Fan-Based Organization Supports Nonprofits and Charities with Caring Characters
Writer / Julie Engelhardt
A long time ago, in the year 1977 to be exact, a new movie hit theaters and changed the way we think about films and filmmaking. This was the year audiences were introduced to the creativity and imagination of filmmaker George Lucas, and the first installment of his space opera, “Star Wars.” The film became a worldwide pop-culture phenomenon, and through the past four decades it’s grown into a huge franchise that has expanded into various films and other media, including books, toys, clothing, games, theme park attractions and more.
The initial “Star Wars” film, as well as its sequels, prequels and other incarnations, became so popular that 20 years after the first film’s debut, two fans from South Carolina, Albin Johnson and Tom Crews, began an international fan-based organization. It was organized for the construction and wearing of accurate replicas of the armor and clothing worn by Imperial stormtroopers, Sith lords, Clone troopers, bounty hunters and other villains from the “Star Wars” universe. They named it the 501st Legion, also known as Vader’s Fist. According to Kenzo Barlow, public relations officer for the Bluegrass Garrison, their motto is “Bad guys doing good.”
The organization of caring characters is made up entirely of volunteers, and there are currently 13,000 active members worldwide, on six continents and more than 60 countries. Members can be found right here in Kentucky – more specifically, right here in Louisville and its surrounding cities. Their mission is to work with nonprofit and charitable organizations to raise money. No members are paid for their work.
The entire Legion is broken down into manageable sections called Garrisons. The largest Garrison is in Germany, with nearly 1,000 members. In the United States, Garrisons are divided based largely on state boundaries or regional divisions. For example, Kentucky was, until recently, part of the Mid-South Garrison along with neighboring Tennessee. As membership increased, it became necessary for Kentucky and Tennessee to separate, allowing for more localized leadership. The Bluegrass Garrison is what you will find in Kentucky, with a few members who live in southern Indiana. Others who participate in central Indiana are members of that state’s Bloodfin Garrison. According to Barlow, there are 87 members spread throughout Kentucky.
Next, Garrisons are broken down into squads, which allow for localized management of events. According to John Hoagland, squad leader for the Derby City Squad, Kentucky has three squads located in the more populated areas of the state.
“These include Lexington, northern Kentucky, and of course Louisville,” Hoagland explains. “Events that occur outside of those areas are managed by individuals who reside in those areas, with direction from the Garrison or squad level. An example would be if there’s a convention in Bowling Green, then the Derby City Squad would manage it, but an event in Paducah might be handled by members who live in the region, or we might ask for the assistance of another Garrison close to the event site.”
Garrison size can vary from state to state. According to Hoagland, the Bluegrass Garrison currently has about 90 members, with the Derby City Squad at 45 approved members.
Hoagland has been a member of the Legion since May of 2016, after many years of watching from the sidelines.
“My first exposure to the Legion, and into costuming in general, was in April 2005 at ‘Star Wars Celebration 3’ in Indianapolis,” he explains.
He says he grew up a “‘Star Wars’ kid” and got every action figure his parents would let him have.
“When we rode our bikes around the neighborhood, we’d pretend they were X-wing starfighters,” Hoagland says. “When I went to my first convention and I met guys who were wearing screen-accurate stormtrooper costumes, I thought, ‘Man, I really want to get into that.’”
Hoagland says the requirements to become a member are fairly straightforward, although somewhat challenging.
“You must own a screen-accurate costume, and one that meets the standards set by the club, which can be found in our database,” he says. “Active membership requires that you do what’s called troop – participate in an event – at least one time per year, although I find that most people troop far more frequently.”
Hoagland says he currently has a single approved costume, a stormtrooper from “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” but has a few other costumes in the works, including a biker scout from “Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.”
Although wearing his costume is a great deal of fun, Hoagland says he gets much more than just a good time out of the Legion.
“I don’t just enjoy being part of the 501st – I really love what we do,” he says. “You can’t see it inside the mask or helmet, but every time somebody says ‘cheese’ to take a picture, we are smiling just as much as the kid standing next to us. Having a way to enjoy ‘Star Wars’ while making other people happy, while doing charity work, while raising thousands of dollars for organizations like Make-A-Wish, Lexington children’s hospitals and St. Joseph Children’s Home – what’s not to love about that?”
Barlow says most events are held at schools, libraries and nonprofit charity locations.
“They can send a message and say, ‘We’re holding a STEM event,’ or, ‘We’re raising money for a certain cause,’” he says. “As long as it’s for a good cause, we’ll take it into consideration.”
Barlow adds that the 501st doesn’t do paid events like birthdays or private parties.
In 2017 and 2019, members were gracious enough to attend the Eastern High School Band Holiday Boutique, which raises more than $5,000 each year to support the band. Members have also participated in events like the Autism Society of the Bluegrass annual walk, and visits to Norton Children’s Hospital.
Earlier this year, a large gathering of 501st members made an appearance at a program held at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts on February 29 and March 1. The Louisville Orchestra performed the John Williams score for “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back,” as the film played on the big screen behind them. Prior to the performance, during intermission and after the show, 501st members mingled with guests and posed for numerous pictures, not only with children, but also with excited adults who were dressed in “Star Wars” T-shirts and carrying lightsabers.
For more information on how to become a member and caring character of the 501st Legion in Kentucky, the best place to begin is the website for the Bluegrass Garrison at bluegrassgarrison.com. There you will find a home page, a member forum, links, contact information and details on how to request an appearance.
What a great way to volunteer, do something good for your community, and have fun – even when you’re playing a “bad guy.”