501st Empire City Garrison adds a Galactic flavor to local events
For many people, May fourth is just another day on the calendar, but for fans of the Star Wars franchise, it is Star Wars day. A play on the saying “May the Force be with you,” May the fourth has long been a day for people to let their inner Jedi or storm trooper show.
Interestingly, the first recorded reference of the phrase being used was on May 4, 1979, the day after Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Her political party, the Conservatives, placed a congratulatory advertisement in the London Evening News saying “May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations.”
These days, Star Wars fans have multiple storylines to follow and more merchandise than ever before. Star Wars day events are held in libraries and bars, with trivia, games and cosplay. There is even a Star Wars theme park called Galaxy’s Edge at each of the Disney resorts. There is also Star Wars celebration, a convention that takes place at the end of May, where many people dress as their favorite characters.
There are a few groups who take this even farther, and one of the most prominent is the 501st Legion. This organization, established in August 1997 by Albin Johnson and Tom Crews, has over 35,000 members worldwide. Each member must have an approved, screen-accurate, self-made costume that replicates the outfit of one of the “villains”. This started out as just stormtroopers, but now includes any morally dark character featured in the Star Wars universe.
On January 1, 2007, two hundred members of the Legion marched in the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, with George Lucas himself as the grand marshal. Lucas and Johnson discussed the future of the rapidly growing Legion. This culminated in an informal partnership where Lucasfilm granted the Legion a limited use of their copyrighted characters, as long as members promised never to use their costumes for personal profit and represented the franchise in a positive and respectful manner.
Closer to home, Long Island is represented by the Empire City Garrison, and their commander is Chris Feehan. Feehan has been involved with the 501st for 15 years and has done nine different costumes over that time. A self-described sci-fi and movie geek, he first learned of the group after spotting them at a convention in the early 2000s. Over the course of about two years he put together his first costume, a stormtrooper. His costume was approved and he was able to join in 2008. He calls this one of the best decisions he’s ever made. “There’s makers all over the place that make the individual vacuform parts but it’s up to you to glue the pieces together. You get the associated parts like the boots, make a replica blaster, different parts of the helmet. You have to strap it together yourself with snaps and different elastic straps and things to fit it to your own body. It’s not a turnkey process that you just can get a costume and just wear it right out of the box.”
Part of the mission of the 501st is working with charities and non-profits. Feehan puts it this way: “we call ourselves bad guys who do good. Basically what the group does is not only help each other build your costumes and make them movie accurate, but it’s also to use them for good in the community. We use the costumes practically every weekend, charity walks, library visits, hospital visits, things of that nature, and just try to use them for positive things in the community.”
One bonus to having screen accurate costumes is getting asked to be extras on some of the new content Disney Lucasfilm is creating. “They’ll reach out to us because they know we have 100 percent movie accurate costumes. We know how to put on the costume. We know how to walk around in the costume; we have experience. So they’ll tap us for that. And we have a very good relationship with Disney Lucasfilm because they know we’re not doing this for profit. We’re doing this for good in the community. They needed a gaggle of Stormtroopers for big scenes and instead of having to construct the costumes and hire 50 stunt people, they just had the local Garrison come down and bring 50 stormtroopers.”
For those interested in joining up, enrollment is open to anyone over the age of 18. The first step is to go online and browse the costume reference library, or CRL. Feehan recommends going for something recognizable, like a stormtrooper. At this point, it makes sense to contact your local garrison. For the Empire City, the website is 501ecg.com. Here you can connect with people in the forums who will offer advice and assistance as needed. “A lot of our men and women will help people get started with their costumes and help with putting them together. I’ve helped a number of members within my group, you know, get their costumes started or get them finished to a level that they need to make them 100 percent will be accurate. Once you had all the parts together, you take some photos, you submit them for approval. When they get approved you’re eligible to attend and volunteer for any of the events that we have on our schedule.”
For obvious reasons, the coming weeks are among the busiest time for the Empire City Garrison. Not only is it Star Wars day, but May 6 is free comic book day. If an organization is planning to request some extra empire flavor for their May 4 celebration, Feehan recommends booking six to eight months in advance. “We actually have somewhere around 20 events scheduled either on May the fourth or on May the sixth. So that week is crazy for us. We do give a priority to the children’s hospitals. We’re actually doing two children’s hospitals in New York area this year. We’re doing Cohen’s Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park and we’re doing Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital in New York City. So those usually get priority, but there are a couple of community events that some of the folks who do not (attend) the hospital events may do. And then of course on Free Comic Book Day, a lot of local comic book shops and some libraries have asked us. So unfortunately, there’s not enough folks to go around. We ask that folks try to get in their requests as far in advance as possible. We usually book up six to eight months in advance for the entire year.”
On a personal note, seeing the effect his costumed appearances had on children who were fighting to become well inspired him. Feehan credits his time with the 501st as helping him to land a second career in the non-profit sector. “It really helped invigorate my volunteerism and volunteer spirit. When I lost my job about four years ago I had kind of made a personal decision. I was at a point in my life where I was able to kind of pick and choose what I want to do next. I work for the cerebral palsy association of Nassau County, which for me is a dream job. Because now basically in my job and in my personal time, I’m doing stuff for other people and doing stuff that’s really rewarding.”
The Empire City Garrison, along with its sister organizations the Rebel Legion and the Saber Guild, are putting on the second annual Sci-Fi Minicon at Levittown Town Hall on July 22.