STAR POWER: Fanatics make midnight run for ‘Phantom’ toys

The Tribune

Sunday morning, Dan and April Wendt and their two sons were at the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum in Denver, braving wet and windy 30-degree weather to feel the Force at the Star Wars Celebration.

By that night, they had joined about 300 other fans of George Lucas’ saga in line at Toys “R” Us at 1617 W. Southern Ave. in Mesa, hoping to be among the first in the Valley to get their hands on the new line of toys based on ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.’

“I want figures,” Dan Wendt said. “Figures, ships, Legos. Anything I can find.”

He wasn’t disappointed.

With John Williams’ soundtrack from the original Star Wars trilogy blaring, fans crowded the two narrow aisles devoted to action figures, vehicles, Micro Machines, puzzles, books, inflatable chairs and Jedi and Sith lightsabers, which created a frenzy in the Valley and across the nation when they went on sale Monday at 12:01 a.m.

Frenzy of fun

The Wendt family drove straight back to Arizona after two days at the convention, which they said was so packed it was nearly impossible to get in to see any of the prop and costume exhibits, hear the celebrity speakers or purchase exclusive merchandise. They stopped at their Chandler home only briefly to freshen up before joining the Toys “R” Us fray.

“You couldn’t find anything at the celebration, unless you paid big bucks for it,” said Dan Wendt, who has been collecting Star Wars stuff since 1977, when he was 8 years old. Now, he customizes and modifies action figures. Lucasfilm demanded that no ‘Phantom Menace’ merchandise could hit shelves before Monday, but some stores around the country and in the Valley put some items out for sale early. Fans and collectors have been grabbing them up. Wendt showed up in line sporting a Darth Maul baseball cap. His sons, 8-year-old Nick and 5-year-old Christian, wore Queen Amidala and Podracer T-shirts. The items were gleaned from a Chandler Kmart.

“One of the store managers saw us looking through the shirts,” April Wendt said. “We found the adult Darth Maul shirt and we started to walk off, and he pulled two women that worked in the store over and said, ‘We’ve got to get these out of here.” I walked by five minutes later and the shirts were gone.”

April said the family never passes a Toys “R” Us or Target store without at least stopping to check for new Star Wars stuff.

Tempe’s Mike Amentler, 24, arrived at the Fiesta Mall Toys “R” Us at 4:45 p.m. Sunday, wearing a Star Wars T-shirt and hat. He was rewarded with the first spot in line. Amentler said he plans to repeat the feat May 17, lining up two days early at the Harkins Arizona Mills 24 Luxury Cinemas to see ‘The Phantom Menace’ when it premieres May 19.

But until then, he’s out to get his hands on “anything and everything” he can that’s related to the film.

Lucas Turnbow, 18, of Mesa said he found most of the ‘Phantom Menace’ figures early, but wouldn’t reveal where or how. He said he only needed four more to complete his quest, but didn’t find those particular figures at Toys “R” Us Monday morning.

Turnbow said he tries to collect one of each Star Wars action figure. He doesn’t open them, however, instead thumbtacking them to his walls. “That’s my wallpaper,” he said.

Despite scattered Internet reports of chaos and mad rushes at Toys “R” Us stores across the country, a Mesa Toys “R” Us manager Bill Valley said there were no problems.

“Everything went pretty smoothly,” he said. After the early morning opening to accommodate Star Wars collectors, Toys “R” Us stores remained open Monday until their normal closing time of 9:30 p.m.