My love story with Star Wars begins on a baseball diamond.
During a humid and sunny afternoon following school, my father drove me to the park down the street from our house for one of the last games of the Spring 2005 season. I was a chubby 12-year-old catcher with a bad arm and a streaky bat, but I still managed to be among the better players in our intramural league. At this point in time though, I was in a bit of a slump – and my dad, one of the assistant coaches – knew this better than anyone.
As we pulled up to the grass where some of my teammates were already warming up, I opened the door to the Buick Rendezvous and grabbed my overflowing blue water jug. Before I slid out of the passenger’s seat, however, my old man stopped me.
“If you get a hit, I’ll take you and your brother to see Star Wars.”
“Tonight?” I asked.
A few hours later, we found ourselves in the now-defunct Regal Cinemas theater in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where “Revenge of the Sith” was playing. I had seen the previous two prequels in addition to a few moments from the original trilogy when it had appeared on TV, but I was too young to appreciate or genuinely understand them. I saw a trailer teasing the return of Darth Vader to the big screen, though, and was dying to see this one.
And it hooked me, almost immediately. After saving up enough cash, I distinctly remember leaving a school dance early (my priorities were clearly a little off balance) so I could purchase Episodes IV, V and VI from my local Walmart. Then, I became fixated with them for weeks. I rewound scenes over and over again in our basement, until I fully took in the dialogue and setting of each one. I didn’t want to miss anything.
But as much as I have enjoyed Star Wars since those early viewings, my passion for the franchise pales in comparison to someone else who once ran The Temple News.
Steve Sansweet served as this newspaper’s editor-in-chief from 1965-66, and later turned his obsession – yes, he told me, it’s perfectly fine to use that word – with Star Wars into a career.
In 1996, he left his job as Los Angeles bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal for a gig as the director of specialty marketing at Lucasfilm – where today, after leaving his full time post in 2011, he serves as a fan relations advisor.
Nowadays, Sansweet is busy serving as the president and CEO of Rancho Obi-Wan – a nonprofit organization he started to maintain an estimated 300,000 unique pieces of Star Wars memorabilia. It’s the largest collection of its kind in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
There was no Star Wars for Sansweet to grow up with like there was for me, but he latched onto science-fiction novels as a kid and loved them. He saw the first film at an advanced screening at the 20th Century Fox’s backlot in 1977.
“That’s when I got hooked,” Sansweet said, “and it has rarely let up.”
He calls Star Wars a “once in a generation phenomenon,” and credits the series’ early success to its contrast to the dark times America was experiencing, including the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.
By the time former Temple student Irvin Kershner directed, “Empire Strikes Back,” which many consider to be the greatest movie of all time, few if any – and certainly not Sansweet – doubted that George Lucas had created something extraordinary.
Over Thanksgiving break, Lucasfilm released an 88-second teaser trailer for “The Force Awakens,” the J.J. Abrams-helmed sequel to the original trilogy. Within days, it was on track to become the highest viewed movie promo in Internet history.
It’s remarkable that, as many big-budget Hollywood blockbusters there are, just a few seconds of the Millennium Falcon in action coupled with some shots of a new generation of characters has arguably created more buzz for a film than any other in history.
Sansweet partially credits this to something he said continues to amaze him: that after all of these years, people still cherish the recollection of their folks taking them to experience Star Wars for the first time. It’s about the memories, as much as it is the movies themselves – which brings me back to that baseball game from almost a decade ago.
Somehow, my desire to see “Revenge of the Sith” propelled me to play the best seven innings of my life. Swifter than Yoda’s lightsaber, my green metal bat was. My throw to second base? As deadly as a blaster fired by Han Solo himself.
The Force was with me that night. By the game’s end, I had registered a handful of hits, collected numerous RBIs and even caught a runner stealing (which, for me, was an enormous rarity).
After we recorded the final out and secured the win, my team gathered in the dugout, where my head coach awarded me the game ball.
I turned to my dad. He smiled, ready to make good on his promise.
A galaxy far, far away awaited us.
Avery Maehrer can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer