Dave Turner wasn’t born a Star Wars nerd. It was something the Farwell Elementary music teacher earned.
“I was thinking one summer before the next school year started that I should really do just an epic Halloween costume for school,” Turner said. “Something that would really make kids go, ‘Wow.’”
Turner was 7 years old in May 1977 when “Star Wars: A New Hope” was released. He saw the movie in theaters and it made an impression.
“For whatever reason, when I was young and I watched ‘Star Wars’ I always liked the guys that flew the TIE fighters,” he said. Those single-pilot spacecraft engaged in a dogfight with the Millennium Falcon in the movie.
So, three years ago he started looking for a TIE fighter pilot costume. Initially he failed. Turner estimates that TIE fighter pilots appear for roughly five seconds in the original “Star Wars.”
“Nobody has this costume. It’s not made by anyone,” he said.
Turner kept digging. Eventually he stumbled across the Jolly Rogers Squadron, a “detachment” of TIE fighter pilots under the wing of an organization called the 501st Legion. The legion is an international group of “Star Wars” costume enthusiasts who make appearances at charity events. Their motto: “Bad guys doing good.”
“People really get a lot of satisfaction out of doing these appearances to benefit these charities,” said Matthew Brown, president of Garrison Titan, Washington’s official chapter of the 501st Legion.
That’s where Turner started earning his nerd stripes. Membership into the Jolly Rogers is regulated. You have to show that you’re committed to building the costumes and able to follow specific, often exacting instructions.
“What we strive for and really require is what we call movie accuracy,” Brown said. “The idea is that when we do a public appearance our characters look like they just walked off the movie scene. In some cases they look better than they do in the movies.”
The 501st Legion has roughly 8,000 members in 51 countries with about 110 active members in Washington, Brown said. Organization members mostly appear at charity events and childrens’ birthday parties. However, they also do the occasional concert or music video, as long as the music is family friendly, Brown said. Members don’t accept money.
Although Turner found the Jolly Rogers Squadron, he needed to prove his commitment. He had to make a Reserve Pilot costume.
In the “Star Wars” universe reserve pilots are the B team of the imperial fleet, Turner said. Costume enthusiasts view them in a similar light. To gain entry in the Legion, and by extension access to costume suppliers and mentorship, Turner had to re-create a Reserve Pilot costume – one of the simplest and easiest to build.
“They don’t tell you where to get this stuff until you pass a test to show you know how to follow instructions,” Turner said.
When he finished building the costume he sent photographs to the Washington garrison costume reviewers.
Turner passed and entered the club. There he learned where he could get the materials to build a TIE fighter pilot costume. Turned out he had to order the materials from a German man with a pseudonym — Boba Taff. In July 2014 Turner received a large box full of ABS plastic. It didn’t look anything like a TIE fighter pilot.
Part of the reason for the secrecy, Turner said, is that if Lucasfilms and Disney think people are selling costumes for profit they will issue a cease-and-desist order.
“They’re not selling a costume and making a profit off a Disney-licensed character,” Turner said. “They’re selling you a pile of plastic.”
From that point on it was up to Turner to figure out how to build the costume. He spent a year, and roughly $1,300, from start to finish. And as far as costume enthusiasts go that’s nothing. A more complicated costume, like Darth Vader or Boba Fett, will cost several thousand dollars.
Now Turner is a member of Garrison Titan. The chapter averages more than 120 events a year, Brown said. Although Turner self-identifies as a “Star Wars” nerd, he said he connects first to the charity work and appearances. Most recently Turner participated in the Weird Al Yankovic concert at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.
“You do these events and you realize how much joy you bring to people doing something silly,” he said. “This is not anything that I thought I would be doing. I just thought I would make a Halloween costume.”
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