The ViewPoint

At ‘Star Wars’ Convention, 60,000 Celebrate Everything From Luke To Lord Vader

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Eager fans, anticipating the new movie

Eager fans, anticipating the new movie "Star Wars: The Force Awakes" in December, swarm the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

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Eager fans, anticipating the new movie "Star Wars: The Force Awakes" in December, swarm the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

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By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune

(TNS)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Smells of lilac and palm were everywhere, hanging in the air. The Imperial trooper removed his white sculpted helmet and breathed in the spring morning. Immediately, the pleasant smell of Anaheim was replaced with the riper fragrance of Star Wars Town, a smell of sweaty excitement and, also, of sweat. It was the smell of the Anaheim Convention Center floor, where more than 60,000 “Star Wars” fans descended on each day of Star Wars Celebration, the giant, semi-occasional, Lucasfilm-produced bacchanal to all things from a galaxy far, far away.

It was the smell of men and women dancing in Darth Vader and Boba Fett armor, and 45-year-old parental “Star Wars” fans towing hordes of kids with light sabers; it was the smell of long lines to hear to Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill discuss his life and to attend a rare screening of the original “Star Wars” translated into Navajo.

Star Wars Town was a quirky place, and if you stayed long enough, the world itself started to look like “Star Wars.” You realized you were standing knee-deep in Sith.

Normally this place is thought of as Disneyland; the park and resort sits across the street from the convention center and dominates cultural life. But Disney announced it was buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, a purchase that was controversial with the residents of Star Wars Town, and so the Mouse kept his distance during the convention, which ended Sunday. Because Star Wars Town is real, an autonomous place. Or was. Here are some notes from my visit.

Star Wars fans Sharon Jackson, left, dressed as Mission Vao, and Kyle Jackson, dressed as Chewbacca, at the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Star Wars fans Sharon Jackson, left, dressed as Mission Vao, and Kyle Jackson, dressed as Chewbacca, at the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

The mayor of Star Wars Town was Steve Sansweet. He even had a “Star Wars” suit made of heavy 1977 “Star Wars” denim fabric, and a sash that said “Mayor.” The suit, which is part of Sansweet’s massive “Star Wars” collection, was actually made for Tom Schaefer, a Chicago-area fan (who since gave Sansweet the title “Ambassador”). But for all intents and purposes, at Star Wars Celebration Sansweet filled the role of mayor, the guy who started Rancho Obi-Wan, a California non-profit dedicated to preserving and exhibiting several generations of “Star Wars” artifacts. He’s also a former newspaper reporter who is often credited with convincing Lucasfilm to embrace its fans, pulling the franchise out of a late-’80s malaise of disinterest.

“That’s him,” a woman said, pointing at Sansweet, who sat signing autographs for hours at a Rancho exhibition booth. “He’s like the collector, the biggest fan ever.”

An hour before we spoke he even performed a “Star Wars” wedding.

Sansweet is 69, a Philadelphia native with the graying beard and mischievous grin of a more playful George Lucas. “I grew up loving science fiction,” he said, “and when ‘Star Wars’ came out I was in the Wall Street Journal bureau in Los Angeles. I was the bureau chief for nine years, and 20th Century Fox invited us to the lot to see it. I had been collecting Japanese rockets and robot (toys), and after ‘Empire Strikes Back’ the focus became ‘Star Wars.’ In the early ‘90s I was doing books for Lucasfilm while still at the Journal, and one day I got a call from them asking if I knew anyone who would be willing to come work here for only one year, for a third of what I was making, to go around and talk to fans. See, Lucasfilm pioneered fan relations for movies, partly out of frustration with Fox, which didn’t know how to market ‘Star Wars.’ That one-year job lasted 15, and I developed a formal fan-relations program, and also started the first Celebration in 1999. (Lucasfilm’s) reputation for tramping down on (fan-created artifacts) is misplaced. Because I had told them they couldn’t do a better job of getting fans on their side than embracing what they made.”

His exhibit at Celebration had fan-made pinatas, a painting of Barack Obama as Lando Calrissian, Mexican prayer altars, string art, wooden backgammon boards.

Star Wars characters from the worldwide 501st Legion costume organization at the entrance to the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Star Wars characters from the worldwide 501st Legion costume organization at the entrance to the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

“There are provocative, clever works here,” he said. “A ‘Che’-bacca bust, for instance. Some execs from Lucasfilm were taken with the Obama-as-Lando, set to an ‘Empire’ quote (‘This deal is getting worse all the time’). Remember, George used Vietnam as a sub-theme of sorts; the Empire was the United States and the Rebels the Vietcong.”

I asked him if there are any “Star Wars” artifacts he wouldn’t archive.

“People have made one or two X-rated items, as I’m sure you’re aware,” he said. “And I maybe have one or two …. But we don’t do those kind of conventions.”

.

The centerpiece of the Rancho Obi-Wan exhibit was “The 20th Century Space Opera,” an 8-by-15-foot mural; it was a dazzlingly bright, almost gaudy, mostly brilliant oil painting tribute about loving “Star Wars” as a kid and yet missing it as a grown-up. When, or if, George Lucas ever builds his new museum on the Chicago lakefront, might I suggest a new acquisition?

The work, from Bay Area artist Robert Xavier Burden, was impossible to miss, a baroque, classically-inspired painting of “Star Wars” toys, woven densely into what appeared to be a pastiche of every stained glass window you’ve ever seen. A sample of the reactions overheard: “Whoa,” “Dear God,” “Holy …” and “I want that.”

At a glance it appeared to be air-brushed, but, moving closer, you could see the brushstrokes, and how cleverly Burden placed his subjects. A giant Boba Fett action figure (once a Holy Grail-like object among collectors) lords over the center, flanked by two types of Ewoks. On one end, Darth Vader raises a stiff, plastic arm in triumph; on the other, Luke Skywalker meets his challenge. Along the bottom, there’s also Yul Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven,” “Flash Gordon” toys and a portrait of mythologist Joseph Campbell — all nods to a young Lucas’ influences.

Filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who directed the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (due Dec. 18), stopped by to take a look. “I regret not selling it to him, to be honest,” Burden said. Burden, who is 32, had already sold another “Star Wars” painting to the CEO of Nike, he said. And he was selling this one: Asking price was $200,000. Perfect for a Lucas museum, no?

“Everyone keeps telling me that,” Burden said. “But Lucas? I don’t have his number.”

Molly Ingham, of South Carolina, dresses as "Seth Elsa" during the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

Molly Ingham, of South Carolina, dresses as “Seth Elsa” during the Star Wars Celebration, April 16-19 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on Thursday, April 16, 2015.

If Star Wars Celebration was something like Christmas for “Star Wars” fans, then the release of a new movie trailer for “The Force Awakens” was Christmas morning: You have never seen more grown men do the I’m-not-crying subtle swipe at a teardrop on their faces than you did Thursday, specifically the moment Harrison Ford turned to his furry sidekick Chewbacca and said, “Chewie, We’re home.” Abrams debuted about 90 seconds of new footage to a packed arena, and when Han Solo and his Wookie appeared at the end, Ron Stein, of Maryland, turned to his brother:

“The hair stood on my head.”

Stein is bald.

Fans had slept outside the convention center all night for this, and Abrams, late the night before, had 300 pizzas delivered to the line in a show of gratitude. The event itself that morning became a surprisingly emotional love fest. Hamill — after helping a limping but still physically imposing 70-year-old Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) onto the stage — told the crowd: “Over the years, my entire adult life, I felt such love from you, and you have become more than fans, you are family.”

Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) leaned in to him affectionately, and you could see fans actually shaking off the chill of their goose bumps. The overall vibe was like an Apple product unveiling meeting a family reunion, everyone straining forward to divine bits of information. Fisher, ever wry, told the audience: “Thank you for playing with me,” and though she meant her action figure, it only partly sounded like a joke.

.

I’ve covered enough nerd conventions to know these things don’t generally feel as congenial and warm as Star Wars Celebration. Maybe it was the weather and reaction to the trailer, but the good vibe established on Day 1 carried into Day 4, never quite curdling. A homemade R2D2 rolled through the lobby belting out Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” trailed by children. Fisher, who spent the weekend signing autographs, carried around her dog, Gary. And two things jumped out: First, “Star Wars” fandom has grown remarkably diverse, racially and generationally — if you tend to think of these things as meetings of awkward white men who can’t put away old toys, you would have been very wrong.

Bill and Carol Temple, grandparents from California, were there with their extended family. Bill was dressed in the dark robes of the Emperor and Carol as a founder of the Rebel Alliance. “She is my wife and my enemy,” he said.

For a famously picky, grumpy fandom, most of these people were in ridiculously good moods. Outside the convention center on Saturday, Manuel Cruz of Southern California handed out satiric protest signs to men in Stormtrooper costumes. He made the signs to protest the religious protesters whose own signs reminded conventiongoers that Jesus died for our sins. Cruz’s signs read “Vader is Lord” and “Lord Vader finds your lack of faith disturbing.” One religious protester approached him: “Did you make these signs? You did a good job. I still want you to get into heaven. But, yeah, clever, man.”

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At a costuming panel, a Lucasfilm editor explained that Billy Dee Williams’ clamshell-like helmet in “Return of the Jedi” was modeled on a staffer who wore his baseball glove on his head. Didn’t know that. But that wasn’t the fashion news at Celebration. For that, you stood in line for at least an hour to be ushered into a room full of costumes and props from the new film. It was certainly the most hushed space in the convention hall.

A big hit was the new R2D2-like droid, named BB-8, which, in person, so to speak, resembles a scalped R2 surgically joined to the top of a high-tech beach ball.

“You know, they totally came though on the Stormtroopers,” said Josh Mireles, of Chico, Calif. “I didn’t want stupid-looking Stormtroopers.”

Meanwhile, standing to the side unnoticed was Will Steggle, wardrobe master on “Force Awakens.” He said: “I kind of can’t help listening, basically ear-wigging it here. A lot of people put a lot of work into this and sweat and heart and you want to know the reaction. And I think J.J. Abrams was so smart in that he didn’t want to put his mark on this world — he was sympathetic to working within the world that he stepped into, and that’s very wise.”

Similarly respectful to the fandom: the footage of “Star Wars Battlefront,” a hotly anticipated new video game that premiered on Friday. Its message was bold and immediate: The line between what it means to watch a video game and play a movie is about to get much blurrier.

Doug Chiang, Lucasfilm’s executive creative director, watched footage of the game and said the amount of research and detail that went into it and into “The Force Awakens” was so similar that “we could have been working on each other’s projects and we might have both come to exactly the same place.” But Craig McLeod, the game’s producer, standing outside a room where footage of the game was being screening, said he was nervous. Asked what the hardest part of working with “Star Wars” was, he smiled:

“Managing expectations.”

———

©2015 Chicago Tribune

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At ‘Star Wars’ Convention, 60,000 Celebrate Everything From Luke To Lord Vader