Watching Star Wars for the first time as a six year-old kid in 1977 changed my life forever. Reflecting back, I can clearly see how the film influenced and molded me, from my love for science fiction to my passion of collecting toys. Of course at the time, at such a young age, I didn’t grasp the big picture. It was just me, a few close childhood friends and Star Wars living life in sunny San Diego. Little did I know that in another galaxy far, far away – on the East Coast in Virginia – a similar tale was being told. Enter Bill McBride, a boy – much like Luke Skywalker – growing up on a rural farm in Loundoun County. A boy, who also at six years-old, had seen Star Wars and it had changed his life forever.
Like many Star Wars-lovin’ fans, Bill adores the original saga (Empire is his favorite), dislikes the prequels (damn Jar Jar), and embraces the new films (he’s particularly excited to see Rogue One). What sets Bill McBride apart from other fans is his undying loyalty to the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader. Immediately enthralled with the character after seeing him in A New Hope so many Yavin 4 moons ago, Bill has embraced the Dark Side with a vast collection that consists of one thing, and one thing only: Darth Vader.
Bill doesn’t collect for ego, his love for the character and collectibles is honest and sincere. He says, “The easiest way to explain why I only collect Vader is because I’m truly passionate about the character, and it’s been like that since I saw him in 1977.”
Recall his dislike for the prequels? Bill is quick to point out that his love of Vader is for the powerful Sith Lord in armored form. Bill owns a few unmasked Vader collectibles, a very brief scene in the grand scheme of things, but he stresses that Anakin Skywalker (played by Hayden Christensen) does not enter the equation.
Bill started “collecting” Darth Vader toys as a young child, but it wasn’t until he was a young adult that he began to take Vader collecting seriously. For over 25 years, Bill McBride has amassed a “most impressive” Darth Vader collection numbering over 63,000 unique items. While Bill is reluctant to say how much it is all worth, a quick look at what he had on display – from priceless prototypes to high-end modern collectibles – I’d say it’s enough to build a Death Star… or at least purchase a very nice home. It puts The 40-Year-Old Virgin‘s collection to shame, but alas (sorry ladies) Bill is happily married.
Fully insured (Collector’s Insurance), Bill’s Darth Vader collection greets visitors in the foyer. A museum-like medley of Vader items, Bill set up this section so it could be better filmed for “In A Galaxy…”: a Go90 webseries from Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets/Lucasfilm that explores the lives of 22 Star Wars superfans. Check it out at the end of this story.
To the non-collector, the room’s introduction to Darth Vader merchandise is a fascinating one, with items ranging from serious (Master Replica Lightsabers and Gentle Giant sculptures), extremely rare (unusual retail store display pieces and the cosplay suit from Ted 2), to simple household gadgets (toasters, lamps and mugs). In a surreal moment while touring, my wife expressed her amazement at some of the more obscure Vader stuff produced, such as a pack of Darth Vader branded Q-tips she recently spotted in a store. Bill McBride acknowledged that pretty much everything has received the Star Wars treatment, reached over to a display shelf, and showed her the very same Vader Q-tips she was talking about. Yes folks, if it’s Darth Vader, this man owns it.
Moving upstairs to Bill’s office – aka: “The Vader Vault” – the scope of his Darth Vader collection becomes apparent. While approximately only 10% of his entire collection (duplicates and larger items are in storage), the Vader Vault houses some of Bill’s rarest items: a wall-to-wall display of unproduced items, rare prototypes, variant packages, vintage and modern collectibles.
Scanning the room, I quickly recognize old favorites like the original Kenner Darth Vader action figures and carrying case, but I am taken aback by how many of each there are. Bill explains that they are all variations, some from the many movies, others unique to different countries. Some have never seen the light of day, such as the rare “Revenge of the Jedi” card backs. Bill has the super valuable Darth Vader with double-telescoping lightsaber, even some of the original casting molds.
The gold Vader collector’s cases are an interesting story. Before Kenner manufactured the C-3PO carrying case, tests were made on the existing Vader case to see how things would look. Gold plastic was tested, along with what became the final look: gold vac-metal plating. Seeing how the C-3PO carrying case was never as popular as Vader, it’s a shame Kenner never released the Sith Lord with the Midas touch.
Other items that caught my eye were a blank Vader helmet used for 2007’s designer Vader Project (the artist helmets were nice, but I’m liking it just white!), custom “Darth” and “Vader” Coke bottles a friend had made for him (two sets), even vintage Ben Cooper Halloween masks and costumes (note how they just slapped an “Empire” sticker on the box to save on redesigning the packaging!). Asked how he acquires all his Darth Vader collectibles and the die-hard Vader collector responds in a variety of ways. Some items are given to him on trade, others are gifted. There’s walk-away pricing and auctions, and still others Bill McBride buys at retail.
Asked if he had a “Holy Grail” Vader item to acquire, Bill easily replied with a screen-used Vader helmet, preferably from A New Hope (yes, Vader’s helmets do feature a subtle change in appearance from film to film). Bill has some pieces that are close, such as the screen-used gloves Vader wore in The Empire Strikes Back and his rarest item: the helmet worn in George Lucas’ Super Live Adventure, a theatrical production that toured Japan from April to September 1993.
And Bill McBride’s favorite Vader piece? With so many different types of Darth Vader merchandise in his collection, that’s a tough question to answer. However, Bill settled on a surprisingly more modern release as his top pick: the Darth Vader Cinemaquette. Large and in charge, Bill admires it’s accuracy, layered removable helmet and dynamic pose. It is a stunning statue.
With a collection this large, one would think about opening a museum, or qualifying for the Guinness Book of World Records. Bill McBride is actually doing both. For the former, Bill is currently remodeling his entire basement to display (a nice chunk) of his collection. While it won’t be open to the general public (it is his home after all), I’m sure that if you’re in the area and ask him nicely, Bill will give you a tour. The final result should be worthy of any professional museum display.
For Guinness, Bill is entering for the largest Darth Vader collection in the world. It was mega Star Wars collector Steve Sansweet that implanted the idea in Bill’s mind. As Bill explains “His record is really the reason why I went after the Vader record. If you think about it like a set of encyclopedias. I’m pretty solid on the ‘V’, but Steve is the whole set, ‘A to Z'”. A year into the process, Bill has long submitted his application to Guinness and still has some more inventorying to do (63,000 is A LOT of Vader stuff to catalog), but he anticipates being named the record holder soon. Asked if he had any Vader competition and Bill chuckled a kind no, that he’s friends with all the major Darth Vader collectors and that his collection is by far the largest.
From an awestruck child playing with Star Wars action figures to a man preserving the world’s largest collection of Darth Vader memorabilia, Bill McBride’s journey is a remarkable one. It’s truly fascinating to think how much a movie like Star Wars helped shape a generation. Will the new generation carry on the passion for a galaxy far, far away? With Disney’s continuation of the Star Wars Saga, one can only hope so.
Interview and Photos by Jeff Saylor