Time Travel and ‘Star Wars’ Fandom: Steve Sansweet and Rancho Obi-Wan

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There was a time machine in the main hall at Star Wars Celebration. At least, it felt that way to some of us.

A large part of the Rancho Obi-Wan booth in the main expo hall was set-dressed and curated as the dream bedroom for a young Star Wars fan in the early 1980s. Check it out:

Image: John Booth

That Kenner board game? Had it. Those bedsheets? Had ’em. The Millennium Falcon suspended by the bunk bed? Desperately wanted.

Again: for some of us, a time machine. For others, a pretty cool museum, nonetheless.

Another quick time-trip: back in 1992, I was 21 and in the middle of a difficult stretch of my life. Walking toward a Waldenbooks in a Toledo, Ohio mall, I saw this staring out at me from a storefront display:

Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible by Stephen J. Sansweet.

Remember (if you can) that this was a time when there were still just three movies, and there weren’t whole shelves full of Star Wars books and piles of new comics–so seeing this black-and-gold Darth Vader visage was a very cool sort of shock. Inside is the incredibly detailed story of how the Kenner Star Wars guys I loved as a kid had come to life, told by a professional journalist who also just happened to be a huge Star Wars fan.

Sansweet turned his enthusiasm into a long stint at Lucasfilm, and later founded Rancho Obi-Wan Inc., a nonprofit museum dedicated to “the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of Star Wars memorabilia and artifacts.” At Celebration, he took a few minutes to chat with me about the evolution of his hobby and four decades of Star Wars fandom.

Image: John Booth

“The big picture is that Rancho Obi-Wan is my personal collection of more than 400,000 items,” Sansweet said. “As I was looking toward retirement from Lucasfilm, we were trying to find some way to open the collection to the public. We’re now in our fifth year operating as a nonprofit, and we book tours for fans a couple times a week.”

The tours last several hours and cover a lot of ground: screen-used props, toy prototypes, posters, arcade games…

It sounds pretty awesome. But then Steve said something that struck a powerful chord with me–since I’m a big believer in the value of shared experience and memories.

“It’s not the stuff,” he said. “It’s talking about it, and relating stories to people. It’s about all the fun I have interacting with fellow fans from all around the world.”

He points to the example of handmade Star Wars trophies and the like donated by fans and artists to Rancho Obi-Wan, where such knickknacks have a home and hold meaning. The place has become more than showcasing a collection; it’s a repository of the history and the impact and the emotions that Star Wars has brought to people.

Another small portion of the Rancho Obi-Wan display at Star Wars Celebration Orlando. Image: John Booth

“It’s three generations of fans now,” Sansweet said. “I’ve seen the Star Wars gene passed down between generations, and there are so many points of entry: the original trilogy, the prequels, Rebels. There are just so many different ways to approach Star Wars, and that’s one of the things that has made it last so long. It’s so open. Lucasfilm has let so many people play in George’s sandbox. That legacy started in 1976, and it continues today.”

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