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Short For A Stormtrooper? Not In This Star Wars Dress-Up Game

Above: Members of the 501st Legion gather in Drew Hannah's garage to work on their stormtrooper armor.

Aired 7/11/13 on KPBS News.

Like Civil War reenactors from this galaxy, the 501st Legion of Star Wars stormtroopers have very strict costuming requirements.

A short time ago, in a garage not so far away, Steve Leahy was having a problem with his stormtrooper armor. There was a tiny piece of plastic, maybe just a few millimeters wide, sticking out from the shin guard.

"I know it's a minor detail, and while you're wearing it, someone may never notice, but I know it's there and I know it shouldn't be, so we like to put the effort in to make it as perfect as possible," he says while using an electric sander to smooth it out. Then he goes over it again with sandpaper.

Steve Leahy's Shadow Stormtrooper armor.

"Done deal!" he says while blowing off dust.

Leahy has good reason for his obsessions. He's a member of the 501st Imperial Stormtrooper Legion, an international group of thousands who make their own armor to look like the stormtroopers from Star Wars. For most of the year, they don it for parades and charity events. But now these troopers are gearing up for their biggest event of the year, their Death Star assault, if you will: Comic-Con.

Like Civil War reenactors from another galaxy, the 501st Legion's costuming requirements are strict. To be accepted into the stormtrooper ranks, a new recruit's armor must have every stripe perfectly painted, every button and divot perfectly placed.

Drew Hannah is the membership liaison for the Southern California Garrison, the detachment of stormtroopers occupying San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County and the Inland Empire. That means aspiring stormtroopers send him photos of their armor and he decides which costumes pass muster.

An Imperial Gunner in costume.

"This is going to sound really, really critical," he says about what he looks for when evaluating costumes, "but did they paint the trapezoids on the helmet correctly, are the tube stripes the correct colors, is the frown the correct color and cut out with the appropriate number of teeth, did some of the stripes on the side ears of the helmet get painted correctly, are the ab buttons correct and did they close up the armor correctly in the right places."

It's Hannah's garage in Ventura where the garrison meets to construct its armor. A few weekends ago, a group gathered to work, not just on traditional stormtrooper armor, but on jet-black Shadow Stormtrooper armor, camouflaged Kashyyyk trooper armor and an Imperial Gunner uniform worn by the beetle-looking guys who turn on the Death Star's laser.

Hannah fiddles with a small plastic panel of buttons he'll attach to his Kashyyyk trooper costume.

"Does that look about right Steve?" he asks Leahy.

Leahy reaches over and gently nudges the panel.

Drew Hannah works to position plastic dials and buttons on his stormtrooper armor.

"Oh sure, move it one millimeter to the right," Hannah jokes.

"This is a business of perfectionism," Leahy says.

Stormtroopers can spend up to $8,000 on their costumes and work on them constantly.

But Hannah, who works as a network engineer for his day job, doesn't let his hobby interfere with his love life. His girlfriend also has a stormtrooper costume.

"She initially thought it was a little silly of me wanting to dress up as a Star Wars character, but after following me to some of the events, she thought that it would be really fun to participate as well," Hannah says. "So she worked on her own to build a Return of the Jedi biker scout."

Those are the guys who chase Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on speeders in the final movie.

Hannah's respect for stormtroopers comes from one of the very first scenes of the original Star Wars, when Princess Leia's ship is captured by Darth Vader.

"You see the door just get completely blown apart, and these guys in white armor come storming through and just wiping out all of the troopers that are set up on defense," he says. "You can just see that they own the room. They are the baddest people on that ship and they're not going to take anything from anybody else. Except for when that character in black comes storming through the crowd, and you just see all of them snap to attention."

A stormtrooper reenactor greets a young girl during an appearance.

Now, troopers like Hannah and Leahy are rushing to finish their costumes in time for Comic-Con. Still, Hannah says the garrison's greatest joy is visiting children's hospitals and other charity events. The troopers take no payment for their appearances, but instead ask that money be donated.

"If you were to be able to peak under our helmets when we're running around playing with kids, we pretty much have goofy grins or full-blown smiles plastered on our faces," he says.

So why do good deeds while dressed as bad guys? Hannah says the Dark Side costumes are just cooler.

"If you look at it from our point of view, we're the rightful law and order of the galaxy," he jokes. "Doesn't matter that our boss is a little on the evil side, to us we're enforcing law and order."

Possibly the only Dark Side downside is the overused joke, "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

"We hear that particular joke all the time, even if we are the correct height for a stormtrooper," Hannah says.

And Hannah is the exact right height: 5 feet, 11 inches.

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