By: Gus Lopez
SAVING THE DEATH STAR: HOW THE ORIGINAL MODEL WAS LOST AND FOUND
THE EMPIRE’S ULTIMATE WEAPON WAS THOUGHT TO BE TRULY DESTROYED. IT WASN’T.
One of the prized pieces in my collection is the original Death Star model fromStar Wars: A New Hope. Although I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate to pick up many great items over the years, the one and only Death Star model used in filming A New Hope stands out as my number one conversation piece, dominating tours of our home and frequently a topic in many interviews (including prior StarWars.com and Star Wars Insider stories). The Death Star was almost lost for all time, but through a series of coincidences and foresight by some dedicated people along the way, it survives to this day.
The story begins in south California in 1977 where many of the props and models used for Star Wars were kept in a facility called Dollar Moving and Storage. The storage unit was rented by the studio and upon completion of postproduction, the studio decided they no longer wanted to pay rent and ordered everything in storage to be discarded. One of the employees working there at the time, Doug W., recalled that some items were retrieved by the crew prior to ending their lease, but the rest of the items were slated to be thrown away. Doug and other employees at the facility placed the majority of the items into dumpsters. For novelty sake, Doug saved a few pieces from going into the trash and kept the Death Star model and two larger surface pieces from the Death Star trench sequence.
Doug had the Death Star on display in his home in California for about a decade. Around 1988, Doug moved to Missouri and stored the Death Star at his mother’s antique shop (Sutter’s Mill Antiques, later renamed The Mexican Hillbilly) in the Lake of the Ozark’s region of Missouri. Todd Franklin, a Star Wars collector living in the area, drove by the antique shop was immediately convinced it had to be the original Death Star model. But why would the Death Star end up in a remote area in the middle of the country? Todd took a few days to research the piece to make an informed decision before buying it. He contacted Lucasfilm and was told by one of the employees that the Death Star was destroyed during the making of the film and that it had to be a fan made model. Several days later after comparing photos of the model to the film Todd knew it had to be the original model, so he drove back to the antique shop to buy it.
Unfortunately for Todd, the owners of the Mexican Hillbilly had just sold the Death Star to Mark S., the owner of a country and western music show calledStar World. The model was on display in the lobby of Star World for several years following the sale. Todd was extremely disappointed to have done all this legwork and have the amazing luck of the Death Star arriving in his hometown only to miss out on the opportunity forever!
But Todd’s luck would change. Star World closed its doors in late 1993. Todd and his brother Pat, along with their friend, Tim Williams, headed over to Star World to see if the Death Star was still available. When they got there, everything in the shop had been liquidated, except the Death Star, which was in the corner of the building and was being used as a trash can with rubbish inserted through the hole from the missing radar dish. They purchased the Death Star on the spot!
Todd, Pat, and Tim shared the Death Star model and enjoyed showing it to people in their living room for years. Todd and Pat’s grandmother made a replica radar dish out of cardboard to complete the look. Soon after acquiring it, they presented their discovery to Lucasfilm and offered to sell it. Lucasfilm wrote back to say they weren’t interested in purchasing it. Although the deal didn’t work out, Todd, Pat, and Tim were still happy to keep it.
During much of the 1990s, I and other collectors shared their amazing story of the discovery of the lost Death Star. On my Star Wars collecting website, TheStar Wars Collectors Archive, I had a long entry about the tale of Tim, Pat, and Todd’s adventures in saving the Death Star. Over the years, all of us were in contact as avid fans and on occasion would talk this prized piece and other collecting stories.
On a whim in 1999, I asked them if they’d ever consider parting with the Death Star, and if they did, to let them know I would be interested in buying it. At the time, I never really owned any significant Star Wars props, but thought it would be cool to have just one major piece like that if the opportunity ever came up. Months later, they had contacted me to say they had discussed it among themselves and decided it was time to offer it to another owner. They talked about putting it up for auction but knew if they sold it to me, it would always be here and they would have lifetime visitation rights. So I flew out to Osage Beach, Missouri, to meet Todd, Pat, and Tim in person to make arrangements for the deal. They gave me a wonderful historical tour of the Death Star’s prior locations such as the Mexican Hillbilly and Star World, and we visited a shipping company specializing in crating and shipping collectibles to arrange the shipment to my home in Seattle.
At the time of the purchase, my wife I and I were still living in a small two-bedroom apartment, so we had zero space to display a massive special effects model. We kept the piece crated in storage until we were ready to move into a house. Over the next year, we drove our real estate agent crazy with all our constraints for adequate collectible display space, and most importantly, a requirement for a special spot for the Death Star. Our agent took us on a tour of a nice turn-of-the-century house with a large foyer at the entrance in the exact dimensions of the Death Star model, and at that moment we knew we found our home! Shortly after we moved in, we had a plexiglass case specially made for the Death Star.
Although I’ve owned the Death Star now for the past 16 years, it hasn’t remained in our foyer all that time. It was on loan to the EMP Museum in Seattle for five years alongside their extensive exhibits of sci-fi, music, and pop memorabilia. The museum arranged to have a model maker create an accurate representation of the lost radar dish, so I returned the cardboard replica dish to Todd so he could once again own his grandmother’s contribution to the Death Star story for sentimental reasons. Having the Death Star on public display enabled many fans to enjoy it in a public setting. The EMP gave it top billing in the museum with a prominent spot at the center of one of the main rooms. I got a kick out of reading about the Death Star in local tourist literature and walking by the Death Star on display at the museum to hear conversations from people telling their stories about what Star Wars meant to them. And now the Death Star is back home, where I see it every day. And when I look at it, I am still amazed it survived its long journey and is sitting right in front of me.