You have taken your first step into a larger world.—Ben Kenobi
Anaheim has Disneyland. San Diego has Legoland. And Petaluma has "Lucasland." Well, sort of. To be more precise, it has Rancho Obi-Wan (ROW), Steve Sansweet's huge collection of Star Wars memorabilia housed in a converted 9,000-square-foot barn on his two-acre ranch.
Where some 20,000 chickens once roosted, over 300,000 items are now on rotating display, making Sansweet's Star Wars collection officially the largest in the world. With the creation of Rancho Obi-Wan, a 501c3 nonprofit museum, Sansweet's famous collection is open for tours to members and the occasional larger event, like this weekend's "World Record Night."
For 26 years, Sansweet was a well-respected, award-winning journalist (nine of them as Los Angeles bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal). Months before seeing Star Wars in 1977, he caught the bug.
"In early '77, a fellow reporter at the Journal got a promotional brochure from 20th Century Fox touting the upcoming film," Sansweet recalls. "He flipped through it and threw it away. I waited until he left for the day, then I fished it out of his wastebasket."
And Sansweet was hooked.
"I didn't plan on collecting over 300,000 items—it just sort of happened," he says. "I always had the collecting gene when I was a kid—baseball cards, matchbook covers—and I always loved science-fiction and fantasy. But when I saw Star Wars at a screening on the Fox lot, it blew my mind.
"Star Wars is the most significant worldwide pop-cultural phenomenon in the past 50 years," he says. "George Lucas' saga changed my life, and all for the better."
The original trilogy's force was so strong, Sansweet decided to take mythologist Joseph Campbell's advice, "Follow your bliss." So in 1996, he packed it in at the Journal, gathered his collectibles from his three-level L.A. home and five rented storage units, and unpacked in Petaluma to become director of content management and head of fan relations for Lucasfilm. Since then, he has acted as a "Star Wars ambassador," making public appearances at conventions around the world (the most recent this summer in Essen, Germany), written 16 Star Wars books and co-hosted no less than 27 themed shows on QVC in the 1990s.
"I've often been the only person from Lucasfilm who fans can personally meet and chat with on a fan-to-fan basis," Sansweet explains.
In 2011, Sansweet retired from Lucasfilm, although he remains a consultant for the company. In October 2012, staff from Guinness World Records visited ROW and confirmed what most insiders had already known: that Sansweet is owner of "the largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia." The 2014 Guinness book was released in mid-September.
"People assume that I'm a millionaire," says Sansweet, "or that I get everything for free from licensees, but that's not true. Most of my collection has been bought and paid for out of my own pocket, and I'm struggling to get my credit card debt down just like everybody else. Some of the items in my collection are made by fans that show their passion for the saga as well as their skill. And those are among my favorite items."
These include a large bantha piñata—the beast of burden ridden by fierce Tusken Raiders in Star Wars—and a full-sized wearable costume of the wampa creature that attacked Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Fans have even made and sent Sansweet a dozen figures of himself, usually as a Star Wars character. And how's this for symmetry: the abandoned door from the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars, which later was used on a chicken coop in Tunisia, is now a permanent fixture at ROW—in Petaluma, one-time chicken-and-egg capital of the U.S.
"I love to share my collection with other fans and collectors, who come from all over the world," Sansweet says. "They really enjoy hearing little-known stories and anecdotes about many of the pieces. I try to never leave any question unanswered. That's why the tours average three hours or longer." ROW also donates tours to other charities for fundraising and does tours for school and community groups.
One of those visitors who traveled from a galaxy far away to see Sansweet's legendary collection was Texan Anne Neumann. She offered her services to catalogue the collection, guesstimating the job would take six months to complete.
"That was eight years ago," Neumann says with a laugh, "and it's far from done."
As vice-president and general manager of ROW, Neumann maintains its website, coordinates traveling exhibitions and schedules tours for schools and individuals as well as special onsite events.
"Like weddings," she adds. "People have been inquiring if it's possible to get married at ROW. The answer is an unqualified yes!"
Two major events take place in early November. Sansweet, who has married five couples throughout California, is looking forward to conducting his sixth wedding on Nov. 1.
"It'll be the first of what I hope will be many at Rancho Obi-Wan," he says.
Ross Cuddie and fiancé Charmaine Picot, both nurses, are from a distant-rim planet named Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. They say they "wanted a venue that was classy yet fun."
Picot, who has a penchant for Princess Leia art, explains, "We were engaged in San Francisco in July 2011 during our first visit to the city, and we found the surrounding area beautiful. Having the premier Star Wars collection onsite is a unique and fitting location for us and our friends who are attending."
Adds Yoda collector Cuddie, "Plus, Steve Sansweet—friend, collecting guru, mentor and all-around swell guy—couldn't be a better person to perform the ceremony."
Nov. 2 is the date for a major fundraiser ("World Record Night @ Rancho Obi-Wan") commemorating the second anniversary of the museum as a nonprofit, and being included in the Guinness World Records 2014. Fans and collectors from all over the United States and overseas will descend on ROW like it's party time on the forest moon of Endor.
"To be included in the Guinness book has been a tremendous honor, and recognition for Rancho Obi-Wan is growing internationally," says Sansweet. "And Star Wars fever is only going to increase as five more feature films are scheduled, starting in 2015. That will keep us on the map."
Sonoma County, the Force is with you.