The Force Will Be Here, and so Will 30,000 of its followers
Local Star Wars fans prepare for this month’s cosmic gathering at the convention center.
For most of us, Star Wars is a series of films. It’s six sci-fi flicks, some better than others, that collectively trace an epic interplanetary saga while showcasing a handful of classic characters, some unforgettable images (including a heroic mercenary cruelly frozen in “carbonite”) and, perhaps, a small message or two.
But for a certain select group, Star Wars is a lot more than that. For those truest of true believers, it’s somewhere between a hobby and a way of life, with the emphasis on the latter.
On Aug. 12, some 30,000 of these fervent Star Warriors from all corners of the galaxy will descend upon Orlando for a four-day gathering known as Celebration V. About a third of the attendees are expected to be from Central Florida.
An official Star Wars convention co-produced by series-creator George Lucas’ Lucasfilm Ltd., Celebration V is only the fifth of its kind ever held in the United States, after editions in Denver (1999), Indianapolis (2002 and 2005) and Los Angeles (2007), and similar events in London (2007) and Japan (2008).
Most of the cosmic conclave will take place at the Orange County Convention Center. Costume contests, panel discussions, children’s activities, merchandise booths, a fashion show, laser tag, an art show and video games—all Star Wars themed, of course—are on the agenda. And at the Star Wars Celebration Chapel, the event’s website reveals, couples will be able to “choose between a ‘light side’ and a ‘dark side’ ceremony.”
A Death Star-load of series celebs will be on hand, including Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Jake Lloyd (young Anakin Skywalker), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and many others. Even Saint George himself is planning a visitation: In a program called The Main Event, Lucas will be interviewed live onstage by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.
‘This Big Subculture’
Last Tour to Endor
In the beginning, these Star Wars Celebrations were a way for Lucasfilm to preview its upcoming movies for the true believers. The first Celebration, for example, highlighted Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which debuted in 1999.
With no new Star Wars films in the foreseeable future, this year’s Celebration will focus on The Empire Strikes Back, the original trilogy’s second installment, which turns 30 this year and will be screened in a digital version at the event. While it’s hardly the biggest box-office draw of the series, Empire has, over time, become a particular favorite of many fans.
“It was very romantic, the storyline with Han Solo and Princess Leia,” muses series-fan Audrey Russell of South Orange County, who claims Empire as her personal pick. (See Russell and other fans in their own Star Wars costumes, beginning on page 55.) “There’s just more character development in it.”
Especially well developed in Empire is Darth Vader, who assumes his full epic stature in that film. Empire is also the installment in which Han Solo gets stuck in that carbonite, Luke Skywalker at last discovers the secret of his mysterious lineage and Carrie Fisher at last discovers the secret of how to act.
The film tends to be a critical favorite, too, although that wasn’t universally the case at first.
“There were a bunch of negative reviews,” says Steve Sansweet, head of fan relations for Lucasfilms, who recalls that some critics “didn’t get Yoda,” dismissing the character as a “ridiculous” Muppet.
“I don’t know what movie they were seeing,” he adds, as graciously as possible.
As much as Celebration V will be about The Empire Strikes Back and other aspects of the Star Wars universe, it will also very much be about the fans who attend, and their relationships with each other.
“Everyone across the world is going to converge on Orlando,” says Randy Herman, a fan from Clermont who compares the occasion to a high-school reunion.
“It’s really fascinating,” Russell agrees. “It’s like this whole other world, this big subculture.
“And then there are subcultures inside the subcultures.”
DRESSED TO THRILL
Why do some people dress as Star Wars characters? Basically, the reason is similar to why sports fans like to wear their favorite team’s jersey—it’s a way to express their allegiance and excitement.
Pictured here and on the follow-ing two pages are members of the 501st Legion, which bills itself as “the world’s definitive imperial costuming organization.” This month, they’ll be participating in Star Wars activities at Celebration V in Orlando.
As Darth Vader, He Gets Attention
Doug Dixon is a mild-mannered stage technician at Walt Disney World who, on appropriate occasions, dons the inky cloak, helmet, boots, belt, shin guards, chest armor and bodysuit of Darth Vader. It’s something he’s done since 2002—and the sight of him in full Vader drag has always attracted attention.
“Whenever Darth Vader walks into a room, people take a step back,” he says, adding that the entire outfit, lightsaber included, weighs some 40 pounds. Dixon as Vader is especially impressive because the 41-year-old Orlando-area resident stands a towering 6-foot-8.
In addition to Darth Vader (specifically, as he appears in The Empire Strikes Back), Dixon also has another Star Wars alter ego. He often dresses as an imperial officer—a persona that includes a tunic, pants and boots. It’s his outfit of choice whenever he appears at Star Wars events with a life-size R2-D2 that he built.
As an imperial officer, Dixon carries a blaster gun, which is really a remote-control device to operate R2-D2. Children, and even some adults, get caught up in the illusion and don’t notice that he’s the one who causes the droid to bleep, whistle, turn its head and flash its lights. “R2 is very much a character,” Dixon insists. “It’s not a trashcan on wheels. Most people refer to R2 as ‘him.’ It’s not an ‘it.’ ”
Whatever Suits Her, From Princess to Pilot
Audrey Russell, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in South Orange County, has four main Star Wars personae, including Princess Leia (the Hoth planet version, left), a Jedi knight, an X-Wing pilot, and an imperial officer. (She also has a “completely unofficial” Sith cheerleader getup.) A gifted seamstress, Russell makes her costumes—or at least most parts of them—herself.
Russell estimates that her most detailed outfit, Hoth Leia, “took well over 100 hours to construct,” not including researching its details and developing its pattern. When she’s in that costume—which includes a white jumpsuit, jacket and gloves, and grey-and-white boots—she seems transformed and, like the princess herself, faintly regal.
“What’s hard about this one,” she points out, “is the hair,” which she arranges in Leia’s signature Cinnabon style. Russell says her husband, while supportive of her interest, is not nearly the Star Wars enthusiast she is. “He’s a Trek fan,” she bravely acknowledges.
In This Family of Four, a Cast of Characters
Randy and Amy Herman—a quality engineer at Lockheed Martin and a supervisor at Target, both 38—share a fascination with Star Wars.
Randy, who is squad leader for the Central Florida contingent of the 501st, has costumes representing a storm trooper, a clone commander (left) and Darth Vader—the Vader from Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, if you please.
“The details are very subtle, but to the person who knows, they stick out like a sore thumb,” he stresses.
Amy alternates between snowtrooper and Jedi master (right) outfits, while the Clermont couple’s 9-year-old son, Tyler, is sometimes seen in a Jedi padawan suit (front), and their 2-year-old daughter, Sydney, has a Yoda outfit (inset).
Randy, who has been fascinated by Star Wars since childhood, was thrilled when his son exhibited a similar interest, especially since he often participates in 501st charity efforts. Eventually, Amy came along, too.
“I spent two years watching my son and my husband have a blast,” she recalls. “Then one day, it was like: Man! I want to be part of that!”
Welcome to ‘Her Universe’
Back in 1977, when the first Star Wars movie opened, some people had a complaint: With the male characters all zooming around saying “May the Force be with you” to each other, no one bothered to say that to Princess Leia.
“It didn’t occur to anybody that she could get the Force,” wrote film critic Pauline Kael at the time.
That, of course, was long, long ago in what seems like a galaxy far, far away. Things are different now.
In fact, there’s a new fashion line of T-shirts, jewelry and accessories, all targeted at the female Star Warrior. And leading the charge is Ashley Eckstein, who grew up in Orlando and serves as both designer and point person for the project.
“Most people don’t realize that close to 50 percent of all Star Wars fans are women,” she points out. “Before our line, Her Universe, there was really little Star Wars merchandise for the female fans to buy.”
The former Ashley Drane is married to David Eckstein, a Sanford boy who now plays second base for the San Diego Padres. She began acting in local theater and has since appeared as Jan Brady in The Brady Bunch Goes to the White House, on Blue Collar TV and on such children’s shows as The Disney Channel’s That’s So Raven.
Currently, Eckstein provides the voice of Ahsoka Tano on the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network. At Star Wars Celebration V in Orlando, she’ll be representing both Clone Wars and Her Universe (heruniverse.com).
“To me Star Wars means hope,” she says. “It gives you a sense of hope that eventually Good will overcome Evil.”