Sputnikfest 2014


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Sunday, February 24, 2013

It’s About the Smiles
A popular feature at each year’s Sputnikfest are the Star Wars characters.  What do Star Wars and Sputnik have in common?  Not much, when you get right down to it.  I will admit that in the early planning stages of the event I was a bit skeptical as to including Star Wars or “alien” elements in the festival.  Manitowoc, Wisconsin can lay claim to something no other city in the world can – part of a Russian satellite crashed into our city at the height of the Cold War.  My initial thoughts were that we should focus on the retro/Cold War/early Space Age aspects of the event.   I figured – there are plenty of sci-fi conventions and such where a person can go see Star Wars characters and aliens … but you know what?  There aren’t a lot of opportunities in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to see a Stormtrooper pushing a baby carriage. 
The 501’st Legion is a world-wide all-volunteer Star Wars themed costuming organization, with the mission of “promoting Star Wars, facilitating the use of costumes and contributing to their communities through charity work and volunteerism.”  The 501st legion has over 6,000 members world-wide and is 15 years old this year.  The Wisconsin Garrison is three years old this year and has more than 60 members, with more enlisting all the time. 
I asked Garrison Public Relations Officer Kristal Brandt why it is that they do what they do.  She replied “Why we do this will differ for each member.  However the answer always seems to come back to the smiles.  When a Stormtrooper, Vader or any character for that matter steps out the excitement and the smiles that follow are priceless ... It always comes back to the smiles.”
If you are interested in knowing more about the 501st Legion, check out their website.  Last year members of the Wisconsin Garrison appeared at nearly 80 events throughout the State.  The Dark Side of the Force apparently has a heart of gold.  The only payment the group asks for is a donation to either a charity of the event’s choice, or one the group will be happy to recommend. 
To become a member of the 501st you have to have a passion for Star Wars – and for helping others, be at least 18 years old, and have a professional quality Star Wars costume.  GPRO Brandt told me their “members take pride in building their costumes to be screen accurate.  The first step in the process is to research, research, research.”   The 501st website has a costume reference library that details the standards for each character.  Most elements are hand-crafted and these costumes don’t come cheap –  a basic Stormtrooper costume starts at about $1,200.  Some other costumes may cost a little less, many characters a lot more. 
The Star Wars characters do play an active role in Sputnikfest.   Last year Darth Vader guided the fire truck into position for the alien drop and the characters also served guard to hold back the masses of children waiting to charge in and fill their pockets with little rubber aliens.  See a previous post for details on how the Alien Drop works, but after the winning alien is determined, all the remaining aliens are scooped up by enthusiastic children.  Sometimes they are bit too enthusiastic and want to rush in and start grabbing up the alien booty before the contest winner has been determined.  At last year’s event the Star Wars characters really had their hands full trying to “hold the line.”  The spectacle of Darth Vader, Stormtroopers and assembled Empire Heavies struggling to keep a group of children back prompted Museum Director Greg Vadney to quip to one of the characters – “See, that’s why you guys lost the Death Star twice.”
Visit Sputnikfest on September 7, 2013 in Manitowoc, Wisconsin to see the 501st Legion Wisconsin Garrison in action.  And see firsthand why it truly is all about the smiles.

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