Less than 10 minutes after the marriage proposal, Lynn Sessions began making wedding plans. Not unusual — except the Shakopee-based Web developer’s wish list meant ordering a sheet cake decorated with Imperial crests and recruiting Darth Vader to officiate the ceremony.
“None of my friends or family were surprised,” said Sessions, who met her husband-to-be as a Padawan learner during an online role-playing game. “Ever since my obsession started in high school, they knew this day was coming.”
Next Friday’s release of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” might be rekindling interest in the 38-year-old franchise, but for thousands of die-hard fans the fire never went out. Their allegiance hasn’t wavered, despite the pressures of grown-up responsibilities, competition from flashier comic-book heroes and the soul-sucking disappointment of “The Phantom Menace.”
To those who waited in line on Black Friday for a Sith Lord toaster: Congratulations.
But your dedication pales in comparison with those seated on the Superfan High Council. Unofficial membership includes the former Wall Street Journal reporter who converted a California chicken ranch into a museum that houses more goodies than George Lucas’ attic; the British postal worker who has collected 6,000 “Star Wars”-related autographs, and the Japanese farmers who designed a soccer-field-sized mural dedicated to droids — entirely out of rice plants.
The Force is also strong among certain Minnesotans. Twin Cities visual artist Kevin Doyle paid tribute to his late wife this year by hiking more than 600 miles from San Francisco to San Diego’s annual Comic-Con in a Stormtrooper uniform.
Jennifer Schubert is putting the finishing touches on a 150-pound replica of R2-D2 equipped with everything from a rotating head to a built-in stereo sound system.
Schubert and her husband moved the cars onto the driveway months ago so their garage could be used as a workshop, where every spare moment has been spent painting and sanding their new addition to the family.
Inside, the dining room table is covered with electronics that will allow the couple to operate the real-life droid by remote control.
“It’s definitely taken over the house,” said Schubert, a cardiac nurse in Rochester.
Mike Fessler, who does accounting work in the Twin Cities suburbs, stars in self-produced rap videos that suggest Eminem throwing down on open-mic night at a sketchy Mos Eisley cantina. His storage unit, the size of a starter apartment in Manhattan, is filled with memorabilia ranging from mint-condition toys to a Yoda cereal box.
Fessler’s devotion extends to serving as the local leader for the 501st Legion, an international organization dedicated to showing off the lighter side of the Evil Empire.
The only requirements: proof that you’re 18 and a homemade costume that comes darn close to the ones you see on film, a meticulous task that requires hours of freeze-framing footage and countless favors from those trained in the ancient art of sewing.
It also helps if, under all that plastic armor, there beats a charitable heart.
Because of strict enforcement from “Star Wars” executives, the 8,000 worldwide members of the 501st, and its good-guy counterparts in the Rebel Legion, cannot use their hobby for financial gain, even when they’re recruited for high-profile events such as the Dec. 12 dance party at First Avenue and Tuesday’s theme night at the Timberwolves game.
Fortunately, most of their engagements consist of appearances at children’s hospitals and fundraisers, where the payoff is the priceless expression on the faces of junior Jedis.
“If I had met a real life Stormtrooper or a Darth Vader when I was a kid, I would have gone out of my mind,” said Fessler, who doesn’t have any children of his own but who named his black Labrador Anakin. “Kids run up to us, grab our legs and won’t let go. Happens all the time.”
Not just for nerds
The chance to give back to the community may explain why membership extends far beyond the stereotype of a middle-aged male nerd dying to reunite the ol’ gang for a marathon session of Dungeons & Dragons.
Of the 501’s 43 local members, roughly half are female, including Sara Lilyerd, whose persona of choice is an Imperial Royal Guard.
“I haven’t met a single person through the Legion that hasn’t been really nice,” said Lilyerd, who makes a nearly two-hour drive from Mora, Minn., to attend most events.
At 20, Lilyerd can boast that she’s one of the state’s youngest certified superfans, but she might want to watch her back.
Abdiqalis Mohamud, 17, got hooked two years ago, not knowing that his dad had become obsessed with the films via videotape when he was growing up in Kenya. So far, Mohamud has watched each of the six previous movies 15 times. The fan club he launched at St. Paul’s Central High School has since disbanded, but the teenager might try again when he goes to college next fall.
“It really depends on how good the next three movies are,” he said.
Mohamud isn’t the first one to use the Force for social gains.
“It’s a great icebreaker,” said local Rebel leader Jim Mossey, who met his future wife at a 2008 “Star Wars” exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.
“It’s really no different than the sports fans who paint their faces for a football game or tailgate in the parking lot,” he said. “When you go to a convention, you know right away that you have a common interest.”
A mutual love for “Star Wars” certainly worked for Lynn Sessions and her now husband, Bowie. They tied the knot this past May in a ceremony held at Roseville’s Fantasy Flight Games Center, where a Twi’lek tended bar.
Almost all of the 120 guests wore some kind of costume, although it did take some convincing when it came to the groom’s parents, even though they named their son after a rocker who created Ziggy Stardust.
“When I told my mother about the theme, she thought it was going to be dumb and started to cry, but she was game once I put my foot down,” Bowie Sessions said. “In the end, she did wear some Death Star earrings.
“It was really, really beautiful.”