the line. Everyone in my age group as a kid was into Star Wars -- it was just so widespread. I don’t think that kids in this generation will ever experience anything like Star Wars and the phenomenon it was. As a child I can remember spinner racks of 12 and 21 backs. I still have a lot of what I had as a kid. When I was in a book store in 1993, I saw a guide that had prices listed for Star Wars toys. It had a 12” Darth Vader MIB valued at $75. It dawned on me then that people collect this stuff, and about a year later I came across a Tomart magazine with ads and more information in it. I started by picking up Toy Shops and Tomarts and looking at the mail order way of acquiring things. Around this time as well The Earth was just starting up and she was putting items in the publications but also opened up a store front.

FP: What was the first item you bought as a collector?

BW: My first big purchase was 12 back C-3PO MOC that I picked up for $100. I originally felt stupid as it was just a toy, but it was a great item and brought back a lot of memories. I got a ton of stuff from Traders World during this time, including a sealed Early Bird. A short while after that I started running ads in the Cincinnati paper looking for ex Kenner employees. Down the road Cantina Collectibles ( came along in about 1999. After a few big collections from Kenner guys, I ran auctions through Toy Shop and didn’t want to use my name. My buddy Tracey Hamilton, helped me come up with the name and I created the URL eventually. Tracey (who’s also a collector of some note) was a groomsman in my wedding; we did shows together, Celebrations together, and have built a great friendship through the hobby. I actually met Tracey at Traders World. A lot of guys like Don Gibbs and Charlie Wilhelm would sell there. You’d see everything from rocket-firing Fetts to hardcopies and beyond. This is where a lot of the prototypes made it into the collectors market.

FP: When did you start to collect?

BW: Early 90s, around 93. 

FP: Why did you choose Luke Jedi as the focus figure in your collection?

BW: I always liked the figure, and I just thought it was great looking figure all around, liked everything about it. I didn’t have it as a kid as I was done playing with toys by the time the 45 backs rolled into stores. But when I first started to collect it was one of the first few prototypes I found. I had the blueprints and then found a proto-mold of the figure, so I had a smattering of a few items that were the start of a focus collection.  
Around the time, Tom Neiheisel came on the scene and he had a ton of stuff for sale. Me and Tracey went down to visit him and see what he had. At the time he had a lot of the 12 back stuff left (Photo Art). The prices were around $2,500. I knew it was good stuff but the prices were still crazy to me. I wanted to be smart about it. He only had a few of the 12 backs left. Tracey had already started a focus on C-3PO, so I thought I might get R2 as he had both left.  But I didn’t have anything for the character, and so I debated and debated as I was only going to get 1 piece of photo art. Since I already had a Luke Jedi collection going it seemed like a good choice; throw in the fact that it was only $2,000 vs. $2,500 and that helped as well. As much as I have a good focus today, Matt Brand was really the original Luke Jedi focus collector. He had picked up a lot of stuff from Tom including a bunch of Cromalins and proof cards.

FP: Given that you’re so close to Cincinnati, have you ever visited any of the old Kenner sites?

BW: Yep for sure. Nothing formal, but I tried to hit all the historic spots. Kenner employed so many people in Cincinnati it was amazing, which is why you can find so much in the area today. Stuff still shows up, sometimes today whether it’s aging employees or people passing away and the family is selling or they’ve just lost interest. It’s like a second wave of stuff is getting out into the market.

FP: Do you collect anything else outside of Luke Jedi or Star Wars in general?

BW: When I first started collecting I bought whatever I thought was cool. I’ve always collected something... baseball cards, comic books and even stamps. I had a guy tell me when I was collecting cards, “always buy the best that you can find” and I stand by this advice. I’ve always had a collector's mentality. My collection just got so big I couldn’t even display it all it, as it was so massive. I started to go through and get rid of a lot of stuff that I couldn’t display. I had a lot of duplicates and started to move on from a lot of stuff that I had held onto for a few years. My wife and I were starting to outgrow our current house and so we looked at building a place. Eventually a lot of the funds went to building my house. I still have the first 21 MOC and a lot of ESB stuff, some hardcopies, and store displays. I paired it down and just focused on Luke Jedi as the core of my collection. If you don’t focus your efforts it gets out of control. Too much money and too much time goes into it.

FP: Does your collection spill over into any other lines outside of Star Wars?

BW: I have a lot of old Mego stuff -- it was my first line. It was a big part of my childhood. I read comics as a kid and still have a lot of my old Mego figures from my childhood.

FP: What are your top three favorite pieces in the Luke Jedi collection?

BW: First and second are really a toss up between the painted dynacast hardcopy and the painted protomold. The protomolds are done in this milky white plastic with no holes in the feet and are hand painted. The head is dynacast and then hand painted. The cape is almost black it’s so dark, and the saber is so unique as well. The painted protomold came from someone who worked in soft goods for Kenner so she probably worked on the cape. So, it’s a toss up between that one and hand-painted dynacast. Then number three would be the photo art for the figure.

Painted Protomold
FP: Tell me a little bit about the two framed pieces.

BW: One is literally a working blueprint for the palace blaster (the weapon the Luke Jedi came with, which was unique to his figure -- not common in the vintage line). It has dimensions, scale, cross sections, and all the different angles. It’s definitely a pre-production start to the palace blaster.

The other piece says "Jedi Luke Deco Drawing." What you can’t see in the photo is that every single paintable attribute is labeled. It’s numbered which I believe are paint codes with sub words such as golden and others. It was probably used by the vendors over seas for the painting of the figure.

Rounding out Bill’s collection are a plethora of other items of note. He has a very full and representative run of items for the Luke Jedi figure, many of which we didn’t get a chance to talk about. Like most collectors, he has a run of MOC figures for the character, but given the fact that he was released for ROTJ its variation is somewhat limited as you don’t have the depth you would have with a figure that was released for one of the first two films. In the MOC run we see several great pieces. In addition to having the domestic Kenner pieces such as the 65A back, which was the first release for the figure, the run also features a Tri-Logo piece and the last of the ROTJ releases -- the 79A. When it comes to extending the MOC run outside of the United States, he has a Palitoy version from England, Lili Ledy from Brazil, and a Clipper piece from Belgium. He also has a sealed catalog mailer 8-Pack with Luke Jedi.

Moving onto the pre-production, there are several noteworthy pieces including more 2D items and photo sample figures for the 77 and 79 backs. An offerless Cromalin could be the highlight of his proof card and photo sample run. He also has a square cornered proof card of the 65 back which are difficult to find in comparison to most other releases proof cards

In addition to the extensive pre-production run, there is a sizable collection of smaller pieces related to Luke Jedi. One of my personal favorites is the "pitch coin" used for the Power of the Force series of figures, which he has had graded. There are several variations of the cape for Luke Jedi from overseas manufactures, given variation in cut and dye used on the pieces. As Bill mentioned his top two favorite pieces are pre-production versions of the figure. To add to that segment of his collection, he has a few more pre-production figure pieces in the form of a head pull sample test shot with a clear torso and a pair of heads (one clear and one painted), as well as a first shot with production limbs and head. Thus regardless of the limited number of production examples released for the figure, Bill has amassed an extremely complete collection of the including every segment whether it be production or pre-production.

FP: My favorite question -- how does your significant other feel about your collection?

BW: Early on, she thought it was just kind of cute. We started dating in 94. We’d be out on a Friday night or Saturday night and we’d stop off at Wal Mart to pick up Star Wars figures. It didn’t bother her at all. At the time it was different because I didn’t have the stuff I have now, as it was 95-96 and I was trying to get the new toys as opposed to vintage. The financial picture changes everything as at first I didn’t have the stuff I would later have. Eventually she started to see its value as she saw me sell some stuff, and is supportive of it 100%. If it makes you happy that’s what’s important.

Today Bill has a family of his own, with three kids: two daughters who are 12 and 11, along with a  son who is 9. His dirty little secret is none of them have seen Star Wars to date.

BW: I had one daughter walk in once when I was watching Jedi. She saw the Rancor scene and was scared to death of it.  My son won’t watch it. He is relishing his role of not liking what dad likes.  

FP: Are there any thoughts or lessons you’ve taken away from your years of collecting?

BW: When I was first was into it was just about the toys. I had a close knit group of friends. It wasn’t about anything social. But as I got older I’ve made so many friends and it became more about the hobby. The best part is about being with the people, whether it’s at Celebrations and other events. It’s so important today vs. when I started -- so much so that Tracey and I were planning on setting up shop at Celebration Anaheim this year and decided not to. We had some family and friends lined up to receive our stuff and do the logistics for us, but we just started talking about the fact that when you have a booth it’s really tough to enjoy the event itself. So we’re taking a pass on that this year and just focusing on the event and enjoying all it has to offer.   I know all the Archive guys really well. It’s some of my best memories, and this way I can make sure that I spend enough time with them and other friends I’ve made over the years.

A great way to end any discussion on the hobby is with how it’s impacted your life. It’s profound that so many people who were just starting a small scale hobby have been able to develop so many great relationships over the years. But when it comes to any niche hobby like this, a great deal of how you expand your collection is through expanding your network as well. It’s the key to how many people continue to find something new in the hobby year after year.



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