Attention Star Wars nerds – I have found the mother land, and it is in the Presidio.
Taking up three square miles on the northern coast of San Francisco, the Presidio is an old army post that dates back to 1776. You may have hiked along its ragged cliffs to Baker Beach or driven through it on your way to the Golden Gate Bridge, but there’s an empire looming under its overgrown Eucalyptus trees.
Eight years ago, George Lucas built the Letterman Digital Arts Center, a satellite campus to his famous Skywalker Ranch. An idyllic campus of pristine brick buildings, white verandas, and green bunny hills, it is home to Industrial Light and Magic, LucasArts, and components of Lucasfilm Ltd.
For the fangirls and fanboys among us, it is also a small museum of Star Wars artifacts and costumes from all six films.
The search for Yoda
I’d gotten a tip that there was a Yoda statue somewhere in the Presidio. I’m nothing if not overly prepared, at all times, and so I was fairly confident as I stepped off the 43 MUNI bus. I had Yoda’s GPS coordinates on my phone, a blue blinking curser letting me know how close or far I was.
An hour later, I was still searching. On my third or fourth loop, an employee put his call on hold to ask if I was lost. I didn’t even need to tell him what I was up to. Whenever he sees someone clearly lost, they’re always looking for Yoda.
We walked about 20 yards and there was Yoda, right off the visitor parking lot. Right there in plain sight. And perched on top of a fountain for some reason. It seemed to be a strange place to find a Jedi Master
I’ll leave it for you to debate whether this is a subtle, amusing nod to his semi-aquatic life on Dagobah. Or if an architect somewhere just shouted out, “Picture this. Yoda. As a FOUNTAIN. The kids will love it!” Either theory is delightfully silly.
Bronze Yoda is life-size — 66 centimeters if we’re being exact — a fact that doesn’t hit you until you are standing at his base. He’s a little feller. Yoda is a complex character, embodying both the silly (picking a stick fight with R2D2) and gravely serious (the rest of the double trilogy). The attention to detail in the statue encompasses both of these Yoda’s — the heavily lidded grandfatherly eyes, the calm and pensive hands, the intensely focused eyes.
There’s nothing folks love more than throwing pennies into a fountain, and so poor, frozen Yoda had a penny stuck in his ear on my visit. I hope someone has taken it out by now. It’s not very dignified.
The Lucasfilm Lobby
The day became infinitely more interesting once we stepped inside. My new friend, let’s call him George (not his real name) (or is it?), offered to give me a tour of the Lucasfilm lobby. The lobby is open to the public during normal business hours of 9am-5pm Monday through Friday, excluding holidays, and they do allow photography.
As cool as Yoda was, the lobby is the real treat.
The exterior architecture of Lucasfilm’s campus might invoke the 1940’s era military architecture throughout the Presidio, but inside, it is all Prairie School and Arts and Crafts. Skywalker Ranch, in nearby Marin, is built in the same style. The space is beautiful and airy, with geometric wood beams, skylights, and wrap around windows. Brown leather arm chairs and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, stained glass lamps complete the look.
The south wall is lined in bookcases displaying a small collection of Star Wars artifacts. The first thing you’ll be drawn to is Darth Vader. It appears to be Darth Vader circa The Empire Strikes Back. The costume was originally intended to look like a futuristic, armored Bedouin warrior; I think Mr. Lucas and Ralph McQuarrie succeeded on that front.
Between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, though, Darth Vader underwent some changes. With the popularity of A New Hope, this may have been in response to Darth Vader becoming a cult anti-hero in the intervening years. We only heard The Imperial March for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back. It didn’t exist in A New Hope.
Lord Vader also seemed to gain some respect from his minions. In A New Hope, he is seventh in command, and the first time we see him among the Death Star’s commanders, he is publicly derided for his “sad devotion” to the Force, “that ancient religion.” In The Empire Strikes Back, he is firmly in control, barking out orders. His staff is backbendingly deferential: “yes, my lord”. Like employees the world over, they only share their doubts by making squiggly eyes behind his back.
Along with these transformations, Mr. Lucas also re-engineered the Darth Vader costume. His eyes are darker, his face mask includes silver highlights, and his cape opened to show off more of his armored breastplate. The effect is to make him appear to be more of a robotic warrior and less accessible.
At 6’6’’, there is nowhere for Darth Vader to look but down at you. I didn’t realize it was possible to feel intimidated by a costume. Up close, you can see that Darth Vader is wearing several shades and textures of black, giving the costume depth. His cape is lined in purple satin – a little Prince, sure, but that’s why his evil dazzles on screen.
On the other side of the awards case is Boba Fett, who first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back. A bounty hunter who answers to Darth Vader, Boba Fett is scrappier and more battle worn than his boss.
The bookcases hold a collection of smaller artifacts. Awards trophies, clay busts of Queen Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, figures of Darth Maul and Yoda, and shiny, shiny lightsabers. Fangirls and boys will appreciate seeing Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber from A New Hope. In the film, Luke has found “Ben” Kenobi, and gives him this lightsaber as a gift from his dead father (not really dead, the liar!) Other than the Star Wars/Luke leitmotif playing in the background, it’s our first indication that the farmer’s nephew has a more important role to play.
Yoda’s lightsaber from Revenge of the Siths is also on display. I mention this mostly because it’s Yoda-sized (cute!), and also because Yoda’s lightsaber-wielding, prequel-trilogy scenes are awesome.
George explained that the busts and figures would have been used by the graphic arts and costume departments to create the wardrobe for each of the characters.
The bookcases also have books in them, and it is quite a varied selection. With a shrug, George explained they are all books Mr. Lucas read in his formative years. Which I suppose includes The Diary of Virginia Woolf? For a moment, I wished that Virginia Woolf was somehow Mr. Lucas’ inspiration for the feisty, aristocratic Princess Leia. Alas, the book only came out in 1981, a year after The Empire Strikes Back was released.
Back in the sunlight
The immaculate grounds of Lucasfilm are also worth exploring. There’s a Starbucks open to the public on the back patio, where you can sip a latte while looking out at the Palace of Fine Arts and overhear conversations about storyboards gone awry. Paths, lined with park benches, wind through the hills down to a lagoon with views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Between the intimacy of the lobby and the serene greenspace outdoors, Mr. Lucas has built a fantastic gift to San Francisco. He recently hinted that Red Tails might be his last feature film. From the filmmaker who had the audacity to introduce us to a space saga –beginning in the middle of the story, with trumpets blaring, expecting us to read historical background text — it would be a sad thing indeed to miss out on what more he might have in store for us.
Where: Off Lombard Street, on the Letterman Digital Arts Center in The Presidio
Transit accessible by the 28, 30, 41, 43, 45, and 76 MUNI bus routes. From BART or MUNI Metro, transfer to the 30 or 45 MUNI bus lines at Powell Street Street Stations.
Open to the public.
by Maria/Far Out City. Maria publishes elaborate San Francisco Bay Area day trip itineraries over at FarOutCity.com. All photos copyright by 2011 Far Out City.