Darth Vader and a squadron of more than a dozen Imperial soldiers and Stormtroopers stroll into Chicago's Adler Planetarium on a Thursday night and gather around a large-scale model of the Earth as if planning to attack it with their superweapon the Death Star.
Then, two women in high heels holding cocktails rush up to Vader and smile while the "Star Wars" villain poses by lifting his gloved fists in triumph in front of someone snapping a picture with an iPhone.
The Midwest Garrison of the 501st Legion, also known as "Vader's Fist," aren't exactly conquerors of the galaxy. The members of the Illinois chapter of the world's largest "Star Wars" costuming club are volunteers engaged in a slightly nobler quest--generating interest in events related to George Lucas' sci-fi trilogies, raising money for various charities and sometimes even entertaining kids at birthday parties.
So much for the Dark Side.
"Our motto is Bad Guys Doing Good," said Carlos Mendoza, 42, of Wrigleyville--one of the group's newest members. "The fact that we're bad guys--it's the cool aspect. It doesn't mean we're pro-Imperials or a bunch of Nazis. We just think they're the coolest-looking characters."
Qualifying for the Midwest Garrison, however, isn't simply a matter of walking into a Halloween store and buying a flimsy costume held together by cheap plastic parts and rubber bands. Sticking with characters in the Imperial Army isn't a necessity--the Garrison allows people to dress up as other morally dubious characters such as bounty hunters, Jawas or Sand People--but group guidelines do insist on "film-authentic" costumes, right down to the hand-painted grills on the helmets. Lucasfilm, which was recently bought by Disney, owns the license to everything "Star Wars"-related and prohibits mass sales from unlicensed vendors, meaning that most of the outfits are built from scratch or modified from found objects. The average cost of a costume is enough to make Princess Leia blush--$1,500.
"My Stormtrooper costume was the most black-market, drug-deal type of thing I've ever been involved with," joked Brian Troyan, 37, of the Near West Side, who also doubles as the Garrison's public relations officer. "I basically knew a girl who knew a guy, who knew a guy who made the suit. I gave him some money, he gave me a pile of plastic that I put together."
Mendoza's gleaming white Stormtrooper costume took 10 months to put together. The Chicago Public School music teacher treated it like a top-secret project. After his two young children went to bed each night, he went to a storage area and assembled his costume bit-by-bit from November 2011 to August 2012.
"It's funny because I go back and watch the movies, and I see all the details that are wrong with some of the costumes. You can spot duct tape hanging off and you're like ‘Wow, they were so poorly made,' " Mendoza said. "Ours are a billion times better than the ones in the original movies."
But the difficulty and expense of constructing a custom-made suit hasn't harmed the Legion's membership numbers. Worldwide, there are approximately 6,000 members, and the Midwest Garrison, which includes only residents of Illinois, is now up to 133, including an estimated 70 in the Chicagoland area. That's quite a change from the dozen or so "Star Wars" fans who dressed up and hung out together in the late '90s.
Former Commanding Officer Kathy van Beuningen said the Garrison gets asked to participate in more events every year.
"We used to be looked on as kind of weird, and people didn't know what do with us," said van Beuningen, 50, of Lincoln Square, who works at an art gallery downtown. "But over the years we've done events with the Bulls, the White Sox, at the Field Museum, and we even went on stage with No Doubt during one of their shows. I think those kinds of things really attracted all sorts of people and solidified our group."
The Garrison has also benefited from the explosion of nerd culture in general in recent years, according to Troyan.
"Geek is chic these days," he said. "The nerds have risen up and started to rule the world, and geek culture is pop culture now."
It's also not just a stereotypical guy culture either. One of the 28 female members is Adriane Bean, 29, of Glencoe, an analyst at an industrial supply company who defies the stereotype of the typical hardcore sci-fi fan.
With costume on, Bean looks nearly identical to the handful of other plastic-clad troopers marching around the Planetarium. But after a couple of long hours posing for pictures with her fake laser rifle and interacting with fans, she takes a break from the action and removes her helmet to reveal long blonde hair and striking good looks.
"There's a lot of disbelief that there's this little blonde girl underneath the helmet," Bean said.
When Bean first posted pictures of herself in her costume on Facebook, she got comments that ranged from light mockery to shocked surprise.
"Some were like, ‘You do WHAT on weekends?' " she said. "But a lot of people have warmed up to it and think it's cool once I explain it."
Troyan still gets a little defensive about his hobby when talking to strangers or acquaintances and tries to emphasize the Garrison's charity work.
"In the first breath I say, ‘Yeah, I'm a Stormtrooper, but I do a lot of stuff for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the American Cancer Society and other stuff because it defuses some of the mockery. How many other people can say, ‘My hobby can make the world a better place or make a stranger smile?' "
Bean said she too is proud of the Garrison's charity work, but also can't hide her delight at being involved in her favorite childhood movies--especially with Darth Vader involved.
"This is all I ever wanted--as a kid, I'd fast-forward the scenes with the Rebel Alliance and just watched the scenes with Vader and the Empire," she said. "Now when I see the movies, I see the Stormtroopers, and I'm like ‘Those are my boys!'"
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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