In 1997, George Lucas sent the original Star Wars trilogy back into theaters with his “Special Edition” revamps — a topic that’s still sore for many purists who preferred their “Jabba concert scene” without dancing Rodians in orange bathing suits. The Special Editions were polarizing, but in the end, anyone who hated them now has access to the original versions, too.
That was a great year to be a Star Wars fan. We knew the prequels were coming, but we didn’t know an awful lot about them. Few thought that a gen-shaping series rated four stars by everyone on the planet could go sour, and the anticipation was palpable. The anticipation was palatineable. Plus, Hasbro revived the legendary Star Wars action figure collection with all the spirit of the Kenner originals, effectively kicking off a culture of “catering to the collectors” that took geeks like me off of the Internet trading posts and back into toy stores, where we fought little kids over four-inch Boba Fetts.
By the time the Special Edition Return of the Jedi hit theaters on March 14th, 1997, the excitement from the movies and from the toys intertwined in a more literal way. Hasbro issued thousands of theaters a supply of Luke Skywalker figures in exclusive “Theater Edition” packaging, to be given away free to theatergoers on opening night. The catch: Supplies were limited, and they were only going to give ’em away during one of the many showings that day. I went with an old friend of mine hoping for a little luck, and fate was on my side.
The figure itself was no different from the Jedi Luke sold in every toy store in the country at the time. The only difference was a little logo on the lower left of the packaging citing it as the “Theater Edition.” Despite this, I’d been collecting toys long enough by then to realize that “Theater Edition Luke” was going to be a very hot ticket the next morning. As kids tore open the packages to get at their Luke, I very carefully slipped mine into my bag. Even had the foresight to bring along some bubblewrap.
And as an added bonus, my friend has absolutely no interest in Star Wars figures, so she gave me her Theater Edition Luke, too. We saw the movie, parted ways, and when I got home, the wheeling and dealing commenced.
While interest in this particular figure has cooled considerably since 1997, it was selling for hundreds in the weeks following its debut night. Every collector wanted it, and many of those who did their duty of going to the theater on opening night came up short. It was a total crapshoot, and since Star Wars collectors tend to be completists, it seemed that nobody could live without a Theater Edition Luke. (At the time, we all called him “Special Edition Luke,” or more concisely, “SE Luke.”)
I was in a twice-blessed position. Not only did I have two of these figures (meaning I could freely trade one out and still have one for my own collection), but one of the two I had was in gem mint condition. Theater Edition Luke figures most often came with dents and bruises in the packaging, because, well, it’s tough to avoid that when you’ve got annoyed theater workers being bombarded by 70 lunatics the second they bring out a box marked “Hasbro,” tossing the figures around like bread at a shelter. Since I was never much of a stickler for owning things in mint condition, I kept the figure with a few card dents and started taking offers on the mint one.
It was like walking through a barren desert with a canteen full of coconut milk. Everyone wanted my Luke, and people were practically offering their souls for it. I ultimately scored a trade wherein I sent some stranger my Theater Edition Luke, and in return, received 60 bucks and three gigantic boxes stuffed with packaged figures from at least 20 different lines — X-Men, Batman, Star Trek, Congo…it was endless. None of the figures I got in that trade were worth more than a few bucks singularly, but anytime you can trade one free thing for over 75 other things, you’ve done well.
I distinctly recall the feeling of being a pig in shit as I spread the contents of those three boxes across the living room floor. The person I traded with admitted that he’d made a really bad deal, but as his apartment was overstuffed with useless figures that were hurting his ability to walk from the kitchen to the bedroom without killing a six-inch Wolverine, he was just glad to have the extra space. We both left happy, but I think I was a just a wee bit happier.
I’ve since stopped collecting and totally fell off the toy wagon at large, but back when I was heavy into it, I was a master trader. It was my favorite part of the hobby. I’d been at it for close to ten years before I ever had a Internet connection, but once I got AOL 2.5 and found people with similar interests online, I was unstoppable. One time I traded a guy a couple of MegaForce and Beetlejuice toys for nearly the entire run of G1 Transformers, including a boxed Optimus Prime, all because he didn’t know anything about Transformers and didn’t want to go through the trouble of ID’ing them. I stupidly sold them all a few years later, but the thrill always seemed to be more in the “getting there” than in the “being there.”
I feel even more nerdy writing about this stuff than writing about Dunkin’ Donuts Coolatas and Ninja Turtle magazines, but I just had to reflect. If you’d like to learn more about “Theater Edition Luke,” click here.