Originally created 01/30/97

Toy world's dark side would please Darth Vader



Nine-year-old Anthony Bellantoni spent two years searching for Sy Snootles, the spotted galactic band singer he fell in love with after seeing the Star Wars movies for the first time.

The tiny plastic figure with the elephantlike trunk is now the pride of Anthony's toy collection, stored in a box in his room in Scranton, Pa., next to Dorothy (from The Wizard of Oz), GI Joe and Power Rangers.

Anthony's search for Snootles, a minor character in Return of the Jedi, introduced his family to more toy stores and flea markets than his mother cares to remember.

And it led them to a world they had never dreamed existed, a place where an unwrapped boxed toy is worth far more than one that is opened and played with, where flawed figures rapidly become precious collectibles, where shrewd dealers with back-room connections and deep pockets leave kids and their piggy-bank dreams in the dust.

It's the dark side of the toy world.

It's a world where rumored shortages of certain figures send die-hard fans into hunting frenzies, where prices for 1977 originals can reach thousands of dollars, where bribing toy-store workers for favors is not uncommon.

"Here's a little kid looking for a toy and suddenly he's competing in a world he knows nothing about," says Anthony's mother, Betty, who still can't believe some of the scenes she witnessed during her son's search for Snootles:

  • Collectors brandishing computerized lists of coveted 20-year-old figures, which originally sold for about $3.
  • Whole cartons of 1996 Star Wars action figures bought out by
  • a single customer before they left the stock room.

  • Barters, bribes, deals.

  • Such scenes are likely to be repeated in the coming months with the 20th anniversary re-release of the Star Wars trilogy Friday.

    Already a new batch of miniature R2-D2 robots and saber-swinging Luke Skywalkers are crowding toy store shelves, pushing prices for older toys up to record heights. Kenner-Hasbro, which manufactures the 3†-inch figures, stopped production between 1986 and 1995.

    Some stores have posted signs limiting Star Wars figures to two per customer. But the rule is difficult to enforce in a market that's asking $5,000 for a limited edition, full-size Darth Vader mannequin (on sale at FAO Schwarz), $300 for a glowing Jedi sword, or $40 for a white-cloaked Princess Leia.

    "There's big money in the toy-collectible world, and these Star Wars figures are among the hottest items right now," says Tom Hammel, editor of Collecting Toys, a bimonthly magazine published from Waukesha, Wis. "People sell their collections to finance real-estate transactions, or sometimes a boat or a new car."

    There's money and there's clout, much of it based in the dusty back rooms where cartons are delivered and unpacked.

    "Those high school kids stocking shelves have a remarkable amount of power," Mr. Hammel says.

    Mark Kulenich, owner of Frank's Baseball Cards & Gifts, in Olyphant, Pa. boasts of connections in nearly every toy store within a 120-mile radius. He says he pays a "tip" of $3 to $15 per figure on top of the retail charge of $5 or $6.

    "I call them and tell them I'm coming in, and they will hold the stuff until I get there," he says. "I buy them legitimately, but I tip very well."

    Mr. Kulenich won't reveal how he snagged a rare 1983 Sy Snootles for Anthony, but he says there was "a lot of wheeling and dealing involved."

    For his part, Anthony is grateful for help in finding the toy, which he bought for $15. But he doesn't think it's fair that kids don't have equal access to the newer Star Wars toys now flooding the market.

    "Stores don't let kids into the back. They only let dealers," says Anthony, who was turned away by some stores where staff members admitted boxes of unopened figures were in storage.

    Major toy stores deny that back-room black markets exist, although during the Christmas Tickle Me Elmo craze, a Texas Wal-Mart store fired two employees and suspended two for holding toys for themselves.

    Dave Brewi, action-figure buyer for Toys R Us, says that he has heard of similar instances involving Star Wars figures but that he suspects they are rare. Anyone caught trying to personally profit, he said, would be fired.

    But collectors have their own little secrets for winning favors in the billion-dollar action-figure world.

    Amanda Palumbo of Lake Peekskill, N.Y., bakes chocolate chip cookies laced with Kahlua for her suppliers. The 34-year-old mother of two is an expert on other tricks of the collectible trade, such as hiding Star Wars Christmas ornaments in the stores and then returning after the holidays to buy them at half-price. Unopened, she says, they will be worth 10 times as much in several years.

    "We're all guilty of things like that," she says, skipping around her kitchen in her $500 Jedi Knight costume, a snug black tunic with long leather boots, a giant silver belt-buckle, and a metallic sword dangling by her side.

    "When you're on the trail and you want a character, you will do what it takes. Just like art collectors."

    Ms. Palumbo's home is a shrine to her Star Wars obsession. Luke and Leia action figures cling to kitchen cabinets; spaceships zoom across the bedroom walls; and life-size cardboard cutouts of Darth Vader and Chewbacca guard the grand piano.

    "It's a love for these stories where good triumphs over evil," she says. "It's an investment in the future. And it's better than jewelry."

    "It's pure pop culture," says Diane Cardinali of Toy Manufacturers of America Inc. "How else can you explain why adults want 20-year-old little plastic figures on their shelves?"

    It's certainly difficult to explain to Anthony.

    "What's the point of spending all that money on toys," he asks. "And then not taking them out of the box to play with?"

    On Screen

    Star Wars returns to the big screen Friday. Here are local theaters and showtimes:

    • Augusta Village: 12: 1:45, 4:20, 7, 9:45
    • Evans 12 Cinemas: 11:45, 2:15, 4:45, 7:15, 9:45
    • Masters 7: Noon, 2:25, 4:50, 7:15, 9:45
    • Aiken Mall: 1, 3:45. 7:45, 9:45