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Star Wars was born 50 years ago in this small Bay Area town

Darth Vader and Boba Fett, characters featured in Lucas' Star Wars, lead the San Anselmo Country Fair parade in 1978. | Courtesy San Anselmo Historical Society

Go past the fire station, the Thai place, the ice cream shop and city hall. Head on down past the bank, across from the pizza-slice place with bikes strewn out front, and you’ll find a beige building on a corner in downtown San Anselmo. 

In 1977, on the second floor of 321 San Anselmo Ave., filmmaker George Lucas and his team rushed to edit reshoots from Tatooine. A few years later, Harrison Ford learned to use a bullwhip in the parking lot out back.

“Both Star Wars and Indiana Jones were created here—just down the street that way,” said Lucas, to the cheers of locals at a 2013 dedication ceremony for the new 8,700-square-foot Imagination Park, which he built and donated to the town. “Now we have a little monument here to remind everybody that this is where the whole thing started, right here in San Anselmo.”

And if a park dedication in a town center sounds like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, that’s because that’s what it looks like in San Anselmo: Trees line sidewalks set with Victorian, Craftsman and Mission-style homes The streets are a lot like those Lucas grew up around in the historic farming town of Modesto—and those memorialized in his breakout 1973 movie, American Graffiti.

“I think my heart lies at about 1910,” Lucas told Architectural Digest in 2004. “I love that style.” 

So maybe it's not that surprising that the multibillionaire owner of one of the biggest collections of Rockwell art would want to live full-time in a little Marin County suburb. But given that Lucas has expansive homes in Bel Air, Chicago and on the beach near Santa Barbara, outsiders have been known to question, “Why San Anselmo?”  

San Anselmo Avenue is the main street in the Marin County town. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Because in 1973, not too far from the beige corner building or the new park’s statues of Yoda and “Indy,” Lucas began to write Star Wars. And 50 years later, even though the movie has attracted hundreds of millions of fans worldwide and has spawned eight official sequels and prequels, plus countless toys, books, films, video games and even a Disney+ TV series with Baby Yoda, Lucas still lives on the same hill in San Anselmo. 

A plaque commemorates "Star Wars's" origin in San Anselmo on a fountain at Imagination Park, donated to the town by resident George Lucas. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

“George likes the small-town feeling of San Anselmo,” said Benedetto Cico, president of the San Anselmo Chamber of Commerce, about his town’s most famous resident. “Sometimes you’ll see him walking down the street, but people here respect his privacy.”

A ‘Rebel Base’ in San Anselmo

The official history of Lucasfilm explains Lucas’s desire to set up a “rebel base” for independent filmmaking near San Francisco, far, far away from the Hollywood mainstream in order to “shake up the status quo … of how movies were made and what they were about.” 

While Lucas’s distaste for L.A. and the Hollywood establishment is famous, the story of his early days in Marin County is not as well known. And with a request for comment from Lucas himself going unanswered, a hefty bit of research pieced together the likely story of how one of the world’s most famous filmmakers ended up living in a bedroom community 20 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas appear at a movie premiere in 1986. | Kevin Winter/Getty Images

After graduating from the University of Southern California film school in 1966, Lucas returned for a graduate degree in film production and made two key connections during those years that pushed the reserved filmmaker north: Lucas met his first wife, Marcia, an outgoing and soon-to-be Oscar-winning film editor, and did his first work for the USC film school wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola. 

After the Lucases’s wedding in Pacific Grove in February 1969, at which Coppola was a guest, the newlyweds headed north for their honeymoon and discovered the enclaves of Marin County, according to an excerpt from Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars. Lucas teamed up with Coppola to found the film production company American Zoetrope in San Francisco later that year and the Lucases settled into their first home together in Mill Valley.

A Writing Tower at Parkhouse

In Marin County, the early 1970s were a time of change. The first baby boomers were heading to the San Francisco suburbs, as were post-Summer of Love pilgrims and Vietnam War protesters. The tiny towns in the Marin redwoods were filled with the sound of bubbling hot tubs and the Grateful Dead.

The Lucases soon upgraded to a home on Medway Road in San Anselmo, where they lived when American Graffiti debuted in 1973. The box office-topping and Oscar-winning movie gave them the $150,000 needed to buy a decaying 1869 Victorian estate built by one of San Anselmo’s founding families, the Tompkins. In 1907, daughter Ethel Tompkins founded the Marin Humane Society and housed strays at the property when its kennels were full. 

Parkhouse, as the Lucases christened it, sits on a hill overlooking downtown San Anselmo, and George Lucas lives there to this day. 

George Lucas, left, with British actor Anthony Daniels playing C-3PO on the set of the first Star Wars in 1977. | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The couple added a screening room to the back, and it became a busy live-work space. Rolling Stone described the home in 1980 as a “small, unpretentious wood house with a big front porch.” Lucas enlarged the estate by purchasing adjacent properties over the years.

In a report from Chris Taylor’s book, How 'Star Wars' Conquered the Universe, Lucas restored the home’s original two-story tower and spent the next two years looking out its windows at Mount Tamalpais and banging out a script with the working title The Star Wars

Shooting began in Tunisia in 1976, and later, production continued at studios in England, according to a New Statesman article about the movie’s origin by Lucas’s biographer, James Cooray Smith. But by the time footage came back to San Anselmo, Lucas was so stressed about the film’s condition in 1977 that Marcia rushed him to Marin General Hospital with chest pains (hypertension, not a heart attack). 

Moviegoers lined up to see “Star Wars” at the Coronet Theatre in San Francisco when it opened in 1977.  | Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The first screening of an almost-finished Star Wars took place in early 1977 at Lucas’s Parkhouse in San Anselmo for producer Alan Ladd Jr. and emerging directors Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg. (De Palma hated it; Spielberg was impressed.) After a race to make final edits, Luke, Leia and Han hit the big screen on May 25, 1977.

Hence, Lucas credits San Anselmo as the birthplace of Star Wars. The town is also the official birthplace of many pioneering organizations that would change filmmaking in the decades to come, including Lucasfilm, Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound and Lucasfilm’s “Computer Division” (better known today as Pixar Studios).

Lucasfilm was based at 321 San Anselmo Ave. in Downtown San Anselmo in the mid 1970s, and "Star Wars" was created on its second floor. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

While working on sound and editing for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi, Alien and E.T., a 1982 flood ruined Lucasfilm’s equipment in the San Anselmo Avenue building and pushed its operations to San Rafael. But all of these groups eventually outgrew the town—some moved to his famed Skywalker Ranch in northern San Rafael on Lucas Valley Road (no relation) and others to San Francisco’s Presidio in the Letterman Digital Arts Center or Emeryville. Many longtime Lucas employees and collaborators remained in San Anselmo and other parts of Marin. 

A ‘Center’ for San Anselmo

The 2012 sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion launched a new semi-retired life for Lucas, who was in his 60s at the time and looking to head back to San Anselmo to tinker in his garage.  

"I'm moving away from all my businesses, I'm finishing all my obligations and I'm going to retire to my garage with my saw and hammer and build hobby movies,” Lucas told Empire Magazine at the time. In 2013, Lucas had a big year: Two days after dedicating Imagination Park, he married Mellody Hobson at Skywalker Ranch, and the couple welcomed a daughter in August. 

Lucas had raised three children in town during his first marriage, which ended in 1983. And as any Marin parent knows, there are few places for kids to hang out around the county. He had acquired a building on San Anselmo Avenue next to city hall in 2010 with the idea of turning it into a community gathering place, like a theater or even a place to play ping-pong. 

George Lucas and Mellody Hobson watch the dedication ceremony for Imagination Park in San Anselmo on June 20, 2013. The couple were married two days later on Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in San Rafael. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the end, the 1920s building proved too difficult to renovate, and the idea of razing it to create a tiny downtown park started to take form. As with all of his projects, Lucas turned to local professionals and craftspeople to come up with the design.

“George came to us with the idea, and I thought it was a great area for a park,” said Eric Blasen of Blasen Landscape Architecture, which designed the space. The now 30-year-old firm had done significant work on Lucas’ home, and the filmmaker gravitated toward its design for the new park. 

Blasen Landscape Architecture designed George Lucas's Imagination Park in San Anselmo. | Courtesy Blasen Landscape Architecture

“We wanted to make it feel like a garden and also make the space really usable,” said Blasen, who included lawn, benches and bike racks in the design to surround the feature fountain.

San Anselmo gets hot in the summer so the park is ringed by pin oaks for shade and also because the trees can withstand getting “wet feet” given the town’s infamously high water table and tendency to flood. “Everything else we planted was ‘low water’ and ‘low maintenance’ because the town was adamant about that,” said Blasen.

George Lucas unveils the statues in Imagination Park in San Anselmo on June 20, 2013. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Opening day for the park in 2013 was packed. “I’ve never seen that many people in the downtown area,” said Blasen, whose firm has designed many other outdoor spaces at homes, wineries and even the edible garden behind center field at Oracle Park. “George and his wife came, and Harrison Ford came and said it was cool to see a statue of himself.” 

The name Imagination Park was chosen by a poll of residents, with three people suggesting the winning name. The contest was an idea Lucas had because he didn’t want the space named after him. 

Shady pin oak trees ring Imagination Park in San Anselmo. | Courtesy Blasen Landscape Architecture

Ten years later, Blasen said, he sees more and more people in the park all the time. “Watching the park mature and seeing so many people there using it is really nice.” 

And now that San Anselmo has a “center,” the park is also the site for many town events, including the annual Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. 

A Fairy Godfather to the Community

A signatory to Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge, Lucas has long been a generous donor to philanthropic causes, including founding an educational foundation, making huge offerings to the USC School of Cinematic Arts and supporting the construction of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Washington, D.C.  

And though his name was once floated as a moniker for the town’s high school, Lucas doesn’t seek publicity for his generosity in his home community. He is rumored to have paid for undergrounding the overhead electric wires along the Miracle Mile section of Red Hill Ave., the road that leads from the 101 Freeway to San Anselmo. And though most of Marin County’s roadway medians are “landscaped” with dirt and overgrown grasses, Miracle Mile has suspiciously lush plantings, dotted with wildflowers, native trees and sleek new “San Anselmo” signage all around the town. 

The Miracle Mile approach to San Anselmo near George Lucas's home is beautifully landscaped. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

A decade ago, Lucas’ name was publicly tied to the renovation of a unique stone-clad building housing Amazing Grace, a gorgeous music store focused on string instruments. Plopped in the center median of Miracle Mile, the 1970 store was in one of three crumbling buildings that the owners couldn’t afford to repair until the filmmaker’s property manager told him about the situation. Lucas bought the buildings and, though two were beyond repair, he saved the most impressive one and moved in the string studio.

The Amazing Grace music store building on the Miracle Mile section of Red Hill Avenue in San Anselmo was renovated by George Lucas. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

“It was because of the mom-and-pop thing,” speculated John Pedersen when asked why Lucas saved his store’s building. After starting at Amazing Grace in 1975 as a repairman, Pedersen bought the business in 1983 and has occupied the beautifully renovated space for 11 years. “George likes that kind of stuff—and the mom-and-pops are going away,” he said.

Though he’s played some gigs at “the ranch” over the years, Pedersen said he doesn’t really know Lucas but there are “a million” people in the area who’ve worked for him. “Over the years, we’d have guys from [Industrial Light and Magic] come into the shop who needed props or some kind of goofy stuff for a shoot," he said. "And we’d go through our junk bins and go, ‘Hey! This’ll work!’” 

Another Small Town Dad

Some cities have been quite inhospitable to Lucas: Lucas Valley neighbors fought an expansion of Skywalker Ranch, and Chicago said “no, thank you” to the idea for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which will transform L.A.’s Exhibition Park when it opens in 2025 near USC and the Coliseum. San Anselmo has always let Lucas do his thing up on the hill without making a big deal about him or bugging him. (Well, there was one little lawsuit over an easement …)

And downtown San Anselmo continues to lilt along into the 21st century, not changing too much or too little. It doesn’t have Stormtrooper streetlights or Ewok gift stores, but lots of other mom-and-pop shops and restaurants have come and gone along San Anselmo Avenue over the decades.

A sign in downtown San Anselmo shows the high-water mark from a 2005 flood. The creek that runs behind downtown is prone to flooding during extreme winter storms. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

This year, a big restoration project began at the north end of town in hopes of keeping the creek from flooding during heavy rains. But by and large, the town still has the same “small-town feeling” that attracted Lucas more than 50 years ago.

The Chamber of Commerce is planning a 50th celebration for American Graffiti in August and a Star Wars event in September. But maybe the best time to see San Anselmo is on any warm summer weekend evening when the main drag is closed off for “Live on the Avenue” and the whole community hangs out for live music, food and, of course, lounging in Imagination Park. 

Who’s That With Darth Vader?

Having a blockbuster filmmaker in the 'hood can benefit a town in unexpected ways. When the first costume for Boba Fett arrived from England in 1978, sound designer Ben Burtt emceed Lucas's first look at his home in San Anselmo. Lucas later decided to have one of his editors, who was about the right size, wear it to lead the annual San Anselmo Country Fair Parade alongside the newly famous villain Darth Vader. 

“Is it one T or two T's?” Duwayne Dunham recalled yelling to his handler for the parade, The Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, as kids asked for his “Boba Fett” autograph and he sweltered inside the suit on the 100-degree day. 

Today, the bounty hunter is one of the most popular characters in the Star Wars universe, but this appearance took place two years before his 1980 big-screen debut in The Empire Strikes Back. Now the quaint footage of two intergalactic bad guys marching down San Anselmo Avenue in “actual screen-used costumes” is featured in the 2021 documentary, "Under the Helmet: The Legacy of Boba Fett."  

Dunham was an assistant editor on both Empire and Return of the Jedi, and he went on to work with David Lynch on Twin Peaks and direct movies of his own. But on that broiling September Saturday, he and Kurtz were just helping their boss give the hometown kids—and adults—a thrill they’d never forget. 

“Like a local city official or a tricked-out classic car, it’s important to march out the hardware [in a town parade],” Dunham told in a now-archived interview with author Brad Ricca in 2014. “Star Wars is now a global community, but it was a local one first. And it has always given back to its people.”

Yoda is one of the statues at Imagination Park in San Anselmo, donated to the town by resident George Lucas. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the size of Imagination Park.