The Empire’s New Clothes

The Empire’s New Clothes

Star Wars fans dress the part to keep the legend alive.

Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, surveys his surroundings as he’s flanked by two of his finest Imperial Stormtroopers, both standing at attention and at the ready. A woman stands a few feet away, hunched over a podium and speaking to the assembled masses seated in front of her. Vader peers over her shoulder, listening intently to her words.

A gentleman asks if there will be any additional "Star Wars" films now that the prequel trilogy has been completed and television projects are in the pipeline. The woman, science fiction author Karen Traviss, takes a sip from her coffee cup before offering the company line: George Lucas says no more movies, so there will be no more movies. Vader shifts his weight, but offers no addendum.

William Stengel, a boy from Arlington who has come to hear Traviss speak at the Olsson’s Books and Records in Courthouse on a Monday evening, raises his hand with a query.

"Are these the real characters from the movies?" he asks.

Traviss tells him that, indeed, the Stormtroopers and Biker Scouts and Vader himself were featured in the original trilogy of "Star Wars" films. But that’s not what William’s asking: Were the costumed characters standing behind her actually the ones who appeared in the films?

"No, they’re not actors," she replies with a smile. "They’re fans, like us."

Vader raises his lightsaber and ignites it, sparking a red glow that illuminates his gleaming black suit as the fans in the audience chuckle at his deft comic timing.

Perhaps he found her lack of faith disturbing.

AS TRAVISS thanked those in attendance and prepared to sign copies of her new book "Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice," Vader and his battalion moved away from the podium. They are members of the 501st Legion, a.k.a. Vader’s Fist, billed as "world's definitive Imperial costuming organization." Specifically, they are members of Garrison Tyranus, formed in 2002 and comprised of 501st members throughout Virginia.

One Stormtrooper — a traditional "T.K." model as first seen in the original Episode IV back in 1977 — takes off his helmet to reveal Matthew Nargi, the CO of this outfit from Fishersville. He made the three-hour drive to Olsson’s for the author event. Hunter Ridings, a rookie Stormtrooper from Fredericksburg, drove an hour and a half. Joe Ogulin, a third Stormtrooper, lives in Sterling. "It’s just fun to watch people become kids again, standing in line back in 1977," he said.

Especially when they see Darth Vader, a.k.a. Eric Tank of Annandale, who was mobbed by fans eager to check out his amazing replication of the Sith Lord’s costume — complete with the iconic mask and blinking computer lights in the chest.

Then there were the two Biker Scouts: Fairfax’s Steve Petrucelli, 33, and his son Andrew Seale, 14.

Petrucelli still remembers watching the original "Star Wars" on broadcast television, with his family gathered around the living room set — almost immediately, he was a fan for life.

He recalls his trip to the first Star Wars Celebration roughly 10 years ago, when he was stationed with the military in Denver. That’s where he first saw Stormtroopers from the 501st in full regalia. When he later moved to Virginia, a friend of his was working with a 501st member; he urged Petrucelli to give costuming a try.

"I was like, ‘How much is that going to cost? Thousands?’ I’m a big fan, but there’s a limit," he said.

He first met up with the 501st Legion as a Sci-Fi convention in Baltimore a few years ago, dressed in the ultimate on-the-cheap "Star Wars" costume: a robed Jedi Knight. When he saw the elaborate uniforms of the Imperial soldiers in attendance, he was quickly lured to the Dark Side.

OPTING FOR a Biker Scout costume from "Return of the Jedi" — who have more mobile uniforms than the other Stormtroopers — he began purchasing his armor over the Internet. "There are other fans who put together vacuum-form tables. You can buy a set of pieces from them, and it costs a little bit more than what it costs them to make it," he said, adding that the majority of his costume cost just over $300. "It’s all internally done with fans. That’s how you kind of get into it — a couple of guys will put a small Web site up, but they won’t really advertise it. George Lucas doesn’t really like when we do that."

Petrucelli purchased his own helmet for about $100, after using a Halloween-type one at first, along with high white boots. He sewed his own black "cummerbund" for the costume. "The TKs like to crack jokes on the Bikers, and say we’re wearing big diapers," he said.

Petrucelli even created his own blaster from some items he purchased at Home Depot. From a distance, he said, it looks like the real McCoy; upon further inspection, the bottle caps and nickels that help form the pistol are more obvious.

His costume completed, it took some time before Petrucelli added another accessory: His son Andrew, as a fellow Biker Scout.

At 14, he’s too young to be an official member of the 18-or-older 501st, there are some Legion events, such as visits to children’s hospitals, where the age requirement is understandable. Andrew was nonetheless wearing his full costume at the Olsson’s signing, standing guard with his father behind the dais.

Was the son inspired by the father’s passion, or was he dragged into a family hobby? "I think it’s a little bit of both," said Petrucelli. "He knows I’m a big fan, and he’s been to events where we’ve been in armor and he’s not been. He looks at it from that teenager standpoint where he kind of wants to do this, but at the same time it’s kind of geeky."

"He and I are really similar in a lot of our interests and tastes. We have a lot of the same hobbies," he said. "It is kind of nice to go to an event have us both do the same thing. It’s father/son bonding."

WHILE OTHERS in the 501st Legion chose their costumes, Roger Sharp of Alexandria feels he was born into his role. "My height and build is sort of Vader-ish — I’m 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds," he said.

Sharp, 35, spent over $3,000 on his custom-made Darth Vader outfit, purchasing much of it online. "I found some selections from this guy in Mexico who made some top-notch Vader stuff," he said. "The helmet is what really makes the difference. The goal is to make it as perfect as possible."

Since its inception roughly 10 years ago, the 501st Legion has appeared everywhere from conventions to parades, from hospitals to charity events like the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Walk for a Cure. Earlier this month, Garrison Tyranus appeared in two different Race for the Cure events; many of the local legion’s appearances this summer benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Eastern Virginia.

Sharp’s life changed forever at a Garrison Tyranus appearance two years ago, when he was portraying Vader at the opening of "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" in Richmond. He was chatting up an admiring female fan, taking pictures with her as Vader. "As soon as I pulled my helmet off, we made eye contact and that was it," he said. That moment led to a relationship, which then led to a recent marriage between the two. "That’s the thing about it — when I’m Darth Vader, women are attracted to Vader for some reason," he said. "I knew things would go fairly well when she said she never had a Darth Vader fetish — until now."

MARKUS HANSON, who works at Olsson’s Books in Courthouse, said the last "Star Wars" author event at the store featured a scheduling conflict for the 501st Legion, which resulted in "only a Darth and a Stormtrooper" showing up for the appearance.

Still, having the costumed fans in attendance adds something to these types of events. "There are a handful of kids in the crowd that are into it," he said, "and, of course, the Star Wars geeks."

But what does a Star Wars geek look like? The woman in the second row at Traviss’s appearance, wearing an Imperial officer’s jumpsuit? The young man standing in the back in the lime green T-shirt with the Manga cartoon of Boba Fett? The baby-faced soldier with the crew-cut and the U.S. Army fatigues leaning against the bookshelves? The father in the office clothes and the son in the college ball cap, listening intently as the author talked about concepts like "faster than light speed?"

Interest in "Star Wars" movies, books and soon television series continue to spans different ages, genders and generations. But if the cinematic "Star Wars" series has truly finally ended, how many of these "geeks" will continue to attend author talks and other related fan events, as everything from Harrison Ford’s smirk to Hayden Christensen’s wooden line readings fade from popular culture’s collective memory?

"It was important to me to get my costume when I did," said Sharp. "I knew that if I was ever going to get one, it had to be before ‘Revenge of the Sith,’ We’re in the twilight years for stuff like that."

Petrucelli is more optimistic. "Ten years ago, there wasn’t really talk about the prequels coming out, and [fandom] survived 10-15 years with just three movies. I have no doubt that we’ll be doing the 60th anniversary of ‘Star Wars’ soon," he said.

The reason, according to Petrucelli, has less to do with the entertainment value of the movies than with the universal truths they presented — lessons and ideas that have fostered communities like the 501st Legion for the last 30 years.

"I know the mantra of it is ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,’ but I see it as a future sort of thing," he said. "I see ‘Star Wars’ as a gigantic galaxy of all of these races, and it makes me think about how small we are by comparison."