Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our fortieth guest is the founder of the legendary 501st Legion – Albin Johnson.
Lightsabre – Albin, welcome to Lightsabre.
AJ – Hello and thank you for having me.
Lightsabre – Star Wars has had a profound effect on all of us – it’s why we’re here talking about it, but what was it that started you off on your Star Wars journey?
AJ – Star Wars was only the second movie I’d ever seen in the theater and like everyone else it blew me away. The 70’s had little to compete with that in a kid’s imagination. For that reason, it became iconic in my mind – the big, dark bad guy, the intimidating armored soldiers, the enormous death machine hovering overhead, the knight with the magic sword, pirates, bandits, aliens, princesses, etc. It had it all. As I passed into adolescence I felt a strong pull in my Christian faith and the underlying message about Good and Evil really helped the movies grow with me. So it had a lot to offer, for fun and for reflection.
Lightsabre – The 501st Legion was started back in 1997 and has spread throughout North America and Europe, bringing Star Wars fans together through their costuming and raised thousands for charity. What made you even think of the idea to set this up, and when did the decision to raise charity money come into play?
AJ – Well to be fair it has spread into South America, the Middle East, and Asia as well. It’s a worldwide concern now. “The sun never sets on the Empire” as they used to say. The origin was simple – when the re-releases came out in a conversation with a friend of mine, Tom Crews, that the stormtroopers were the coolest thing and wouldn’t it be cool to own an actual set of armor. We did some digging and found some out of California – it was styrene, it was crude, and it was terribly expensive. But NOTHING had been seen like that in the public so the impact at the premieres was enormous. And I noticed that when Tom joined me that the effect was exponentially greater with another trooper present.
We started posting the pics online and found dozens of fellow ‘troopers’. It made me think how cool it would be to do this in numbers. I figured if I could appeal to the imagination of the costumed fan, it would build enthusiasm for the effort. So I created a backstory for a fictional unit that would fit in with the universe George Lucas created. The natural ‘sweet spot’ for a unit of that kind would be to serve the Dark Lord himself, Darth Vader. I kept noticing that everywhere Vader went, there were some troopers just ready to serve him. So why not make them a ‘special’ unit no one ever hears about? The idea took off like gangbusters. Everyone wanted in.
Once we got big enough to be nationwide, I knew it would become unwieldy and begin to fragment. So keep the group stable, I broke down the club into chapters, or Garrisons, so people could not only support the Legion but they’d take pride in their own communities. Again, direct hit. Everyone loves to serve their local Garrison or Squad, but they take special pride in being a part of an enormous Legion.
The Charity component of the club came early as troopers began investing their spare time between conventions to do anything to appear in their armor. Charity made the most sense – you could ‘perform’ as a trooper and justify the time spent in costume. As soon as we saw how successful it was, it just took off. I can’t take credit for that. That is something every Garrison does on its own. It’s a beautiful expression of the love we have in this club.
Lightsabre – Which of the six episodes stands out as your favourite? AJ – Empire. Completely. Luke’s inner battle with good versus evil, the overwhelming might of the Imperial army and space fleet, Han and Leia’s burgeoning romance, this one did it right. They’ve never nailed Yoda like they did in The Empire Strikes Back – he is the consummate sage in this one, wise yet irreverent. And the music and sound effects were sublime. This was the last time we felt threatened by Vader because he was still a brooding mystery to us. Everything since then has been a dissection of the man, but at that point he was the most ominous figure of evil we’d seen yet. I still get excited during the duel in the carbonite chamber.
Lightsabre – What is it like to become such an integral part of the Star Wars phenomenon? The 501st has been immortalized in film, as a key element of Battlefront 2 and in the imaginations of Star Wars fans across the globe. Did you ever imagine it would take off this way?
AJ – Nope. Not at all. I’m just a regular fan. I wish I could have written a book about the 501st and it had become famous and I could take credit for it. I really do. But I tell you straight this is the product of the hard work and enthusiasm of thousands of Star Wars fans. I knew of the potential behind the Legion concept, I knew how excited someone like me could get about being a Stormtrooper and a part of something bigger. But we never know if our theories will pan out. As it is, it was the right time and place for a club like this to gather speed. I am so proud of our group and what they’ve done. To think that the Legion is a bona fide component of the Star Wars universe is more than I could have ever imagined. Few people get to say ‘thank you’ to George Lucas. I feel like if he’s approved this, then he’s accepted my tiny ‘thank you’. Besides, he can probably relate to having a good idea take root and affect countless thousands. He did it first.
Lightsabre – As a fellow fan you must have many golden Star Wars memories. Tell us about some of them.
AJ – I remember hitting the Cinema 7 in downtown Charlotte, NC in 1977 and there were costumed characters outside. They enthralled me – like they’d stepped right off the screen. I’m sure they were crude costumes but as a child I didn’t care. They embodied the universe I wanted to visit. I never forgot the impact that made on me as a kid and I hope to do that for someone else every time I suit up.
Lightsabre – Which of the Star Wars characters is the closest to you?
AJ – Probably Luke. Sure, I enjoy the evil Empire and all, but what has held my interest more than anything is the heartbreaking tragedy of the Skywalker family and Luke’s search for truth. I’d like to say Obi Wan, but I’m not as smart as he was – as a kid I was more of a clueless whiner like Luke. I would also like to say a Stormtrooper, because say what you will – they did serve dutifully. I’ve always regretted never serving my country in the military – if I had, I could say a Stormtrooper and mean it as a good thing.
Lightsabre – What would you change about Star Wars if you could go back in time and make alterations?
AJ – Battle of Endor. Not just for the obvious reasons, Ewoks, but the whole scope of the battle. It’s hard to believe the fall of the Empire came down to a dozen stormtroopers and some fuzzy teddy bears. The Emperor mentioned a Legion of troops on the planet – where are they? And I can easily embrace Mr. Lucas’ vision of a peaceful rural people defeating a heartless, faceless mechanized army, but the Ewoks are too busy being cute for me to identify with. I’d recreate that battle with the same fervor that Lucas used in the fall of the Jedi in Episode III.
Lightsabre – You have amassed an amazing array of Star Wars talent into your Honorary Members list, and it has truly become something for cast and crew to be proud to be a part of. Which ones gave you the most pleasure?
AJ – Timothy Zahn, Peter Mayhew, and Peter Diamond most of all. Timothy Zahn was the first person we inducted and it was out of heartfelt thanks for keeping the Star Wars flame burning. Little did I know that he would honor us with a book. God bless him. In Peter’s case, I am so glad to have met him and his wife Angie and befriended them. Every chance we get, my wife and I join them for a pub crawl and we have the best time. Just lovely people. When they heard of my daughter’s Make-A-Wish trip, they personally helped us with making sure the trip was fun for the girls. I love them dearly. And lastly, Peter Diamond’s presentation struck me the as the most poignant. The man was the original Stormtrooper. When we presented him with the plaque at Celebration II in 2002, he had tears in his eyes in gratitude for us recognizing some stuntman from the UK. A wonderful man, Peter. I felt he appreciated the labour of love we in the Legion practice when we’re in armor. After all, he lived it. I am so glad he accepted our thanks before he passed away.
Lightsabre – Tell us a little about the charities that the 501st raise money for.
AJ – We’ve done charity work for The Candle Lighters, The Jimmy Fund, Dana Farber, March of Dimes, Make-A-Wish, St. Jude’s, Toy’s For Tots, The Ronald McDonald House, Aids Walks, and countless other smaller operations and local hospitals and charities. There is no strict accounting of the good we’ve done. But our track record is solid and we’re ready to do more.
Lightsabre – Now that Revenge of the Sith has been released, where do you think Lucas will take us next on our trip through the Star Wars galaxy? And would you like to be a part of it, on the other side of the production with the rest of the 501st?
AJ – I think Lucas still has a great vision for adventure and is a good storyteller. I think he’ll relax and have fun with the yarns he can spin in the universe he’s created, without so much of the burden of finishing the arc he started. I see tales of Boba Fett, tales of the Jedi academy, tales of colonists on the rim worlds, things like that. I would be surprised to see the Empire feature prominently in his future stories. The Empire was more of a device for one story arc, not for other stories. But I’d love to see stormtroopers return, naturally, and I’d love to actually contribute if at all possible. If Mr. Lucas ever needed a professional cadre of stormtroopers, I know some people I can call (wink).
Lightsabre – What do you foresee for yourself and Vader’s Fist in the future?
AJ – I see the club continuing on for quite some time. True, our success and growth has owed tremendously to the new films. But the concept of a Star Wars fan club is ages old. Now that we have a solid base for people to join, have fun, and socialize, I can’t help but think that’s got enough appeal to last. I don’t know if we’ll have hundreds of troopers in one place like we’ve done before, but we’ll be around for years to come. If I have to, I’ll hold down the fort by myself, and be ready to welcome new fans into the fold!
Lightsabre – A quick question about our site, Lightsabre. Any comments?
AJ – I was impressed. I’ve seen it once or twice and read the articles you posted and it was a fun and informative site. I love browsing Star Wars fan sites. The movies have created their own distinct subculture and it’s a positive and fun thing to get into. I particularly liked the tone and professionalism of your contributors. But since you’ve let me chime in I might have to start questioning your taste. LOL
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest on Lightsabre. Just one final question. Lord Vader, Lord Maul and Lord Tyranus are coming to inspect the 501st, but you’ve been on a bug hunt on Felucia and your armour is filthy. You just know that you’ll be in terrible trouble if you’re not ready for inspection, and you only have 20 minutes to prepare. What do you do?
AJ – I’d program a droid to inform one of them that the other two are plotting to kill him. Then I’d sit back and watch the show.
This interview was originally published on www.lightsabre.co.uk on 26th March 2006.