Behind the scenes with the world's greatest 'Star Wars' collection

At Rancho Obi-Wan in Petaluma, Calif., hard-core devotees and casual fans alike can check out better artifacts than even George Lucas has, thanks to founder Steve Sansweet.

At Rancho Obi-Wan in Petaluma, Calif., 'Star Wars' fans can see priceless artifacts and fantastic replicas, such as this R2-D2 and Dejarik game, from the original film. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

PETALUMA, Calif.--Driving along the back roads of this idyllic, easy-going Northern California town, you'd never know that behind the walls of one of the most unassuming buildings around is perhaps the best collection of geek memorabilia in the world.

Welcome to Rancho Obi-Wan, Steve Sansweet's homage to his life's passion -- "Star Wars," a non-profit museum dedicated to serving "the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition and interpretation of [the films'] memorabilia and artifacts." Formerly Lucasfilm's head of fan relations and a Los Angeles-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Sansweet has been around "Star Wars" almost from day one. Having been invited to the first press screening of the forthcoming film on May 21, 1977, he recalled that he and other reporters at the showing left feeling that they had "discovered" "Star Wars."

Yet of course they didn't. Even today, there are those who believe that "Star Wars" was one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood until its release on May 25, 1977, and for them, Sansweet kindly reminds them that George Lucas published his first "Star Wars" novel late in 1976, more than six months before the film was released. "The book was out there," he almost shouts.

But the 67-year-old Sansweet is actually extremely affable and probably would be more fun to talk to for the average "Star Wars" fan than just about anyone in the world, save for Lucas himself, obviously. This is a man who began collecting the movie's memorabilia even before it was released, and who in the years since then has amassed a collection of more than 300,000 items -- from lunch boxes, to action figures to vending machines to mailboxes to pieces of the actual Death Star used in the original film.

That's not to mention, of course, the more than 3,000 posters, books from 37 countries in 34 languages, including Braille, more than 30,000 trading cards, stickers, postcards, playing cards, and other ephemera, and so much more that are housed at Rancho Obi-Wan, which opened in 2011.

Sansweet is a man who loves a flourish. Visitors to the museum -- who must make an appointment and who pay $200 for two people, and $35 for each additional person, though he leads just three tours a week -- get several hours of his personal attention, and that's likely to mean plenty of anecdotes, pulling out of priceless personal gifts, and an education in the history of "Star Wars" that few people could match.

Rancho Obi-Wan's slogan is "Inspired by the Force of Imagination," and it's easy to see that that explains Sansweet perfectly. For years, his livelihood has been working for Lucasfilm, writing "Star Wars" books, and now, running a world-class museum. Inside a former henhouse.

If there's one thing that's clear about him, though, it's that he's one of the world's biggest "Star Wars" fans, and every inch of the museum has been organized to spread that enthusiasm. Not that most visitors who have made their way here, an hour north of San Francisco, need much encouragement.

'George had a dream'
Standing in front of the closed door to the museum's main "bay," Sansweet knocks, and yells out, "Mr. Williams? John?"

With a grand gesture, he swings the door open, just as John Williams' famous "Star Wars" theme begins booming over the museum's sound system. Before me is a giant room packed to the rafters (literally) with "Star Wars" collectibles. "George had a dream," Sansweet deadpanned, "and I had one too. But it was slightly different."

Clearly, Sansweet's dream was to share his love of Lucas' universe with as many people as possible. That's why he's written 16 "Star Wars" books and dedicated his life to preserving some of the most important and valuable pieces of the film's history.

With a smile, Sansweet recites a Joseph Campbell line: "follow your bliss." That's just what he did when he talked Lucasfilm into hiring him to create a "Star Wars" collectibles price guide in 1990. Later, in 1996, he similarly talked them into hiring him for a one-year job putting together a series of conventions intended to generate interest in the forthcoming "Star Wars" special edition release. Fifteen years later, "they forgot to get rid of me," he said.

That's how he ended up as Lucasfilm's head of fan relations, a job that led him to create the now global "Star Wars" Celebration conventions. Later, he ended up as Lucasfilm's director of content management, responsible for the strategy for rolling out imagines and information about the "Star Wars" prequels.

All the while, he was slowly building his "Star Wars" collection, which eventually formed the foundation of Rancho Obi-Wan. Most of what's in the museum belongs to him personally, though some items have been donated to the museum itself.

Walking around, it's impossible not to be wowed by the quality of what Sansweet has collected. There's a working animatronic cantina band; an original Industrial Light & Magic 3D blueprint of the Millennium Falcon; the design drawings for Luke Skywalker's land speeder; One of just eight Yodas made from the original mold. And so much more.

Does Sansweet know how his collection stacks up? You bet he does. Asked how it compares to Lucas' own holdings, he just smiles. "I got stuff he doesn't have," Sansweet said. "And he knows it."

 

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