The day Jefferson geeked out for Star Wars
By ANDREW MCGINN
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ....
Ain’t that the truth.
My son will never know the joy of perusing the latest and greatest “Star Wars” toys while his dad picks through the bolts and washers at the local hardware store.
OK. Who am I kidding?
My son will never know the joy of perusing the latest and greatest “Star Wars” toys WITH his dad at the hardware store while his grandpa searches for the right bolt to fix something at their house.
Throughout my childhood, Don Orris was more than just a hardware man. His True Value store with the creaky wooden floors on the east side of the Square also had a toy section, which meant he had to have his thumb on the pulse of popular culture.
Considering that even Toys R Us is now a thing of the past, it might be hard to explain to young’uns today that the hottest toys of any given year were once as close as the local hardware store.
“Back then,” Orris said, “everybody sold toys.”
Forty years ago, there was nothing hotter than “Star Wars,” a phenomenon so unlike anything else that it inspired one of the most unique events in the annals of Jefferson commerce — Star Wars Day.
Held on July 26, 1979, the entire Square was transformed into something resembling the Mos Eisley spaceport for the day, with stores selling their wares from the sidewalks and clerks dressed up as everything from space-faring smugglers to weird aliens (decades before anyone had ever heard of “cosplay” and years before anyone did anything on May the Fourth).
The day promised “a galaxy of bargains” and “bargains out of this world.”
Orris — who in 1977 came back home and bought an interest in the True Value store owned by his dad, Dick, and Jim Parr — served as co-chair of the event (with Bob Ehrig), but doesn’t actually remember much about it 40 years after the fact.
What he does remember, however, is how good “Star Wars” was to business at the time.
“You would get stuff in and you already had 50 people’s name on a list,” he said. “We hardly ever got to put anything on the shelf.”
“It was just phenomenal,” he added. “We had everything we could get our hands on.”
It’s amazing to think back about the variety of stuff that the likes of True Value and Coast to Coast carried in their stores.
Whether you were being rewarded with a new “Star Wars” action figure for good grades or your dad was replacing a drain trap (IT’S A TRAP!), it was all there, plus bikes and shotguns.
So it probably just seemed natural to rebrand 1979’s Old Fashioned Bargain Day as Star Wars Day.
Old Fashioned Bargain Day (or Days, depending on the year) still holds a special place in the hearts of many, in part because it conjures up memories of childhood (when the world was perfect), but mostly for the sense of community it fostered.
It began in July 1954 as a way for the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce to get in on the spirit of Greene County’s centennial celebration. Over two days (July 22-23, 1954) retailers donning centennial hats, bonnets and beards hawked their goods outside on the sidewalks.
A band played German music.
What transpired was something special.
The Herald was quick to pick up on comments that people seemed friendlier and more outgoing than usual — leading to an editorial on July 29, 1954, that the event was worth repeating.
“It’s too bad if friendliness and smiles have become ‘old fashioned’ on the streets of Jefferson,” the Herald wrote. “We don’t believe they have, of course, but it is true that it sometimes takes a funny hat or dress to make folks lose a customary reserve which often approaches coldness or indifference.”
The newspaper was essentially describing the allure of the modern-day comic book convention.
And so when Star Wars Day finally dawned in July of 1979, it was both old-fashioned and forward-looking.
“We used to really go out,” Orris said. “Bargain Days was a big deal.”
In reality, Orris explained, the event was just a way for retailers around the Square to get rid of the stuff they misordered. But it became an annual block party.
“An old day with a new twist,” is how one advertisement in the newspaper described Star Wars Day.
In the days leading up to the event, a picture of C-3PO graced the front page of the paper, and many of the ads featured space or fantasy themes.
Some had a mixture of both, as reflected in Durlam & Durlam’s ad featuring a muscled he-man in a barbarian’s vest, only with plaid dress slacks superimposed on him (men’s slacks were on sale that day for $5).
If you’re trying to remember who in the original “Star Wars” looked like Conan the Destroyer, just remember that the painting of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) on the 1977 movie poster depicted him with a rippling six-pack under an open tunic.
Durlam & Durlam also outfitted Threepio in a golf shirt for its ad, and had other robots clad in flannel shirts and casual jackets.
Star Wars Day was certainly well hyped.
But did it deliver?
Well, just imagine getting your photo taken with Darth Vader himself, in Jefferson, in 1979.
Darth Vader — as the newspaper reminded, “the scary, black-robed general from the movie ‘Star Wars’” — was to be on hand for pictures from 1 to 3.
Mode O’Day invited fans to stop by their store on Star Wars Day to meet C-3PO, Ben Knobe and Princess Leih in person.
And in 1979, no one even cared that no one knew how to spell Ben Kenobi and Princess Leia.
Today, you can’t go to a fan gathering and not see somebody in costume. The sight of a single stormtrooper when I was 10 would have been genuinely thrilling; my son, who’s 10, has already had pictures taken with a garrison of stormtroopers.
But who, in 1979, just had a genuine Darth Vader costume sitting around?
Forty years later, as Jefferson works to reinvent itself as a little tech hub on the prairie, I’m willing to bet there are few other events from our past that would impress Silicon Valley as much as Star Wars Day, believe it or not.
The event’s embrace of pop culture, and the sense of fun embodied in those ads, was simply extraordinary for a small farming community. For geeks, it’s almost like learning that Jefferson held a Pride Day in 1979.
I’m willing to bet that, of that delegation from Silicon Valley that visited Jefferson back in December, 75 percent of them still have a few (if not all) of their original “Star Wars” action figures.
It’s still fun being a “Star Wars” fan — my son and I, along with thousands of others, attended the official “Star Wars” convention, Star Wars Celebration, this past spring in Chicago — but there was something magical in those early days.
“It was so radical,” Orris said of the original movie. “And, of course, the music was just fabulous.”
The movie arrived at the Sierra Theatre in August of 1977, and returned to town in August of 1978. Just imagine a first-run movie today coming back to town within a year of leaving.
The saga of Kenner’s “Star Wars” toy line is just as legendary. Kenner sold more than 300 million toys between 1978 and 1985.
Notoriously, Kenner didn’t have any figures to even sell until a year after the movie’s release.
That made the Christmas of ’78 the Christmas of “Star Wars” — which probably explains the timing of Star Wars Day in Jefferson the following summer.
In local letters to Santa printed in the newspaper that Christmas season, requests for “Star Wars” toys came flooding in.
One local boy named Tim asked Santa for a “X wig fiter.”
But then there was Craig Strawn. He couldn’t be bothered with all this space-fantasy stuff.
He asked Santa to bring him a minibike and the “Kiss Alive” album.
Orris recalls buying the first wave of “Star Wars” toys virtually sight unseen for what was then Dick and Jim’s True Value. The toys themselves weren’t available to see — only mock-ups.
“They said, ‘This is going to be so big, you’re not going to believe it,’” recalled Orris, whose first job at the store growing up was wrapping presents at Christmas. “We’d heard this story about 50 million times before and only half-believed them.”
This time, he said, it was true.
The only thing Orris couldn’t get was Kenner’s Cantina Adventure Set, which came with four figures (Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man and Snaggletooth) and a playset for $8.77.
That was exclusive to the Sears Christmas catalog (the Sears Wish Book) in 1978 and 1979.
Just think, in a few more years, kids won’t even know what Sears was.
But what seems even more improbable is that “Star Wars” is still with us, maybe bigger than ever.
For some of us, “Star Wars” has become a way of life. Yeah, we’re poorer because of it (so much stuff, so little money), but we’re also richer. We’ve studied the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, we’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey” and we’ve read up on the history of World War II, all in an attempt to better understand this thing we love.
And for one of us, it all starts with a fuzzy memory, now 40 years old, of Darth Vader and C-3PO on a sidewalk in Jefferson.