Odd bits of cinema history have a tendency to turn up in the strangest places. For whatever reason, certain movie props are thought to be worthless by the studio once production on the film has wrapped, leaving the original pieces to be remanded to the trash heap of history – or as is so often the case, an actual trash heap. Some props see their value raised in hindsight, largely due to a film becoming a much larger success or leaving a much more culturally significant footprint than anyone involved in its production could have anticipated.
Over the years, there have been plenty of stories about the secret lives of movie props that have sometimes gone missing or wound up being discovered in the strangest places – often the homes of actors who worked on the films. But certain props tend to take on a legendary status, like Dorothy’s Ruby Red Slippers from The Wizard of Oz or the titular statue from The Maltese Falcon. But both the slippers and the statue had the benefit of there being multiple versions made during production on their respective films. Others, like the model of the Death Star from Star Wars, weren’t so lucky.
As it turns out, the original model that was used in the making of the film was one of those props thought to be garbage soon after the movie finished filming. And to hear Seattle-based Star Wars memorabilia collector Gus Lopez tell it, the journey made by the Empire’s ultimate weapon following its big screen debut is the sort of riches to rags story Hollywood loves to tell, mostly because it has a happy ending that’s as emotional as you can get about an inanimate object famous for playing a killer sphere.
Lopez recounted the Death Star’s journey from the set of Star Wars to his own collection in a recent blog post on Starwars.com titled ‘Saving the Death Star: How the Original Model Was Lost and Found’. In the piece, Lopez traces the Death Star’s many owners beginning with the studio, which ordered it and several other pieces from the original film to be discarded rather than continue to pay rent at a storage facility. Considering how lucrative the Star Wars franchise has become – and how much classic merchandise and memorabilia go for with high-end collectors – it’s astonishing to think that props for the original film were being held in a place called Dollar Moving and Storage, and that they were ordered destroyed as a cost-saving endeavor by the studio.
Thankfully, as Lopez puts it, an employee by the name of Doug W. saw some value in the Death Star model (along with a few other set pieces) and saved it from a fate worse than being blown up by a bunch of radicals with a magic farm boy on their team. From there, the prop exchanged hands a few times over the years, spending a decade in an antiques shop before being purchased by a Country Western show called Star World. The piece eventually came into the possession of a private collector and his brothers before they eventually parted with it following an offer made by Lopez.
Since then, Lopez has had the original Death Star on display in a custom-made case in his home, and he even loaned it to the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle (though Lopez refers to it by its former name: the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum) for a five-year stint. Lopez said:
“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.”
Lopez’s account of the original Death Star model makes for a pretty good story, and an incredibly unlikely one considering just how important that piece of cinema history has become since it first blew up Alderaan back in 1977.