As a website about fandom and about being a fan, we’ve been wanting to do a series of spotlights about groups of fans that have joined together to celebrate their passions as well as to make a difference not only in geekdom but also in the world around them. To kick off this feature series, we talked with Dean Plantamura, the public relations officer for the 501st Legion, a huge group of Star Wars fans that has had an enormous impact on fan culture, the charities they support, and even the official Star Wars canon itself.
Fandomania: Hi Dean, and thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Can you give us a broad overview of what the 501st is?
Dean Plantamura: The 501st is a grass-roots group of Star Wars enthusiasts that has grown into an international family. More than that, it’s an example of what a handful of passionate fans can do to transform a hobby into an established and respected means for giving back to the community with no budget and a lot of sweat equity.
Fandomania: Does the 501st have a specific mission statement or goal?
Dean: From the Legion Charter: “The Legion seeks to promote interest in Star Wars through the building and wearing of quality costumes, and to facilitate the use of these costumes for Star Wars-related events as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work.” I would also argue that a big part of our mission is to have fun in our role as ambassadors for the Star Wars brand.
Fandomania: How did you first become involved with the group, and what is your current role?
Dean: I joined the Legion in April of 2002 just before the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I had seen some guys with accurate-looking Stormtrooper suits at the premiere of The Phantom Menace and was able to convince my wife to let me live out an expensive childhood dream. Over the last eight years, I advanced from grunt to Squad Leader to Commanding Officer to my current role as Legion Public Relations Officer — something I truly enjoy doing despite the lack of a paycheck! At first, it was about having a really cool costume, but my motives have evolved into the enjoyment of seeing the faces of fans light up and helping others realize their own dream of being a real-life Star Wars character.
Fandomania: Can you tell us what you remember about your first time seeing Star Wars?
Dean: I’m old enough to remember the original 1977 theatrical release, but I don’t remember many details except that my brother and I used to clip and collect the black and white newspaper ads advertising the theater runs. “HELD OVER!” is the phrase they used to emphasize the popularity of a film — the idea being that so many people wanted to see Star Wars that they kept it playing in the movie theaters for longer than planned. Really, at the time, Star Wars was a phenomenon that occurred 95% outside the theaters. It was about the toys and comics and magazine articles.
Fandomania: Some love them, and some hate them… What is your position on the Star Wars prequels?
Dean: I support the prequels because they are canon, plain and simple. George wrote it, so there’s no arguing the validity of something that you personally don’t think “belongs” in the Star Wars universe. I’m an original trilogy kind of guy, but seeing the prequels through the eyes of my kids leads me to believe that my parents probably didn’t perceive the original films like I did either. Honestly, there’s stuff in the original trilogy that seems just as out of place. You say Jar Jar shouldn’t step in poodoo and I’ll say Chewbacca shouldn’t howl like Tarzan.
Fandomania: How did you first become involved in costuming? How did you learn the skills necessary to build armor and droids?
Dean: Despite always being a creative person, I was never into costuming in such a detailed way as the 501st has embraced it. Seeing that other fans with little to no experience in the professional propbuilding industry could build a Stormtrooper suit inspired me to search the Internet for tutorials. There weren’t many in 2002, so I started my own “White Armor Chronicles” site to document my learnings and to help others. It makes me happy to hear that other 501st members were then inspired by my own (now somewhat antiquated) website.
Fandomania: Have you personally made any non-Star Wars costumes?
Dean: I’ve thought about making some non-Star Wars costumes, but frankly don’t have the time. Furthermore, it’s a bit more challenging to find a use for a non-501st costume 364 days out of the year. There are enough event requests coming through 501st.com nowadays that you can really suit up and do some good charity or promotion work on almost any given day. We estimate more than 2,000 events annually… and that’s conservative.
Fandomania: Why is Star Wars such a huge and enduring cultural phenomenon?
Dean: Star Wars was such a huge part of my childhood imaginary play, drawing and neighborhood discussion that it brings me back to being a kid just by thinking about it. I think you’ll find that a lot of the 501st members will tell you that we are all big kids at heart and we’re very fortunate to have a hobby that means so much to us on such an emotional level. We don’t want to grow up!
Fandomania: When the Legion started, did you ever expect it to become such a huge force in geekdom?
Dean: I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how much the 501st would grow in such a relatively short time. Having Lucasfilm’s support is certainly a key to our success, but there are so many other elements of timing, leadership and chance that have played roles in going from a couple of guys in South Carolina to more than 5,000 members around the globe in just 13 years with no real financial backing or game plan. I guess people just want to embrace their inner-geek and have fun!
Fandomania: What sorts of people join the 501st, and why do they join?
Dean: There’s a good article by Lucasfilm’s Bonnie Burton on StarWars.com that addresses the fact that nearly all of the 501st members are working people. For some reason, folks think that we are either Lucasfilm employees or some kind of paid full-time costumed entertainment. In reality, we give up a lot of our personal time to bring Star Wars to life for others. A loose poll recently showed that the majority of our members joined the 501st simply because they are fanatical about Star Wars and wanted an outlet for that fandom. Owning and building an accurate costume was only the third reason given, after a desire to do creative charity work. So beware… Your OB-GYN might be an Imperial Officer and your tax advisor might be Boba Fett.
Fandomania: Can you tell us about what sorts of events the 501st attends or works with throughout the year?
Dean: Our events essentially break down into three categories: Charity, Promotional and Casual. Charity events give us good cause to get into a plastic suit and sweat it out for a few hours, knowing that it will benefit a sick child or raise awareness for a form of cancer. Promotional events are primarily to advertise a new Star Wars product or service and typically are run with Lucasfilm’s involvement. Casual events are the ones where we just want to cut loose and have fun — we may not even be required a traditional approved costume in many cases.
Fandomania: With focuses on charity and helping the community, having the 501st be a legion of Star Wars villains seems unusual. What inspired the choice for representing the Empire?
Dean: We’ve been called the bad guys who do good things. There is certainly some sense of irony behind an evil Empire who is hell-bent on doing charity work, but when it comes down to it, the villains always have the cooler costumes.
Fandomania: Is there one single accomplishment the 501st has made that stands out for you as its greatest so far?
Dean: It’s certainly very satisfying to know that we’re helping raise millions for charity every year, and I chuckle when someone says the 501st has helped dispel geek stereotypes, but honestly the 501st is a huge testament to what any group of people can do when they put their passion into their work.
Fandomania: How can our readers get involved with the 501st? What would someone need to do to join the Legion?
Dean: Our website, 501st.com, has a great page listed under “Resources” which points aspiring members to various message boards we call “Detachments.” These forums are open to the general public and offer a venue for fans to interact with established members as far as getting tips, finding materials and fine-tuning their costumes for membership. Even though one needs to be at least 18 years old to join, there is a lot of costuming information that can be absorbed leading up to that 18th birthday!
Fandomania: Finally, one question we always like to ask in our interviews is about your own fandoms. You’re obviously big into Star Wars, but what other things are you a fan of as well?
Dean: Star Wars is a big part of my life and I probably don’t skip a day without it running through my mind at some point (especially with a 7-year-old son who is fanatical about the Clone Wars animated series), but I’m also a fan of anything DIY-related. I’ve actually got a backyard chicken farm and organic garden. Organic, hormone-free, no-soy, free-range, organic eggs, anyone?
Fandomania: It’s been a pleasure talking with you, Dean. Thanks again for taking the time, and we’ll look forward to seeing you and the 501st at many conventions and events in the future!