The Birth of the 501st Legion Part One: Studies in Trooping

Albin Johnson | August 17, 2012

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I still remember the smell of popcorn butter. Funny how some things stick with you. It was 1997 and The Empire Strikes Back was premiering in its re-release. To mark the occasion I was squeezing into plastic armor in a back storage room at the local movie theater. That was it. That was the beginning of a long journey as an Imperial Stormtrooper of the 501st Legion, even though I didn’t know it yet.

Only two weeks earlier I’d found an item impossible to find at the time: a full set of Stormtrooper armor. Star Wars was coming back in full fever and I was recovering from losing my leg in a car accident. So my impulse buy came from both a renewed fandom and a need to get back into the world after a year in a wheelchair. I figured if I can’t look normal walking around with a metal leg, what could it hurt to walk around as a Stormtrooper?

So there I was in a movie theater storage room next to fountain drink bags and a vat of popcorn butter, putting on my armor for the first time in public. I think the theater had no idea what to make of me, hence the storage room. Costumes like that were unheard of at the time. On the phone the manager just chuckled at my offer to make an appearance. To be honest, I don’t even know for sure what I was doing but it seemed like a good idea.

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Striding into the theater lobby, everything felt weird. I was completely covered, even the face, but I felt totally exposed. Talk about going ultra-nerd, this was it. I could hear my mom groaning at the thought of her son clanking around in plastic. And in the quiet lobby between shows I was definitely clanking. A reporter, years later, would call it the sound of shaking a bag of big-gulp cups. Not far from the truth.

The first show let out and I was waiting in the darkened hallway outside the door. A shriek went up. A lady freaked out at the sight of me. Looking back, I can’t blame her. I mean the sight of a dude in plastic armor waiting with a gun in the dark isn’t exactly soothing and when you don’t expect it then it’s doubly scary. I should have known better. Recent events in Aurora, Colorado make it clear that won’t fly again. But this was 1997 and believe it or not it was a different world then.

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After the lady calmed down we all shared a laugh. People kept filing out after her and each one of them went nuts. The effect I was going for was having Star Wars fresh in their minds so I would be a living piece of it there to greet them. Effect achieved. It’s a testament to how beloved Star Wars is that people leaving the movie were so enthralled with meeting a character from it. And not Darth Vader or Han Solo, just a regular Stormtrooper. By himself. I mean, _I_ loved Stormtroopers since I was a little kid but I didn’t realize they were that popular. But color me surprised – I spent that weekend being loved like a rock star.

Two weeks later my friend Tom got his own suit of armor. It was just in time for the re-release of Return of the Jedi. We were psyched at the thought of two Stormtroopers now on the prowl. Exiting the butter-perfumed changing room together, we were met with cheers from the mob waiting outside. People were pressed up against the glass exterior at the front of the lobby, waving and hooting. Someone held up a small child, who was holding an action figure of a Stormtrooper and beaming at us with adoration. You would have thought Harrison Ford was in the house.

Tom and I agreed early on that if we were going to be Stormtroopers, then we were going to take the role seriously. Right away we went into character, pacing the front of the lobby as if walking a detail. Every so often we’d stop and stare imposingly at someone, then wave them on. When we weren’t walking, we’d stand at attention: either together or at opposite ends of the lobby. If kids came up to us, there would be no waving or hijinks. We’d just stare at them and maybe (just maybe) give them a hi-five. If people asked us questions, we’d keep the answers short and curt and professional. Above all, we wanted to be true to the character.

For two weekends straight, three days apiece, we hit the theaters. Each night felt like we were kids playing dress-up. We had a ball. But on top of that, and something I didn’t realize at the time, we were going to school. The first lessons were basic: how does a Stormtrooper walk? How does he hold his weapon? How does he interact with people?

It wasn’t until the second night of working with Tom that two things occurred to me. First, there was a significant difference in the way fans reacted to a single Stormtrooper and the way they reacted to two of us. When I was the only Stormtrooper in the lobby people would walk right up to me, tap on my armor, and make silly comments. On rare occasions people would even walk up and punch me! Not so with two Stormtroopers! When the two of us were on hand people would give us a wide berth, take pictures from a safe distance, and approach us with a lot more trepidation. It didn’t matter if we stood far apart, people took us more seriously. It was as if a single Stormtrooper was a museum piece on display, while a pair of us sold the idea that we were actual soldiers on duty.

The second thing that occurred to me was that as much excitement as I garnered in my solo appearances, the mood was exponentially higher with two of us. So how much cooler would three Stormtroopers look? Or five? Or ten? My mind started reeling at the prospect. When I thought about it, it wasn’t a formula that would work for any other main Star Wars character. Two Vaders? No thanks. Two Leias? Only in my dreams. But the more Stormtroopers, the cooler it was. And there was seemingly no law of diminishing returns at work there. You would, quite feasibly, achieve more and more excitement the more Stormtroopers you could round up.

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After two weeks of terrorizing movie-goers Tom and I decided it was time to branch out. We were on to something and we wanted to see what else Stormtroopers could do. It was time to book gigs at the State Fair and the local comic shops. But the lessons I learned in those first few weeks of trooping would stick with me. And in particular those two concepts would percolate in my head, making me wonder: what was possible with an army of Stormtroopers?

Little did either of us know, in a few months’ time we’d get the first inklings of an answer.

Albin Johnson was a lowly Stormtrooper on Detention Block 2551 before Lord Vader lost a bet and allowed him to found the 501st Legion “Vader’s Fist”. He’s also man-servant to R2-KT “the pink Imperial droid with the heart of gold”. You can learn more at 501st.com and r2kt.com or follow Albin’s off-duty antics at albinjohnson.com.

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