You know those amazing Star Wars dreams you have where you own EVERYTHING Star Wars – from action figures to slippers? (You have these dreams too, right? It's not just me?) And how great the feeling is because, you know, you own EVERYTHING Star Wars? And how you wake up feeling so happy – until you realize that most of your own collection consists only of a few small boxes stored away in your closet? Because the idea of owning a collection of this quantity is just pure delusions of grandeur, right?
Except that over the holidays, I discovered that just such a holy grail of unending Star Wars relics does exist — when I toured Rancho Obi-Wan, a nonprofit Star Wars museum housing the collection of Steve Sansweet, the ultimate Star Wars collector, and former Lucasfilm Head of Fan Relations. He has over 300,000 pieces, housed in a nine-thousand square-foot museum near Petaluma, California. His "toy room" will make you swoon.
The Museum started back in the 70s as part of a collection of memorabilia housed in his Los Angeles home. Eventually it grew so large that Steve found himself with more collectibles than shelves. Rancho Obi-Wan was his answer. His collection includes not just pieces produced for the marketplace, but also amazing one-of-a-kind prototypes that never saw the light of a retail shelf, props from the film, valuable bootlegs, amazing fan art — and a leg cast signed by Mark Hamill. (More on that in a bit.) It's a collection built on hard-work and good timing.
The tour starts with the Star Wars theme music as he opens the door. The next thing you know, you're walking down a few stairs designed to look like an Imperial Corridor. And before you is — everything; on shelves, hanging from the ceiling, on the walls and floor. My hand automatically clutched my heart — it was my Star Wars dream come true. We walked, to be greeted by Yoda and Darth Vader in holiday outfits. (Hey, even a Dark Lord of the Sith likes a little tinsel.)
One of the first big signature pieces is the Cantina Band from Star Wars. (Also known to fans as Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes.) It's not the actual band from A New Hope, but a replica from the Las Vegas FAO Schwarz. When the store closed, all of its display inventory was auctioned through an industrial bankruptcy firm. The lot was labeled for auction online simply as "alien mannequins" with no description. Steve knew he was onto something special. (Obviously someone at the firm didn't know what they had.)
He got it at a great price but said, "little did I know it would cost twice as much to ship it." At the actual store, it was a display set around a soda fountain — people would sit down and listen the interstellar band play while they enjoyed Earthly refreshments. After Steve won the auction and arranged for delivery, he was pleased to see that it even came with a hand-written note from the man who took care of the band during their run at Schwarz, telling Steve that if there were any problems, to call him on his cell, number included. They band plays well — I even got to jam along on the Ommni box for a set.
You may be surprised to hear that Steve collects bootleg Star Wars items as well. One of the rarer and more expensive pieces in his collection are bootleg Turkish Star Wars actions figures. Even back in the day, this series of action figures were very hot; and now they're completely unattainable financially, if you can find one at all. The Uzay Imperial Gunner in particular is an awesome piece because it looks a lot like the character in the movie – one of the gunners who directs the Death Star's death ray, but in the box photo, he's doing so at the helm of a 1980s calculator. These figures are so popular that people are even replicating the bootlegs to sell. Not in an attempt to scam people, but just because they're just excited to be able to share the sense of fun and craziness that a bootleg can deliver.
There's a theme you'll find at the heart of his collection — the enthusiasm fans have over Star Wars. Fan art — either amateur or professionally done — represents a large part of his collection. What Steve loves about fan art is how it's an example of Star Wars encouraging and influencing fans to be creative. The passion and skill of Star Wars fan art has become the focus of a large part of his collection, which includes Mexican piñatas to felted figures to a very clever diorama made by paper sculptor Ryan Hall. "He made really great cutouts from Empire that an editor of Star Wars Insider saw in the UK. He wrote to tell me about it, and I replied, please tell me you got the artist's contact info."
Steve loves tattoo and graffiti art as well, and those are well represented in his collection. A piece I really loved was by Free Humanity, of Yoda holding a roller brush, in place of a light saber with "wars not make one great" written above.
One of his more unique pieces can be found with the groin of the bounty hunter Zuckuss — the character's groin, not the actor's, just to be clear. In the early 90s, a fellow collector in Los Angeles kept telling him he had this piece from a bounty hunter from The Empire Strikes Back. When Steve asked him which piece, he replied casually that it was the midsection. He wanted $1000 for it. Over the next six months he kept coming down in price, but it was still too much. One night after leaving a toy convention, Steve was walking to his car in the lot, when another car slowly approached. Steve wondered what was about to go down. Out popped his acquaintance, who offered to sell it for $400 — he just wanted enough for his rent.
But that's not the most unusual piece in the collection. That distinction belongs to an actual leg cast from the stuntman who played Barada in The Return of the Jedi. He was injured during the second take where Luke is on the skiff. What's unique about the cast is that it has a lot of great signatures, including a drawing by Mark Hamill; Robert Watts, a producer on the film signed it with, "don't lose your sense of Yuma", referring to the nearby desert town in Arizona where this sequence was shot. Steve joked that "I'm gathering body parts from Star Wars films I guess." Steve is a big fan of behind-the-scenes (as I think most of us Star Wars fans are), so an item such as this cast is a particularly interesting and unique addition.
Actual pieces from the film, however, interest me most — Zuckuss groin aside. Maybe it appeals to the archeologist in me. So I was thrilled to see, locked away behind glass, actual miniature pieces from the Death Star trench in A New Hope.
This collection came piecemeal over the years, but mostly from the friend of a former ILM employee who worked on the film. When Steve met the man through another friend, he was presented with a box so tall that he couldn't really see what was in it. He kept reaching in and pulling out piece after piece of the Death Star surface, until it totaled twenty pieces. He thought it would cost him a fortune. But luck (the Force) was with him — the man saw how much passion Steve had for Star Wars, so they were able to make a deal happen that was beneficial to all.
All of these pieces that make up the collection aren't just pieces of plastic (or fur), they all tell a story, not just about Star Wars, but about the people who helped make it what it is – the fans. Steve has met an uncountable number of Star Wars fans globally, and wanted to start something that would bring people together from around the world for years and years to come, "Star Wars is forever," he says. (And with the recent Disney purchase, that's certain to be true.) What one finds so interesting about his collection are the stories behind the objects, which he loves to tell his visitors. Tours can be booked through the website at ranchoobiwan.org. And if you can't afford the time off and the tour, you can become a member of the Rancho, complete with a membership package, which reminded me of the old school Star Wars Fan Club membership packages.
Towards the end of the tour, I found myself asking him, "what does George Lucas think of your collection?" He had a story for that as well — someone asked George that last year, and his reply, Steve says with a proud smile, was: "Steve's got more Star Wars stuff than I do."
After our hours-long tour came to an end (in the Star Wars arcade game room with a dozen playable games!!) it was time to head back home, where I now look at my collection with a great sense of inadequacy. But I can always dream.
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Spiro Skentzos is a writer for NBC's Grimm. You can follow Spiro's obsession with all things Star Wars, as well as his experiences writing for Grimm: @spirographo.