“I’m dead!” read the button pinned on me when I entered a hotel suite at the Hilton Arlington in Northern Virginia on a sunny Saturday morning in March 1998. According to the “Rebel Pilot Reunion” article in Star Wars Insider (Issue number 32, Winter 1996), I’d been missing since the Battle of Hoth, presumed to have been killed in action. Not so. Such rumors were greatly exaggerated. But they can lead to serendipitous resurrections.
Sometime after my resurrection, I’d been a guest at Ben Stevens’ DFW Toy Show in Plano, Texas. Managing the autograph line was Denise Clarkston, an exercise physiologist who is now with Ben’s Official Pix, the folks who book the “talent” for Celebrations. Denise invited me to be her guest at a Washington convention of the Star Ladies, one of three fan organizations that are now Club Jade. In 1998, their third annual con was in DC during the run of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum’s “The Magic of Myth” Exhibition.
And what a serendipitous event it was. When I entered that suite, I found some 40 Star Ladies, most well-established professional women, along with celebrity guests Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm’s head of fan relations, and Star Wars authors Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole. We were all there by dint of a personal association with a club member. Tim and Mike had come by way of Tish Pahl, a practicing attorney with the Washington firm OFW Law. Tish and Chris Cassidy (one of the original Club Jade members) had written a short story called “Hutt and Seek” published by West End Games in their Journal, then an outlet for short fiction. Through WEG, they had known Tim and by extension Mike. Steve came via member Mary Franklin, now famous as Lucasfilm’s senior events lead, who knew him from her running the Star Wars Online Fan Club. “We consciously created a place where the talent wanted to come, could come, and would be welcomed with the respect and consideration we’d show in our professional lives,” said Tish Pahl.
Throughout the con, fan-created works were on display and became a topic of informal discussion. Star Ladies were very literate and creative. It seemed they were all crafting, blogging, and writing. All were particularly vocal about the breakthrough impact of the female smuggler Mara Jade, introduced by Timothy Zahn in his 1991 book Heir to the Empire. “This lingering myth that Star Wars is only for dudes is just bizarre to all of us who have been in the fandom for so long,” says Pahl. “Tracy Duncan, the moderator of Club Jade, FANgirlcantina, and a lot of other bloggers have been talking about this recently. The fact that there was a female Naboo fighter pilot in Phantom Menace was really important to us. And I think we attributed it, in part, to the fact that Lucasfilm learned through Club Jade that there was a vocal, passionate female fan base. Whether that was true, I don’t know, but it really mattered to us that they noticed how important characters like Leia and later Mara Jade were to female fans.”
Formal con discussions included Tim and Mike giving readings from some of their work. For me, the main event was a focus group session that Steve conducted and taped. “Lucasfilm was very interested in finding out about women fans,” Sansweet recalls. “The ladies in PR were most intrigued by Mary’s invitation. Jeanne Cole in particular helped me draft the questions for the focus group.” Nancy Lutz, a Ph.D. and program director for economics at the National Science Foundation, remembers his asking them what publications they read and what they wanted to see in future Star Wars merchandise. “We told Steve we wanted Lucasfilm to aim more at the adult market and continue to focus on the female fan market.”
I specifically recall a forceful comment by Patricia “Trish” Gibbs, at the time a high-power assistant attorney at an Illinois law firm. Gibbs told Sansweet she wanted merchandise that was tasteful and professional — a good leather day planner with a brass Star Wars logo on it — “something I can slap down on a corporate boardroom table that identifies me with Star Wars.” When I reminded her of the exchange earlier this month, Gibbs said, “It has been achieved! I have a Lucasfilm portfolio for my Samsung Galaxy Android tablet, and I take that portfolio to every out-of-office meeting I attend.”
But Star Ladies was not just all serious business. “The group has always been full of ultra-creative people with warped senses of humor,” said Nancy Lutz who is also a knitter into design crafts. “Some of that creation involved making actual things: Christmas tree ornaments, custom action figures, turning a ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ doll into a ‘Tickle Me Emperor.’” Lutz emphasizes how Star Ladies was also about “being playful.” Some years ago, she knitted sweaters for Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon Jinn 12” action figures that are now in Sansweet’s collection at Rancho Obi-Wan. “We did them just to be silly and to amuse each other.”
When she attended the DC con, Lutz was an associate professor of economics at Virginia Tech and a consultant with the Federal Trade Commission. She was also in town that weekend to rehearse as an expert Commission witness in advance of an anti-trust trial. Lutz attended the con in a Princess Leia tee-shirt. Halfway through, she left to go to the FTC to rehearse her cross-examination. She arrived for her rehearsal wearing the Princess Leia shirt. “I will not forget the looks on their faces,” she recalled. “It was pretty funny.” Lutz is also a longtime member of Mary Franklin’s Celebration Elite Squad.
“It was a seminal experience for me to be there,” said Sansweet. “Going to that convention provided a real education for us and was the beginning of a great relationship. The following spring, we invited the Star Ladies to Skywalker Ranch, and I hosted them for a BBQ at Rancho Obi-Wan.”
Fandom fulfills the adult need for creative expression, muses Tish Pahl. She believes that the Internet enabled Star Ladies to become a flourishing community of interest beyond geographical limitations. “Fannish pursuits, fan fic, costuming, music, art, and crafts are fan-generated,” said Pahl. “It’s always a bottom-up thing, never top-down.”
“Star Ladies was the foundation of what has become an explosion of ‘girl geekdom’ in Star Wars, and in science fiction generally,” observed Sansweet. Oft-quoted Kelly Frieders, another Club Jader, sums up the Star Lady legacy: “We were there — virtually and in person — for each other’s major life events. I came for Star Wars; I stayed for the people.”
John appeared as Dak, Luke Skywalker’s back-seater in the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. He also appeared in the film substituting for Jeremy Bullloch as Boba Fett on Bespin when he utters his famous line to Darth Vader, “He’s no good to me dead.” Follow him on Twitter @tapcaf.