Redeeming the Dark Side

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Aaron Geiger

Never underestimate the power of the Dark Side.

What can be more striking than meeting, in person, the tall, glossy black figure of Darth Vader waving around a lightsaber, flanked by a couple of Stormtroopers with blasters?

You don’t have to be a fan of Star Wars to appreciate the globally recognized bad guys from the movie series.

Here’s something you probably don’t know: those who comprise the “evil” side of Star Wars fandom not only have the coolest costumes, but they do a lot of public relations (yes, it’s true), they work with kids, and they do a lot of charity work. They’re members of the 501st Legion – a costumed organization that spreads the magic of Star Wars and has become the leading force in fan-based charity events.

“Stormtroopers are just about the most iconic thing you can identify with. They’re one of the most recognizable (costumes) on Earth,” said Ryan Summers, of Champaign, who recently donned his suit for the Relay For Life (for the group “The Imperial Walkers”) and Taste of Champaign.

“We happen to scare more adults than kids. Kids aren’t afraid of Vader. They’ll run right up and hug me,” said Chip Childress, of Fithian, Ill., who has appeared as a Stormtrooper, Darth Maul, and lately, Darth Vader.

The popularity of Star Wars crosses multiple generations. On Green Street, a young woman squealed with glee, “I just love Star Wars!” She produced a camera and grabbed onto Childress, also known as Darth Vader, and Stormtrooper Tom Durbin, of Oakwood, Ill., and thrust her camera at some bystanders.

But stereotypes abound. Television shows like “Family Guy” have portrayed Star Wars enthusiasts as overweight geeks who memorize intricate details of the Star Wars universe, and who are unable to find a date.

“There was a time when a television crew wanted to get a bunch of us together . we got into our costumes, and got ready. A person with a microphone came up to us and said, ‘Who here is married, raise your hands.’ None of us raised our hands, because we were angry. That kind of stuff is just mean,” said Childress, who does have a family, by the way.

Childress, Summers and Durbin do a lot of public relations and charity work around the Midwest, and for no profit whatsoever. They spend a lot of time debunking the myths and stereotypes that have been formulated around their appreciation for what the world of Star Wars can do for the public good.

“We don’t take any money, but if people want to donate to a charity in our name, we’re happy to do that,” said Childress.

The 501st Legion features the “dark” side of the Star Wars saga and has an estimated membership of 4,000 fully garbed fans. The 501st has the organization of a blend of corporation-meets-military, splitting itself into garrisons, squads, outposts and detachments. The local men are from the Midwest Garrison, which encapsulates members from Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“There are about 200 members in Illinois, and most of them are in Chicago,” said Summers.

All members are volunteers, and each volunteer spends months upon months handcrafting his or her costume. Childress has ordered some of the specific details to his Vader costume via eBay through a contact in Argentina. Original designs are considered the intellectual property of Lucasfilm, so an underworld of costume artisans has sprung up to help each other construct complete uniforms.

While recognized by the inclusion of the 501st name in official Star Wars material, such as books and video games, the organization isn’t affiliated with Lucasfilm; in short, they are exclusively fan-driven since their founding in 1997. The 501st welcomes new members. The requirements are for candidates to have a passion for helping others, to be at least 18 years old, and – this is the kicker – prospective members must own a professional-quality costume based on a “bad guy” from the Star Wars franchise.

While attitude and charity are fundamentals of the group, the costumes are what drive their organization. And the costumes can take time, money, patience and ingenuity to construct.

The most common uniform is the Stormtrooper suit. Outfits come in kits, which run about $500.

“We have to trim them down to make them fit our bodies, and that’s a bit of work,” said Summers. Some of the costumes can get pretty pricey when completed. Summers estimates that some Darth Vader and Boba Fett costumes can run about $5,000.

Unlike the movies, where Stormtroopers are clones, and are of equal height and weight, the same rule doesn’t apply to reality, where some of the costumed Stormtroopers are short, leading to teasing with the age-old Star Wars one-liner, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

“Yeah, we got some guys like that,” said Durbin.

“They get sick of hearing that line,” said Childress.

The “job” leads to some interesting situations and experiences for the 501st members. Summers, in addition to his costume, wore bunny ears and a pink cottontail for last spring’s Easter Extravaganza. “Next year I’m going to try to get Vader to carry an Easter basket,” he said.

The Midwest Garrison, overall, has done charity work for the American Cancer Society, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, the Chicago Food Depository Hunger Walk, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and many others.

In addition, members have appeared on stage with ‘No Doubt’ and ‘Weird Al Yankovic’ in his latest appearance at the Assembly Hall. They even formed a cadre of marching troops behind George Lucas in the 2007 Rose Bowl’s Parade of Roses.

This weekend, Summers, Durbin and Childress plan on attending Camp Healing Heart from Carle Hospital. The camp is for children who have lost a sibling and takes place in Monticello.

Say what you will about the costumed fans, they are a great asset to the community, and have brought a lot of laughs and smiles to children and adults worldwide. And when they say worldwide, they mean it literally.

“We have a trooper on every continent. Even Antarctica. There’s a guy stationed there in the Army; he brought his trooper suit out and they got [a picture] of him out on the tundra,” said Childress.

Imperial requirements to become a 501st Legion member

Must have a passion for Star Wars

Must be 18 years old

Must have a passion for helping others through charity

Must possess a professional-quality costume of one of the “bad guys” in the Star Wars franchise