In what seems like a galaxy far, far away, Brian Clausse spends his days as a civil servant with the California Department of Health Services. But the 40-year-old Carmichael resident feels most at home in an imposing Darth Vader costume that took six months and about $4,000 to create. He’s the “commanding officer” for the 501st Legion’s Central California Garrison, a “Star Wars” costuming group with 105 members spanning from the Oregon border all the way south to Fresno. They’re a familiar force at local charity events, “Star Wars” theme nights, sporting events and comic conventions.
The 501st Legion’s Central California Garrison remains on standby this week, ready to be suited up with impeccable costumes dedicated to stormtroopers and other “Star Wars” villains. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens this week, a kind of early Christmas for “Star Wars” buffs and science-fiction movie fans. But few take their “Star Wars” fandom to such celestial levels as the 501st Legion’s Central California Garrison.
The week’s itinerary for the all-volunteer costuming group includes 10 appearances at screenings of “The Force Awakens” from Thursday through Sunday. Members of the Central California Garrison will be mobilized to keep the mood festive as folks wait their turn in Folsom, Fresno and Stockton to see the first live-action “Star Wars” movie since 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith.”
“I’ve always been a ‘Star Wars’ guy,” Clausse said. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be out there traveling from one planet to another. Not only is it awesome costumes and cool characters, it’s the adventure involved for me.”
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The group’s parent organization, the 501st Legion, started not in outer space but cyberspace. Its original home base was a Geocities Web page where “Star Wars” fans could post pictures of their finest stormtrooper armor and homemade costumes. The site ultimately spawned a series of regional chapters around the world dedicated to “Star Wars” costuming, and today boasts more than 10,000 members around planet Earth. The Central California Garrison, which serves regional “Star Wars” fans, was founded in 2001.
There’s a sister group dedicated to the “Star Wars” good guys. The Rebel Legion costume club focuses on the Luke Skywalkers of the world and other heroes.
Becoming an approved member of these kinds of clubs requires much more than a couple trips to Party City. For the Central California Garrison, prospective Boba Fetts and other “Star Wars” bad guys must adhere to a strict set of costuming criteria. Anything that’s a store-bought piece of “Star Wars” costuming generally gets a thumbs-down. Homemade costumes are preferred, and some members specialize in creating custom “Star Wars” costume items that are sold to other members.
For someone who wants to represent a pilot from the 181st Imperial Fighter Group, as depicted in “Return of the Jedi,” the flight suit requires a mandarin collar that’s about 1.5 inches tall, a cargo pocket on the right sleeve, no rank bars of any kind – and that’s just for starters. The standards are listed through an online costume reference library and online forums are also available to get feedback and tips from fellow “Star Wars” costuming enthusiasts.
“We strive for the costumes to be as accurate as they can to the movie,” Clausse said. “At the point when they feel the costume is up to standards, the person will take photos of themselves in the costume from all angles and send it to our garrison membership liaison. He reviews all the costumes and determines if it meets the requirements.”
Clausse has four approved costumes to his credit, including a stormtrooper from “A New Hope,” Darth Vader and a stormtrooper commander. He’s currently working on a costume for Kylo Ren, a hot-tempered character who debuts in “The Force Awakens.”
The costs can run up quickly, especially when working with high-quality materials and the expenses of tailor fittings. Many costumes can cost thousands of dollars to create before they are given official approval.
“For my Darth Vader, it took a lot of fittings,” Clausse said. “The helmet and armor, to get good accurate versions of those, you always spend quite a bit on that stuff. I’m artistic anyway, but I thought building one of those (costumes) would be a lot of fun. You put that first one together and it’s kind of addicting.”
The Central California Garrison doesn’t charge a fee for appearances, but it welcomes donations made to charities in the name of the 501st Legion. The group was authorized by Lucasfilm, the production company behind the “Star Wars” franchise, to a limited use of its copyrighted characters provided that the 501st Legion didn’t use their costuming for personal profit.
Now, most of Clausse’s social life is reserved for activities with the Central California Garrison. As commanding officer, he’s responsible for assigning duties and working with other command staff members to plan events. The group works with many literacy events at libraries and often is summoned to bring a “Star Wars” touch when ailing children are granted a gift from the Make-A-Wish charity.
Their characters might be devoted to the dark side of the force, but their ultimate mission is to generate smiles in the spirit of “Star Wars.”
“We’re the bad guys doing good,” Clausse said. “It’s a lot of fun to be Darth Vader.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in Sacramento-area theaters Thursday night. The earliest showing in 7 p.m. Check theater for specific times of its showings.