Star Wars Celebration: Thousands camp out, commune on eve of fan expo

April 16, 2015 | 7:00 a.m.

I know a bit about fandom. Not too long ago, when a date first set foot into my apartment, she took a look around the place and said, “Jeez. Were you on the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’?”

No, although that would have been awesome, but I had to settle for buying into Disney’s D23 fan club and decking out my place in Disney paraphernalia. I like Disney. I can list the reasons why — Disney’s reliance on imagination for transcendence, pirate rides, the power of a kiss — but outsiders aren’t going to get it. That’s OK.

Star Wars Celebration: Trailer unveiled | Watch the live stream | Fans gather | Preview

So I wasn’t totally surprised when I sat down for dinner on the eve of Star Wars Celebration and heard a man, apparently equating my look with geekdom, shouting across the bar, “Hey, is what’s-his-name from the plane crash going to be here?”

"Star Wars" fans will descend upon the Anaheim Convention Center Thursday morning. (Todd Martens)

“Star Wars” fans will descend upon the Anaheim Convention Center Thursday morning. (Todd Martens)

That reference to Harrison Ford was offensive, and I shrugged and laughed awkwardly. I was also slightly taken aback. “Star Wars,” after all, is mainstream, the New York Yankees of fandom. Yet as big as “Star Wars” may be, the person in a Mickey Mantle jersey is still out of place outside of Yankee Stadium, that particular group’s temple.

For “Star Wars” die-hards, ground zero is this weekend’s Star Wars Celebration fan expo, four days of all things related to the galaxy far, far away and a long, long time ago. There will be “Star Wars” speed dating, “Star Wars” video games, “Star Wars” collectibles and “Star Wars” personalities like Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, not to mention a glimpse of the upcoming J.J. Abrams-directed film sequel, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

But the people who live and breathe this stuff aren’t arriving VIP-style. By 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, nearly all 2,700 people allowed to see Abrams and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy in the flesh on Thursday morning were already in line. They were sleeping in bags on concrete floors, or playing vintage “Star Wars” board games.

"Star Wars" fans pass the time by playing vintage games. (Todd Martens)

“Star Wars” fans pass the time by playing vintage games. (Todd Martens)

One thing was certain: They were not going to be disappointed. Norman Smith, 37, of Corpus Christi, Texas, was among the first 10 people in line to see Abrams and Kennedy. Was there any way he could be let down?

“An earthquake,” Smith said. “I don’t know anything about earthquakes. I can deal with Jar Jar Binks, but an earthquake would ruin it for me.”

For nearly everyone in line — and no doubt the estimated 40,000-plus arriving this weekend — “Star Wars” is bigger than any one film. It’s not a George Lucas vision or an Abrams reinvention, it’s an entrant into a community, or a generational bridge. Today, “Star Wars” doesn’t belong to a filmmaker or a studio. Despite the branding claims to the contrary, “Star Wars” is ours.

Josh Grimsley, 37, of Denver, stood in line with his young sons. “I camped out for ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ I was so little, but I remember it. They never have. It’s time for them to experience it,” he said.

Emma Stecheson, 23, was in line with her mother, Mary, who is 63. Emma has a tattoo of the Jedi Order symbol, and was hooked when her mother took her to see the special edition releases in the late ’90s. She was a fan of the initial trailer for “The Force Awakens,” and fosters high hopes for any upcoming glimpses of the film.

“It would disappoint me if I was too tired, like if I don’t sleep well and just have to watch it online,” she said. “It would disappoint me if there was a fire.”

“Star Wars,” however, extends far beyond the success or failure of a new trailer.

Take Brian Troyan, 39, of Chicago, a public relations officer for 501st Legion, a “Star Wars” costuming club that does its share of charity work. His division of the 501st Legion, for instance, has done quite a bit of work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Say a dying child’s wish is to fight Darth Vader, the 501st Legion can put its arsenal of “Star Wars” bad-guy costumes to work.

The crowd at Star Wars Celebration waits to meet J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

The crowd at Star Wars Celebration waits to meet J.J. Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy. (Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

“There are events that we do where you’re very grateful to have a helmet on,” said Troyan, moments before he began crying. “Everybody has that one thing that they wish they could do in their life. You hear about a kid who’s 8 years old, and his one dream in life is to fight Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel. We’re in a position to actually grant that wish and make that happen. We build costumes, but those costumes enable us to make a huge difference in the lives of people who are in really bad places, facing really dark challenges.”

Troyan wasn’t in line early on Wednesday evening for Thursday morning panels, so he missed the free pizza delivered by Abrams and Kennedy, but he had been in Anaheim to meet people since Tuesday. He hopes to educate and recruit new members for the 501st Legion.

Kari Russell, who was first in line to see Abrams and Kennedy, said Star Wars Celebration is all about a chance to connect with like-minded peers, new movies or not.

“We’re not just geeks,” said Russell, 39, of North Carolina. “These are my people. ‘Star Wars’ is my life. Whenever I get to come to these things, I get to be with my people.”

— Todd Martens | @latherocomplex

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4 Responses to Star Wars Celebration: Thousands camp out, commune on eve of fan expo

  1. El Guapo says:

    If there wasn't Star Wars, these fanatics might have joined ISIS.

    • matt says:

      Glad to know there are still some who will never "get " it. Too bad the crowds did not show up like this 35 years after Picasso's death too stare at any of his paintings.. Star Wars is the largest most devoted fandom of any popular culture to ever grace humanity on a worldwide level. Name something that has ever been bigger for so long….seriously go watch the original trilogy and say thanks to those who were inspired by those films and went on to further technology to where it is today.

    • Matthew says:

      There is devotion to stupidity and then their is devotion to positivity. Star wars is love for many of us…. my guess is you did not have as much happiness as a child. Otherwise you wouldn't be such a creep.

  2. @DanKorn says:

    Meh, it's not camping "out" if you're indoors. At Comic-Con, we sleep outside for Hall H! And we like it!!!!

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