The Birth of the 501st Legion, Part 3: Let the Wookiee Win

Albin Johnson | September 27, 2012

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The most famous person I’d ever met before starting the Legion was James Irwin, astronaut from the Apollo 15 mission and pilot of the lunar module. You want to talk about a sky-walker? He was the real deal. Even before Star Wars hit, I was nuts about space exploration as a kid and astronauts were like unto demigods.

I remember my father pulling me and my brother out of school in Missouri and piling us into the camper to drive three hours to see Irwin speak. A gentle man with a soft voice, he answered every question patiently.  (Most of the questions were from kids like me wanting to know how you go potty in space.) When it came time to meet him, I couldn’t find the words. He autographed a picture of him waving on the moon and simply said to me, “God bless you, son.”

I still have that 8×10 and I treasure it like nothing else. And that was enough of celebrities for me. Or so I thought. Just a few months after putting on Stormtrooper armor for the first time, I was driving in my car when I heard the radio announcing Peter Mayhew—mighty Chewbacca himself—would be coming to Heroes & Dragons, a comic book shop my town.

The Chewbacca? Here in South Carolina? This was too much. The only alien we’d ever had here was the Lizard Man and he wasn’t signing autographs. But no sooner had Tom and I become Stormtroopers and walked around with a Vader straight from Lucasfilm than suddenly a bona fide envoy from the Star Wars universe was about to make landfall. Fate seemed to be telling me something. Star Wars was coming for real.

I called Tom as soon as I got home. This was our big chance to actually do something Star Wars-y since the re-releases. No more kids with pencils, no bored card players, no run-on choruses of “I’m a little teapot” from preschoolers. We were going to meet the man and show him our stuff. I started entertaining questions about potties on the Millennium Falcon.

“That sounds cool,” Tom said plainly. Tom was always more down-to-earth than me. I could go all five-year-old at the sight of a trash can that looked like a droid. I’m sure that made me pretty annoying, but I figured it could also make me a good idea man. I also think Tom was still in shock from the abuse we took at the state fair. But he agreed to come along, so next was calling the comic shop.

The owner of the place gave me a pretty cool reception. “Sure, you can show up,” was all I got. Wait, what? I’m telling this guy that he can have two costumed characters from the very movies his celebrity guest appeared in. Can you do better than that in South Carolina? But I got nothing. In fact he acted like he was doing us a favor letting us show up.

I put down the phone and scribbled down Stormtrooper costuming rule #5: “No one cares about costumers at first. The first mention of showing up in costume, a potential client always seems to expect a Halloween mask that ties in the back with a rubber-band. It’s only after you show up in costume that it almost always changes.” Which makes it important to sell yourself before the event.

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So three days later Tom and I showed up at the comic shop. It was a half hour before Mayhew was due to arrive. There was already a long line formed, stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. People were psyched to meet the mighty Wookiee. And why wouldn’t they be? I was itching for some face time myself when the gig was done.

Tom and I made our way past the fans to a storage room in the back. I thought we looked pretty cool lugging our big black canvas armor bags around like we were armed security. When we emerged from the back, the crowd reaction made up for the chilly introductions. Cameras flashed, kids jumped up and down, girls fainted. Okay, I made up the part about the kids and the girls, but it was exciting. We were back in our element among the true believers.

An hour ticked by. Peter was nowhere to be seen. The crowd started rumbling impatiently. Luckily, Tom and I had a pretty good act down by then, so we entertained them. We made a game of grilling the fans like we were looking for Rebel spies. Kids with attitude were taken aside and made to do silly tricks to prove they were neither scum nor villainy. The mood lightened and I could tell the owner was grateful we’d shown up. Not that he said it.

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An hour and a half past curtain call there was another crowd gathering outside. I went to check on it. Down the sidewalk stood a seven-foot-two-inch giant of a man, leaning against a wall looking tired. Next to the front door a guy was going back and forth with the owner about contractual obligations. I overhead him say something about comic book shop appearances not being part of the deal. More back-and-forth. Something about a delayed flight and trouble with security and jet lag. This sounded like trouble. The man went over to Peter and said something. Peter nodded, stood up, and marched to the shop with all the enthusiasm of a guy pulling the graveyard shift.

At this point I got my first taste of what it’s like to work with celebrities. And it was a good thing to get that lesson down early, because it was going to come in handy in the years to come. Rule #6: “When costuming with celebrities always remember: no matter how much fun the fans are having, the celebrities are working. It may not seem that way, and they may be genuinely enjoying themselves, but it is a serious job. Be professional. Check your inner fan boy at the door.”

I marched back into the shop and zipped to the front of the line to warn Tom. “Peter Mayhew is here,” I said. “He doesn’t look happy. Turns out this stop wasn’t run by him.” Tom’s helmet nodded. He got it. His down-to-earth nature came in handy. He knew this was going to be a job and we’d be expected to do our part.

I pointed to the table set up for Mr. Mayhew to greet fans. It was an old work table with a vintage Star Wars bedspread laid out over it. A low metal folding chair sat behind it. Under the aging fluorescent light fixtures it seemed a modest place for a legend to sit and receive his fans. But I was determined to dress it up for him. I positioned myself on the far side and motioned for Tom to bookend with me a few feet back from the table. Without having to say anything we both came to attention with our blasters held in front of us. It was the least we could do to lend a cool backdrop for the man.

And this is where I learned the full extent of rule number six. Because no sooner did I position myself, grimacing under the helmet at the reception the fans were going to get from a tired celebrity, than I got a big surprise. Along came Peter, all smiles, sitting himself in the chair and immediately warming up to the fans lined up eagerly to meet him.

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It was a beautiful thing to see. And even more so knowing what I knew. For an hour and a half Peter took his time shaking hands, answering questions, posing for photos, and making each and every one of those people feel special. A smile never left his face, a question was never treated like it was unimportant. Grown men joked with him, women fawned over him, and the kids felt like the coolest uncle ever had shown up.

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Halfway through the show something funny happened. I started shifting my weight from side to side to keep my foot from falling asleep. It’s hard enough to stand still in armor for an hour. It was worse doing it with an artificial leg. And with our armor not fitting perfectly like it does for folks nowadays, it creaked like a rusty door hinge. Every time I moved, plastic rubbed on plastic. Squeak! Squeak!

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After about my 35th squeak, Peter paused while answering a question and turned to glare at me. He looked me up and down with a serious expression, then turned to the crowd and said, “If these Stormtroopers don’t stop squeaking I’m going to have to take care of them!” The crowd laughed. The Wookiee had spoken, and the Stormtroopers were in danger of another drubbing. In hindsight I suppose he figured we were paid employees and part of the fiasco that brought him here. But at the time I was just mortified, and behind the helmet I’m sure my face showed it. I quickly resolved to tolerate a sleepy foot at any cost.

At long last, Peter was ready to head to his hotel. He took a photo with the last fan in line, smiling the whole time. Then he rose to go. I motioned for someone to help me get my helmet off. After all, I hadn’t gotten a chance to meet Peter myself! And I really wanted a chance to apologize for the squeaking. But before I could say anything Peter walked between Tom and me and without warning palmed both our helmets with his bare hands while smiling for the crowd.

And just like that, Peter was gone. Tom and I de-helmeted and looked at each other. Covered in sweat and dying for water, we couldn’t help but smile. We’d done it. We’d actually served as ambassadors for a member of the Star Wars royalty and did a darn good job of it. Professionals to the end, we thought, and that was good enough for us. No photo or handshake to show for it, but we had the pride of a job well done.

Not to get ahead of myself, but later Peter and I became good friends. He’s always a delight to work with, and he’s still a very giving person for his fans. When I joke with him about that day in South Carolina he just laughs. He even signed the above picture for me one day, writing, “You get over your bad days.” Indeed.

I have to say, in spite of it all that was a magical moment for me. Not only was I in the presence of Star Wars in the flesh, but it was every bit as inspiring as I had hoped it would be. I grew up imagining that if I met the characters from the movies that they’d be friendly and cool to hang out with. And in that dimly-lit strip mall I found out that they actually could be.

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Tom and I took that experience to heart. It was a great reward for believing we could do something to celebrate our fandom and that we could do it well. We’d performed a service, or at least we wanted to believe so. The smiles on the fans’ faces, the chance to welcome Mr. Mayhew with some flair, the ability to perform in a professional manner. This felt right. This felt special. This felt like we were onto something.

To coin a phrase, it gave me a new hope for costuming. And yes, pun intended.

It wasn’t until I got home that I found out that my sleepy little website Detention Block 2551 had been making a splash too. Minding its own business on an Internet far from fully-developed, it was attracting attention from far, far away. And from that, everything would change.

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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