Greetings, nerf-herders. I thought I’d start with a little intro to the 501st Legion club I started back in 1997. You may ask, ‘what is the 501st’? The formal answer is a worldwide costuming club that dresses in the costumes of the Galactic Empire and associated ‘bad guy’ characters. We’re part of a large fan community that includes the Rebel Legion (name says it all), the Jedi Assembly (again, the name tells you what they dress up as), the R2 Builders, Galactic Academy (costuming kids), Mando Mercs, and many others. But as someone who’s watched the Legion grow from two guys to a zillion worldwide, let me tell you the Legion isn’t so much a club as it is an experience.
Here we are in 2012 and the Legion is fifteen years old! Try to imagine being a fan of Star Wars since seeing it as a child in 1977, then growing up to form something that has grown to be a worldwide organization that Lucasfilm has on speed dial! I have to pinch myself when I’m having a drink with one of my childhood heroes from the movies, it’s just unreal. And that happens every week for Legion members all over the place. The Legion is a short shuttle trip to Coruscant, some days!
Anyways, it all boils down to this: plastic space people. That’s what I tell non-fans who laugh at the idea of grown-ups dressing up like Halloween year-round. But the laugh is on them: I find nothing is healthier than people who’ve decided to channel whatever inspires them, regardless of what society thinks. The idea of dressing up as a space nerd strikes a lot of people as pathetic or obsessive. Laughing at geeks is one of the last socially-acceptable forms of discrimination, I’ve found. But as I tell people, everyone has their one ‘thing’ that no one else gets. NASCAR fans watch cars go in a circle, sports fans can be shirtless painted their team colors with rainbow wigs, moms can dress up their toddlers like Barbie dolls. And people think we’re weird? Wow.
The 501st Legion, nicknamed “Vader’s Fist”, is a fan club with over 5,800 awesome fans in 47 countries who dress out as Darth Vader, Stormtroopers, Boba Fett, bounty hunters, TIE pilots, Biker Scouts, Snowtroopers, Sith Lords, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, Imperial Officers, and a whole laundry list of other ‘bad guys’ from the Star Wars movies, books, video games, and other media. The whole shooting match is divided into large regional chapters called Garrisons (I’ll talk about how I came up with all this terminology in a future post). For areas with very few people, the chapter starts out as an Outpost and hopefully grows to a Garrison. Cities might form their own Squads within the Garrisons, just for fun. And just for giggles we created Detachments to organize everyone with the same type costume (regardless of their location) into a ‘theme group’. So TIE pilots can hang out with their fellow pilots in the Jolly Roger Squadron, for example.
So enough of the org chart discussion. What do we do? Well aside from putting together screen-accurate costumes that make fans freak out when we show up at conventions, we also build props, help with charity fund-raisers, do promotional appearances for Lucasfilm and its partners, visit sick kids in the hospital, and just have fun doing stuff in costume. I mean what Star Wars fan wouldn’t enjoy plunking on a helmet and marching in a parade with two hundred stormtroopers around them? It’s an awe-inspiring experience, let me tell you.
Now for a minute put aside the idea of people thinking you’re weird: when that helmet is on then you are a Stormtrooper. I remember putting on a Boba Fett helmet in a shop at Disney World years ago and seeing this little kid just light up looking at me. Me, a dude dressed like a tourist! Even my brother, who has nothing to do with Star Wars, agreed to serve as my test dummy for the Fett costume I was building back in 2002. I have a picture of him checking himself out in the mirror and he was stoked! Instant transformation. The general public has no clue how it can change how you see yourself, how fun it can be to briefly embrace those heroes you have locked up in your head and have forgotten about.
I meet Star Wars fans all the time who admit they just can’t see going to the next level and doing what we do. But in truth, ANYONE can do it. We have people from all walks of life, from doctors to lawyers to museum curators to celebrities! Women are a big part of our club, too. I met my wife when she was wearing Stormtrooper armor! And as a handicapped person myself, I can tell you that no physical limitations are an obstacle.
So there you have it: plastic space people. The 501st Legion is just folks like you who love Star Wars. The only difference is we get annoyed when a Sandtrooper figure doesn’t feature a sniper plate on his knee. Because, well, that’s just weird! And to those of you who love Star Wars but never thought costuming was something you could do, let me offer this: I dare you to get in touch with your local Garrison (just click on the world map at the website 501st.com and find your home) and ask for a trial run. It could change your life!
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.