The first-ever meeting of the 501st was not the epic moment one would think from such a large and tightly-knit organization it is today. Like a lot of success stories, the first tenuous steps were lurching, staggering, anxious ones. DragonCon seemed the perfect place to bring together the first pioneers of organized Star Wars costuming. But lumped in with the wildly diverse energy of the con was… well, wildly diverse energy!
The Florida group that showed up was large and in charge. It was happy to troop with the rest of us, but it was more for the sake of a themed costume group than anything else. And for anyone who’s been to DragonCon enough times, costume themes are short-lived bursts of excitement. They wandered the halls, taking in the sights and having fun with it. And no one could blame them. After years of being at Dragoncon, I now know it’s one big party. But at the time I was new to all of that. I was serious about making a real go of a club. I was on a mission. But the excitement I heard on the internet was a far cry from what folks wanted to do when together, it seemed. Rather than lead the pack, I ended up following the group carrying my little sign and wondering if I’d been fooling myself.
Saturday came and I saw an autograph line for Anthony Daniels. “This is my chance,” I thought to myself, thinking of the less-than-glamorous performance I’d made for Peter Mayhew when he’d come to my home town. Something told me if I could just get a picture with Anthony and the sign we could post the picture on the website and start the ball rolling. Maybe we could show a connection between the Legion and the heroes of Star Wars! It was a longshot, but hey, here was See-Threepio himself! Royalty among the Star Wars set. I make a good impression, and who knows where it could go?
So I stood in line for an hour, holding the sign and working over what I’d say to the man. “Hello, Mr. Daniels, it’s an honor. We’re starting a club of fans who wear Stormtrooper costumes,” I thought to myself. Then I stopped. I wasn’t even wearing my armor at the time. What would he think, looking at yet a guy holding a picture of a pixilated Stormtrooper, talking about a club. No one even showed up to be at this meeting, so what did that say? The more I thought about it, the dumber I felt.
After an hour of sweating it out, the moment finally came. Mr. Daniels was cordial, but he was pressed for time — there were a hundred or more people waiting. He smiled, I handed my camera to the handler, and I held up the sign. Then, without warning, Anthony turned to the next guest in line just as the flash went off. Maybe he thought the picture was already taken. I don’t know. I leaned over to the lady handing me back my camera and said “I don’t think the picture took.”
“It was fine,” she said. Then she moved on to the next guest.
Now this was 1998. There were precious few digital cameras then and no camera phones. I had to take her word for it. But I knew it was a bust. A week later the pictures came back and sure enough, there was the shot of me smiling, holding up the sign, and Anthony Daniels’ profile as he was walking away.
I was crushed. It wasn’t Mr. Daniels’ fault, mind you. It was just lousy timing and poor planning on my part. I was alone at this big convention and totally out of my element. Even the three guys who’d come with me on the trip (two of whom wore costumes borrowed from me, the other was just a photographer) were off doing better things. One of them, wearing my homemade Fett armor, wandered off and got into a fight at the bar the first night. He walked out in a huff, heedless of my help, then threw the Fett blaster I’d made into the air. It fell and shattered into pieces. A pack of guys yelled at me, “Get your bounty hunter under control!”
I don’t know how often those words are spoken, but that was one of the weirdest problems I’d faced up to that point. And still one of the weirdest, come to think of it.
Nothing else seemed to click at the convention. A quarrel broke out between members from different states over different makes of armor. One guy was making inexpensive suits of armor (later to be called Armor FX but at the time called Wookiee Cantina). The Florida group wore armor that was three times the price. Even at that early stage it was apparent that factions were sprouting up. And did they care more about being Star Wars fans uniting in a world that didn’t understand them? No, it was more like girls at a party arguing over their dresses.
Another dispute erupted at the worst moment. For once I’d convinced some of the troopers to meet together, this time to meet Cathy Bowden, then-director of the Star Wars track for DragonCon. I figured it was smart to at least try to make a connection with her and her staff — if we were going to do events then a convention was the place to do it. But our first impression left a lot to be desired.
“Cathy, I have a problem,” this one guy says in the middle of the meeting. “I want the number ‘TK421’ as my trooper number. Albin is saying I can’t!”
Cathy looked at me with a raised eye brow that told me ‘Really? You guys can’t even get your stuff together?’
Well that was an unexpected development. I was only a few months into using a TK-numbering system for members. It was a big hit, with members adopting their new identities in the Empire and really taking to it. But I didn’t anticipate someone wanting the number from the trooper in A New Hope that gave me the whole idea! It was a dumb misunderstanding, and one that taught me a lesson. When you start a thing and you have a plan, you better anticipate problems like this. And you better be ready to think fast on your feet when problems come up. First introduction to the DragonCon Star Wars community: not so hot.
In the midst of all these missteps I was running back and forth all over the convention, trying to wrangle troopers and get something going. Everyone was off doing their own thing (I mean why not? It was one big party!). And cell phones were still in their infancy so there was no way to get everyone together without doing a lot of running. For 72 hours I must have passed by every cool thing that a fan would want to stop and visit, but I felt like I was on a mission. I spent most of the time in plain clothes, just running and trying to organize things. But instead of finding my troopers, I would find guys in Stormtrooper armor standing at the bottom of escalators and stairwells, handing out leaflets.
“Who are these guys?” I thought to myself.
“Hey man,” a couple of troopers said to me, “you’d look good in some armor, brother!”
He handed me a flyer. “Join the White Armor Army!” it said in bold letters. There was a web address at the bottom.
Are you kidding me? I didn’t even know these guys and they were better organized than I was!!!
Finally the night of the big masquerade event at Dragoncon came. Cathy Bowden took me to one side and asked, “Would your guys like to escort Mr. Daniels onto the stage? He’s the MC for the show. It would only take a minute.”
Would I? Now this seemed like a real plan! Come the night of the show, we all met up in armor backstage. Everyone seemed excited and light-hearted. Along came Anthony, wearing a glittering gold tux jacket. He idled up next to us and started cracking jokes. He turned to our Boussh and reminisced.
“You know, Carrie dreaded wearing that outfit,” he said, waxing nostalgic. “It was terribly hot.”
We all chuckled to one another. Anthony Daniels was talking to US! About stuff that happened when they filmed the movies! Cool!
The stage manager appeared. He looked us over and delivered some bad news. Half of us were told we couldn’t participate due to the size of the stage and the sign was definitely a no-go. Our guy Mike Glover was cut for being in Jodo Kast armor. “Not from the movies,” he was told. Mike looked dejected. Then the guy showed us the steps leading up to the stage. “Uh oh,” I thought to myself. I was only a year or so into being an amputee and my first prosthetic leg didn’t allow me to walk up steps very easily. At least not in armor. So I was out.
The next hour saw a miserable group of us loitering backstage while Anthony Daniels made a grand entrance. Those who did make it onstage did a great job. But nary a word of the 501st was mentioned. For all anyone knew, they were just your normal Star Wars fans in costume.
But that’s enough of the bad news. Suffice to say that the Legion didn’t launch without a hitch. I had a lot to learn about being a leader. Sitting behind a keyboard wouldn’t be enough to mobilize fans into action in the public. Not by a long shot.
The one bright spot of the whole weekend came during the Star Wars masquerade. It was a much smaller affair than the big masquerade, and was held across the street in an out-of-the-way hallway. Anyone who costumed as a Star Wars character was there. And suddenly it clicked.
Three more Stormtroopers walked up. The first guy whipped off his helmet and introduced himself as Jeff Allen. He was there with his brother Kurt and girlfriend Bernie in armor they’d made themselves! They were happy to meet other troopers and made us feel right at home. Our little group quickly coalesced. Then a Vader walked in, and then a bunch of X-wing pilots. Four Fetts got together in a circle and just talked shop. Before I knew it, we had a Star Wars costuming party going on!
Someone signaled that it was time for the costumers to enter the contest for judging. One by one the costumers walked in, delighting the crowd in the room. There went a fantastic Bespin Luke, followed by his wife, an amazing Bespin Leia. The Stormtroopers just milled about, not sure of how to participate. I mean, it was cool to have a dozen Stormtroopers in one place but how boring would it be to march trooper after trooper into the show? You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.
It was when a lovely young lady walked in late to the show dressed as A New Hope Leia that something dawned on me. She stood in the midst of the troopers, smiling and greeting everyone. I walked up and asked “Hey, you wanna join us for the masquerade? Maybe we can escort you into the room like the scene from the Tantive IV?”
“Hey, that would be cool!” she said, beaming
I motioned to the troopers to get in position and explained the scene. No one needed much direction, they knew the scene. They formed up in single-file lines, flanking Leia, and stood at attention with blasters at the ready. The door opened. Leia’s expression went grim as she got into character. The troopers marched in lock step, escorting her down the aisle to the stage.
The response from the crowd was overwhelming. Shouts went up as they recognized it. Right there, with no preparation at all, complete strangers came together to recreate a timeless scene from one of the greatest movies of all time! We were cheered like rock stars!
Much later in the night the mood was higher than it had been all weekend. We trooped on over to a downtown Atlanta bar and had a blast just hanging out in costume. The three new troopers bought a round and handed me a beer. Standing there in our armor, it was kinda cool to think of troopers in a bar sharing a drink. They handed me the beer and said “Here’s to you, trooper.”
That was it. That was the bond I’d been shooting for. And it just happened without trying.
Late on Monday afternoon I stood in the Hyatt lobby by myself, waiting for my ride. DragonCon was over and I was pondering the idea that this club thing was probably a bad idea. But little did I know that a lot had been accomplished that weekend, in spite of how badly I felt it went down. The Leia from our Star Wars masquerade night was none other than Cheralyn Lambeth, who would go on to be a pillar of the 501st Legion and a rock star in fandom (as well as the godmother to my daughters). The three troopers from Athens were Jeff Allen, his brother Kurt, and Jeff’s girlfriend Bernie. Jeff would go on to found Studio Creations and churn out the hit Trooper Clerks. The Vader was Bob Bean, who would go on to be the central Vader for the Legion for the next few years.
Sometimes great things don’t start off like you’d think. Sometimes it’s enough to just have a shared love for Star Wars to bring people together. DragonCon 1998 may not have been perfect, but I’d come through it learning some valuable lessons. I would need them in the years to come. The Legion was about to get a lot bigger, and the stage much, much larger!
Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” He’s also man-servant to R2-KT, “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold.” You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.