The Force is about to awaken. But these guys aim to shut it down.
As the world prepares for the cinematic onslaught that will be Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Dec. 17, the Philippine Outpost of the 501st Legion — the local affiliate of an international organization of Star Wars fans who dress up as the bad guys and gals of the Star Wars universe — are costuming themselves in preparation for ambush encounters with those Jedi terrorists.
I recently crossed light sabers with Regina Layug-Romero, PR officer of the 501st Legion, to find out how they have been systematically recruiting members to join the Dark Side, what their plans are to sabotage the launch of the new Star Wars movie and how you can hire them for kiddie parties.
RJ LEDESMA: For the heathen non-Star Wars geeks out there, why are you guys called the 501st Legion?
REJJ: It was founded by guy named Albin Johnson out of North Carolina. It started as an idea from “Detention Block AA23,” the cell where Luke and Han rescued Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV).
We’re getting into geek territory really early, I see.
Albin thought that a number like that was easy to remember. He was looking at World War II pictures and wanted the group to sound like an army or paratrooper group, and he came up with the name 501st Legion.
Interesting that he used World War II as a reference for the 501st Legion, since the name “stormtroopers” was inspired by the Nazi stormtroopers, while the Imperial Officers’ uniforms also resemble historical German army uniforms.
Author Timothy Zahn used the 501st Legion in his Star Wars novel (Survivor’s Quest, 2004) so it became an official name in the Star Wars universe. Then it made its way to the movies when the 501st Legion was the troop that followed Anakin Skywalker into the Jedi temple at the end of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (Episode 3).
And how did the 501st legion make its way into the Philippines? Did it happen between Episodes 3 and 4?
We had some people locally making their own costumes and they were really good-quality costumes! You could put them into a Star Wars movie set and they would totally blend in. We had a guy who was making biker scout armor that was good enough to pass 501st Legion standards. After he registered — and was approved to become a member — he wanted to start the 501st outpost. From one guy in 2004, it grew to five guys, and now we have about 39 members. But the entirety of the 501st legion is 9,000 members worldwide!
I see that the Empire has lots of cannon fodder down here on Earth. So, do you have a lot of enemies on this planet?
(Laughs) That’s the Rebel Legion, the sister organization of the 501st Legion. Those are the guys and the girls of the Star Wars universe. They dress up as Jedis, the Senators, royalty and the nice aliens. There’s another group called the Mandalorian Mercs, a local chapter who dress up like Boba Fett and other Mandalorians. And there’s also a group called Fight Saber that just focused on fight choreography. They actually have practice sessions; you can catch them playing with their light sabers at night in Capital Commons and it’s really pretty.
It’s not too awkward that they like to play with light sabers at night in public, does it?
And some of them have double-bladed sabers! (Laughs)
So what is the application process for the 501st? Do you have to have an in-depth knowledge of Star Wars lore? Be wiling to be strangled by the Force? Or be willing to be gutted in half by a light saber?
The first thing you need to do is have a movie-accurate costume. If you want to dress up as a Stormtrooper from Episode IV or V, it has to look exactly like it did in the movie. It’s those tiny details that we notice. If you want to be a member, then your costume — whether it be Darth Vader, Darth Maul of a bounty hunter — should look exactly like it does in the movies.
My son wears a Lego-accurate costume of a Stormtrooper. Does that count?
(Laughs) The 501st Legion sets standards for each character. Once your costume passes muster, you’re approved as a member. That’s when you get your TKID membership number.
TKID? What does that stand for? Do they implant each one of you with a microchip?
Remember in A New Hope when there were Stormtroopers guarding the Millennium Falcon? And when they entered the Falcon, one of the Imperial Officers radioed in and asked “TK421, why aren’t you at your post?” That’s where it comes from. Stormtroopers are TK, biker scouts are TB, tie fighter pilots are TI, Snowtroopers are TS. All of us have that prefix, then your number. I’m TB 1870 because I have a biker scout costume.
What splendid use of geek trivia right there. What do you guys do when you get together? Reenact your favorite movie scenes? Shoot each other with special effects lasers? Hum “The Imperial March”?
Oh, we do do that! Like at Toycon in Megamall. When we do “The March” for the opening ceremonies, somebody starts humming along and eventually all of us will be humming in unison.
Geeks will wet their official R2D2 adult diapers when they hear about this.
When there are no events we help each other build our costumes. On top of that, one costume is never going to be enough. Some of the people who join us don’t have do-it-yourself skills. They don’t know how to use power tools, or how to paint or sew, so we share our skills and materials and tools. You have to be able to find materials, have exact measurements, and make it look like it did in the movies — you shouldn’t be able to see the stitches or the Velcro. In fact, my husband is much better at sewing machine than I am (Laughs)!
Does the Empire have an official costurera?
We have sukis! You’d think that the Imperial Officer costume is just tela, but no! You go to the modista, they get it so wrong or they use the wrong tela (satin instead of wool).
I find your lack of faith disturbing. So there are no battle droids among you?
(Laughs) No, not physically possible.
You don’t accept anybody who is part of the traitorous Rebel Legion?
There are actually people who are members of both! I think half of our members are both in the 501st and in the Legion.
Hay naku! Is it any wonder then that the Rebels were able to steal the plans for the Death Star? Does it ever get heated between both groups when you get together? Are there any intense light saber battles?
(Laughs) Not here in the Philippines. In other countries, though, they really take it to heart. There are some countries where people are loyal to one group or the other.
What do you guys get in return for spending thousands of pesos to dress up like the bad guys from Star Wars? Does it increase your chances to operate a tie fighter, At-At or Death Star?
I did get to meet George Lucas and march in the Rose Parade (part of a New Year’s celebration held in Pasadena, California)! A lot of us dress up for charity — we’re the bad guys who do good! We actually don’t charge fees for appearances. Rather, we ask the clients to make a donation to charity, preferably children’s causes like PGH’s child foundation, Hero Foundation, Make-A-Wish, Big Brother and Big Sister and Kythe.
Wow, so they can hire you for parties, weddings, police operations?
We’ve done weddings, debuts, parties, especially seventh birthday parties! Usually the dad or the kid are really big fans! They have Star Wars-themed parties, we show up, sing Happy Birthday, help them blow out the candles, pose for pictures and then have the parents give to charity.
I see that the Empire has devised an ingenious way to convert the younglings to the Dark Side. How is the 501st Legion preparing for The Force Awakens? Anybody building a triple-bladed light saber or a new Death Star?
We have a lot of guys making costumes for the movie! Personally, I’m making a Rey costume, my husband is working on a Poe Dameron (Note: both Rey and Poe are characters in the new Star Wars movie). A lot of the other guys are working on the new Stormtroopers as well. We’re excited!
Now I know which troop will be showing up for my daughter’s seventh birthday party. And I don’t think it’s the troop of Rainbow Sparkle from My Little Pony.
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For more information on the 501st Legion, please visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pinoy501st/ or on Twitter and Instagram as @pinoy501st.