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The Empire gives back: Dressed as Star Wars bad guys, this group does good

Zay Mally-Nawaz, 3, of Marion dons the official Stormtrooper helmet during a special visit form volunteers dressed in full cinematic Star Wars costume at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City on Saturday, September 21, 2019. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
Zay Mally-Nawaz, 3, of Marion dons the official Stormtrooper helmet during a special visit form volunteers dressed in full cinematic Star Wars costume at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City on Saturday, September 21, 2019. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)
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IOWA CITY — The Jedi Juice, Wookiee cookies and Death Star doughnuts were set out at the Ronald McDonald House in Iowa City, with Star Wars crafts arranged on tables. Families — who stay at the house while a child is being treated at the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital nearby — had just started to gather when the stormtroopers and other costumed Star Wars characters arrived.

Faith Kirgis, age 2, was there with her mother Michelle. The family had been there about a week after the premature birth of twins Oliver and Phoenix. The babies are doing well, mother Michelle Kirgis said, and she was looking forward to the stormtrooper visit after a long week. Faith was wearing a Chewbacca backpack and a Star Wars T-shirt, and they had thrown her a Star Wars-themed first birthday party.

“We’ve been fans for a long time,” Kirgis said. “We were pretty excited when we saw they were coming.”

That kind of reaction is exactly why this group of Star Wars-costumed characters do what they do.

“We go out and make people happy. It’s like a little family. It’s just fun,” said Kelsey Marsh, of Waterloo, who was dressed as a tie fighter pilot.

The group are part of the 501st Legion, an international Star Wars costume club with more than 6,000 members in nearly 50 countries around the world.

The organization is broken into chapters, with groups organized geographically. Andrew Biederman of Waterloo is squad leader for Korriban Squad, which has around 50 active members across Iowa, including about 15 in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area. Korriban Squad is part of a regional group, Central Garrison, with members in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and North and South Dakota.

To remain active, members must “troop” at least once a year. That means making appearances at 5K runs, fundraisers and hospitals and places like the Ronald McDonald House. They have also done things like appearing live onstage with “Weird Al” Yankovic when his tour took him to the McGrath Amphitheatre earlier this year. Members have even supported fellow Star Wars fans who lost their young son by coming in costume to his funeral.

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Biederman got involved with the Legion after seeing photos from a Star Wars convention several years ago.

“I saw hundreds of stormtroopers and other characters just walking down the street, and that seemed like the coolest thing. It’s an active way to be a fan of Star Wars,” he said.

Don’t look for Jedi in this group; almost everyone dresses up as a bad guy. The 501st Legion’s motto is “Bad guys doing good.” The villains are fun to play, members said, and there are practical benefits; many wear helmets or are more obscure characters, so members don’t have to worry about their resemblance to Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Princess Leia.

“We have all the coolest costumes and characters,” Biederman said. “Plus, stormtroopers and Darth Vader are probably some of the most recognizable entities in the world.”

Costumes can also incorporate the whole cast of characters in Star Wars movies, animated TV shows, graphic novels and beyond.

The group takes authenticity and adherence to Star Wars canon seriously. To join, prospective members must submit detailed photos of the costumes, which they often design and build themselves. Colin Sykes of Waterloo had to apply twice after his Shadow Clone Commander costume was first rejected because it was missing two tiny holes that are covered up most of the time. He said he is one of only four Legion members worldwide who dress as that character.

Cedar Rapids couple Justin and Kim Higginbotham and their son Alex, 11, participate as a family. Alex dresses as a Mandalorian, from the “Clone Wars” television series. His father wears a stormtrooper costume, while his mother wears a TIE fighter pilot outfit.

“It’s family time for us. It’s something we can do together and make people smile and laugh,” Justin Higginbotham said.

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It is not a cheap hobby. Justin Higginbotham’s entire outfit cost around $1300, including a $200 blaster, a replica cast of a prop used on screen. But for their family, he said it’s worth it. He said Alex struggled with reading when he was younger, until they gave him Star Wars comics, which enthralled him.

Alex said he’s not just involved because he’s a Star Wars fan.

“I like making kids smile,” he said.

His mother agreed.

“I have co-workers that making fun of me for doing this, but you get warm fuzzier when kids are happy to see you,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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