The Force is with them

  • Article by: RANDY SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 29, 2008 - 7:57 AM

Area "Star Wars" fans turn their love of the movies into a community service by dressing as their favorite characters in authentic costumes.

It's not every day that you're riding an elevator and the doors open to admit an ominous "Star Wars" villain. But that's exactly what happened on a recent visit to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Enter Boba Fett, the lethal bounty hunter whom Darth Vader dispatched to track down Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes Back." As the imposing armored figure silently strode into the crowded elevator, trapped families and others quickly parted to the perimeter. One small boy ducked behind his father's legs, peering out in wide-eyed awe.

Later, in a secluded room at the huge museum, the faceless Fett removed the helmet to reveal not a ruthless male warrior, but a bright-eyed St. Francis woman named Stacie Hanson, who was all smiles.

"I just love it!" she said about impersonating one of the coolest, baddest dudes from the popular sci-fi films. "Seeing the kids' reactions is great -- even the parents'."

Hanson is one of a few dozen Twin Cities fans who appear regularly as "Star Wars" characters in authentic costumes that they often put together themselves. You can catch them Saturday and four other dates in August at the museum's special exhibit "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination," but you're just as likely to see them in a community parade, at a store opening or even at a charity event.

And they do it all as volunteers.

They belong to local chapters of the 501st Legion and Rebel Legion, companion costuming clubs that have the blessing of "Star Wars" creator George Lucas as long as they adhere to rules that include:

• The costumes must look authentic.

• The general public can't see any members partly costumed -- not wearing a helmet, for instance.

• Members can't be paid for their costumed appearances. (The nonprofit Science Museum has given them volunteer benefits, such as free admission and Omnitheater passes, said Joe Imholte, project leader for special exhibits.)

It's all about authenticity

Members of the 501st and Rebel Legion look as if they just walked off a "Star Wars" set. They compare constructing their costumes to building a scale model. Even if they don't make the parts -- usually ordered from specialty replica companies or other fans -- they paint, trim and do other things to customize the components to fit their bodies.

Hanson, 28, who works at a finance company, estimates that she has spent "well over $2,000" on her getup for Boba Fett, a character she takes turns playing with two other Twin Cities fans, who have their own costumes. She's continually upgrading, too, with plans to add working lights and a cooling fan for the sweltering helmet, for example. And Fett is just one of four "Star Wars" characters she portrays.

"This is my main hobby," she said.

Then there's Mike Hansen, 39, of Woodbury. He has built a full-sized, working replica of R2-D2, the cute dome-shaped droid and plucky sidekick of the golden C-3PO.

Hansen's R2 unit beeps and whistles. It also rolls around, rotates its dome and lights up -- all controlled remotely by Hansen, whose day job is at an insurance company.

He wouldn't say how much he has spent on the little fella other than "it was a lot." What's more, he added, his R2 might never be done. Planned upgrades include opening doors and a periscope.

"He looks so good that if I'm not where people can see me, they think he's right from the movie and totally running on his own," he said.

Dealing with the skeptics

Now, the reaction from nonfans of "Star Wars" might be, "What is with these people?"

Steve Carter, executive officer of the 501st's Central Garrison, has heard it before. The 56-year-old Woodbury resident, a technology company executive, says skeptics often experience what he calls "scoff and awe."

"Initially, they scoff at the idea of a grown man wearing a costume in public," said Carter, who plays Darth Vader and a stormtrooper. "But then when they see me in it, the scoff is quickly followed by awe. Once I am in costume, I rarely have anyone make fun of me."

Ed Cook, 28, commanding officer of the Rebel Legion's Central Base, doesn't let derisive comments get to him.

"Obviously, we can't take ourselves too seriously," said Cook, a Minneapolis resident who works for a mortgage company. "We're grown adults who go out and play dress-up, basically. But when you do a charity event or have a kid come up to you and see the smile on their face, it's just so totally worth it."

Chad VanVorst, 35, of Maple Grove, knows all about it. Another 501st member who plays Darth Vader, he's swarmed by young fans at events.

"It's cool to interact with the little people at that level," said VanVorst, who works at an insurance brokerage firm. "They look past the darkness -- the armor, the immediate visual ugliness that Darth Vader is. When you see those wagon-wheel eyes and the big mouths just agape, it's fulfilling."

As VanVorst stood in the Science Museum recently in full Vader gear -- all 70 pounds of it -- a tiny girl slowly but bravely approached the Dark Lord of the Sith. She whispered something indiscernible. VanVorst bent down and asked her in Vader's deep, amplified voice to repeat the words.

"High five?" she said a little louder.

He gently patted his gloved hand against her open palm. She hurried back to her waiting family, grinning all the way.

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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  • SEE 'STAR WARS' CHARACTERS

    Here are the remaining dates for "Star Wars" character appearances by the 501st Legion and Rebel Legion at the Science Museum of Minnesota (120 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul; 651-221-9444). They also appear in free areas outside of the paid "Star Wars" exhibit, such as the lobby.

    • 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.

    • 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 9

    • 5-9 p.m. Aug. 14

    • 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 16

    • 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Aug. 23

    For other appearances, see www.centralgarrison.com or www.rebellegion.com.

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