The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Jordan Hembrough (Travel Channel’s “Toy Hunter”)

In my experience, you can generally gauge how legitimately excited a person is about the impending premiere of their TV series when they take the time to thank you for your interest. By this I mean that, while it’s certainly nice of them to respond to an opening salvo of “it’s nice to talk to you” with an equally polite “my pleasure,” it’s taking it to the next level and beyond to both open and close the conversation by telling you how thrilled they are that you A) actually want to talk to them, and B) have shown legitimate interest in their project.

These comments, as you may have guessed, are the way Jordan Hembrough, host and star of the new Travel Channel series “Toy Hunter,” bookended our phone conversation a few days ago. Like myself, he’s both a father and an unabashed sci-fi geek, so it should be no surprise that I enjoyed watching the initial installment of his show, which finds him traveling the country in search of various toys and action figures, including just about everything that was part of my pop culture diet growing up, including “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and even relative obscurities like “Space 1999” and Disney’s “The Black Hole.”

“Toy Hunter” premieres tonight at 10 PM (9 PM CST) on Travel Channel. If it isn’t already programmed into your TiVo – and if you’ve ever been called a geek or a nerd in your time, it really should be – then perhaps this chat will inspire you to fix that situation post-haste.

Bullz-Eye: First of all, I’ve got to tell you that not only did I enjoy watching the screener, but I’ve got a seven-year-old daughter, and she was digging it right along with me.

Jordan Hembrough: You know, Will, I’ve got to tell you: you just hit something that’s…it’s a real special chord with me. I’m really hoping that families will watch this show together, because when I watched it with my kids, they were enjoying it and asking me about old toys as well.

BE: One of the funniest things – and you may have experienced this, too – was that one of the most frequent comments I heard from my daughter was, “You really played with that?”

JH: [Laughs.] You know, that’s exactly what my son said to me. He goes, “So did you get this with an iPhone application?” “No.” “So does it hook up to a computer?” “No, it doesn’t hook up to a computer!”

BE: In prepping for this conversation, I discovered that you had an affiliation with Starlog when you first got started in the toy business.

JH: Yeah! You know Starlog?

BE: Absolutely. I’m 41, so I used to read it back in the day.

JH: Well, there you go: I’m 42. Yeah, I was the buyer for their chain of retail stores. It was awesome. I had a great time. In fact, that’s how I actually got my start doing what I do. When the company shut down, I bought a lot of the inventory. It was fantastic. I was excited about that.

BE: So what first got you into the geekier pursuits, as it were, of sci-fi and whatnot?

JH: [Laughs.] Well, I’ve got to be honest with you: I’ve always been a diehard collector. It’s something I’ve done all my life. I was a huge “Star Wars” collector when I was a kid. And when I was in college, right before I graduated, I used to shop at Starlog, and they were just starting up the giant franchise corporation and asked me to come on as a merchandise coordinator, which turned into a buyer for the company. So when you talk about sci-fi and geek stuff, it’s because when I was a kid, I was a huge “Star Wars” collector.

BE: So what made you decide to turn it into a career? Certainly, when Starlog closed its doors, you could’ve just as easily said, “Well, that was fun, but I’ve done my time.”

JH: You know, Will, the truth of the matter is that I didn’t know what else to do with my life. [Laughs.] I basically said, “I don’t want to become an accountant. I don’t want to be a lawyer. What can I do?” And I said, “Y’know what? I really love toys. Let’s see if I can really do this. Let’s see if I can make a career out of it.” And I have. And I’m very fortunate to do what I do.

BE: Earlier this year, prior to “Toy Hunter” going to series, you did a one-hour “Toy Hunters” special. How did you cross paths with Travel Channel in the first place?

JH: I was actually contacted by Sharp Entertainment a little over a year, and Sharp Entertainment…they’re very known for “Man vs. Food” and “Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America,” and they have a really great working relationship with Travel Channel as well. So Sharp pitched the show to Travel, and Travel picked it up as a one-hour special. And we did exceptionally well in the ratings, but I think what really turned it around was the fan support on social media, because a lot of fans came out on various social media sites and on the website and said how much they loved the show and wanted to see more of it.

BE: A lot of people may think it’s more or less the same as Kevin Smith’s show on AMC (“Comic Book Men”), but it’s actually the flip side, one could argue, because you’re actually going out into the field.

JH: I would agree. We’re out in the field, we’re hunting through basements and attics everywhere in America, and…what I always say, what I tell everyone, is that I’m on the Great American Toy Hunt. America is essentially my co-pilot on this journey with me, and…well, as I said, I’m very, very lucky to do what I do. And it is Travel Channel, so we are out there in the field as often as not.

BE: “Star Wars” is obviously a big deal for you, but is there a specific toy genre that you’d say that you specialize in? I’ve read that you’re pretty deep into “Thundercats.”

JH: Yeah, you could say that. [Laughs.] So are there any fields that I specialize in? Basically all of the ‘80s toys, both boys and girls. They’re my sweet spot that I really truly love. 1970s as well. So of course I’m partial to lines like “Star Wars” and “Battlestar Galactica,” because it’s what I collected as a child, but a lot of the other toy lines are really, really fun, too, like “Thundercats,” like “Masters of the Universe.” Even the girls’ lines like “Strawberry Shortcake” and “Jem,” they’re interesting to me because I’m always surprised at how much money some of them can get.

BE: Say, out of curiosity, how do the “Black Hole” figures hold up in value nowadays?

JH: [Laughs.] Boy, I gotta tell ya, it’s so funny you mention that, because aside from a couple of them, they’re only like $30 or $40. But I just came across a designer who actually worked on the original line and had some of the prototypes and some of the original wax sculpting for Maximilian and Vincent. Those sold for thousands of dollars each. They did very well.

BE: When I grew up, my mother was a teacher and my father worked for the railroad, so, y’know, we were lower/middle class, which meant that our toys tended to not always be “Star Wars” but, rather, “Star Trek” or “Space 1999.”

JH: I love it! That’s great, too. “Star Trek” and “Space 1999” are great toys. In fact, the Eagle One play set from Mattel for “Space 1999” is one of the hardest toys to get on the market complete. And if you have one sealed, it’s probably close to $900.

BE: Well, I didn’t have one sealed for very long, but I did get it for Christmas one year.

JH: Awesome! Well, you opened it up and played with it. That’s the next best thing. [Laughs.]

BE: I know you go to New Jersey and North Carolina in the first “Toy Hunter” installments, but where else does the rest of the first season take you?

JH: Yeah, we went to North Carolina and to Jersey, we went to Los Angeles and to San Francisco. We kicked around parts of Texas for awhile, and now we’re just gearing up to…well, I’m gearing up personally to go to Florida, because I’m doing the “Star Wars” Celebration. I’m on a panel down there, giving a talk on what it’s like to follow me on the road and film toys for TV.

BE: What’s it like being in front of the camera?

JH: You know what? It’s not as hard as you would think for me. I’m talking about what I know, I’m talking about what I love. When I was younger, I was actually an actor and did a bunch of bit parts on TV and a lot of theater, so I’m really marrying two of my loves, and that really means a lot to me. So for me, it’s not that difficult. It’s the things that you don’t think about that become troublesome, like, “Did I pack enough clean underwear for the road?” [Laughs.]

BE: So what’s your favorite purchase that you’ve found thus far that you can talk about without giving too much away?

JH: Well, I can tell you that I was able to find… [Starts to laugh.] I was able to find some “Jurassic Park” toys that were very, very special to me. It was special, basically, because they went for a lot more than I thought they would, and it was a father-and-son collecting team together… I don’t want to give away too much, but I think it’s a great episode, and I think you’ll enjoy watching it along with everyone else.

BE: Do you find it hard to get some of the people you’re dealing with to part with these items?

JH: You know, I do, and I think I kind of shoot myself in the foot sometimes because I get so excited about the stuff. They start going, “Oh, you know what? I think I’m gonna keep this. I don’t know if I want to sell it!” [Laughs.] So every now and then, it does become difficult.

BE: When did you open your store, Hollywood Heroes?

JH: I opened Hollywood Heroes…we were incorporated in 1995.

BE: What was it like to step out on your own like that?

JH: Um…scary. [Laughs.] But it was also exhilarating. I think I feel everything that every other entrepreneur and business owner feels. You know, there’s trepidation when the market is down. I think the really differentiating factor between what I do and what someone else does is that nobody truly needs the toys that I’m selling. I mean, when you have a mortgage or the kids need braces, you don’t need a Batman figure. But on that same note, it always surprises me and amazes me how those people always find the money to get the toys that they love. And that really invigorates me to keep doing what I’m doing. Because to these people, this is very important, and if it’s important to them, it’s important to me.

BE: So how much time are you required to spend traveling for “Toy Hunter”? Does it take you away from the business?

JH: That’s a very good question. It’s taking a lot of time away from my business. Right now we’re in the early stages of trying to figure this out. It’s a juggling act for me. So what I’m doing is, I’m getting help from other people who work at the company with me part-time for shouldering the load, answering emails and shipping toys and picking up shipments and everything like that. So right now it’s a juggling act, but it’s like every other new business model. That’s the way I’m looking at this. I’m filming a show and running a business. It’ll work itself out. I’m happy to be here.

BE: In one interview I read online, you mentioned that you were very proud of a “Lost in Space” toy you’d found. Are there any other classics from your back catalog that you’re still particularly proud of? Not necessarily something you’ve found during the show, so you don’t have to spoil anything.

JH: [Laughs.] You know, awhile ago I did purchase a prototype of Boba Fett from the original “Star Wars” line from Kenner. It was the original wax sculpt, and it truly was one of a kind. I don’t think I’ll see another one like it again. I regret that one leaving my inventory. But I’m happy, because it was known around the world, and I was the one that got it, and I was the one who brought it to market. That sold for $65,000. It’s in a very good home right now. It’s overseas in a private collector’s hands, and I know that it will not go anywhere. And usually when I know the toy will be locked up in a private collection and not for resale, it at least makes the parting less sorrowful. It makes me feel a little better about saying goodbye.

BE: I’d think it’d make you a little antsy when you’re selling to somebody who, in your heart of hearts, you suspect might be a little shifty.

JH: Yeah, you’re right, and that’s why you talk to people a lot about stuff. It’s a double-edged sword. I mean, you can say on one hand, “I got the money I wanted, so I’m good with it.” But on the other hand, it hurts when you see those items come up to market again. Especially if I’m not offered the chance to buy it back. [Laughs.]