June 2, 2008

Dressed as 'Star Wars' bad guys, club makes appearances for charity

This really good article just came through over the weekend from the Arizona Republic:

Dressed as 'Star Wars' bad guys, club makes appearances for charity
Karina Bland
May. 31, 2008 12:00 AM

The sun is barely up, and an army from the dark side gathers in the parking lot of the Tempe Center for the Arts. Clone troopers emerge from between cars. A Sith lord pulls on his shirt. A Tusken Raider adjusts his helmet.
The only thing that can bring these characters to this part of the galaxy - especially this early in the morning - is a charity event.
The evil Empire, it turns out, does a lot of good.
About 40 bad guys make up the Dune Sea Garrison, the Arizona chapter of the international Star Wars costuming club known as the 501st Legion. They dress in authentic costumes from the Star Wars movies, representing bad guys only. Worldwide, there are 4,000 members.
"We're all huge geeks, " says Jennifer LaFortune of Gilbert, a 36-year-old attorney and mom of two. She dresses up as Mara Jade, a fierce assassin with fiery red hair. Her husband, Joe, 37, public-safety coordinator for Queen Creek, is a clone trooper.
But they're geeks for a good cause. Their mission is not to destroy the Republic, but to assist it with charity work. On this April morning, they're appearing at a benefit race for Junior Achievement, a non-profit program that teaches children about business and economics.
The group walks in parades and poses for pictures at parties. The group's favorite event is visiting young patients at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
"In the hospitals, we make the sick kids smile," says Stephen Lentz, a 35-year-old Mesa police officer and part-time sandtrooper.
Members bring Star Wars action figures and other toys for the kids. If the kids aren't well enough to get up, Darth Vader and the others go to their bedsides.
While not endorsed by Lucasfilm Ltd., the studio behind Star Wars, the members of the Dune Sea Garrison dress in otherworldly garb with the approval of filmmaker George Lucas. They are not paid for appearances but ask that donations be made to their favorite charities, like the children's hospital and Make-A-Wish Foundation. They deliver any donations of toys to the children's hospital, too.
Members are avid Star Wars fans, obviously, some from the time the initial movie hit theaters in 1977. Lee Palmer of Phoenix, a 42-year-old superintendent for McCarthy Construction, saw Star Wars seven times in one day when he was 13.
Four years ago, his wife told him to find a hobby. She's not sure this is what she meant, nodding at her husband, who's dressed as a stormtrooper, but it makes him happy.
"Where else can I dress up like an action figure and help kids?" Palmer asks, grinning.

Constructing costumes
The runners are gathering near the parking lot, alongside Tempe Town Lake, so the group heads that way. Tristan Moriuchi of Phoenix walks stiffly in a new set of armor. The 23-year-old accountant is likely to be bruised later.
"It's a work in progress," Palmer explains. "Every time you wear it, you find a new place that rubs."
A woman points a camera at Moriuchi, and he points right back at her menacingly. She giggles and snaps a picture.
Scott Chana of Phoenix pulls on a Darth Vader helmet. His costume is the real deal, pieced together from parts found on the Internet or built by a prop maker. Some of the members make their own armor, heating plastic in their garages and shaping it to foam molds.
The lights on the front of the Vader costume blink in the same order as they do in the movies. Helmets are fitted with voice amplifiers and fans. Such costumes can cost $5,000 to put together.
The 24-year-old flight instructor has dressed as Vader for about two years. He's shy in real life, but when he pulls on Vader's helmet, he's someone different.
"This might sound a little bit silly, but I love taking center stage," he says.
As the ultimate bad guy, with the trademark breathing and death grip, Vader gets a lot of attention wherever the group appears.
Josh James, 34, of Phoenix, is a Tusken Raider (also known as Sand People). His robes are made of muslin, held together with fabric glue since he can't sew. His headpiece is fashioned from a baseball helmet, fitted with fans and covered with strips of khaki-colored material. His costume cost about $100 to make.
So he's a little jealous of Vader, especially when kids mistake him for Yoda, a 3-foot-tall Jedi.
"I'm not even green," he mumbles.
As Darth Maul, 22-year-old Ryan Denton, an Arizona State University Polytechnic student, signs autographs for kids, writing, "Join the dark side" or "Stay in school."
It takes him 2 1/2 hours to look like Darth Maul, covering his face and head with black and red paint and popping in yellow contact lenses ringed in red. He shaves his head the night before.
His girlfriend, Ashley Estes of Mesa, says people tease her, saying, "Is it funny that your boyfriend takes longer to get ready than you do?"

Mingling with fans
The characters wander among the spectators waiting for the runners' return from the 5K route, posing for picture after picture.
"My heroes," says Albert Salinas of Mesa, flanked by Darth Vader, Princess Leia and a stormtrooper for a picture. The 53-year-old is a longtime Star Wars fan.
"It just takes me back," he says.
Back to a simpler time when - at least in the movies - good always won out over evil.
"I grew up on Star Wars," says Brian Teille, 35, of Queen Creek.
He saw the first movie in the theater with his mom. Now he watches the movies with his six kids.
A sandtrooper walks up behind a group of young girls undetected. When they notice him, they squeal and run away only to come face-to-face with Darth Vader. The girls laugh and stumble over each other, trying to back up quickly.
Nine-year-old Ryan Kidd of Mesa isn't scared. He talks to the storm- and clone troopers about weapons and spaceships. His generation of Star Wars fans knows the characters not only from the movies and action figures but also the video games.
Near the finish line, the Tusken Raider plays air guitar with his staff, and Lentz, as a sandtrooper, hollers at weary runners: "Move out! Move out! You're almost there. Run, trooper, run!"
When the last of the runners come in, Lentz pulls off his helmet. He admits, "OK. I'm hot."
The sun is high in the sky, and Vader is moving slowly in his 50 pounds of black costume. One of the fans in his helmet stopped working.
Everyone is red-faced and sweaty, but satisfied. Palmer says, "That was a lot of fun."
They strip off armor, ease into air-conditioned cars, and head home. The evil Empire needs a shower.

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