If you've been to any official Star Wars event, you may have seen the extremely well organised and extremely authentic looking 501st Legion out in full 'force' (I just had to say it). Wonder where all those stormtroopers and TIE Fighter pilots come from? Well, the 501st probably sent them.
What started out as a social gathering for Star Wars costuming enthusiasts has now grown into an international movement, with chapters as far as the Phillipines and New Zealand.
In terms of the Star Wars fandom, it's hard to find a group of people quite so dedicated. But it's not just ridiculously accurate armour replicas, the 501st are an active charity who raise money for a number of good causes and as far as I can tell, even work directly with Lucasfilm from time to time.
I had the chance to speak with Albin Johnson, AKA 'TK210', who founded the entire movement. I wanted to know what these guys were all about and how exactly this thing was run behind the scenes. And he was kind enough to share!
What does the 501st do, in a nutshell? What kind of events does the 501st put on?
The 501st started primarily as a social club, one to connect Star Wars costuming enthusiasts of an Imperial ilk. It quickly grew to be more geared towards charity, as the structure of the club was geared towards local units supporting their local communities. Basically you have a bunch of people very proud of their costumes and looking more and more for excuses to wear them. So the 501st finds itself in a number of places and events, most visibly at conventions, but also at toy drives, hospital visits, theatrical openings, product release events (which we've partnered up with some amazing entities like Lucasfilm, Hasbro, LEGO, the Weird Al Yankovich tours, the Robot Chicken tours, and Adidas to name a few). When we're not in public, many of us join together with fellow Garrison and Outpost members at armor parties and socials.
Is there an event or 501st happening that you are most proud of?
Without question the single greatest moment we've experienced as a club was the 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, where George Lucas was marshal of the parade and actually paid to have 207 of us flown from all over the world just to march with him. Mind you, he could have recruited 200 troopers from the Southern California region alone, but he wanted to see the international scope of Star Wars fandom represented. That was five days of having so many fans from so many cultures in one hotel, a real love-in for fandom. We quickly grew bonds of camaraderie as we learned how to march, heed orders, and overcome our nerves together. Mr. Lucas made a surprise appearance at the kick-off dinner when we arrived, saluting us as 'cannon fodder' and wishing us well on a mission from which we likely would not return. We laughed, it was great to have him in on the joke. And during our final costumed rehearsal he came and posed for pictures with us all. I'll never forget him shaking my hand and saying "Thank you, for this," waving a hand to indicate the proud men and women who were rallied there. To think: the Maker himself thanking me? It humbled me, knowing we'd done such good work to honor his legacy. I only wish all of our members could have been there.
Where'd the idea for the 501st come from originally? Could you tell us about it's origins and growth from your insider perspective?
In 1997 I was recovering from an automobile accident that cost me my leg. I was in a wheelchair for a year, trying to save the leg, and feeling isolated. A co-worker of mine named Tom Crews tried to cheer me up. With word of the Star Wars movies coming back for a theatrical re-release he and I talked all about our favorite Star Wars moments, and the Stormtroopers just kept coming back to us. What an amazing character, and one that any old bloke could be because you wouldn't need Harrison Ford good-looks. So we bought some off of the then-emerging internet and showed up for the premiere of the Empire Strikes Back. Tom's armor was a week late, so I appeared by myself. I learned a lot about costuming and role-playing. My psychology training had given me a keen eye for how people interact with their environment and I noticed how I was treated like a nifty museum piece. But when Tom's armor came in and we appeared together, something clicked. People saw us as a unit from the Empire, on patrol. We became and interactive experience straight from the Star Wars universe! I thought to myself, why not ten of us? Or twenty? What could we do with a HUNDRED? I put these thought aside, thinking them ridiculous, and simply posted our pictures on the internet (again, still only in its infancy in 1997). I created a vivid back-story of two Stormtroopers working in Detention Block 2551, telling of their exploits as part of Vader's secret unit, the 501st Squad, which you only caught glimpses of in the movies when Vader is motioning Stormtroopers to do his bidding. Overnight the emails came in from Japan, the UK, Germany, Canada, all over the U.S. Other people in armor sought us out, asking to have their pictures posted as part of "Vader's Fist!". I quickly realized how strong a good yarn can be, and remembered images from my dad's old World War II aviator flight school graduation book: rows and rows of pictures of pilots with their scarves, goggles, and rakish grins. I thought to myself: why couldn't WE be a unit like that? Rows of pictures of troopers from the Empire, all ready to deploy? The internet would afford us the ability to be something in the mind that we couldn't organize on a local level. And it took off. Everyone loved it. Everyone who costumed in Imperial gear wanted to be a part of the Star Wars experience. And it just took off from there.
Where do people get the costumes? Are there specialist costume makers, for example?
That's a history unto itself and I'm working to compile a narrative about it. It's made up of hobbyists all around the world with art school skills and vacu-forming tables. They hand-craft molds and try to recreate those beautiful pieces you see in the Star Wars universe. Mostly each hobbyist focuses on some character that really lights their creative fire, and they collaborate with colleagues to arrive at the best creations. Some artists specialize in one Stormtrooper armor or another, others on Fett armor, others on Vader. It's an eclectic and bohemian collective that trades tips and works to make good armor. We stick to a simple rule of selling costumes at-cost so there is no temptation to commercialize this, because we respect that this is Lucasfilm's property and we don't want to infringe on their market. So we encourage prospective members to contact their local Garrisons and they can give them good advice on how to put together a good costume that meets our standards.
What kind of stuff do people costume as? What's the craziest costume you've seen someone wearing?
The 501st is an Imperial costuming club, the Rebel Legion our 'good guy' partner club. Just about anything you've seen in the movies or cartoons or comics or read about in the books we've tried to create at least one costume for, and in most cases many. Early on I encouraged the formation of Detachments, which I described as groups organized around a single costume or group of costumes and a theme. So we have an entire Sith Lord Detachment, Royal Guards Detachment, TIE Pilot Squadron, Bounty Hunter Guild, and so on. We even have a Denizens of the Empire designation for Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and the rest of the hive of scum and villainy that wouldn't be caught on the Death Star but are bad guys nonetheless. In recent years we've seen the Mando Mercs form up with Mandalorian costumes, the Jedi Assembly with all Jedi costumes, etc. But being the fun group we are we like to loosen up at conventions and other venues. There are troopers who don the emblems of the NFL teams (myself included, as Panthers Trooper). And there's a whole carnival of off-shoots: Muppet Troopers, Elvis Trooper, super hero troopers like Spider-Man and Captain America. Probably my favorite trooper lives in the UK: Disco Steve, who wears a crazy winged disco outfit that bares his chest (and leaves little to the imagination!) that he wears gleefully with his Stormtrooper helmet and dances for charity.
How'd it feel to have Lucasfilm create a Canon backstory for 'Vader's Fist'?
It blew my mind and continues to blow my mind. It all started in 2004 when Timothy Zahn put us in his book Survivor's Quest. Boom! We were a canon piece of the Star Wars universe. Then it was the Battlefront II games by Pandemic Studios, commemorating our deeds as a unit in their story. No one warned us at all that Episode III would contain the blue-striped Clone Troopers that marched under the name "501st Legion" and would in fact be the first unit to follow Vader! I keep pinching myself, that we've been so fortunate. What's funny now is that new fans coming up look at our name and think we're just mimicking the unit in the stories, not the other way around! So we're pretty well rooted in the Star Wars universe now and it's an incredible honor.
How does the naming system work? I know you are known as Trooper TK210 - do 501st members take a name and an identity with a backstory, etc?
When Tom and I first started out, we wanted our characters to have identities in the Star Wars universe. All we had to go on was the scene in A New Hope when poor TK421 was called out for not being at his post. It got me thinking: is that the designation for a regular, white-armored Stormtrooper? Okay. We can go with that. I just chose my birthday of February 10 as my number, as did Tom for his 512, and called ourselves TK210 and TK512. Soon there were other costume categories joining (TIE Pilots, Vaders, etc) and I had to think fast. So I stuck with the two-letter prefix and worked it out that one's number was transferable to any costume category one chose to dress in. So a fan with two costumes, a Stormtrooper and a TIE Pilot, could be TK-whatever and TI-whatever. I just had to think up prefixes fast, so I chose TR for Royal Guards, TD for Desert Troopers, SL for Sith Lords, TB for Biker Scouts, and so on. You can see the list of prefixes we use and how much the list has grown on the 501st website. Early on we went with a three-digit number but just this past year our ranks finally grew to the point we had to expand to four numbers to accommodate everyone. What a great problem to have! We now have over 10,000 members in our database. And people are very passionate about their numbers, and they have them for life. I've seen people get their TK numbers tattooed on their bodies! It's amazing to see how strongly we embrace the dark side! :)
I'm aware there's a UK 501st, do they do much?
Wow, do they! The UK Garrison, or UKG, is one of the biggest Garrisons in the entire Legion and one of the most prestigious! Founded by the late Graham Campbell, it was one of the first of our units to really take off and they do so much promotional and charity work that they set the bar very high! Not only are they proud to troop so close to the birthplace of Star Wars, with Elstree Studios nearby and so many of the actors from there, but they take the magic of Star Wars into conventions, hospitals, and high-profile events everywhere in the UK. They were also the proud hosts of the first Celebration Europe back in 2007. A favorite event of the UKG is their annual black-tie charity ball, where members come together to party and raise thousands for charity.
If you want to join the 501st, what do you have to do? Is there a recruitment or selection process?
Induction to the 501st is simple: be 18 or over and own an approved costume. The path to induction begins with contacting one's local chapter of the 501st, whether it's a Garrison (a unit large enough to sustain 25 or more members) or even an Outpost (fledgling groups that start with one or two people in parts of the world where the Legion has yet to secure a strong foothold). It's easy to find one's local chapter on the 501st website, using the interactive map on the main page. Once you contact a unit, the members typically ask questions about what kind of costume or character a person likes enough to put work into. Some costumes are easier and less expensive, therefore a great way to get started. For example, the scanning crew seen in A New Hope loading the equipment into the Millenium Falcon, is a perfect costume for beginners: easy to put together, affordable, and believe it or not really effective at events because even minor characters from the movies really enhance the over-all experience of the Star Wars presence.
Hows the organisation run and administered, is there any central control?
In 2001 I established the first charter for the Legion, a set of basic rules for what we expect out of members. The rule has been to keep the rules simple and fair, just enough to maintain order without spoiling the fun. We elect a Legion Commanding Officer (LCO) each year, who appoints staff members like Membership Officers, PR Officers, etc to share the work of running such a big club. Each Garrison sends two representatives, and each Outpost a single representative, to the Legion Council, which is a body that votes on issues in the Legion. Captains of the Guard hear feedback from the club and help to administer assistance where needed.
Anything I missed here that you'd like to include?
I'd like to point out to Star Wars fans that there is nothing keeping them from becoming a full part of the Star Wars experience. Costuming seems like such an exotic, crazy hobby to take up, but honestly it is the best way to enjoy the Star Wars universe. There's no reason to think of costuming groups as 'out there' or elitist, we're just regular fans like anyone who collects the toys or just watches the movies. I would really challenge fans to consider asking a Legion member to ask if they accompany them to events as helpers or, if they're lucky, borrowing a costume to march in, even if just for one day. The experience will change you, seeing kids' eyes light up when you walk by. And the costume is merely a vehicle, a "first step into a larger world" where people create real friendships and do things that truly affect the community. If I had one wish it would be for every Star Wars fan to appear as their favorite character for just one day and see how cool it is to spread the magic and be a part of it. The 501st Legion, Rebel Legion, Mando Mercs, Jedi Assembly, and now the Galactic Academy for kids (started by myself four years ago so kids can get into the act!) are here and waiting for you!
Jack Oughton, AKA Koukouvaya has serious problems writing biographical information about himself in the third person. Jack also spent too much of his time and mental energy on Star Wars as a child. Follow Jack on Twitter or Facebook. Or don't. Whatever works for you…
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