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Calling all Jedi: Star Wars Celebration comes to Chicago, portending big news

The 20th annual Star Wars Celebration runs April 11-15 in Chicago. | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration

The Force will be out in force April 11-15 when the 20th annual Star Wars Celebration settles in at Chicago’s McCormick Place West.

The annual, massive gathering of “Star Wars” fans, artists, movie stars, collectors, memorabilia dealers, creative teams, Nerd Nite Speed Daters and more is expected to attract more than 60,000 attendees all with one purpose: to celebrate all things “Star Wars.”

Star Wars Celebration Chicago 2019

When: April 11-15

Where: McCormick Place West, 2301 S. Prairie Ave.

Tickets: $35-$75

Info: starwarscelebration.com

Expect dozens of panels, autograph areas, photo areas, meet-and-greets, diorama building and cosplay as well as some hyped “big news” in the “Star Wars” universe to be announced at what’s billed as “the ultimate fan experience.” (The most anticipated panel, titled “Episode IX” and featuring Lucasfilm Ltd. president Kathleen Kennedy and director JJ Abrams, has been sold out for weeks.)

Among the seemingly endless list of Celebration guests are: Hayden Christensen, Anthony Daniels, Paul Bettany, Ken Leung, Peter Mayhew, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams, Joonas Suotamo, Brian Herring, Ahmed Best, Ian McElhinney, Bobby Moynihan, Freddie Prinze Jr., John Ratzenberger and dozens more from the films and TV franchises.

There’s fun for “Star Wars” fans of all ages at Star Wars Celebration, including an array of vendors featuring officially licensed collectibles and other memorabilia. | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration
There’s fun for “Star Wars” fans of all ages at Star Wars Celebration, including an array of vendors featuring officially licensed collectibles and other memorabilia. | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration

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Steve Sansweet, former longtime head of fan relations for Lucasfilm Ltd. and the chairman/president of the legendary Rancho Obi-Wan “Star Wars” memorabilia museum in Petaluma, California, was part of the small team that put together the first Star Wars Celebration 20 years ago. He’s remained an integral part of every gathering since.

“People used to always ask me, what’s the difference between ‘Star Trek’ fans and ‘Star Wars’ fans? And I would answer, ‘Star Trek’ fans dress up. Well THAT has completely changed! [Laughs] People show up at the movies in full ‘Star Wars’ costume. They attend Celebration in costumes that are meticulous and sometimes take a year to make. … It’s all part of the ‘Star Wars’ sense of community. …

“We started planning in the late summer, early fall of 1998, about a month or so after ‘Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace’ opened,” Sansweet said. “It was held in a suburb of Denver. Since that time there have been a dozen more, including three in Europe and one in Japan. Stateside the celebrations have been held on the West Coast and the East Coast as well as twice in Indianapolis. This is the first time it will take place in Chicago.

“The people who put on the show — [the events company] ReedPop and Lucasfilm — decided it was a good, central location to come to Chicago,” Sansweet continued. “We had done the coasts, in Anaheim and Orlando, and it was time to move to a different location, more centrally located.”

The first SWC had about 12,000 people, he noted. One of the most recent gatherings boasted 60,000 attendees, with the Chicago version on target to meet or surpass that number.

The Rancho Obi-Wan Museum exhibit at Star Wars Celebration. | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration
The Rancho Obi-Wan Museum exhibit at Star Wars Celebration. | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration

“The footprint of the event has also grown to keep up with the amount of ‘Star Was’ fans coming out for the celebration,” Sansweet said. “At the first one we had five or six things to do at any one time. Now there are at least two dozen things to do at any one time. You have to make allowances because you have so many people in attendance.”

To that end, he suggests attendees — whether they’re veterans or first-timers — plan their visit.

“Wear comfortable shoes and bring a bottle of water,” Sansweet said with a chuckle. “And once you arrive, take about 20 minutes or half an hour to map out where you want to go [outside of pre-ticketed events]. You can’t do everything, but you can do a heck of a LOT of things. Go from a collectors panel or a behind-the-scenes panel and listen to people from ILM ([George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic) or Skywalker Sound. There are writers of ‘Star Wars’ novels and our incredible artists’ alley. Pick some highlights for the five days — and then you can go wild. Of course, any path you take you’ll find something interesting.”

As to his museum’s presence at the five-day event, Sansweet’s selected trove of memorabilia will not disappoint even the most diehard fans.

Star Wars Celebration celebrates all things “Star Wars.” | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration
Star Wars Celebration celebrates all things “Star Wars.” | Courtesy Star Wars Celebration

“This is the fourth time we’re bringing the Rancho Obi-Wan Experience to Celebration by way of a 40-by-30-foot booth,” he said. “One of the things we’re celebrating is the 20th anniversary of the Celebration itself, so we’ll have a very large display of [memorabilia] from past Celebrations. We’re also celebrating female fandom. People think it’s a relatively new phenomenon, but we’ve had female fans from the very beginning [of ‘Star Wars’]. The third part will be a display of helmets of the saga. It’s a massive display of four dozen three-dimensional helmets from some of our licensees going back to the early days to artist-done Darth Vader and Stormtrooper helmets. It’s topped off by a screen-used Darth Vader helmet from ‘Return of the Jedi.’”

Officially licensed Darth Vader helmets by artists — and one helmet worn on screen for “Return of the Jedi” — will be among the memorabilia featured at the Rancho Obi-Wan exhibit at Star Wars Celebration Chicago. | Courtesy Rancho Obi-Wan/Star Wars Celebr
Officially licensed Darth Vader helmets by artists — and one helmet worn on screen for “Return of the Jedi” — will be among the memorabilia featured at the Rancho Obi-Wan exhibit at Star Wars Celebration Chicago. | Courtesy Rancho Obi-Wan/Star Wars Celebration

Sansweet’s museum collection made it to the Guinness Book of World Records, which, in 2014, certified a little over 100,000 pieces in the collection. “I think we’re way over 300,000 pieces now,” he says, laughing. The most sought-after collectibles, he says, are the original action figures and vintage toys from the first three films. He admits he’s fortunate as he was buying them back in the day, as fast as they hit toy store shelves.

“There’s different kinds of memorabilia,” he adds. “There are prototypes, toys. There are actual props and costumes, books, posters. I never meant for [my collection] to get this big. One day you look around and you say, ‘I better open a museum.’”

So what is his collection still missing?

“Lots and lots of stuff,” Sansweet says with a hearty chuckle. “If I bring enough money I’ll find plenty of things [to buy] at Celebration.”