It was in the 1950’s, just east of the Bay Area in Modesto, California, where a young man named George Lucas fell in love with comic books like Flash Gordon. It was his experiences growing up in Modesto that shaped his eventual science fiction epic Star Wars, and the connections between the historic franchise and Northern California are vast.
Let’s walk through the history of Star Wars in Northern California:
Port of Oakland Loading Docks
When the second Star Wars film was released, The Empire Strikes Back, a new military vehicle of the Empire was introduced during the snowy scenes of the movie. The AT-AT Walkers walked through the snow in the film looking like short-necked giraffes and taking out any enemy fighters in their way. But Bay Area locals noticed the similarities between the machines and the loading docks at the Port of Oakland.
The myths of the how the loading docks inspired the AT-AT Walkers grew, with t-shirts even being seen throughout the Bay Area:
While Bay Area residents hold firm on the theory, but when San Francisco Chronicle journalist Pete Hartlaub asked Lucas about the inspiration, he had a firm answer.
“That’s a myth,” Lucas said, politely but firmly. “That is definitely a myth.”
Following the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, Lucas used his new Hollywood success to purchase a ranch in Marin County, aptly named Skywalker Ranch. As his empire has grown, so has the ranch, with Lucas adding on 3,000 acres to the property since the growing success of his company made him a billionaire. Today, the ranch includes 4,700 acres near Nicasio, California.
The Skywalker Ranch has become lore for Star Wars junkies throughout the world. After the success of the first film, Lucas made the ranch his de facto office for all Star Wars related business. At the ranch, he developed Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as all of the prequels.
Return of the Jedi
In April of 1982, the Star Wars filming crew descended on the northwest corner of California to create a world in which the Star Wars fans had never experienced for Return of the Jedi. The NorCal redwoods would provide the stage for the home of the Ewoks, an epic speeder bike chase and a battle that would spark the end of the Empire.
The battle scene and much of the Ewok scenes were filmed on the private property owned by a logging company in the town of Smith River, near the Avenue of the Giants. Unfortunately, much of the area you see in the film was eventually clearcut.
But there is an area that remains full intact since the shooting of the film, and that is located in the Chetham Grove section of Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, where the speed chaser scene was filmed. If you go visit the area today, you’ll see much of the same trees as in this scene:
Other than George Lucas, there might not be a single person on the planet who has contributed to the Star Wars franchise than NorCal local Kathleen Kennedy.
Kennedy was born in Berkeley, California and spent most of her formative years in Redding. She graduated from Shasta High School in 1971 before heading off to San Diego State and on to her film career. As a close associate of Steven Spieldberg and Lucas, she went on to produce some of the most iconic movies in history, including E.T. the Extraterrestrial (also filmed in NorCal), Indiana Jones, Back to Future, Schindler’s List and The Goonies.
In 2012, she became the co-chair of Lucasfilm Ltd. alongside Lucas. When the company was sold to Disney, she became president of the company, overseeing all new Star Wars projects. Since then, she has produced:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
The Mandalorian (2019)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Not bad for a Shasta High School Grad, right?
Sitting in Sonoma County, not far from the Skywalker Ranch, is the largest private Star Wars collection on the planet. The residence, dubber Rancho Obi-Wan, is the concotion of Star Wars super-fan Stephen J. Sansweet.
While Sansweet was working for Lucasfilm as their Director of Content Management and head of Fan Relations, he moved to Northern California to be closer to the Skywalker Ranch. There, he bought a former chicken ranch and refurbished an old barn to hold his Star Wars collectibles. Today, the ranch hold approximately 3,000 Star Wars collectibles, an official Guinness World Record, and has turned his ranch into a shrine of the franchise. He has also written 16 books on Star Wars, allowing him to cash in on his fandom.
LucasFilm in San Francisco
As Lucas was preparing to sell his massive Star Wars company in 2005, he decided he needed to move the business to an actual office away from the Skywalker Ranch. Instead of putting the company in Hollywood, like many had expected, Lucas relocated Lucasfilm to San Francisco, where it is currently being run today.
While most of the film world sits in Hollywood, California, the Star Wars franchise continues to develop their wildly famous films and TV shows in San Francisco. Their location near the Golden Gate Bridge makes it a popular destination for tourists, who come by to take photos with the famed Yoda Fountain.
While Star Wars continues to awe fans with new content and genres to include in the world’s most successful franchise, we know it has firmly placed its roots in Northern California.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine