Many people wrote me to say they enjoyed the history of the 501st installment I did last month. So I thought I’d pick up on it from time to time and get more of the story out. Few people know just how widely the Legion has woven its saga. It messes with my head sometimes how far a good idea can go if nurtured at _just_ the right time.
So back to 1997: Tom and I were coming off of our high of appearing as Stormtroopers during the re-releases of the original trilogy, when we realized just how much fun it was and didn’t want it to stop. I mean you don’t just buy armor and then let it collect dust. Not when Star Wars mania was back in full swing.
Finding armor had been a complete fluke. No sooner had we hatched the idea than Tom stumbled across an obscure usenet posting that promised an authentic screen-quality costume. To appreciate just how needle-and-haystack it was finding that post, you have to remember that in 1997 the internet was still just finding its legs and the concept of search engines lived purely on the chalk boards of computer geniuses. Buried away amidst a thousand, thousand posts was one that answered our problems. So this had all the earmarks of destiny, at least in our minds.
That week I couldn’t sleep, my mind constantly going back to the possibility of being an actual Stormtrooper. So I called the number. It was in California. Dogstar Collectibles, they called themselves. The guy on the other end boasted it looked like it came right out of the movies and was even molded by a dude who created props on the movie Army of Darkness. I was sold.
Weeks later I wasn’t as enthusiastic. As cool as it was in the movie theater, the armor swallowed my 5’8” frame entirely. Only when the helmet was on did the costume look like a Stormtrooper. Nothing fit right and it pinched and scraped me and Tom mercilessly. At one screening of Return of the Jedi I resorted to taping a plastic shoe-horn to the back of my foot to keep it from scraping me bloody. Nowadays people cut and size their armor to fit them perfectly, but at the time we were petrified to do anything to damage what we considered rare and expensive works of art.
Still, none of that kept us from trying. Tom and I just had to go ‘trooping’ even if it killed us. I mean, we were proper soldiers of the Empire. We had to go and strut our stuff.
Which brings us to an important consideration. What exactly can you do in Stormtrooper armor in a small city like Columbia, South Carolina? Almost nothing, it turns out. Star Wars events are hardly daily occurrences today, imagine trying to find something to do in a one-horse town in the Bible Belt.
My first break came just weeks before Tom’s armor showed up. Some guys from the local comic shop had seen me at the movie theater and asked me to come out for a big Star Wars promotion they were running. They said they’d have a Vader there and everything.
Wait. Stop. Did you say Darth Vader? I’d only just found Stormtrooper armor and now there was a Vader in nowhere, South Carolina? The answer was yes, but only temporarily. Turns out they’d rented one of only three sets of Vader armor that Lucasfilm made available for promotions. I know what you’re thinking: Lucasfilm rented out Vader suits? Funny enough, it was true and no one else knew it either, otherwise why would it be at a comic shop in South Carolina during the re-releases?
I get to the comic shop and everyone’s fawning over the big steamer trunk with “Lucasfilm” stenciled on the side. We opened the trunk like it was the Ark of the Covenant. Inside was the shiniest black armor you could imagine. The guy who volunteered to wear it chuckled at the instruction manual. Written in a very serious tone were the guidelines for playing Vader. The booklet pointed out that Vader must always stage any exit from a room with a flourish of the cape and “storm out” dramatically. We laughed at the idea of Vader storming out every time he needed a potty break. Maybe that was why he was always storming out of rooms in the movies.
So half an hour later I was standing post with Lord Vader himself. I quickly learned how to position myself at his shoulder and nod convincingly whenever he motioned at me. Which was a lot, we didn’t have much of an act except him shaking his fist a lot. (You know, It’s a lot of pressure being the only soldier for Vader to yell at – he usually has a lot of guys to yell at).
Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a local high school kid crashed the party in his home-made Boba Fett costume. Homemade, sure, but at the time pretty darn cool! There we were, three of the most iconic bad guy characters from the Star Wars saga. It was everything I’d envisioned for a Star Wars costuming experience. Three random strangers all pulled together for their love of the movies, all of us tripping out that there were others out there just as crazy as we were to wear this stuff. It was a great day.
And then it was over. The Vader suit went back to Lucasfilm. The high school kid dropped off the radar. Tom got his armor and we hit the movie theaters together. That’s when the wheels started turning about the possibilities of a group costuming effort. Two guys making a splash, three different costumes brought together, the possibilities were boundless. But the trilogy was done at the theaters. We were back in South Carolina where nothing happened that remotely justified showing up in a cool costume.
So we got creative. Another local comic shop heard about us and asked us to appear for their Star Wars collectible card game tournament. Seemed like a great idea. But five seconds after we showed up the excitement of Stormtroopers in the house faded fast and the players were back to staring at their cards. Tom and I ended up hanging out at the street curb waving at passing traffic. Over the course of an hour a dozen cars stopped so their kids could meet us. It turned out loitering outside a Star Wars event was more fun than the event itself. Subconsciously I wrote down my third-ever trooping rule : Armor gets boring fast, find a way to make it interactive to keep it interesting.
Our next big gig was my kids’ daycare center and their graduation ceremony for rising kindergartners. Talk about big time. Kids galore, we were sure to be a big hit. No one told us that we’d be standing at attention for a full hour while the kids sat in their seats. Rule #4: Make sure your client has a clear idea of how to best use you in armor. Otherwise you spend an hour fogging up your eye lenses with your legs cramping while listening to seventeen consecutive children’s songs.
Things were looking desperate. Tom and I agreed the suck-factor of our appearances was heavily outweighing the cool factor, but we were determined. The next stop was the State Fair. Somehow we let ourselves believe that standing in the science and technology area of the exhibit hall at a state fair was a good fit for space men. Admittedly, it was a stretch. But we were promised a good crowd so we signed up to volunteer. Within minutes of suiting up a lady handed us boxes of pencils to hand out and informed us that it was kindergarten field trip day for all the schools in five districts. Wait, what?
Does anyone remember the Battle of Endor? Remember how that went down? Do you remember scoffing at the idea of waves of tiny teddy bears taking down Stormtroopers? I’m here to tell you George Lucas had it right.
All I remember was seeing a horde of tiny kids tearing in through the big double doors of the hall and making a bee-line for Tom and me. Scarier than the opening scene on the Tantive IV, I can tell you. Because here’s a pointer to anyone who hasn’t worn a TK bucket: You can’t see squat below the bottom edge of those little eye-holes. Once an object shorter than three feet closes within ten feet of you, you can’t see it. Those squirts dropped off our radar and all we could do was brace for the inevitable impact.
My memories get fuzzy at that point. A thousand hands pounded on plastic. Squeals of laughter rang in my ears. Pencils flew everywhere. Looking over at Tom I could get some perspective on what we were dealing with, but the sight panicked me so much I just looked ahead. One problem that became evident was safety for the kids. We were in effect jabbing unsharpened pencils at waist-height. It became imperative to offer the pencils in a downward flourish to keep from putting an eye out. After fifteen minutes of madness a voice told us ‘okay, that was the first wave’. Two hours and thirty waves later the Empire didn’t seem so invincible.
More events came but it was slow going. Tom and I started wondering if we’d made a huge mistake. Months later Suncoast Video invited us out to promote the video release of the trilogy at the mall. At least there were cardboard cut-outs of the characters to pose next to. And the kids only attacked us one at a time. Still, it seemed like we were two guys stuck on an island with no one to support us.
So I took my fandom to the keyboard. At least on the emerging internet Stormtroopers could look cool. I set up a website on Geocities and called it Detention Block 2551. It featured the humorous journal entries of two hapless Stormtroopers on guard duty on the Death Star. “Had to shave a Wookiee prisoner this morning,” one entry read, “putting in for transfer to the Twi’Lek block.” Below these a gallery showed pictures of us from our trooping excursions. Captions read ‘TK210 and TK512 patrolling the Terran sector’ and ‘Troopers performing crowd control’.
So I worked on the website and put the armor up for a bit. Perhaps the internet was where costuming belonged, I thought. What hope was there for Star Wars in the middle of nowhere? Even if costuming did take off, it would happen in California or some other big city. I was on the verge of giving up when I heard something on the radio that grabbed my attention. It turned out Peter Mayhew was coming to Columbia for a convention and stopping by a local comic shop to sign autographs.
An envoy from the Star Wars universe was about to change everything.
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.