On a breezy November morning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a group of Star Wars fans were loading up crates of equipment into a small room. More crowded in over time, filling the space quickly and began unpacking the equipment within.
This was an event for the 501st Legion a group specializing in creating costumes that mimic those from the film franchise. Their intention is getting the most intricate costume details right. Formed in 1997, the Legion now boasts over 7500 members. The group is endorsed by Lucas Film Ltd, the company behind the blockbuster film franchise. The 501st even became part of canon when the 501st was included within Star Wars novels by name.
The 501st is broken up into regional chapters called Garrisons, made up of a minimum of 25 active members. Some of these can gather up to 300 or 400 members according to Timothy Wimbush, the Commanding Officer for Garrison Carida which covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia.
With over 190 members, Carida is the 8th largest Garrison in the world, as of this writing. It formed in 2002 after previously being a squad for New York’s Empire City Garrison. Carida has grown enough to have a Squad from within. Formed by members of Carida in West Virginia, Squad Corellia could eventually break off to form their own Garrison.
Each Garrison operates independently, but answers to the 501st organization itself. They draw in members from many different walks of life including police officers, bankers, and contractors . “There’s pretty much two things that draws all those different people together,” according to Wimbush, “Number one is charity, and number two is the love of Star Wars”.
Charity is a large focus of 501st. Many organizations call on the Legion to make appearances, which they do free of charge. This includes events for organizations such as American Cancer Society, Toys for Tots, and the Make a Wish Foundation. The group also assists with film premieres, but shies away from more personal events such as birthday parties. Larger events that happen along state borders can even involve cooperation between Garrisons.
The Lancaster Science Factory, a facility that works to develop curiosity about science for younger audiences, called upon the 501st for an event in early November. “The Science of Star Wars” even was a build-up to the Extraordinary Give, a local charity event. The building was filled with stations of Star Wars themed activities, along with their regular science-themed ones. The 501st helped to draw fans young and old towards the event, standing outside along the street to make their presence known.
Timothy Wimbush was among those who visited this event. While not in costume for the event, Wimbush normally suits up as either Boba Fett or a Stormtrooper. He has been with the 501st since 2006 and went on to describe how the members are all volunteers who are paying completely out of pocket; not just for creating the costumes, but for the cost of travel to the different events. Many of the members who made the trip to the Science Factory had been up late the night before, attending a black tie event for the Children’s Miracle Network.
Membership within the 501st is no small feat. While there is no fee, the group’s dedication to detail and recreating the looks of the films can drive the costs of costuming up considerably. “[The] 501st has a lot of standards,” Wimbush stated, “Every Garrison has a General Membership Liaison. [They take] a look at exactly what each costume has to have. Makes sure it has every little detail, every little scratch.” Some who attempt to make costumes the first time fail, but the Garrison gives them instructions on what they need to fix in order to meet those standards. Wimbush estimated some of the costumes, such as Darth Vader, cost approximately $6100 to make. Others, like a Stormtrooper, were “probably about $2000.”
Nevertheless, many seek to join the group. “Cadets”, as they are referred to, are given the opportunity to come out to the events and observe, to see if they are ready to invest the time and effort. After this, they go through the 501st’s Academy, where they are given an advisor and access to reference materials for creating the intricate costumes. For some, the decision was made a long time ago (and possibly in a galaxy far, far away).
Jason Romanoff has been a member of the 501st for 16 years. He is one of five remaining members of the Garrison who had helped form it back in 2002. As Captain of the Guard, he is in charge of mediation. This includes resolving disputes between members of the Garrison before they become a larger issue. He’s also done an array of costumes, including Stormtroopers, Commander Cody, and Emperor Palpatine. He’s since pared down back to the Stormtrooper outfit alone.
When it came to other groups, Romanoff stated there wasn’t any real rivalry between them. They even invite members of the Rebel Legion, who costume as members of the Rebel Alliance, to help out at events. Some members of Carida are even dual members with the Rebel Legion’s Ghost Base, which covers the Pennsylvania and Delaware region.
When Romanoff joined up along with his brother, the 501st was mostly doing appearances at film releases and public events. Romanoff wanted to do more, so he called up local hospitals, asking “can we bring each child a Star Wars toy, meet them, take a Polaroid picture with them?” Since then the 501st grew to include the previously mentioned charity events, as well as more members.
“Just like any type of club, which is what we are, there’s your club officers,” Wimbush said when asked about Carida’s hierarchy, “Because it’s Star Wars we call it Command Staff.” Some members of Carida’s eight person Command Staff based out of the Philadelphia area, including Wimbush. Meanwhile, other members come from across the state in Pittsburgh, or in the other states that make up the Garrison. They keep up with one another through a weekly conference call between them.
Mike Bryant is the Executive Officer of Carida, acting as second in command. Much of his position involves helping to coordinate the events and keeping things in order. While his day job is as a police officer, he has now been a member of the 501st for five years.His main costume is Boba Fett, which he uses with a specialized amplification system. This gives him the ability to speak through a headset during events, as opposed to many whose mask obstruct talking. The system modulates his voice to mimic that of Boba Fett during the original trilogy. While he has held a love of Star Wars since a young age, he expressed great gratitude to the members of the 501st that have helped him with his constructions. “I could never have made a costume without the guidance that my advisor provided me,” Bryant stated in an email.
The 501st reaches fans of all ages, including a new generation. Ryan Miorelli grew fascinated with the 501st and the Rebel Legion after attending Star Wars Celebration II, a convention that he attended when he was 10. “I need to do this when I grow up, and I joined as soon as I was old enough,” he stated. He’s been a part of the Rebel Legion for three years, portraying Ezra Bridger from the Star Wars Rebels cartoon series. He also does similar costuming for franchises such as Harry Potter and Fallout.
Fellow member Zoe Hilton has grown up in the culture. “I was raised into it, into Star Wars and the Garrison,” she stated. After costuming as a Jawa for eight years, she’s since moved on to portray Sabine Wren from Star Wars Rebels. At fourteen, she’s even started her own podcast about the series, Star Wars Geek Girl, which she hosts over Skype with a friend on the west coast.
Garrison Carida plans to attend six different movie theatres for the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. “Keeping those people waiting in line, waiting to get in at the theatres occupied and entertained” will be the goal according to Wimbush.
The Garrison provided some much appreciated entertainment in Lancaster. Ian Paul, a member at the Science Factory, surprised his kids Jack and Ava with the event. “I didn’t tell them ‘til this morning,” he stated. He brought the kids to the event dressed in their appropriately Star Wars-themed Halloween costumes. “They love coming here,” Paul said, regarding the Science Factory, “This just is a big extra, like a surprise to have this in Lancaster, and it’s really incredible.”
Want to see more photos? Click here to see our other photos for the event.