20 years of the 501st Legion: How the Star Wars costuming group became a Force for good

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Jul 11, 2017, 12:00 PM EDT

After Albin Johnson lost his leg in a car accident in the early '90s, he found himself in a rut, moping around his house. During this time, he started talking to a friend, Tom Crews, about the upcoming re-releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. As they discussed it, they realized how cool the stormtrooper costumes were and how they would be the most reasonable character to portray if they were ever to try creating a costume. Johnson ordered a set of armor with the thought that he had to try to do something to get back into the world after losing his leg.

"It was just in time for The Empire Strikes Back re-release. I went to the movie theater and had such a great time portraying the character, but it wasn't until about three weeks later when Tom's set of armor arrived and we showed up together, I noticed what a big difference it was being in the armor with another person and the power of being in a group, because the fans just reacted differently," Johnson told SYFY WIRE. "They treated us like the characters instead of just some guy in a costume. For all intents and purposes, it looked like this was a dispatch unit of the Empire."

To Johnson, out of all the characters in Star Wars the stormtrooper is interesting in how it defies the law of diminishing returns. While you can't have more than one Darth Vader in a room, stormtroopers were a different story. It was after this that he found himself remembering seeing his father's old flight school graduation book as a kid. His father was a former World War II pilot, and in the book everyone would be wearing their goggles and flight jackets, and Johnson thought they were really cool. This led to his thinking that it would be cool to see a whole gallery of stormtroopers together as a fighting unit.

"It just got the wheels turning of creating a fictional unit and putting these pictures of me and Tom up on this website that started as something called Detention Block 2551. It was the antics of these two stormtroopers who were trying to get out of work at the detention block of the Death Star, so it was all our crazy madcap adventures at the state fair, the video store and the mall and so forth. Before we knew it, people started seeing the site on Geocities and sending us their pictures and asking if they could join," he said.

Johnson came up with the term Vader's Fist since "every good fighting unit has some really cool moniker," and for him there was nothing more powerful than the scene where Darth Vader holds up his fist in The Empire Strikes Back while asking Luke to join him. It was a symbol he thought people could get behind. From there, he created a fake backstory.

"In the movies, Vader's walking around and storming about, and he'll point to a couple of stormtroopers standing off to the side and say 'follow me' and goes off to do their evil deeds. Who are these guys? Are they just standing around in a hallway? Or maybe, better yet, Vader's powerful enough in the Empire that he has an awesome unit. That could be us, Vader's Fist," he explained. "I came up with a numerical name for it to sound like a military unit, and the term 'fighting 501st' sounded very lyrical. Something you could get behind."

That was 1997 and the beginning of the 501st Legion, an international all-volunteer Star Wars fan costuming group. This year the Legion is celebrating a milestone 20th anniversary. Over the last two decades, the group has grown to include 11,514 active members in 61 countries, with 20,968 approved costumes as of June 26, according to numbers provided to Syfy Wire.

The 501st focuses on creating film-quality costumes of those characters who make their home on the Dark Side of the Star Wars world. Their ranks have expanded beyond stormtroopers to include other villains from the franchise, such as TIE Fighter pilots, biker scouts and even Darth Vader, Kylo Ren and more. That growth led to one of the first challenges faced by the group as it figured out a way to accommodate new costume types and developed a system where the prefix for costumes changed. For example, TK is the prefix for stormtroopers, which is followed by a number; for example, Johnson is TK-210. For other costumes, though, the prefixes are different. The growth of the group also presented challenges as it dealt with scalability. They had to unite fans under a banner when they might not be in the same geographic location very often, so Johnson came up with the idea to subdivide.

"I use the Roman Empire as a sort of metaphorical model. The Roman Empire stretched halfway around the known world, and it was because they had garrisons of soldiers deposited everywhere," Johnson said. "Early on, I thought people are probably going to be more interested in trooping in their local communities and making contact with local vendors, dealers, businesses and charities, and make a way for them to do that but still feed into the giant umbrella of this club, so that everybody can kind of get some recognition."

This has led to the garrison model of the organization. From these local garrisons, members can take part in a number of events locally and on a larger scale. The 501st has a presence at various conventions, which Johnson called fantastic, "because that's where we're making contact with even the most casual Star Wars fan." They are also involved in other various events, such as premieres of new toy lines and sporting events like Star Wars nights for baseball, hockey, basketball and football.

"We've been involved in movie premieres, and there have been a lot of special occasions where we've been called in, like game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and different things," he said. "If the public in some way, shape or form feels like they want to feature Star Wars, we've been lucky enough that they think to use us. I've always referred to us as sort of walking scenery."

As an all-volunteer group, they don't charge for any appearances, including their impressive range of charity and community work, such as toy drives, charity telethons, hospital visits, visiting the Boy and Girl Scouts and more. Dean Plantamura, a 501st member since 2002, has seen a change in people's reactions to the Legion at events like conventions and hospital visits over the last 15 years. He joined the group around the time Attack of the Clones was coming out, and he wasn't into costuming but saw photos in the newspaper one morning of a couple people in stormtrooper armor and found it impressive. He did some digging and found the Florida Garrison, which he joined. Now he's a member of the Carolina Garrison, comprised of North and South Carolina. He told SYFY WIRE that while now they get asked to attend conventions because they're a draw, in the beginning organizers didn't understand what they were really doing. There was a similar sense for their volunteer hospital work.

"People didn't understand it. Hospital staff would say, 'Wait a minute, you're visiting family that's sick?' We're like 'No, we don't know who they are, but if you have the opportunity we know that there's got to be people in hospitals, and generally kids, who would be excited to see these characters come to life for them,' and it took a while for people to understand what we were trying to do. They would ask 'Are you looking to get paid?' We'd say no, and they'd ask, 'Then why are you doing it?' We're like, 'We're just good people!'" Plantamura said. "We spend all this time and effort on building these awesome costumes, and we just want to share it with people. If we can put a smile on a kid's face, make them forget about a sickness that they're dealing with just for a few minutes, isn't that worth it?"

Now the 501st has become more of a household name, which Plantamura said is strange to him after being used to having conversations trying to explain what they're doing. The group also now often gets Lucasfilm sending them events they can be involved in, and Plantamura feels Lucasfilm has been very supportive over the years. One of his favorite events he took part in was when George Lucas was Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2007. Lucas wanted stormtroopers in the parade, and the call was put out internationally to Legion members to submit videos. From those, members from around the world were chosen and were flown to California for training and practice. Lucas spoke to attendees before the event and also took photos with them after the parade. Ultimately 200 men and women troopers marched.

Plantamura called it a fantastic experience and said he'd never forget it. He also said it was a great example of the camaraderie that forms between members. For those who were there, a bond formed, and he still keeps in touch with people around the world he's marched with.

"I don't see the same people every day, I don't talk to them every day, but it's an interesting network …" he said. "You can go anywhere around the world and someone who's part of the 501st is there to pick you up at the airport, and you can sometimes stay at their house, and I'm happy to do the same. It's this really great reciprocal thing, and it's all based upon that we have a common passion for Star Wars and costuming, and it's like family. It's wonderful."

Kai Brodkin, a member of the Legion's Nordic Garrison covering Sweden, Norway and Finland, also attended the Tournament of Roses Parade and told Syfy Wire in an email interview it was a high point of his trooping career. Brodkin came to the Legion through a Finnish Star Wars collector's webpage in the late '90s.

"I found out that [the] founder of these pages, Toni Hovi, had stormtrooper armor. How cool it would be having such a costume also! So we talked a lot and finally met during [the] premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," he said. "During [the] same time, [the] 501st Nordic Garrison was formed, and I had my very first costume approved and joined the 501st Legion."

To Brodkin, the group is a great "way to unite people with [a] common hobby," and it's become the "best costuming knowledge source for almost any Star Wars costume."

"Good reference pictures were hard to find when I started almost 20 years ago. Now things are different, and help to find right authentic materials is no longer a problem," Brodkin said.

The resources, reference library and standards for costumes are ways that Plantamura sees the Legion stand out, along with its impressive size and global nature. Johnson thinks they also stand out due to the benefit as a costuming group of having a very strong theme and really being the first to focus so strongly on it. It also helps that people have fun with the bad guys. The 501st embraces the phrase "bad guys doing good."

"The Empire comes off as very rock and roll, very cool, very larger than life. Of course, our hopes are behind the scrappy rebels to beat them, but for presentation value alone the Empire is just huge, and people like to see huge," Johnson said. "They like to see pageantry. They like to see the stormtrooper character two or three hundred deep marching in lockstep. There's something very symbolic about it. Very iconic about it."

To Johnson, looking back over the last 20 years, the most surprising thing about this experience has been the amount of heart it has.

"People come up to me all the time with tears in their eyes, so grateful that they feel a sense of purpose. That they feel validated by the work that they do, whether in charity or the friendships that they've grown. I think it doesn't surprise me so much how big we've gotten, not by virtue of what I did, but I know 10,000 people have been working very hard. But the fact that it has so much heart to it to me is just amazing," he said. "I'll go to other countries and people will speak in the exact same kind of terms, but in a different language, about family, about doing good, and that people are so excited to be a part of it. Where do you get that in life? There's very few places where people are that super excited to be a part of something and doing good."

Plantamura said there's a family feel to the group. There have been people who meet their spouses through the 501st and even propose when the group is together.

"Those are personal moments, but you really appreciate the support you get when you share that with such a huge community of people who really get what you're doing. They understand it," he said.

With such a strong community and the group's continuing success, what would Johnson like to see in the next 20 years for the 501st? His pipe dream is to see a movie based on the group, like a "Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers-style military film told from the point of view of the stormtrooper."

"They kind of went in that direction with The Clone Wars series. Dave Filoni did a great job of that, but I'd like to see that. I'd like to see the scrap-and-tumble story of a platoon of stormtroopers coming together, overcoming their clone mentality and becoming individuals," he said.

The 501st does have the honor of being a part of official Star Wars canon, so it might be possible! They have been mentioned in novels, video games and other media. In addition to this, though, Johnson would also like to see the bad guys doing even more good in the world.

"I'd also like to see our Make-a-Wish endowment grow. It's impressive now, but I'd like to get to a quarter million, a half million and finally the million-dollar mark and really have an endowment that will allow Make-a-Wish and the 501st to really do some good," he said. "Of course, I'd like to see [the Legion] grow. I'd like to see more people in the general public embrace the health of role play when it comes to being a part of the movies that they love so much."

Whatever may be in the future for the 501st Legion, there's one thing you don't need the Force to know. Vader's Fist will continue to bring fans together and leave an impact on people as they bring the joy of Star Wars wherever they can and use their mighty presence to make a difference around the world.

(top photo by Steven Lam)