My descriptive powers, which I’d like to think are well-developed after years of pumping irony, fail utterly to convey the depth, breadth and sheer vertiginous volume of “Star Wars” ephemera on display at a converted chicken farm known as Rancho Obi-Wan here in the rolling Sonoma County hills.
Might as well not even try. Believe me, I’ve been sitting here staring at a blinking cursor for 20 minutes. I’ve got nothing.
OK, how about this? What say I just list a few of the more than 500,000 items – and growing, ever growing, with 2,000 cubic feet of boxes yet to be sorted – belonging to uber-“Star Wars” fanatic Steve Sansweet, and leave the rest to you? Mind you, this will not even be the rare or especially valuable memorabilia, merely a glimpse (the deep cuts, as it were) into a collection seemingly as vast as a galaxy far, far, etc., etc.
Cue the soaring John Williams score, and here we go …
▪ Darth Vader toaster
▪ Lock of Chewbacca’s hair
▪ Yoda toilet paper, with the instruction: “Wipe, you will”
▪ Action figure of Carrie Fisher’s bulldog, Gary
▪ Wookie IPA, craft beer, from Denmark
▪ Cream of Jawa soup can
▪ R-2 Mr.T-2, replete with Mohawk and heavy gold rope chain
▪ Beavis & Butt-Head stormtroopers
▪ CoverGirl “The Force Awakens” lipstick, in colors such as Droid and Dark Apprentice
▪ Unintentionally phallic Jar Jar Binks Candy Lollipop
▪ Never-released (due to safety and liability issues) Rocket-Firing Boba Fett Action Figure
▪ A pregnant George Lucas cast in carbonite
I’m thinking that this list, brow-raising as it is, still doesn’t do Rancho Obi-Wan justice.
Doesn’t begin to depict the meticulousness care, the reverence and irreverence, afforded to the “Star Wars” franchise through these trinkets. Barely sheds any light, actually, on the psycho-social influence the movies have wrought, which comes through loud and clear at a three-hour Rancho pilgrimage. Fails to fully capture the effect, deep and visceral and spiritual, these sacred celluloid objects have on visitors willing – nay, eager – to shell out $100 (mandatory $40 member fee, then $60 for a tour) for viewings that take place maybe four times a month.
Trust me when I say that, when Rancho Obi-Wan adherents first laid eyes on General (nee, Princess) Leia’s costume, or point their smartphones at the animatronic band Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes from the Mos Eisley Cantina, or nearly genuflect at the taller-than-life-size mannequin of Darth Vader (codpiece copped from the original costume) with red light saber aglow, the joy is palpable and the fellow feeling genuine. Sequel through prequel, this collection has no equal.
The entire complex is nothing less than a labor of love brought to life by Sansweet, a mere Wall Street Journal reporter when the franchise began in 1977, but soon so “Star Wars” struck that he parlayed his passion into a job at Lucasfilm, first as head of “fan relations,” later adding licensing to his ken. And he hordishly retained everything “Star Wars”-related, nothing too trivial, scavenged the sets for discards and trash cans for castoff ephemera, even down to the lower leg cast – signed by the actors – that stunt man Paul Weston wore after breaking his leg jumping into the Sarlacc pit filming “Return of the Jedi.”
General manager Anne Neumann, who has the Sisyphean task of cataloging all that stuff, said Sansweet moved to Petaluma in 1998 for the express purpose of sharing his vast collection with fellow “Star Wars” appreciators. That, and he needed to be close to Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio.
There is so much to see and experience that we don’t want to get bogged down in Rancho Obi-Wan’s lengthy origin story. Simply know that the man, from that fateful moment in 1977 when he fished out a “Star Wars” press packet from a trash can – placed there by a clueless Wall Street Journal colleague – felt a force so strong he had to share it far and wide in this galaxy. (He’s also turned Rancho Obi-Wan into a nonprofit; it helps schools and community groups.)
Though Sansweet often gives the tour himself, the duties on this day fell to Lucas Seastrom, the Chewbacca to Sansweet’s Han Solo. Named by his parents after a certain Jedi master with the surname Skywalker, Seastrom’s knowledge and grasp of “Star Wars” lore belies his tender 23 years. Far from just pointing to various action figures and props and letting visitors gawk to their heart’s content, which, frankly, would be enough for most people, Seastrom’s presentation was an interactive, multimedia melange of stories and skits.
You’ll get a greeting from the wise and wizened sculpture of Obi-Wan Kenobi, with the voice of James Arnold Taylor, who played the part in the “Clone Wars” animated series. He intones, in part: “You’ll be seeing things beyond your imagination, but your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them. Stretch out with your feelings but not with your hands.”
Later, at the entrance to the main gallery, Seastrom knocks on “John Williams’ door,” at which knock the “Star Wars” theme blazes to life and Seastrom dramatically flings open the door to a cornucopia of goodies. Finally, before entering the newest wing, where many of the really valuable mementos reside, visitors pass a re-creation of the corridor of the rebel blockade and finesse past a stormtrooper.
It’s all great fun, and a little cheesy. OK, maybe cheesy to the casual “Star Wars” fan, but it was revelatory to those on the tour.
The Ruiz family seemingly smiled during the whole three hours. Friends Tyler Scott and Chris Roberts began the tour with sarcastic coolness intact (Scott to Roberts: “Do ya think they’ll actually have the bridge to the Starship Enterprise? I’m so psyched”). But by the end, Scott was enthusing with genuine admiration about the limited-edition, mint-conditioned “Return of the Jedi” speeder bike. (Scott: “Dude, I’m gonna make one of those for me right now. So cool!”)
By far the most entertaining were Michael Koidin, a 66-year-old pediatric dentist from Lynn, Mass., and his son, Matthew, 38.
When Seastrom asked if anyone in the group was a collector of action figures, Koidin exhaled audibly. “Oh,” he said, “I can tell stories.”
Matthew: “Like how you got those Leias stolen.”
Michael: “There were workmen at my house several years ago, and all they took was two Princess Leias. I hope he rots in hell, whoever he is.”
Scott, smirking and looking mock-guiltily in Michael’s direction: “All I’m sayin’ is, I got two Princess Leias at my house …”
Michael: “Really pissed me off is all.”
Father and son kept the banter going the entire tour, reminiscing in the manner other fathers and sons recall playing catch in the yard.
Matthew, to Seastrom, after Michael waxed nostalgic about trying, in vain, to collect the complete set of action figures from the original trilogy: “Hypothetically: Should a father buy a ‘Star Wars’ toy for his son and then not give it to him and put it in the attic away from the son? Just asking.”
Seastrom, perhaps sensing an Oedipal conflict as fraught as Vader and Luke’s, wisely brushed off the question.
No need to go to the dark side, after all. Not when all those light sabers were casting such an otherworldly glow on all assembled.
What: World’s largest private “Star Wars” collection
Where: Petaluma; address given upon signing up for tour
Cost: $40 to become a member; $60 for a tour
When: Usually four tours a month, Fridays and Saturdays
More information: www.ranchoobiwan.org