Part One Part Two
Squinting down upon the valley of little hills is a small, unassuming ranch house that contains the single largest collection of Star Wars merchandise and paraphernalia in the known universe.
Steve Sansweet started out by collecting space toys in the mid-1970s, and soon included the first Star Wars toys to his growing interest, all displayed on a simple shelving unit in his den. What, at first, were only included as part of the general theme of his collection quickly began to take over space.
In Steve's own words "The only time I only bought a 'few' Star Wars things was when the movie first came out... because there was little to be had. I bought nearly everything I could find at the toy stores from the start as part of my overall space toy collection. Star Wars started really taking over after the ESB release."
The original home of the collection was in a typical Californina stilt-house, high in the hills overlooking Hollywood to the west. The steep terrain meant that most houses were built on stilts so that they could be extended over the hill side, which created a great deal of open space below the floor of the building. At some point Steve's hobby took critical turn and what was a rag-tag fleet of toys, games, puzzles, clothing and books of both domestic and international origin became The Collection.
In order to maintain some space to have a regular life in Steve had a lower floor added to the house, and when that became full he added another one below that. While working from home he was surrounded by Star Wars toys, and not for the last time in his life.
In 1996 the offer to work at Lucasfilm Ltd presented itself and Steve began as an interface between his employer and the fans. In his first year he attended 60 conventions and fairs, which also exposed him to Star Wars collectibles he didn't have.
Slowly the focus of Steve's work shifted so that he had to spend more time in San Francisco, and during a year of commuting he made the decision to move up north to the hills of Sonoma and put The Collection into storage. With six man-months of effort it was all packed away in cardboard boxes and kept for nine months in a secure facility.
Turning to Philip Wise, who had just completed the construction of a 6000 square foot building in Texas to hold his own Star Wars collection, Steve sought advice on the pros and cons of converting an existing property over erecting a purpose-built extension. Balancing the cost and difficuly in getting planning permission to build a new structure, with the effort of finding a property with suitable out buildings, Steve decided to plum for the second option.
It wouldn't be an easy search because it wasn't any old house that Steve wanted. For a residence and the means of displaying The Collection in his own private museum, he wanted "a very unique place". After three months of concerted house hunting his realtor came up trumps with a property that wasn't on the market.
In mid-1998 Steve moved into what would become known as Rancho Obi-Wan. The previous occupier, a furniture equipment manufacturer had vacated and had left a large industrial warehouse and good-sized storeroom on the premises. The property itself totaled up two and a quarter acres, giving Steve the space he needed to house his collection, and additional space for storage.
Contradicting the laid-back air of Steve's separate private home is a vinyl-clad former barn that immediately draws your eyes away from anything else. It's not that it's ugly or out of place. Quite simply, the building is huge.
The entrance to the barn is through a non-descript doorway - there are no flashing neon lights, gilded rope or red carpets - and in one step you are inside. On Rebelscum's first visit to Rancho-Obi-Wan in 2001 the room used to accommodate the numerous and infrequent assistants that help control The Collection was large enough to sleep five grown men. Now it looked like the fallout of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars defense programme had been unceremoniously dumped there, and it dawned upon us why we had been invited to visit Steve's - we were to be pit droids.
From the doorway climbs a flight of stairs that take the visitor to the upper floor. In the corridor, acting as an enticement to explore further, is a collection of some very rare theatrical release posters. Either side of the hall are two rooms: one serves as a library of over two thousand Star Wars titles and an even greater number of magazines and periodicals, and another that houses his trading card and poster collection as well as a photographic studio.
What was once a well-organised collection of fact and fiction now looked more like a disheveled array of novels, aids and resources in over a dozen languages. The adjacent shelves, which still housed hundreds of computer and video games, were completely blocked off by boxes full of unsorted action figures and stacks of magazines and newspapers sent by collecting connections from all over the world. This was our first inkling of the task that was being set out before us, and with Jocasta Nu nowhere in site we knew that the job of sorting the previous years onslaught of licensed goods was going to be Herculean. Our resident Holocron, Jay, donned his sorting hat and whipped out his laptop in order to begin cataloging the variety of reading materials stacked up high on the numerous shelves.
Across the hallway in the trading card room Anne had likewise set up a laptop and declared it to be the Rebelscum base camp for the weekend. While Dan tackled the problem of keeping the Rebelscum website up to date while most of its members were away, Dave took the opportunity to establish a photography studio using the same equipment used to capture the images that Steve uses in his “Scouting the Galaxy” column. Both Dan and Dave proved to be the backbone of the site, while the rest of the team got on with the dirty work of manhandling more boxes than you could shake a gaffi stick at.
A few paces from the library and card/poster rooms was a door that led to untold riches. And much like the Gates of Moria it was guarded by the necessity of friendship. As Steve showed us through the portal and into the Museum we could see a few of the gang who had arrived earlier that day were already at work. Standing on the upper landing and looking down past a gaggle of statues and display cases full of wonders the likes of which few fans would ever see in person, it was easy to get distracted by the shelves and shelves of Star Wars collectables and ignore the work that was being done.
Steve's first step of the guided tour took us to where most of the weekend's effort would take place - a mammoth pile of boxes sent from the Far East, South America, Australasia and Europe. Past this testament to Steve's vast collecting web was a very recent addition to The Collection - the Cantina Band. Bought in the bankruptcy sale of the Las Vegas branch of FAO Schwarz, this pneumatically driven quartet of Biths were being prepped for the final touch-ups that would bring them to completion.
Steve gladly gave us a sneak peek and, after the air supply had been primed, two-thirds of the Modal Nodes jerked and jostled in time to that most memorable piece of Star Wars music. As the show ended and the air had been bled out of the lines the foam silicon-covered mannequins settled back into their positions of rest; panting and wheezing like a set of asthma-stricken bagpipes as they did so.
With our attention back on The Collection, Steve continued the tour and brought us to the centrepiece of his exhibit: a life-size, movie accurate statue of Darth Vader leaning menacingly (in an non-phantomlike way) over an innocent Anakin Skywalker bedecked in Podracing gear. With numerous small-scaled statues and icons of the ultimate screen villain placed at its base and the Imperial March playing over the Museum's audio system, this eye stopper was almost an altar to Vader. It also has a special place in the heart of Rebelscum who, in 2002, helped build the display.
Dodging the aforementioned tower of shipping boxes, our next stop was a quiet corner of The Collection where a full-sized Don Post Boba Fett guarded a similarly scaled Han Solo on ice, and a Stormtrooper stood vigil over the Museum's guest book. Scanning through it revealed the pantheon of scum and villainy, many of whom were familiar names to most fans, who had visited the collection before us.
The tour then took us through the central aisle of the Museum, which was choked with glass cabinets full of goodies. The first one we came to held a number of Kenner items that most vintage collectors would pull out their own teeth to posses, including paint masters, unproduced prototypes from extinct Star Wars toy lines and samples from lines that never got off the ground. If you have ever read Steve's From Concept, To Screen, To Collectible book then you'll know what kinds of treasures we got to see.
At the far end of the walkway Dustin, Philip and Ben were putting the finishing touches on a set of display cases that had been purpose-built by Philip earlier that year to house a complete set of superbly detailed statues. Set to one side was a second stand that would serve as the base for a very special exhibit - pieces of the original ILM Death Star surface from the filming of Return of the Jedi and a number of scratch-built TIE Fighter and X-Wing models - complete with audio and visual effects tied in with the Museum's custom X10 system.
The furthest reaches of the Museum held two chambers that contained some very uncommon pieces. The arcade room was packed out with all three Atari coin-op consoles from the 1980's, the Sega Star Wars Trilogy cabinet from 1998, the sit-down version of Sega's 1999 Podracer (complete with the cockpit of Anakin's entry to the Boonta Eve challenge) as well as the entire array of Star Wars pinball tables. Throughout the weekend various members of the Rancho Obi-Wan maintenance crew re-enacted the Boonta Eve race, with (very) late night challenges being met with much fanfare. It got so competitive that several slots on the Podracer high-score table were filled by the initials RS and OPX (for OfficialPix), and Ben ended up with an unassailable time and held pole position for the three days of our visit.
Next door to the arcade room was the art gallery. The tour took us through a set of partitions that wound its way past several dozen pieces of artwork, while Steve gave a running commentary on the various paintings, sketches, pastels and sculptures he owns. Many of these are known to the casual fan, including original artwork from the Star Wars Insider and the animated Clone Wars television series, as well as the more attentive fan who enjoys Drew Struzan's and Tsueno Sanda's visions of the Star Wars galaxy. There is a particularly strong focus on Yoda in the art gallery, and one exceptionally beautiful silhouette of the diminutive Jedi Master that could have been the inspiration of the winning skin graphic at the Star Wars tattoo exhibition held at Celebration 3 in 2005.
With the ground floor circuit complete we were taken up into the lofts that ran either side of the barn. This was somewhat misleading because these rooms aren't really true attic spaces, but are instead two areas of the barn where space under the eves of the roof has been maximised for storage. And like many of the hidden corners of The Collection it was over-run with unsorted boxes piled high to the ceiling (in this case about 4' 6"). Later in the weekend it would become the job of the three tallest members - Chris, Jeremy and Dan - of Rebelscum, plus Shane to clean out these areas and refill them with countless cartons of computer games, action figures, posters and t-shirts. Anne drew the short straw and got the unenviable task of folding and stacking Steve's vast collection of t-shirts, which if hung out on a washing line would stretch out over one mile. On a side note anyone expecting Anne to fold any more laundry should think again.
Meanwhile Maureen was washing and sorting numerous French food premiums sent to Steve by fellow Rebelscummer Stephane, who was unable to make the trip. Shane had also been designated the task of going through another pile of unsorted boxes, and tackled the stack at the bottom of the entrance stairs with delight. Every so often the pair would meet up in one of the rare spaces between the storage shelves to compare finds, and invariably add to the clutter that made up so much of The Collection. Luckily for them cataloging the vast number of additions they unearthed would fall to someone else.
As crippling as it was to work in the loft spaces for long periods, it did afford us some great views of the Museum, and afterwards it was Rebelscum who were allowed to pick and place many of large pieces that would go on display along its margins.
With the bulk of the tour over Steve let slip the reigns that held us in check and allowed each of us to scurry off to explore and discover many of the secret and hidden areas of the Museum. With each of us having our own unique areas of interest it wasn't long before the barn was full of the excited cries of "Have a look at this!", "I've never seen one of these!" and "You won't believe what I found!" Truly it was such a trove that wherever we turned something new caught our collective eye.
As the weekend passed we shared out our presents, caught up with old friends and made new acquaintances - all of whom have strong connections with Rebelscum and The Collection. We even took time to send an extra-special message to Bill Cable at Creature Cantina.
With the collection growing daily from additions sent to Steve from all corners of the world, and through his own efforts on the internet and on toy runs locally and internationally, space is a serious issue. Before the Prequel Trilogy was in the pipeline there wasn't enough room to display everything - only a building the size of a sports stadium would be sufficient.
But one day The Collection will come to an end. Asked where it will all finish up, Steve's only reply was that of all the rumours that have circulated over the years his favourite was the suggestion that he should be laid out in the middle of the Museum and have it imploded around him. Perhaps it was the thought of losing such a treasure that prompted The Smithsonian to put in its own offer to preserve The Collection?
Happily the final note is a long time off and so no matter what happens in the fortunes of Lucasfilm or Star Wars there is always one place that our favourite saga will get top billing. Truly, Rancho Obi-Wan is forever!
If you found this article entertaining and want to learn more about Steve Sansweet's Star Wars collection then keep your eyes peeled for the second part of our visit to Rancho Obi-Wan - coming soon!