The Star Wars fan community is a far reaching and wonderful thing. Folks of all ages, from all across the globe can unite in their love for everything included in that galaxy far, far away. There are many levels of fandom. There are gamers, fan fiction writers, bloggers, podcasters and cosplayers. Still, the average fan doesn’t spend much in the way of time or energy on expressing their passion for the Wars, aside from wearing the occasional Star Wars themed t-shirt.
There are however, a specific group of fans who constantly go above and beyond the norm, when it comes to expressing their love for Star Wars... the 501st Legion. Otherwise known as Vader’s Fist, the men and women who serve in the 501st are more than just a simple costuming guild. They are something impressive… most impressive. Their thousands of members are the make up of a hard working charitable organization that makes a real difference in the lives of millions around the world.
We at Dork Side of the Force were lucky enough to speak to one of the proud members of this elite force, last week. Gordon Gravelese of the New England Garrison was kind enough to sit down with DSOTF Editor Daniel Berry to discuss his experiences with the 501st, his love of Star Wars and his recent journey across the country with the Jabba On Board campaign.
Gordon Gravelese and his family, as painted by artist Randy Martinez.
Thursday, August 21st 2014, 9:01pm EST
DSOTF: Gordon, how are you doing this evening?
GG: I’m good.
DSOTF: Thanks again for making time, man! I appreciate that. We’re just getting started with the podcast and you know, I’m the editor of the site which is hosting that show. I had been looking forward to getting in touch with someone involved in the “Jabba on Board” project and once we talked to you on the podcast, I was hooked! Man, I wanted more from Gordon… and I told Ryan that I really wanted to talk to you about your personal experiences with the 501st and Star Wars fandom. For this interview, I’m interested in learning about the New England Garrison through your voice, you know what I’m saying?
DSOTF: Let’s get right into it. What can you tell me about the New England Garrison and how they’ve been involved in your community?
GG: Oh, gosh! Well, we have about a hundred or so members throughout most of New England. We don’t cover Connecticut. Once you get to about thirty-five or forty members, you can petition the Legion to make your own garrison. Connecticut was a squad, then they became their own garrison, so they’re the Connecticut Garrison. The New England Garrison covers Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We’ve got about a hundred or so members, some more active than others. We get a lot of events coming through our way. We probably do between sixty and seventy events a year, throughout the region. We do library events, we go and support DK Publishing when they have things at stores like Barnes & Noble. We obviously, we do the big conventions around here. We’ve got one in Boston, one in Manchester, New Hampshire and one in Providence, Rhode Island that we have a booth at. We do parades! We do the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade, we do a big Halloween parade in a town called Wouburn, which is a little north of Boston. We do a Christmas parade up in Manchester, New Hampshire. Occasionally, we get requests for birthday parties and autism walks and other little events that people, they’ll ask us to come. Relay for Life is another one we get sometimes! They’ll come and they’ll want us to interact with the participants of the event. In exchange, they’ll donate a couple hundred bucks to a charity of our choice or a charity of their choice in our name, which is really wonderful too, sometimes.
DSOTF: Man! It sounds like your garrison in particular, keeps you busy.
GG: Well, yeah. I mean, I try to make as many events as I can. I probably do three or four a month. Hopefully you know, as long as my wife lets me! One a weekend or two or three a month, whatever I can get away with.
Gordon Gravelese and his wife Heather, decked out in Imperial gear for the holidays.
DSOTF: I’m not sure how much you hear from other factions of the 501st, but how does the New England Garrison compare as far as the level of activity that they engage in?
GG: I’d say it’s pretty active. I mean, there’s a couple units out there that are, they do three or four events every weekend but they’ve got the membership to support that. Then there are other garrisons that do maybe fifteen or twenty events a year just because they are spread out apart or they just don’t get the requests as often. But I’d say that we’re pretty active. I mean, we’ve got… I’m just thinking off the top of my head!… two events this coming weekend and maybe another six or seven in the month of September already scheduled.
DSOTF: That’s awesome. Well, what about you? When did you first become a member of the 501st? Tell me about the process that was involved in you becoming an actual member.
GG: Well, I guess it all started in the Fall of 2007 for me. I was looking online, just to kinda… I wanted to buy a Stormtrooper helmet and kinda keep in on my mantle. I thought that would be like, just a cool thing to have as a Star Wars fan, a nice conversation piece. In buying a helmet, I went into buying armor and then buying armor led me to the 501st. I looked up the local group, saw they were in the Wouburn parade in 2007. I went down as a spectator just to catch them and see what they were like. I saw them march past and after that I threw down a couple hundred bucks on a suit of armor. My first one was “A New Hope” Stormtrooper. I got that done in wintertime and I became a member in February of 2008. My first event with the legion was the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade of 2008. That’s a very Irish parade! There’s lots of drinking at ten o’ clock in the morning and the crowd’s a little crazy. It’s five miles, a couple of little hills but it’s a long day. We have to be at the meeting place at like 9:00 am and we don’t step off until 12:00 or 1:00 and then the parade’s a couple of hours after that. Once I got past a little claustrophobia, a little anxiety, I had a lot of fun but ever since then, I’ve expanded. I’ve got a couple more costumes. I got a Clone Trooper at one point. I currently have a Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper… I have a Jango Fett! I have an X-Wing pilot and I have a Republic Commando. “Sev”, the one with the bloody handprint. I also have a Jedi and I’ve got a couple projects in the works. My wife is a member too! She’s got a couple costumes. She has a biker scout that we started her off with. She has an X-Wing as well. She does the Republic Commando “Fixer”, the one with the green stripe. I’m currently working on a Bo-Katan from The Clone Wars.
DSOTF: Man! Your wife is involved too, that’s incredible! That’s really sweet!
GG: Yeah! I mean, prior to us getting married, she had never seen Star Wars and I kinda sat her down and watched it. She’s actually the commanding officer of the Alderaan base! So I have to answer to her! She’s my boss.
Heather and Gordon Gravelese, proud members of the 501st Legion.
DSOTF: Ha ha! That’s incredible. That’s amazing, dude! That’s really cool. So obviously, your fandom and your passion for Star Wars spreads across all six of the films, The Clone Wars even. Since you mentioned all those great characters from the prequels and The Clone Wars… tell me, like about how you first became a fan and what age were you when the films all came out?
GG: Well, to put in into perspective… I was two when Return of the Jedi came out in ’83.
GG: So, my first experience with them was, my dad had videotaped a copy of A New Hope, Empire and Jedi when they were on television back in the late 80′s. I watched that VHS tape so much, it got all worn out. I remember being seven or eight… I was really scared of Jabba the Hutt! Because he was of course, the first big scary monster I’d ever seen as a kid. I remember the show was on downstairs in my playroom and Jabba came on and I ran upstairs and hid under my parents’ covers! Hopefully long enough for the Jabba scenes to be over! You know, lightsabers and X-Wing fighters and the Force and Darth Vader… that all captured my spirit as a little kid. They kinda introduced me to being a nerd and a geek and loving a franchise like this so much.
DSOTF: That’s really cool, man. Yeah! I’m right with you, man. I was born in ’81, myself.
GG: Yeah, okay! So, yeah! Ha ha.
DSOTF: That’s really rad, man. That’s cool. I can really relate to that process of being introduced to the Wars and growing up with the old VHS copies. That’s awesome, man. That’s really cool. I love to meet fans who grew up… basically with the original trilogy, who don’t really hate on the prequels, who appreciate The Clone Wars and you know, the whole span of the films and all that.
GG: There’s some people out there who don’t really love the prequels as much as the original trilogy. You know, I can respect that but in the same token… as much as I hate to say it, The Phantom Menace… which, if I had to list them in order, The Phantom Menace would kinda be at the bottom. You know, that’s still real Star Wars just as much as Empire and Jedi. So, the same with The Clone Wars. It all came from Lucasfilm and George Lucas and some people may like one more than the other. I tend to respect them all. They’re all part of the story and they’re all part of the mythology.
DSOTF: Right on, man. That’s a healthy outlook on the whole saga, for sure. So, we featured you as a guest recently on Podcast 66 and you were really gracious enough to spend time with us, discussing the Jabba on Board project. For the readers who haven’t really heard that interview, could you give me like, a synopsis of your involvement in that project?
GG: Well, the New England Garrison… a couple members made a really fantastic looking Jabba the Hutt, really realistic. He comes with a stage and a backdrop and everything! We had been bringing him around to conventions and other events in my area and since I’m one of the few guys with a pickup truck and a trailer, I kinda volunteered to move him. So, I would bring him to conventions and other events that we had. Then after awhile, we decided to… Jabba’s kinda worn out his welcome a little bit. So, we ended up connecting with Steve Sansweet out in Rancho Obi-Wan in California. Steve was very, very gracious enough to take Jabba off of our hands. Jabba on Board was a big PR campaign that we used to help advertise the fact that we were literally driving Jabba across country in the back of a rental truck. Yeah, so Jabba on Board was originally created back in 2012 when they took Jabba from New England and down to Celebration VI in Orlando. We brought it back to life for this year, to catalogue our journey across country with him. Now that he’s out there in his… I don’t wanna say his “final resting place”, but his latest home!
DSOTF: Ha ha! Sure. Yeah, real quick and I’ll wrap this up… could you tell me one memorable moment from the trip or anything crazy that happened? A funny story, perhaps?
GG: Actually, there’s two funny stories I’m gonna tell you. Part of Jabba’s whole kit and kaboodle is… we have a puppet of Salacious Crumb and every time we’d check into a hotel, I would always have him under my arms like a stuffed animal. This guy, he’s probably three feet tall with a four foot tail and he’s proportionate to the size of Jabba. So just, the funny looks I would get from the people checking in! I’d try and get pictures with Salacious pumping gas on the truck or you know, flipping through the channels of the TV and what have you and the looks that we all got were hilarious! My other funny story is, because we were required to stop at weigh stations across the country, we pulled into California and we get weighed and the guy comes out and he goes… “Hey, what are you hauling?”
DSOTF: Ha ha ha!
GG: I go… “Jabba the Hutt.”
DSOTF: Ha ha ha ha!
GG: … and he just kinda looks at me like, “Well, that’s a new one!” … and I go… “It’s a Star Wars prop, we’re bringing him to a TV studio event in California!” … and he goes… “Well, alright!” and he just kinda waves us along, like it’s normal everyday business!
DSOTF: “Move along, move along!”
GG: Ha ha! Yeah, pretty much.
DSOTF: That’s awesome, man. How many times do you get to use that? “Oh, I’m hauling Jabba the Hutt.”
GG: Ha ha! Yep, yep. We’re like, “Hey, I’ll open up the back if you wanna see!”
DSOTF: Ha ha!
GG: He’s like, “No, no! That’s quite alright, just keep on going!”
DSTOF: Well, Gordon. You’re the man, dude. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me and the podcast and the site already. I was just going to ask you one final question. What is it about being a member of the 501st that means the most to you, personally?
GG: It’s gotta be all the charities we help and support. My third or fourth event in 2008, we were invited by a local LEGO Store. They were having a birthday party for a nine year old boy with a blood disease, or blood cancer. His name was Christian. We went and I came in my Stormtrooper, and there were a couple other guys there. They got a big card from the guys and LEGO corporate, they all signed it. They had this awesome cake and Christian was there with his family and his friends and stuff. Because of his condition, his face was really swollen. His whole body was swollen. He was in an adaptive wheelchair and just seeing his expression and seeing his face light up at the sight of the Darth Vader, and there was a Boba Fett there and a couple of Stormtroopers. It was a really memorable event and you know, we got some feedback from his parents a couple of days later saying how much fun he had and how awesome a time it was. Then about a month later, we got word that Christian had passed away. His parents were very, very thankful for us to help provide him with his last, greatest birthday and he had a lot fun. Even thinking about that now, it still… it still kinda brings tears to my eyes.
DSOTF: Yeah, man. That’s… that’s incredible. I honestly can tell you from the heart, that everything that the 501st Legion does worldwide, really hits me at home. I just think that Star Wars fandom as a whole is just such an amazing community but the 501st have always gone above and beyond to demonstrate… that you can take your passion for something as arbitrary and nerdy as a series of films and really… um, do something that really makes a serious, significant difference in the lives of people all across the world… whether they’d just be fans or like you said, kids with troubles and stuff like that. So, man… that’s really cool, dude!… and I’m honored to you know, be friends with any members of the 501st and you’ve been way cool in doing all this for us… and I really appreciate the time, man! Thank you so much!
GG: Well, thank you for supporting us and being there for us because I mean, we’re just as big of fans as you are.
If you missed our interview with Gordon Gravelese during last week’s episode of Podcast 66, check out the show here.
Enjoy meeting some members of the New England Garrison in the two videos below, both from December ’07:
You can visit the 501st Legion New England Garrison on the internet!
501st NEG at FACEBOOK.
501st NEG at TWITTER.
501st NEG at FLICKR.
To keep up with the New England Garrison, visit their official site to find out when they’ll be marching! Check it out, here.
We’d like to offer our deepest gratitude to Gordon Gravelese for offering so much of his time to us. Please visit the official site of the 501st Legion and give them your support.
Thank you for visiting DSOTF! Don’t forget to tune into a new episode of Podcast 66, every Friday right here!
May the Force be with you!!!
Heather and Gordon Gravelese in their X-Wing pilot uniforms.