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'The Nostalgia Awakens': Vintage Star Wars toys exhibit opens in Red Wing

The exhibit, a celebration of childhood memorabilia from the late 70s and early 80s, opens Thursday evening at the Goodhue County History Center.

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Jarrod Roll, historian at the Monroe County (Wis.) Local History Room & Museum and owner of "The Nostalgia Awakens" collection, adjusts a toy on the Hoth-themed table at the Goodhue County History Center on Nov. 16, 2022.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin
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RED WING — What started as a collecting hobby for Jarrod Roll turned into a complete, yet evolving, historical display of vintage toys from the original Star Wars trilogy's era. And it's on display in the Goodhue County History Center in Red Wing.

The Goodhue County Historical Society opens "The Nostalgia Awakens": Star Wars The Vintage Toys: 1978-1985 with an event from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday with free admission for people donating a toy to Toys for Tots during the event.

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Roll, who is the county historian for the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin, has spent decades curating this collection of toys.

"It's an exhibit that contains every action figure toy made by the Kenner Toy company during the original three Star Wars movies, so that would be from 1978 to 1985," Roll said. "As long as it was based on something from the movie, it's here in this collection."

That means every vehicle, creature, play set and action figure — plus a few extras to populate those play sets. When setting up the exhibit, Roll places miniature Luke Skywalkers, Princess Leias and other Star Wars characters in iconic locations such as the planets Endor and Hoth, or Cloud City on the planet Bespin.

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While he didn't start seriously collecting Star Wars toys until the early 1990s, Roll was enthralled by Star Wars as a kid.

"I was 4 years old when I first saw Star Wars," Roll said of the film that would retroactively be given the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope. "It was the summer of '77. ... I saw it then and I only remember the cantina scene. But I remember coming out and just being so charged as a kid and having this unusual amount of bottled-up excitement about this story."

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Roughly 100 Star Wars action figures stand on a table at the Goodhue County History Center on Nov. 16, 2022. They will be arranged and put on display for "The Nostalgia Awakens" exhibit.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Roll said the very first Star Wars toys hit shelves in the spring of 1978, and throughout the original trilogy's run, Roll and his brother amassed a small army of action figures, vehicles and play sets. Today, Roll estimates that 40% of his exhibit contains toys that he and his brother played with as children. He started collecting the rest in 1991 when he was attending Milwaukee Area Technical College.

"On a weekend, some friends and I were going to a record convention in downtown Milwaukee," Roll said. "As I'm walking around, looking at things, and I see a booth for this publishing company that sells these newspapers for buying, selling and trading records and music memorabilia, but they also do one for toys. It kind of caught my eye, and like, 'What's this?'''

Inside the paper, he spotted a listing for a 1978 Millennium Falcon toy for sale. It was just like the one he had in his youth.

"All of the sudden, two things happened," he said. "One is that I realized that my toys had financial value. And it also reignited this thing that they're not just money value, but also value to other people. It wasn't just a kid's thing that you discarded."

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C-3PO is being carried away by Ewoks in this Endor-themed display for "The Nostalgia Awakens" exhibit at the Goodhue County History Center on Nov. 16, 2022.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Roll kept collecting Kenner Star Wars toys through his adulthood, placing wanted ads in newspapers and picking up boxes of action figures from parents whose children had outgrown them. Then in 2014, in the months leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, one of Roll's colleagues at the Monroe County Local History Room suggested that they display Roll's collection.

"And that was a brilliant idea," Roll said. "I wanted to make sure that it was 100% complete, like if we're going to do this, we're gonna do this right. This isn't gonna look like a flea market, it's not going to look like a rummage sale. It is going to look like a museum display of a curated exhibit."

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Since then, the exhibit has been on display in more than a dozen venues. When Roll's toys aren't behind glass, they are stored in his friend's finished basement. Even though Roll's collection is complete, he will sometimes replace toys that are starting to crack or yellow due to their age.

As for the monetary value of the collection? Roll said that's hard to appraise. If he had to start from scratch and purchase all of the action figures, play sets and vehicles again, the cost for each item would depend on its condition and its rarity. Pieces that are easily lost or broken, like a paperclip-sized gun belonging to a Princess Leia figurine, can make a big difference for the value of an action figure.

"What you need to look for," Roll said while holding a Darth Vader figure, "is does he have the original cape? If so, what kind of condition is it in? Is there a rip under the armpits? Does he have his original lightsaber?"

But the true value of the collection comes from how people experience it.

"One thing that's cool is inter-generational connections," Roll said. "Because Dad starts telling stories — moms do to, but more often Dad will tell stories about having certain things. And the kids will often ask, 'Do you still have those toys? Why aren't we playing with those toys?'"

"The Nostalgia Awakens" exhibit will be on display at the Goodhue County History Center, 1166 Oak St. in Red Wing, through Jan. 2, 2023.

Test your Star Wars knowledge:

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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