Northern California’s Bay Area is home to a lot of very cool things: Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Coit Tower. But for a Star Wars geek with a few connections, there is no greater pilgrimage than to the facilities where the magic happens.
The Presidio began life in the 1790s as a Spanish garrison to defend Spain’s claim on San Francisco. When the United States took over, shots were even fired there during the Civil War. It served the military through World War II and until it was handed over to the National Park Service in 1992. For history geeks, it’s a cool place—but for science-fiction geeks, it’s even cooler. In 1999, high off the financial success of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas won development rights for a patch of The Presidio. This magical historical site is where Industrial Light & Magic does its work, and where LucasArts makes its video games.
Tours aren’t often given to members of the public, but I was able to score one—and if you ever get the chance, it’s something you have to do. For one, the walls are plastered with two different kinds of film history. Lucas has one of the world’s largest collections of classic-movie posters that range from The Great Dictator to Slaughterhouse-Five. But the corridors serve as sort of a museum of original art and props from the movies ILM has worked on and LucasFilm has created. Elliot’s bike with E.T. in the basket? Hanging in an open stairwell. Han Solo encased in carbonite? In the front foyer of ILM. Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? Behind glass all over the place.
There’s yet another reason The Presidio is awesome, and it hasn’t even happened yet. You see, The Presidio is the future site of Star Trek’s Starfleet Academy.
It’s a truly amazing facility, and it seems like the most amazing work environment, but I say that before I describe Big Rock Ranch. Adjacent to the famous Skywalker Ranch, it’s where the creative work on the animated The Clone Wars is done (among other things). The campus is out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature in one of the most amazing buildings of vaguely Japanese architecture. It overlooks a lake, and I couldn’t help but feel creative while inside. I was fortunate to get a chance to stroll through the hallways, taking in the atmosphere and marveling at Lucas’ poster collection.
Being in the workspaces Lucas had a hand in creating, you get the sense that more than anything, he loves cinema. There is no sense that he’s built some monument to himself in any way. He loves the movies, and it shows.
The last stop on my Bay Area Star Wars tour was Rancho Obi-Wan (RanchoObiWan.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring kids through Star Wars collecting. Headed by Steve Sansweet—longtime head of Fan Relations for LucasFilm—Rancho Obi-Wan is far removed from the official LFL ranches, and houses the most breathtaking collection of Star Wars memorabilia. Any item that’s ever been created with a Star Wars logo on it, chances are Steve has it, knows where it is and can show it to you.
This is the one part of my tour that can be readily be shared. For a donation to the nonprofit, Sansweet will personally guide you through the museum and tell you stories about every piece in his collection. If you’ve ever encountered Sansweet at a convention, you’ll know that he’s one of the most amiable, charming and enthusiastic fans of Star Wars you could ever meet. The tour he gives is something one-of-a-kind.
There is no way in so brief a column to convey how awestruck and inspired by the whole experience I was, nourished creatively—and in a geek sense—for a lifetime. For any geek, these tours are something I recommend if ever you get the chance. You won’t regret it.
Bryan Young is the editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.