By Mary Peck –
We all know at least one. Maybe more than one. Perhaps you’re the one.
They are passionate “Star Wars” fans and — along with dressing the part(s), having fun and anxiously anticipating the saga’s next movie premier — they’re doing a tremendous amount of giving back to their local communities.
That’s especially good news for Coloradans as, interestingly, the region is a bit of a hotbed for “Star Wars” fandom. That’s largely thanks to the fact that Denverite Dan Madsen headed Lucasfilm’s Official Star Wars Fan Club for nearly two decades.
“‘Star Wars’ fans are amazing in that they have raised so much money for charity,” Madsen said. “I know of no other fandom that gives to the community like ‘Star Wars’ fandom does, and it’s literally all over the world.”
Hundreds if not thousands of diverse, homegrown fan groups around the globe have now taken the place of an official fan club. These groups may arguably provide more effective grassroots opportunities for fans to connect with each other and take part in local charitable causes.
One well-known group, Rocky Mountain FanForce, or RMFF, has been active in the Centennial State for 17 years and counting. FanForce itself is an umbrella organization with dozens of chapters around the world, from Australia to Africa, and the United Kingdom to Latin America. The online message board forum, TheForce.net, serves as the group’s home base, but for members in Colorado, it’s all about being a social club that hosts and attends a multitude of community events throughout the year.
RMFF takes pride in its primary focus of inclusiveness and camaraderie and less on costuming and reenacting. “They get together and just enjoy ‘Star Wars’ together,” Madsen said. “They have built a community in the Denver metro area that welcomes in anyone who loves ‘Star Wars.’”
“This group is about fellowship and friendship,” said Dale “he-guy” Morris. (Most members enjoy using their message board nicknames.) “We’ve always been a social group. Sometimes we don’t even talk about ‘Star Wars.”’
Autumn “AuttyBot” Goodridge joined in 2009 after a local ‘Star Wars’ club, the 501st Legion: Mountain Garrison, visited her young son when he was critically ill at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “It made a huge impact on us and our children,” she said. “I wanted to find a group and pay it forward. Plus, I’m a huge geek.”
The group’s monthly social gatherings are strategically held at varied locations across the metro area. Careful attention is given to being accepting and welcoming of new people, members say, noting that not infrequently people who are into sci-fi fandom tend to be introverted.
Jonathan “DieWompRatDie” Thornton pointed out that while other clubs tend to have a military-type structure, “there’s no real hierarchy for us.”
Members of the group become so close that they often travel together — everywhere from Anaheim to Orlando, mostly to attend “Star Wars” film premiers and conventions. Group events are family friendly, and members say visitors don’t necessarily feel out of place if they haven’t seen every “Star Wars” movie or read all the books. They admit they’re not experts in every bit of “Star Wars” but enjoy the camaraderie and social aspect most of all.
“They’re like extended family to me,” Auttybot said.
Another big differentiator of the club? Money.
“We’re definitely inclusive,” said Michael “JediPicard” Berg, also a proud “Trekkie.” “Unlike other fan clubs, we don’t charge dues.”
“One of the things I love about the group is money isn’t a restrictive factor,” said Linda “FanForced” (because she married into the RMFF, but is now one of the most active members) Thornton. “To participate in other groups with screen-accurate costumes can knock out a whole subset of the population. Not everyone has time or resources to do the costumes.”
“I know people who have spent over $1,000 on stormtrooper outfits,” said Wes Thornton, a member of the group.
RMFF members say that varying degrees of fandom attract different types of fans to different types of clubs in Colorado. From villain costume clubs, to droid builders, to a club exclusively for kids, there’s no shortage of options for area fans.
“I don’t think there’s any other area in the U.S. that has this concentration of groups and such high participation,” DieWompRatDie said.
Colorado’s fandom culture grew from fertile ground. In anticipation of the 1999 release of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” Madsen was tapped by Lucasfilm to produce the first ever official Star Wars Celebration event. He agreed, and sold the idea to hold it at Denver’s Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum, located on the former Lowry Air Force Base.
“The fan club was based here in Denver, so we thought it would only be appropriate that the celebration be held here,” Madsen said. “We had a massive turnout. We had 30,000 people from all over the world come to it.”
Even older than Star Wars Celebration is StarFest, an annual Denver convention started in 1977 that encompasses all facets of popular media and sci-fi, including “Star Wars,” of course. The event continues to draw thousands of pop culture fans to Denver every April for a lively weekend of socializing, games and special interest presentations.
“I started with FanForce at StarFest 2010,” said Grant “Jedi Jonas” Middleton. “‘Star Wars’ goes back to my childhood. I collected lots of figures.”
“‘Star Wars’ made a big impact on a lot of people and it’s stuck with us our whole lives,” he-guy said.
Today’s hottest fan ticket in Denver is Comic-Con, which members of RMFF helped kickstart. What began only five short years ago is now the third largest comic book convention in the United States. It benefits Pop Culture Classroom, a Denver-based nonprofit that creates educational programs for underserved youth by using comic books, graphic novels and other media to inspire learning.
RMFF has a key presence at Denver Comic-Con, participating in panels and producing an increasingly popular Star Wars Game Show Trivia Contest. The contest packs event rooms to capacity every year, luring upwards of 300 “Star Wars” trivia lovers to compete for prizes and glory.
The R2-KT Make-A-Wish Colorado Auction is one of the biggest draws at Denver Comic-Con. The auction was started a decade ago by Rocky Mountain Star Wars fans in the spirit of Katie Johnson, a young girl who had an inoperable brain tumor. R2-KT, the hand-built pink droid that mirrors R2-D2, watched over Katie during her final days. The event raises funds for children fighting serious medical conditions with 100 percent of the money raised given directly to Make-A-Wish Colorado.
This year, area fan club members handcrafted and donated an amazing array of “Star Wars” treasures that included a leather Chewbacca-style bandolier, a life-sized stuffed Ewok and a one-of-a-kind Han Solo coffee table. Nearly $14,000 was raised for Make-A-Wish Colorado — enough to grant two entire wishes.
“Make-A-Wish and helping kids with their wishes is incredibly rewarding and very emotional for me,” Auttybot said.
The spirit of cooperation is another hallmark of “Star Wars” fandom. RMFF frequently joins forces with other area “Star Wars” groups for special events, such as those at Denver Comic-Con, Denver’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Arvada Harvest Festival Parade.
“I love seeing all the kids screaming for ‘Star Wars,’ giving them a high five,” AuttyBot said.
“The parents love it too,” Wes said.
RMFF has held clothing drives associated with movie premiers for Urban Peak, an agency serving homeless youth in Denver and Colorado Springs, and it has partnered with the Denver Public Library for Star Wars Reads Day, created to promote literacy through “Star Wars” books.
“It’s fun being at the public events out in the open,” Jedi Jonas said.
Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum is yet another beneficiary of RMFF’s passion and hard work, and something of a second home for the club. Members help maintain the museum’s most popular exhibit — a 3/4-scale replica of an X-wing starfighter flown by Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.”
Madsen negotiated with Lucasfilm to keep the X-wing on permanent display at the museum following its promotional tour and the first Star Wars Celebration. “FanForce keeps it looking pristine and beautiful,” Madsen said. “Wings Over the Rockies has been very grateful to them for all the work they’ve done over the years.”
RMFF hosts its Star Wars Game Show Trivia Contest at the museum on its busiest day of the year, May the 4th (aka Star Wars Day), and takes part in the kid-friendly “Hauntings at the Hangar” event every October, hosting Death Star and Jabba the Hutt themed contests and games. This year’s event is Saturday, October 27, with all proceeds benefiting the nonprofit museum.
“It’s the wider community where we want to give back and provide some entertainment,” said DieWompRatDie. “We want people to see it’s not just a movie, it’s local and a way to share our passion.”
For legions of fans everywhere with varying degrees of devotion, “Star Wars” greatest legacy may be the way it serves as a conduit for delivering The Force’s light side to the world. For RMFF, it’s certainly a catalyst for bringing people together to collaborate, create, do good in the world and simply be with one another.
“‘Star Wars’ has changed the lives of so many people and communities,” Madsen said. “That the franchise has started all that is, to me, the most amazing part of it.”
Mary Peck is a freelance writer and contributor to Colorado Country Life Magazine. She lives in northern Colorado with her husband, two teenagers and two dogs, all of whom happen to be spirited “Star Wars” fans.