Published March 19 2012
Local 501st Legion shares love for 'Star Wars'
While that might sound like the opening line of a really nerdy joke, it was a recent scene at the Fargo Public Library’s downtown branch. There, several area adult “Star Wars” enthusiasts came to participate in a theme party and pose for pictures with kids.
Those six adults aren’t just any “Star Wars” geeks with costumes, though. They’re actually part of the 501st Legion, a worldwide organization that serves to promote the love for, and interest of, the “Star Wars” universe with an emphasis on Darth Vader’s Imperial army of stormtroopers, officers and associates.
The Midwestern chapter of the legion is called the Central Garrison, which, according to its website, “occupies” North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota.
Other garrisons are spread throughout the United States and the rest of the world.
The love of “Star Wars,” after all, knows no bounds.
In Fargo, this group is the only organized gathering of the Central Garrison in northern Minnesota or all of North Dakota. It has three regular members and three prospective members, ranging in age from 21 to 59 years old and working a wide variety of jobs in their real lives.
But whatever they might do outside of the group, all members join the 501st for the same reasons: Because they’ve never really outgrown their love for “Star Wars,” and because they believe the movie is not some esoteric pop culture reference; it’s a work of cinematic art that can change lives.
“What always surprises me is people who get into ‘Star Wars’ at an early age, how that influences them the rest of their life,” says Kirby Schwartzbauer, a local 501st member. “Some get into the music and join the orchestra, some get into movies, or costuming, or space and science … .”
The possibilities, it seems, are many.
Looking the part
Another goal of the 501st is to facilitate the use of costumes, encouraging its members to build their own from scratch, whether that’s the popular Stormtrooper look of white and black armor, or the classic Darth Vader black outfit.
But professional-quality costumes don’t always come cheap.
In Schwartzbauer’s case, he estimated that he spent more than $1,000 on his desert Stormtrooper costume that he’s had for a few years now.
“It’s a lot of money for something you really only put on a couple times a year,” he says laughing.
Between custom orders from costume-makers and a lot of trips to Menards for the small stuff, the outfit becomes a real hodgepodge of materials, Schwartzbauer says.
Once he finally got the white plastic armor, the black suit for underneath and all other various materialstogether for the costume, Schwartzbauer says it took him close to 200 hours to finish it after making adjustments and slight changes to ensure the fit.
Even then, it’s never completely finished.
“You constantly tinker with it as time goes on,” Schwartzbauer says.
But, of course, building the costume is only the first step. Once a group member looks the part, then the real fun begins – whether that’s making appearances at local events, like the recent party at the library, or traveling to national “Star Wars” fan conventions.
It’s that opportunity for community involvement, coupled with the opportunity to share one’s love of “Star Wars” with kids, that appealed most to group regular Stacy Atkinson.
“That’s what got my interest – just getting involved with kids, and continuing that love of ‘Star Wars,’ and being able to help out with the community,” she says.
The reactions that the group gets from the kids vary from person to person and from event to event, Atkinson says.
“They love it,” she says. “Or, they stand at a distance.”
“Or they start crying,” Schwartzbauer says, laughing.
It’s not uncommon that the kids might also want to share their own love of “Star Wars.”
At the library event, for example, a young boy ran back to his parents’ car to get a Stormtrooper action figure so he could show it to Schwartzbauer.
And though the 501st group probably entertains kids the most rookie member Shirley McKinney says a lot of adults like it too. She was joining the group for the first time at the library party.
“They may not admit it, but they like it a lot,” McKinney says.
Participating in the 501st also gives members an opportunity to meet like-minded people who share the same interests. It’s especially fun at huge national “Star Wars” conventions, group member Krista Arendes says.
“Suddenly your phone is ringing, and everybody’s pulling out their phone thinking it’s their phone because it’s the ‘Imperial March’ is playing,” Arendes says laughing.
“You start talking to people you don’t know (at conventions) and you feel like you’ve known them for years,” Schwartzbauer adds.
But despite all that, the bottom line is they’re still a bunch of adults wearing “Star Wars” costumes in public. And, not too surprisingly, members admit that sometimes gets them some funny looks from people.
“It’s worse when you’re by yourself,” Schwartzbauer says.
Although, he adds, for every funny look members of the 501st might get, there are also plenty of looks of approval or thumbs up from passersby.
Because deep down, there’s probably a “Star Wars” fan in many of us.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535