History of the 501st Legion: In Search of the Stars of Star Wars

To understand the history of the 501st Legion, and organized Star Wars costuming as a whole, sometimes we need to skip around the timeline. Starting in 1998 after the first big meeting of stormtroopers at Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA, things leaped forward at different speeds on different fronts and in different parts of the globe. A crucial part involved the celebrities of Star Wars themselves: cast and crew from the movies as well as authors and artists who kept Star Wars strong in the years between trilogies. Their participation in fandom would make for a beautiful relationship over the next two decades.

Three formative moments came early. First, the mighty Wookiee appeared in my home town for a small convention and my fellow Legion founder Tom Crews and I made our meager attempt to welcome him. It wasn’t the biggest success, as I recounted in a previous blog post. But it was a trial run at what we hoped to accomplish.

The second formative moment came at Dragon Con ’98, where Anthony Daniels was the marquee guest of the weekend. He was also scheduled to emcee a runway show of epic costumes from all genres called the Masquerade. In the hours leading up to the big event I was able to talk the organizers into letting our Star Wars group appear as “walking scenery” for the show. It was a proud moment, heralding the golden one in front of thousands of fans. Backstage, Anthony was charming and generous with his time and made sure our group felt like a real partner in show-biz as we waited for our cues. Unfortunately, my artificial leg kept me from actually joining them onstage, but I took it as a small victory that the fledgling 501st Squad could do something useful.

 

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Dragon Con 1998 Masquerade: the golden figure is more a Tony than an Oscar.

Three times the charm, as they say. In 1999 I was writing out more of the Legion’s backstory as Vader’s personal guard. I wrote Dave Prowse’s agent a nice letter. It explained who the 501st Squad was and how we had built our entire back-story on the idea we were Vader’s men. I wasted no time getting to the point. “’Vader’s Fist’ would be honored if Mr. Prowse would consider being the Honorary Leader of the 501st,” I wrote. Looking back that was pretty presumptuous of me. I’m sure the man who played Darth Vader gets tons of fan mail. But to my surprise his agent wrote back and said Dave would be thrilled to be named our leader, and would expect great things from our troops. Insert sinister music here.

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My mistake was failing Dave Prowse for the last time.

It seemed too good to hope for, but the signals I was picking up told me there was a real opportunity here. Maybe there was more than just fan worship at stake. Maybe the celebrities would appreciate support from fans in a fashion that could not only bring us closer to the people we admired but offer them something that would help them in turn. If we could get organized fans to show support in meaningful ways, wouldn’t that be a benefit to everyone in the Star Wars community? I mean, if I was set on organizing Imperials in a way no other fan club was organized, couldn’t we bring that to bear on something substantial. Could we, against all odds, build partnerships with these legends?

It wasn’t until 2002 that I worked up the nerve to launch a program that would either flop or fly. It was a simple concept and not a new one, but it could build some bridges. I put it to the now 100+ members of the Legion (we had just dropped the Squad title, I was confident we’d grow into the new one). We would welcome the celebrities of the Star Wars world as Honorary Members of the Legion, and every unit would stand to support them if they appeared in their territory. Whether it was to stand near their signing tables in costume to taking them out to dinner, to picking them up at the airport, we would do so professionally and without any expectations in return.

There were grumblings. It was a tall order and who were we? With any new idea, there are a thousand potential problems. How would we go about nominating people and approving them? What could we offer as a token of membership? How would the awards be presented? Who would be paying for all of this? I had to move fast on this one to get some traction. The newly minted brand of “501” was now several localized bands of members flung all over the place. Any one of them could easily go rogue and stick to doing things as a local group.

Fortunately for me, the answer showed up in my back yard. Stellarcon in High Point, NC, was set to host a triumvirate of Star Wars royalty: authors Aaron Allston, Michael Stackpole, and Timothy Zahn! I had to move fast, as this could be a great opportunity to launch this new idea and I couldn’t think of three people closer to Star Wars fans who deserved our support.

I spent a week in my local town looking for something worthy of a plaque to present. The Force was with me one day as I visited a ramshackle building in downtown Columbia where a small trophy shop was located. It wasn’t a new, upscale place. It was musty and dark and filled with antiques from long ago. The old man was patient as I described my idea. He motioned me to the back and showed me a shelf full of gorgeous wooden plaques. “Now this is something you can’t get anymore,” he shared, “and it carries a little more weight to a presentation.” At the top of each plaque was an oval recess backed with black felt. I pulled out the 501st patch and placed it inside the oval. It was a perfect fit. I pulled out my only credit card that hadn’t been maxed out already. “I’ll take your whole inventory.”

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501st Honorary Member plaques: going for simple but elegant.

Stellarcon came and nerves were high. Arriving at the hotel I was met by a charming young buck named Sean Dudley, who was the commander of the newly-minted Carolina Garrison. Sean had made waves breaking the Carolinas off from the Southern Garrison, the original territory I had carved out of the southeast U.S. It had been my plan all along that these large areas would eventually sub-divide as more and more members came in. The whole point was to see franchises form to suit the local communities. It was cool to see my home region coming into its own. But right off the bat, Sean made it clear this was his show. I could respect that. I might have been the guy who started this crazy train rolling, but local CO’s were supposed to be the backbone of the whole scheme.

Thankfully, Sean and his crew were tight, organized, and very motivated. They were ready to see this presentation go right, and it didn’t hurt that they knew they’d be the first unit to induct celebrities into the club. After all, the Legion started in the Carolinas and our motto was “First through the door.” Fair enough. I reminded myself that nothing makes a Garrison grow like giving them something to be proud about in their own community.

The next day was the day of the presentation and it got more interesting. Two Stormtroopers showed up from the Empire City Garrison, which covered New York and New Jersey. Hot on the tail of the first challenge to my authority, Dion Rupa and Richard Kopacz strode into the lobby and declared “We’re here to claim this territory for the ECG.”

I had to laugh. What was it about the human condition that people always test boundaries? And while order was important in any organization, were titles anything I really cared about? I smiled and said “Awesome! You can have it. Now let’s get to work.”

Lucky for me, that was just the answer that cleared the air. Dion and Rich laughed, wondering what mister big-pants would say to such a challenge. Everyone in the club knew my name, but no one knew what kind of person I was. This over-the-internet thing was fine for spreading an idea, but it took getting to know people to figure out the tone of it all. I was determined to keep it casual. After all, shouldn’t this all be fun?

Once the big moment arrived, I could scarcely believe the kindness of our recipients. Seven stormtroopers, three biker scouts, and a Mara Jade formed up to present the plaques. Aaron, Michael, and Timothy were the most amazing and down-to-earth people you could ask for. They seemed genuinely grateful to accept the recognition we offered them. They cradled their plaques lovingly and asked questions about our group, lavishing praise on our costumes.

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StellarCon 2002 : The first three Honorary Members of the Legion.

I breathed a sigh of relief. The presentation seemed a big success. And little did I know how big. Not only could I go back to the Legion and report we had three giants of the Star Wars community as our friends and partners, but why couldn’t we do the same with other figures in the fan community? I was pretty happy. But I didn’t realize just how important the meeting would be.

It was only much later that night, after hours of costuming and room parties, that one of the greatest moments in Legion history happened and without warning. There we were, troopers hanging out at the Legion table long after con hours and thinking it out-of-the-way enough for revelry, when along comes Timothy Zahn on a late-night stroll. Suffice to say we weren’t in the best shape for promoting a club to a world renowned author. But every trooper there snapped to attention, myself included, and put on our best faces.

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Star Wars Insider # 58 gave the 501st a seven-page spread.

Timothy strode over to our fan table and looked over all the props and photos. He even noticed the recent issue of Star Wars Insider where the 501st was featured in a seven-page spread. “Tell me more about this 501st Legion,” he said, sounding genuinely curious. The troopers looked at me. I was on the spot, it seemed. So I commenced to speak from the heart, probably more than I would normally, and went into detail about the concept of the club, the potential for bringing fans together, and most of all the cool back-story of Vader’s Fist. Thinking back, it was pretty lame of me to think any story I came up with would impress a Star Wars author. But that didn’t matter.

Fast forward a year or so later. The Honorary Membership program was kicking off and expanding, and there are stories enough about how that went. But the important thing that happened, the thing that I’m told was a direct result of that weekend in High Point, NC and our gesture of good will to three amazing authors, was Timothy walking up to me at another con and telling me the news. He wanted to write the 501st Legion in as characters in his upcoming new Star Wars book. Say what?

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Survivor’s Quest: The 501st makes nice with the Skywalkers.

On February 3, 2004, “Survivor’s Quest” was released, which featured none other than stormtroopers from the 501st Legion, “Vader’s Fist.” Later that day the eBook novella “Fool’s Bargain” came out with more references to the 501st. Out of nowhere, our fledgling club was given the highest honor possible, being mentioned in a recognized Star Wars literary work. Tim credited the reference to the impressive work the club has done in charities and in representing the Star Wars universe.

Looking back, I can’t help but think the title “Fool’s Bargain” aptly describes how everything went down. Lucky fool would be me, to push so hard for such an ambitious plan and actually see it work. And what a bargain, to have such fine authors believe in us and allow us to show them our support, only to reward us even more. Maybe it takes an author to hear a good idea in its crudest form and see its potential.

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