The MVPs of Celebration

Mary Franklin | April 4, 2013

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There’s a sort of superhero vibe that surrounds my Elite Squad at the Star Wars Celebrations. You know how it happens in the movies when all hell breaks loose, and it looks like there is no hope for the good citizens. Suddenly Batman shows up, and you know that everything is going to be all right. The Elite squad is like Batman — or more appropriately, like Obi-Wan Kenobi. They are so capable and calm that once I have put a stage or area of the show in their hands, I turn my mind to other parts of the show.

It doesn’t occur to me to worry about the Elite Squad’s responsibilities once they have their marching orders. I know they will figure it out, whatever comes up. I can be free to turn my attention to disappearing marching bands and hanging Death Stars and queues that wrap around the building full of fans who are getting covered with snow.

Who are these Elite?

The Elite are a hand-picked group of volunteers at the Celebrations (and comic and pop culture conventions when we exhibit) who know their stuff. Some of them have been part of the crew since Celebration II in 2002 in Indianapolis. Many travel across the oceans to help at Celebrations in other countries, and — thank the Maker — a good group of them will be at Celebration Europe this July in Essen, Germany. They work hard, but in the process they are part of the show in ways few people get to experience.

Veteran Squad member Christine Knapp describes it this way: “The Elite Squad is Mary Franklin’s (Lucasfilm’s/Reed’s) secret weapon of behind-the-scenes personnel who are supremely dedicated to ensuring that Star Wars Celebration absolutely rocks for all artists, participants, and crew.”

“And know where EVERYTHING is,” adds Kathy Van Beuningen, another veteran.

It’s fascinating at times, certainly, as when Dave Filoni is hanging out backstage joking with The Clone Wars voice actors, or George Lucas drops in to say a quick hello.

But being crew is most often not so glamorous. My co-worker, our Lucasfilm VP of licensing, was reportedly asked by a woman to please clean up her child’s vomit. He was wearing a crew shirt, so part of the crew and responsible for helping out. He’s a dad himself; maybe it was not too traumatic for him, but nevertheless…it’s not all glamour.

The Elite Squad’s stories of saving the day range from hilarious to nail-biting to downright terrifying, and I suspect they haven’t told me everything that goes on. But the end result is always the same: The show runs smoothly and none of the attendees are aware that there was almost a hiccup in the plans.

Just how does one get on this superhero squad? How does one start down the road of Celebration behind-the-scenes domination?

Most start out on the Celebration volunteer crew. The Crew tasks can be exciting and event-filled and challenging, and also a great way to get an inside look at what really makes a Celebration tick.

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Making it work behind the scenes. Pablo Hidalgo’s stage crew at Celebration VI in Orlando.

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Elite Squad members during the Lucasfilm Rose Parade prep in Pasadena — Karen Louie, Lori Sartre, Nikki Miyamoto, and Kathy Van Beuningen — ran an emergency glue gun brigade into the very late hours to repair last-minute costume malfunctions.

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Crew members set up the Vader Project art helmet exhibit in the 110-degree, muggy exhibit hall during the build for Celebration Japan. Many convention centers don’t turn on the air conditioning until the show actually opens for attendees.

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Power behind the fans: the crew of the Star Wars Fan Stage at Celebration. They made everything possible from trivia contests to fan movie screenings to space for gaggles of rolling droids. Photos by Mary Franklin.

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With the Celebration Elite on the job, I have time for the big, tricky stuff, like handing out bags of popcorn before The Clone Wars red carpet premiere. Photo by Joel Aron.

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