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Ringing endorsement

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen hundred fans of “The Lord of the Rings,” Ringers as they call themselves, swept down Highland Boulevard like the horsemen of Rohan charging onto the Pelennor Fields during the climactic battle scene in “The Return of the King.” From around the world they came, in fancy gowns and Elvish cloaks, in hobbit feet and designer tuxedos, to watch director Peter Jackson and his colleagues collect the gold on Oscar night.

Even the most ardent of them were unprepared for the army of statues that ensued. “I prayed to God for a sweep,” said Katherine Eppich, who came from Kansas for awards night. “We love this movie because we love heroes and we need heroes right now.”

Forget the Vanity Fair soiree, or even the party for New Line Cinema (which made the “Lord” trilogy), a more sedate affair in the belly of the Pacific Design Center. The hottest bash in town last night was at the Hollywood American Legion; the dress code was black tie, pointy ears optional, and the last pair of available tickets was auctioned off on EBay days ago for $7,100.

No other films have spanned the chasm between fan culture and critical acclaim in quite the way “The Lord of the Rings” did, and this will never be as clear as at the party thrown by www.theonering.net, a website created five years ago to chronicle and discuss the creation of Jackson’s epic from the moment filming began. If the epic was a masterwork of new technology, so was its fan base

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All those years of fantasy-geek-hood finally paid off.

The cheering from the overwhelmingly female crowd began at 5:29 when Elijah Wood and Jackson were corralled on the red carpet during the pre-show, which was broadcast on screens throughout the building -- cheering as if Elvis had entered.

Women in evening gowns by way of the Renaissance Faire screamed and clapped, hoisted Hobgoblin ale and stamped their high-heeled feet. Metallic streamers burst from canons when Jackson won best director. And, when the film grabbed its 11th Oscar at 9:05 p.m., the shrieks grew operatic.

In the basement bar renamed the Green Dragon, half a dozen women in formal dress ate roast beef and talked about author J.R.R. Tolkien. Amanda Ebright from Rochester, Minn., made her husband read the trilogy on their honeymoon; Charlotte Marks from Springfield, Mass., was the one who mischievously started a rumor two years ago that the actor who played Faramir had quit; Moira Fracassa from Detroit had never joined a fan club or message board in her life until “the Fellowship of the Ring” came out. “But then I loved it so much I had to talk to someone, anyone,” she said.

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Delwyn Masters flew in from New Zealand, Anne Giffels came from Chicago and Geoff Dellimore from outside London. Though they have rarely met on the website, they greeted one another as if they were very old friends. “For so many years, our love of this book has been a solitary thing,” said Ebright. “Now we have a community. In the last four years I’ve met some of the brightest, funniest people on the planet.”

The Web group has held Oscar parties for the last two years at the Hollywood Athletic Club -- the first with 300 guests, the second with 1,100 -- and the founders knew that this would be a blowout. Still, when they put the $125 tickets on sale Dec.10, they were shocked.

Within 10 minutes, they had sold all 1,200 and pretty much blown out their server. “It was unreal,” said Chris Pirrotta, the co-webmaster, a Web designer who lives in Valencia. “We watched the numbers go up so fast it was a blur.”

Neither he nor any of the website founders was invited to the official party, but Pirotta, who says that New Line has been very supportive -- supplying merchandise for a silent auction and assuring that Jackson and the cast would show up at some point during the evening -- says they prefer to celebrate with their peers. “This is the ultimate night for people who have lived so long in the shadows,” he said.

So many devotees found themselves with plane tickets and no party that fans organized a second smaller gala. About 400 attended the “Into the West” event at the Hollywood Athletic Club, which, by now, is used to being over-run by the creatures of Middle-earth at Oscar time. Pre-event confusion over which party was where led to some testiness, but as “Into the West” organizer Diane Rooney said: “It’s about celebrating the books and the community, not about which party you’re going to.”

The American Legion was transformed for the evening from the outside entrance where a bronzed soldier was draped in an Elvish cloak and a beacon of Gondor glowed from atop the roof. (The silken flames were so realistic they drew questions from the fire marshal.) Inside signs pointed to the Green Dragon; to Mordor, where the food was served; and to the Great Hall, where guests were entertained by One Ring Circus, a costume troupe that spoofed last year’s winner, “Chicago,” and wound up in a kick line, all in full “Lord of the Rings” regalia.

The costumes were echoed in the audience. Paul Mullins, Jeanette Christiansen and Teresa Seffel, all from Los Angeles, were dressed as a hobbit and two elves, respectively. Seffel is a longtime “Star Wars” fan, but when “The Fellowship” premiered, she said, Frodo replaced Luke Skywalker in her heart forever. “Now I’m involved in medieval costuming and Renaissance festivals,” she said.

That sentiment was repeated over and over on a large placard in the foyer. Addressed as a thank you to Jackson and his crew, it was signed by hundreds of fans. “Thank you for bringing our dreams to life ... for making the best movie of all time ... for changing my life....”

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From the moment New Line announced that Jackson would be making not one but three movies, Ringers were caught in a whirl of elation and anxiety over the liberties that would have to be taken with the text. The website began with photographs taken on location in New Zealand during shooting by Erica Challis, a musician with the Auckland Philharmonia. But with these photos came rumor and fear: What was Liv Tyler, who played Arwen, doing on horseback? Was it true that Tom Bombadil did not make the final script? (Yes.) That Merry and Pippin had be excised from the Fellowship?(No.)

When “The Fellowship” opened, the only sound louder than the beeping of box office cash registers -- the three movies broke the billion-dollar mark last week in international sales -- was the collective sigh of relief from Tolkien fans.So what will happen to the fans and their innumerable clubs now that it’s all over?

“It’s so bittersweet,” said Christiansen. “We have nothing to look forward to now.”

“There were die-hard fans before the movies were ever made,” said Rooney. “There may be some falloff, but there will always be interest in the books and the movies.”

And besides, it’s not over until the DVD sings. (It’s due in December.)


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