FIERCE FORCE
Chris Popham, right, who provides audiovisual presentation support on Redstone Arsenal, dresses as a Star Wars Imperial Crewman at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's exhibit, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. Popham is a member of the 501st Legion, an international professional Star Wars costuming group. Members of the group create their own costumes, which must adhere to strict standards to be considered screen accurate.

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- By day, Chris Popham provides Redstone Arsenal with audiovisual presentation support. By night, the Force is with him as he protects the galaxy as an Imperial Crewman.

It's all in a day's work for the Star Wars enthusiast.

As a child, the Alabama native was like any other young boy - he loved the Star Wars films, played with the action figures and daydreamed of fighting Darth Vader. Today, as a dad, Popham is rediscovering the George Lucas legacy with his two young sons, and as a result, uncovering a whole new character in his personality - life as a living, breathing, life size Star Wars figurine.

It was a few years ago that Popham saw the local Alabama Garrison of the 501st Legion, an international professional Star Wars costuming group, at Parkway Place Mall, performing a charity event for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. While at first it was simply a cool thing that other Star Wars fans did, as his oldest son Bryan, 5, became enthralled with Star Wars, Popham decided it was time to bring his very own Star Wars passion to life. In December, he joined the group of more than 5,000 members worldwide as an Imperial Crewman.

"It's just something people get into for fun and to hang around others," said Popham, who is one of about 20 members of the Alabama Garrison in Huntsville, 52 statewide. "I've always liked to help people out."

And helping people out is certainly the focus of the group. While the costumes bring the fun, the joy of participating comes in the volunteering the group does for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Autism Society of America, Down Syndrome Society of America, The Shriners, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Toys for Tots, UCP and the Multiple Sclerosis Society of America, according to Jamey Ethridge, who has been with the group for nearly eight years.

"It's our way of giving back to the community," Ethridge said. "George Lucas and Lucasfilm Ltd. have been very kind to us over the years by entrusting us with their intellectual property, and using it to help others is one of the best things we can think of to do with it. ...The costuming aspect allows me to use my hobby to give back to the community by raising funds and awareness for area charities and non-profit organizations in need. I don't know of another hobby that is as much fun and allows its members to do so much good."

The Legion, a non-profit organization, averages about eight charity events a month statewide. Members create and pay for their own costumes, which must be screen accurate. Costumes can run anywhere from $800 to $4,000. As Popham gets into costume, he recalls his days in marching band to get into character, walking in strides and perfecting his posture.

"You just have fun with it," Popham said. "That's really all it is. A lot of times when we first show up, we don't even get six steps away from the front tent and people want pictures. That's the big thing, is just having fun with the kids and the big kids - the adults."

"My costume consists of many parts," said Ethridge, who dresses as Boba Fett. "It weighs 42 pounds including the helmet, jetpack and blaster, and takes up to 30 minutes to put on. Once I have it on and make my appearance at an event and see the smiling faces of the children and adults there, it makes it all worth it. Doing visits with sick children or events for charities such as Make-A-Wish, The Shriners, JDRF and others make the time and trouble all worth it."

The time and trouble was also well worth it for group members at the grand opening of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center's exhibit, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination. To celebrate the exhibit, members of the 501st Legion appeared at the museum in costume and got to see the exhibit up close and personal.

"This was my first big 'troop' so it was an overwhelming experience to see so many costumers," said Popham, who was one of about 75 costumers at the opening event. "The mood around the place was great. Energy was high. A lot of comments were made that us being there really helped enhance the Star Wars experience."

For more information about 501st Legion, visit www.StarWarsAlabama.com. To learn more about Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, visit www.spacecamp.com.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16