In a Galaxy Not So Far Away

Brett chats with the Interactive R2D2. This 15" droid uses sensors to follow you around, plays games and responds to 40 voice commands.

… sits a barn atop a hill overlooking the scenic valleys and rolling terrain of Onondaga County.

While other barns in the neighboring countryside are used to store the usual animals/vehicles/machinery/tools, this one does not. It contains the largest private collection of Star Wars-related items east of the Mississippi; second only in size to the Guinness world-record holding Rancho Obi-Wan in California.

Brett’s Toy Museum, as the barn is called, is owned by teacher and landscaper Brett Rewakowski. He’s a good friend of my son, Jim, Jr. When they were eager youths, telephone lines buzzed in their circle of friends each time a new Star Wars figure appeared on the shelf of any local retailer. Jim, Brett and their network kept close track of such things. I recall making frantic trips all over the Syracuse area in search of that elusive character, or set of characters, that would help Jim retain Star Wars credibility with the guys.

The boys were too young to appreciate the debut of the original “Star Wars” movie in 1977, but by the time “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) hit local screens, they were hooked. Collections grew, and groups of friends bitten by the Star Wars bug got together regularly.

“We played for hours,” says Brett. “Everyone had multiple figures, but one person would have the AT-AT Imperial Walker, someone else might have the Millennium Falcon, another the Death Star Space Station. The big pieces varied from house to house, so we rotated around.”

When figures wore out, new figures were created from excess parts and given new offbeat names.

As the boys grew older, some of their frantic collecting gave way to other interests – skateboarding, girls, cars, the usual things. Jim still collects, trades and sells at times through the Internet. Brett? Well, he has taken the whole Star Wars thing to another level entirely.

On a mission
After he graduated from high school in 1993, Brett spread his college studies over an extended period of time and several locations. He attended Onondaga Community College, Buffalo State and Oswego State; and worked construction jobs and started a landscaping business to finance his way. He completed his master’s degree in 2010. He never gave up collecting Star Wars items, but sometime around the year 2000, Brett’s obsession – and collection – experienced a major uptick.

“It was around that time I quit smoking,” says Brett. “I decided to purchase a new Star Wars figure each day instead of a pack of cigarettes.”

From that point on, collecting became more than just a hobby. It became a habit, and also something of a business. For awhile, he handled $15,000 to $20,000 a year in purchases, trading, and selling his extras (of which there were many) on eBay. Some of the profits were invested in more product.

“When I drove to school in Oswego, I had a regular sequence of stops at various department stores and outlets, not only on the way to class, but on the way back as well,” he explains. For a few years it wasn’t unusual for Brett to hit every Target and Wal-Mart store in the Syracuse area every day. He became such a familiar figure in so many stores that staff saved collectible packaging for him that normally would have gone out with the trash. His collection grew and grew. In due course, virtually every Star Wars figure and ship ever made became part of it; multiples of most.

A piece is missing from the collection; one that’s considered the Holy Grail of Star Wars figures. It’s the Rocket Firing Boba Fett, a prototype figure from Kenner that was never mass produced. “If you can find one, it could be worth $15,000 to $20,000,” says Brett. “That’s a lot of money for a 3-3/4-inch piece of plastic. It’s too rich for my blood.”

He collected on, while despicable characters from the Creature Cantina piled up. The R2D2s bumped into C3POs. Rancor Monsters tripped over Ewok Combat Gliders. Tie Fighters and X-wing Fighters battled for shelf space. Something had to be done.

The barn was the answer – solid, spacious and awaiting Brett’s vision of a Star Wars museum. It would be the proper place to house and protect the collection, and provide an opportunity for viewing by fans of all ages. With his flair for design and carpentry (not to mention the wisdom of Yoda), Brett set to work building, hauling and arranging. After months of labor, the doors opened to the public in January 2013.

Like a Jedi Knight
Brett is a talented guy, something of a Renaissance man, with abilities that span his multiple fields of interest. He’s an artist and carpenter, a teacher and a triathlete, an aquascaper and a landscaper. Brett can erect a tumbling waterfall, impart enthusiasm to his students, or create a rustic “Slice of Nature” painted landscape on a slab of wood. He’s also created items from jewelry to costumes, all Star Wars inspired.

On display at his museum are some 5,000 to 8,000 Star Wars figures, and hundreds of ships, posters, scenes and other collectibles. With an eye to future expansion, Brett still has “600 boxes of stuff” stashed away, awaiting spots, space and the light of day.

Personally, I have only a cursory knowledge of Star Wars. I know Darth Vader, Han Solo and Princess Leia (who doesn’t?), yet I wouldn’t recognize Admiral Ackbar from Bib Fortuna or Hammerhead. Brett certainly would. I can’t address with any authority the subtle differences between the “Jedi Knight Outfit” or the “Bespin Fatigues” worn by a Luke Skywalker figure, but Brett can, and he knows so much more. “I love to discuss the collection with visitors at all levels of Star Wars exposure,” he says, “but at the same time I try very hard to avoid ‘geekdom’ along the way.”

Whatever your Star Wars background, the size and variety of Brett’s collection is something that once seen will be appreciated, and not soon
forgotten.

A tour at Rancho Obi-Wan is reportedly priced at $200, while a tour of Brett’s museum is a reasonable $5 (or three for $10) to encourage visitors. “It took a long time to conceive and construct. I would really like people to see and enjoy it,” he says. Brett donates half of his proceeds to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening diseases.

Besides the overwhelming collection of packaged characters, ships and playsets, Brett has created three areas of special interest:

1. “The Scene” is a rotating display of a memorable Star Wars’ scene, like the Hoth Battle Scene, Tatooine Cantina, Jabba’s Palace and more. It changes every three to six months.

2. “The Hangar” is a large collection of ships (outside their boxes) that visitors can pick up and handle. Practically every ship ever made can be found at The Hangar.

3. “The Vintage Tower” holds nearly every ship and playset made from 1977 to 1988, the “vintage stuff” from Brett’s formative Star Wars years.

“I want people, especially the kids, to handle and closely inspect certain things, not just stand and stare at the exhibits,” says Brett. Kids can maneuver a lightsaber to see if “The Force” is with them, and can ask and get answers to questions from an Interactive R2D2, everyone’s favorite droid. Serious collectors can inspect characters in “mint” packaging, from the familiar (like Chewbacca) to the obscure (like Baron Papanoida).

Visitors to Brett’s Toy Museum can select a free souvenir from a box of loose figures when the tour is over, and most of the thousands of items on display are for sale. Stashed away in storage are several backup pieces of almost everything in the collection. Someday (years from now) he claims he will sell it all. “I consider this colossal accumulation my 401K savings plan,” he told me. But don’t be surprised in the end if he can’t part with a batch of original items that hold special childhood memories.

Since its opening, folks have arrived from all around the state and beyond. “One gentleman from Thailand showed up with his two children,” says Brett. The museum has no regular hours due to Brett’s busy schedule, but if you contact him (brettstoymuseum.com; brettrewakowski.com) he’ll do his best to arrange a convenient time for a museum visit.

There is an appropriate day in May celebrating the cultural phenomenon created by the Star Wars movies. It is celebrated globally with parties, film viewing, trivia contests and the like. Brett has considered holding an event on that particular day and tying it in with his new Star Wars museum. If he does, and if you are able to attend on that special day, then … are you ready for this?

May the 4th be with you!


by James P. Hughes