In 1977, as Star Wars was first blowing up, Lucasfilm were famously ill-equipped to get enough merch out to satisfy fans. While some people waited patiently into 1978 for stuff like action figures, though, one kid went out and started making his own Darth Vader masks. And made a ton of cash to go along with them.
Today, Bill Kowalski is an executive in the risk management side of the insurance industry. Go four decades back and he was just out of high school when Star Wars: A New Hope was first released. He was "obsessed" with the movie, and having learned how to use fibreglass while doing some motorcycle and auto body work, quickly realised that with Halloween coming up, and with official stuff thin on the ground, he could make his own replica Darth Vader helmet.
"You couldn't buy a licensed one at that time", Bill says. "There were ads for certain Star Wars merchandise in the sci-fi magazines that said stuff like 'ready by January 1978'. Back then you never saw licensed products related to a movie on the market before the movie was released, like you see today."
If you tried to do something like that today, it'd be a cinch. There are countless websites and references where you can look at Vader's helmet from all angles, and even download complete 3D models of it. Without the internet, though, it was a lot of hard work.
The inside and outside of Bill's Vader design.
"My main source of information was going to see Star Wars in the theatre!" Bill remembers. "You never realise how short Darth Vader's closeup screen time is until you're trying to take notes on his face. I combed the very few sci-fi magazines that were available, like Starlog — at that time there were maybe seven or eight issues of Starlog and I had them all — but the photos were often publicity shots, and reprinting the same old low-res photos in black & white on newsprint paper didn't help much."
Bill even tried taking an SLR camera and a roll of fast film (to capture the action at the high speeds the movie was moving at) to a movie theatre once before chickening out at the last minute ("I didn't want to get thrown out and miss the movie!").
Eventually he'd got enough notes and images together, and Bill got to work. "I built a very simple plastic vacuum moulder in our basement with a Shop Vac, plywood and a hot plate that could make a tight plastic mould over just about anything that would fit under a foot-square sheet of plastic," he says. "It is a very simple process. The machine was literally built from scrap plywood and I borrowed my father's Shop Vac. The only thing I had to buy was a one-burner hot plate, which I still have today. A sheet of plastic is clamped into a frame, similar to a picture frame. It is held over a heating element until the plastic starts to melt and sag. Once it's hot enough, the frame is dropped onto a box that has a perforated top and a vacuum device to suck the air out of it. If there is a mould sitting on the perforated top, the soft plastic will be drawn onto it by the vacuum. It cools very fast and then all you have to do is cut off the extra plastic."
The results were, given the time period and the techniques used, incredible. "The vacuum-formed copy turned out to be a perfect replica, nice and light, using only 25 cents worth of plastic. A shot of spray paint, some plastic lenses for the eyes, and we had a nice looking mask. It was comfortable to wear, too. Very light."
It turned out so well that Bill's younger brother Doug had the idea to mould over the first mask to make another, which he took to high school the next day to show off to his friends. When he got home, he was empty-handed.
He'd sold it to some guy for $20.
Thinking he was onto something, Doug asked Bill if they could make 10 more. So they did, cobbling together their own amateur production line of bootleg Star Wars merchandise.
"The masks were laid out on some old boards to be painted, dried and assembled by the next morning," Bill remembers. "By that afternoon, Dougie had 200 bucks in his pocket for us to split. Easy money. After that, we made a big batch just about every day."
The brothers weren't just selling the masks to classmates, either. Some were sold to teachers at Doug's school, and soon word of mouth got around, and they were selling to people who knew people who knew people.
"Doug handled sales, I handled production. This was before I started college, so I had plenty of time to burn. While Dougie was at school each day, I moulded stuff, painted it, went to the plastic supplier to pick up our orders, bought more paint and glue, and created new moulds for an expanded product line," Bill says.
Business was booming, and it couldn't have come at a better time. "At the time I had just started engineering school," Bill recalls. "My father gave me the bad news over the winter break that our family was broke and he wouldn't be able to pay for the second semester. Having zero money was my main motivator in cranking out these Darth Vaders and selling them. I had a vague idea about copyrights but I figured since you could not buy anything that said Star Wars on it in a store, not even those Kenner action figures, Darth Vader was sort of fair game, at least for a while. At least if I only sold them to my friends and acquaintances, which is all I ever did."
After six months, Bill stopped making Vader masks. He'd made thousands of dollars doing it, which wasn't just enough to cover his school costs, but to start a whole new life as a pioneer in the field of commercial cosplay outfits.
Once the Vader masks had caught on, the brothers had begun branching off into items of their own design. "People bought plenty of our original stuff as long as it looked something like Star Wars items and was cheap enough," Bill says. "Our imitation Star Wars items, and the knock-offs that were so similar to Star Wars items, had given Doug and me a reputation locally."
"The Darth Vaders gave me enough cash to buy sewing machines, make bigger plastic moulders, buy tools and to rent a little shop. After I had the shop a few months I had enough business to hire a couple people to help. It did not take long to start getting known as a costume maker, and that led to some work at Six Flags doing repairs, and then very quickly orders for full mascot costumes."
"In a few years I had 25 people sewing with me in a 3500-square foot industrial building. At its peak my costume business grossed in the low seven figures."
Having made so many masks for so many other people, I had to ask if he ever got around to wearing one himself. He tells me that he only dressed as Darth Vader for "a couple of Halloween parties", but that when he did, he went all out.
"I made moulds for his chest plate, his belt, the calf portions of his boots and anything that looked like armour, and sewed the rest. I found a little amplifier at Radio Shack which I mounted on his belt, and glued a mike element into the mask. It held up even in bright light. I also made a red light saber using a flashlight and a plastic tube from the golf club department at K-Mart. It looked pretty good and could take a beating if a lightsaber fight happened to break out."
While some of the masks have survived to this day, hidden in attics and storage boxes, the original moulds Bill used to make them are sadly long gone.
"The IRS got the moulds. After I left the business, my brother got into some financial trouble with the IRS. The moulds were stored in his shop and the IRS cleaned the place out and auctioned it all off."
"I wonder what they thought of them."