With the dome of the U.S. Capitol gleaming behind them like a friendly Death Star, members of the 501st Legion mill about near the Botanic Garden on this chilly Sunday morning.
There are stormtroopers and biker scouts, TIE fighter pilots and the bounty hunter Boba Fett.
Delighted tourists stream toward the gathering of about two dozen “Star Wars” reenactors, who gamely pose for pictures. No one is talking about destroying Alderaan.
“High five!” Darth Vader says occasionally as doubtful children are prodded toward him by eager parents.
“This crowd’s been pretty good,” says Darth Vader’s wife, Jennifer Peterson, who has driven down from Glen Burnie, Md., with her husband (Rob Davis). “Some kids in a group become brave and they become punks. Not all kids, but some. They think they’re being funny.”
What mischief do they get up to?
“Smacking the bell on the back of the helmet,” Jennifer says. “Doing rabbit ears behind his head.”
Doing rabbit ears behind Darth Vader’s head is just plain rude. Oh, for the ability to crush the windpipes of such juvenile delinquents with the power of the Force.
“Usually all it takes is a ‘Don’t,’ ” Jennifer says.
These members of the 501st Legion’s Old Line, Tyranus and Carida garrisons — from, respectively, Maryland and the District, Virginia and Pennsylvania — are here to promote the Museum of Science Fiction. Later, they’ll be ambling around the city, part of a guerrilla marketing campaign to raise awareness for the yet-to-be-created museum. The museum’s supporters are hoping to raise $160,000 by Dec. 11 to open a preview site. As of Sunday morning, they were at about $28,000.
“Who’s Fett?” Jennifer asks.
“Who’s fat?” says Emily Schram, a member of the Old Line Garrison.
“I thought you said ‘Who’s fat?’ I can still fit in my armor.”
Emily is in civilian clothes today, handling public relations for the Old Line Garrison. When she does dress up, she usually portrays Capt. Rex, a clone trooper from the “Star Wars” cartoon.
Emily lives in Reisterstown, Md. She was married a month ago. It was a “Star Wars”-themed wedding, complete with a procession under light sabers. Her husband is not here this morning, though.
“He’s not as big into ‘Star Wars’ as I am,” Emily says. “He’s more into ‘Lord of the Rings.’ ”
Haven’t we all dreamed of being a stormtrooper? I know I have. That smooth, hard carapace would hide my middle-aged spread. Is all that white plastic cold to wear, I ask Dan Rodriguez, who works in federal law enforcement and has momentarily doffed his helmet.
“No,” Dan says. “I feel great. I’m wearing Under Armour ColdGear.”
The 501st Legion has members worldwide, some 7,000 in all. The “Star Wars” reenactors do a lot of charity work, especially for children’s groups.
“If you have a named character there can only be one per event,” Emily says. “One Darth Vader. One Boba Fett. That’s so it doesn’t ruin the message and the kids see, like, 15 Santas.”
Who gets to be popular characters such as Vader and Fett is determined by seniority and by how often you make yourself available for events.
First, though, your outfit has to pass muster with a costume review board. Many members make their own — building molds and casting fiberglass helmets, scouring thrift shops for the exact Casio calculator whose buttons were used on Boba Fett’s wrist-mounted blaster.
The costumes are not cheap. You can be a jumpsuited Imperial officer for about $300. It’s more than a thousand bucks to become a halfway decent stormtrooper. Rob Davis’s caped Lord Vader costume set him back $5,000 — including $1,000 for the helmet.
There is a certain amount of competitive pride. Says Emily, “If I’m around another Captain Rex, I’m like, ‘Girl, that is all wrong.’ ”
A man kneels down with a bunch of stormtroopers. Somehow, he has managed to acquire a 12-inch-tall decorated Christmas tree. He hands his smartphone to someone in the crowd to snap a photo.
“For my Christmas card,” he says.
Please help me raise $400,000 for Children’s National, the area’s leading pediatric hospital. Your gift will go to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, the money that’s used to pay the bills of underinsured patients. To make a tax-deductible donation, visit childrensnational.org/
washingtonpost or send a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, MD 20910. Our deadline is Jan. 10.
This year, Bill and Joanne Conway are matching, dollar for dollar, all gifts to The Washington Post Campaign for Children’s National, up to a total of $150,000, made by Dec. 31.
Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.
For previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.