Dec. 16 2015 11:15 AM

Locals find community in costumes

As Todd Letts, in his full “Star Wars” scout trooper costume, stepped off the elevator in NCG Cinemas Saturday morning, a teenage boy walked past. The youth stopped, backtracked and exclaimed, “Whoa!”
Left to right: Andrew Miller, in his storm trooper uniform; Anna Rossmann, as the character Rey; and Todd Letts, as an imperial scout trooper; pose for a photo in front of a "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" poster at NCG Cinema in Lansing.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

For Letts and his comrades — Anna Rossmann of Lansing and Andrew Miller of East Lansing — the stares and pointing are something they have grown accustomed to when they trot out their “Star Wars” costumes. They refer to themselves as “live action figures.”

They are part of the Great Lakes Garrison, a local offshoot of a worldwide “Star Wars” fan group, the 501st Legion. The group comprises fans who spend hundreds of hours — and sometimes thousands of dollars — painstakingly recreating the costumes from the film franchise.

The 501st Legion, according to its website, “is an all-volunteer organization formed for the express purpose of bringing together costume enthusiasts under a collective identity within which to operate. The legion seeks to promote interest in ‘Star Wars’ through the building and wearing of quality costumes and to facilitate the use of these costumes for ‘Star Wars’-related events, as well as contributions to the local community through costumed charity and volunteer work.”

Rossmann said her membership in the group even helped her make a connection with fans in Japan on a recent trip.

“They were able to bring others together, and they could show us around,” Rossmann said. “You can just reach out to people, wherever they are, and you share that common thing of ‘Star Wars.’ It’s like a family”

The group members wear their costumes to events like comic conventions and meet together regularly to discuss — sometimes in exacting detail — the costumes, the films and the stories.

The group has affiliates in every state and all over the world. Letts said the group even had a member who was stationed in Antarctica for a time.

The group is more than social, however. Many of the local groups partner to raise money for charities. The 501st Legion’s website touts its success in raising funds. In 2013, members participated in or attended events that raised over $32 million for charities. Members have donated almost 30,000 hours of their time to assist in charity fundraising.

The organization has also taken on the fight against bullying, launching its own anti-bullying program, “The Heart of the Force,” aimed at 5 to 10 year olds.

Despite all this good work, Miller said, sometimes people will hear about the hobby and frown on them.

“Then I tell them we raised, worldwide, millions of dollars for charity events,” Miller said. “That tends to stop them in their tracks.”