From 20,000 Chickens to 300,000+ Star Wars Items: It Must Be a World Record!

Steve Sansweet | September 17, 2013
A special look at Rancho Obi-Wan's Guinness World Records shoot by David Iskra.

A special look at Rancho Obi-Wan's Guinness World Records shoot by David Iskra.

I don’t have the world’s longest fingernails, shortest dog, or largest collection of vacuum cleaners. But, according to the globally-recognized authority on such things, Guinness World Records 2014, I have amassed the “Largest Collection of Star Wars Memorabilia” in the galaxy. But who knew that would be such a big deal?

Since last Thursday, when the latest edition of the Guinness book was released, video of me and the collection has been on hundreds of broadcast and cable stations in the US and in places from Japan to New Zealand, and Guatemala to Scotland. Further, there have been hundreds of Internet sites ranging from the expected hardcore Star Wars fan sites to Huffington Post and Time.com that have run photos, videos, and stories. Even Craig Ferguson was moved to mention me by name and show a photo of me and the collection during a slightly snarky monologue on The Late Late Show — making us officially part of the zeitgeist!

Once all the items were assembled, there were dozens of different kinds of set-ups that were shot.

Once all the items were assembled, there were dozens of different kinds of set-ups that were shot.

I never planned to have the biggest or largest of anything, much less more than 300,000 unique Star Wars items at Rancho Obi-Wan, the non-profit museum that houses it all about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. As Guinness World Records (GWR) notes, only 90,546 items had been “accurately audited and cataloged” as of the book’s cutoff date of May 15, but that was enough to beat the previous record by a factor of four.

Actually, I’ve always had the largest collection of Star Wars stuff. I’ve been collecting since the day I fished a 20th Century Fox/Lucasfilm Ltd. Star Wars brochure out of a fellow reporter’s trash can at The Wall Street Journal in early 1977. My hillside house on stilts in Los Angeles went from one floor to three, and one personal storage locker became five before I moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1998 to work full-time for Lucasfilm.

That’s when Rancho Obi-Wan was created out of large hen houses that held 20,000 egg-laying chickens through the early 1970s. But it was still my private collection, with occasional visits from friends and collectors from all over the world. If someone wanted to claim that they had a larger collection, it really didn’t bother me. But as the years passed, the Guinness empire changed. From a book created in the mid-1950s by the world-famous brewery, the company changed hands and became more serious about checking claims and verifying record-challenging feats.

And things changed for me. As I moved toward leaving my full-time job as head of fan relations for Lucasfilm, two very good friends convinced me that Rancho Obi-Wan should become a non-profit museum that fans from all over the world could visit. And since they would also be doing a lot of the work — Anne Neumann as general manager and Consetta Parker as director of publicity and marketing — I wholeheartedly agreed. It took a lot of physical and mental effort — the form and attachments for non-profit status alone took more than 100 hours to fill out, followed by 10 months of waiting for a decision — but we celebrate our second anniversary this November.

GWR editor-in-chief Craig Glenday isn’t really threatening photographer Ryan Schude -- is he?

GWR editor-in-chief Craig Glenday isn’t really threatening photographer Ryan Schude -- is he?

Then, out of the blue, Consetta got an email dated July 2, 2012, from a Guinness World Records researcher basically saying they doubted the record they’d been reporting for more than a decade — based on widespread Internet and other reports about Rancho Obi-Wan. Could we please respond and start a conversation? That led to filling out more forms, sending stories and photos, and basically answering all of their questions. Anne — who thought she’d have the entire collection inventoried in 6 months when she arrived here 8 years ago — provided the then-current database. And, as per GWR requirements, a cone of silence descended for a year.

One of the best days ever was Friday, October 19, when GWR’s London-based editor Craig Glenday, area photographer Ryan Schude, and an assistant joined Anne, Consetta, Bob Canning, former Lucasfilm colleague David Iskra, local comic-book shop owner Brian Christensen and me — and we basically tore up Rancho Obi-Wan to create a memorable photo. Craig is a huge Star Wars fan and I think it was the combination of work and play that made the long day so much fun. The shoot reminded us of the famous photo of George Lucas surrounded by a sea of props from Return of the Jedi — a shoot that basically spurred George to create the world-famous Lucasfilm Archives.

Since the final deadline of the book was still months away, Anne had the chance to add more items to the inventory. In May, a GWR video team came to shoot an interview as well as footage around the museum — including now notorious visuals of me “dancing” to the cantina music played by my animatronic full-sized Bith musicians! And then it was more months of waiting, preparing our own media material, getting ready to have a thank-you party for our volunteers and wonderful neighbors, and planning our first-ever fundraising event for our Rancho members on November 2.

The GWR photo-day team: GWR’s Craig Glenday, Consetta Parker, Anne Neumann, Steve Sansweet, Bob Canning, David Iskra and Brian Christensen.

The GWR photo-day team: GWR’s Craig Glenday, Consetta Parker, Anne Neumann, Steve Sansweet, Bob Canning, David Iskra and Brian Christensen.

It’s been 14 months in the making, but what an amazing adventure! And really, it’s just starting. While the initial excitement will fairly quickly die down, the GWR books are just going on sale in 100 countries and 25 languages. Requests for interviews are coming in daily. And despite some headlines using words like weird, bizarre, insane, and wacky, it’s clear to me that the enthusiasm and embrace of our record by fellow fans and the broader public proves that geek culture is very much in its ascendancy. And the unique cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars has never been stronger.

Oh, there may be one error in GWR, and it’s totally my fault. I think I’ve underestimated the size of the collection. After looking around the last few weeks and doing a lot of mental calculations, I think the collection is going to weigh in at far more than 300,000 items — and that’s before merchandise from Episodes VII to IX, spinoff films, television shows, theme-park attractions, and so much more. Yes, I know that’s crazy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Steve Sansweet, head of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm for 15 years and now fan relations adviser, is chief executive of Rancho Obi-Wan, a non-profit museum that houses the world’s largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia. To find out about joining or taking a guided tour, visit www.ranchoobiwan.org. Follow him on Twitter @RanchoObiWan and http://www.facebook.com/RanchoObiWan.

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