The worst of the Empire is on display tonight. Scads of white-costumed Stormtroopers, Imperial gunners, Death Star staff officers and TIE pilots fill the streets of Anaheim in a true show of force for the evil Galactic Empire. The crowd loves it. Stormtroopers stomp together as the "Imperial March" blasts through the speakers of a modified car. Bah-bah-bah-bum-bah-bum-bum-bah-bum. As if summoned by his own evil theme song, Darth Vader appears. Children rush to the Sith Lord and the most feared villain in the galaxy leans down and starts giving high-fives to kids and adults. The onlookers go mad.
Apparently it's good to be bad.
You wouldn't assume the club whose nickname is Vader's Fist would be met with love and adoration across the country, but that's just how far the 501st Legion has grown. What started as a Geocities website in 1997 for "Star Wars" fans has advanced into a worldwide charitable organization of cosplayers. They appear at hospitals, fan conventions and local parades. Most memorable perhaps was when the 501st overwhelmed the crowds at the 2007 Rose Parade as the stunning escort to Grand Marshal George Lucas.
FULL COVERAGE: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'
The 501st is the fictional, Earth-side headquarters for the Empire. The most popular recruit for the 501st is the Stormtrooper.
"Something about the Stormtrooper is just elegant and iconic. There is strength there, and not the kind that carries with it the responsibilities of portraying a single character: This was the everyman character," says Albin Johnson, creator of the 501st Legion.
Despite their charitable demeanor, the 501st is not your normal cosplay group; entry into the Legion is fairly rigorous for new recruits. First you have to submit a photo of yourself and your Imperial costume. The draftee must then pass a review by a membership officer who compares the images against an official requirements list for authenticity. Detail is key.
The military structure continues on down through the organization of the 501st. The groups of fans around the world are categorized as garrisons (25 members or more), outposts (one to 24) and squads (smaller collections that are usually part of a larger garrison).
For example, a local Los Angeles squad with 200 members belongs to the Southern California Garrison. There are 74 garrisons (some boasting more than 450 members) and 30 outposts across the globe (including an Aurora Borealis Alaskan Outpost) listed in the 501st database, found at www.501st.com.
But wait, there's more. The reach of the 501st is as long and vast as the expansive "Star Wars" galaxy. Along with garrisons, outposts and squads, special detachments have been created. For example, there's an Armored Cavalry Detachment that members of the Bounty Hunters Guild can belong to, all with their own insignias and command structures.
Still the questions remain: Why not start a rebel army? Why join up with the bad guys? Creator Johnson says one reason is the anonymous appeal. "The idea of the Stormtrooper is that they're anonymous; anyone could be behind that mask. In some regards, without all the evil Empire stuff, they could be soldiers we know today — dedicated to service, strong, brave. The Stormtrooper gives us that archetype we can fill in any way we like," Johnson says.
Plus the appeal of the charity work that continues to draw in more and more recruits. Larry Harris, walking in one of his first charity events in Anaheim, has been an Imperial Stormtrooper for only a few months. He decided to join after a couple of members assisted his family while waiting in the long lines at this year's Star Wars Celebration. Their helpful attitudes, along with their devotion to charity work, convinced him to enlist and invest more than $2,000 in "A New Hope" Stunt Trooper uniform.
"The parades are fun and everything, but we've done a lot of charity work," said Harris. "This is what it's all about, the charity. As they say, we're villains doing good."
Commanding Officer of the Imperial Sands Garrison (San Diego region) Lesley Farquhar joined after months of researching both the group (and her costume). For her, the outings are not only fulfilling for her but help provide family bonding time as well. "My husband is also in the group. It's something we enjoy sharing with each other and our children," says Farquhar.
Southern California Garrison Executive Officer Lawrence Green joined the group after bonding with 501st members who were all working to assemble a three-quarter-scale replica of an X-wing fighter. Like many others, he is also a member of the Rebel Legion (which no one at the 501st seemed too bothered by, even though the Rebels and the Empire are mortal enemies). And he even constructed a mash-up suit that combines the dark and the light side of the Force, "My Luke-variant Stormtrooper armor came together in a marathon 20-hour assembly 'whose-idea-was-this-I-believe-it-was-yours' frenzy of coffee, snacks and swearing."
Greg Miller, an Oregonian who drove down to Anaheim to walk in their fall parade, had wanted to join since the group came into existence. Now his "Star Wars" name is Dax Corrin, and he's a full-fledged Imperial gunner, a member of the Cloud City Garrison in Portland.
Green and Miller are just two of the thousands of stories about why some people join the 501st. All individual tales, all eventually partaking in charitable acts, but many leading to becoming a faceless member of a generic yet iconic Stormtrooper nation. They may be the villains, but they're also a source of inspiration.
The Legion doesn't operate rogue from the mother ship; Lucasfilm recognizes the 501st as an official organization. "I would be lying to say I imagined this level of success for the Legion," says Johnson. "The two things I hoped for came through beyond my wildest dreams: support from Lucasfilm and enthusiasm from fellow costumers. All of our success stems from those two factors."
Lucas passed on his blessing by officially including the 501st in the canon of "Star Wars." Novels "Survivor's Quest" and "Fool's Bargain" mention the 501st as Earth's contingent in the Galactic Empire. "The Episode III Visual Dictionary" wraps the 501st into its compendium, and there's also a mention in LucasArts' "Star Wars Battlefront II" video game.
A further honor will come in the new "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" film as a droid that the 501st Legion rallied around, R2-KT, is introduced on-screen. It is a bittersweet moment for Johnson since the pink and silver droid was created by a fellow "Star Wars" fan group, the R2 Builders' club, to help his daughter Katie as she fought what turned out to be terminal cancer. When he found out about it, it was hard to contain his emotions.
"I almost cried. Maybe I did cry and I just can't admit it. What a beautiful gesture. And again, Lucasfilm had everything to do with that. They know the story of our late daughter and her battle with cancer, and they were there every step of the way helping us," says Johnson. "They know intimately what went into R2-KT's birth and the R2 Builders' generosity in making her. Our family just hugged and jumped for joy together knowing Katie's legacy would live on in that galaxy far, far away."
With all of the charity and smiles that the group has brought to others, it seems the Force may have returned a few.