NMU alumnus Brendon Ewers is among those eagerly anticipating the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He will play double duty on opening weekend, watching the film as a diehard fan of the series and also greeting theater patrons before some shows dressed as a Stormtrooper. Ewers is a member of the 501st Legion, billed as “the world’s definitive Imperial costuming organization.” The legion and its subgroups, such as the Great Lakes Garrison to which Ewers belongs, provide a network for fans to research and develop screen-quality Star Wars props and costumes. Members also serve their communities and various charitable organizations.
Despite their passion for bringing a fictional universe to life, many in the 501st are average folks firmly grounded in reality. Ewers is a husband, father of two and a physician assistant at the Marquette VA Outpatient Clinic. He vividly recalls his first Star Wars movie experience.
“I was 8 years old and my family was living in Lansing,” he said. “One of my brothers and I had seen the commercials for the first film, which became Episode IV in the series. We started collecting Topps trading cards that had screenshots from the movie and our dad took us to see it. I was absolutely enthralled. As soon as we left the theater, we begged our dad to let us see it again and he agreed. So we watched it twice back to back. That set me on a course of becoming a lifelong fan.”
While working for the U.S. Navy at Miramar in California, Ewers began dabbling in different hobbies. He decided to recreate a Han Solo costume and, during an Internet search for guidance, stumbled upon the 501st Legion website.
“I saw information for Stormtroopers and the vacuforming process that uses heat to mold the plastic for the costumes,” he said. “I couldn’t afford a machine that does that, so I started emailing guys in the legion and posing questions about where to get the armor, how to assemble it and how to take care of it. One responded and even invited me to his house to show me his costume and how he put it on. There’s a specific sequence you have to follow, starting with the ab plate and lower back, then proceeding from there. When he put the helmet on last, his identity was completely gone. I was so taken by that and figured I had to make one for myself.”
It took Ewers about 18 months and $1,500 to complete a Stormtrooper costume that conformed to the 501st Legion’s strict standards for approval. He had to submit multiple photos from various angles with his application. Ewers collaborated with a legion-sanctioned armor maker who forms molds to scale and vacuforms en masse. He also had to learn how to assemble the armor.
A Darth Vader costume took a greater investment of time and money—three years and about $6,000. Ewers had to contact an armor maker in Germany and work with a professional seamstress to customize the fabric and leather. His costume was featured in the film Return of Pink Five, directed by Trey Stokes. Last month, Ewers wore it for the Culture of Cult one-night art show at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette, coordinated by NMU art director and alumnus Mike Forester. Ewers’ favorite costume is Deviss, a Clone commander prototype character with extensive detail and weaponry, which proved most challenging for him to build.
George Lucas is an honorary member of the 501st Legion. Ewers was in costume for the filmmaker’s Las Vegas induction ceremony and acquired his autograph. He also attended the Episode III premiere in Hollywood.
“It’s fun to go to the high-profile events, but my favorite experiences are those that involve bringing joy to children. I have visited pediatric cancer patients who are in pain and can’t get out of bed. To see them waving lightsabers around and playing with toys—relieving their misery for a short period of time—is rewarding. Or it’s cool to be at an event and have a young child look at you, toddle up and hold out a finger to touch you to see if you’re real. The 501st often does things with the Make-A-Wish, Ronald McDonald House, the American Cancer Society and other charities. Members get no money for those things.”
Ewers’s wife, Maria, supports and shares in his hobby. She will accompany him to the local premiere in costume as Boushh, the bounty hunter Leia impersonated to infiltrate Jabba’s palace and free Han Solo. But no, their two young children will not be Ewoks; they will remain home in the care of grandparents. Ewers reports that his dad, who took him to that first Star Wars movie a long time ago in a galaxy not so far away, is also supportive of his hobby. “He’s really impressed with the degree of accuracy in the costuming and the response we get from the public.”
Ewers emphasized his willingness to talk with others interested in the hobby and process of Star Wars costuming who may hope to join him in the 501st Legion. He can be reached at email@example.com.