October 7, 2007
Story and Photos Chris Spice (Darth Spice)

 

INTRODUCTION
Over the years Sandtroopers.com has covered many events that the 501st Legion has been host of. It became so thrilling for us; several staff members have joined the group in the past few years. Recently I had a chance to conduct an interview with Mark Fordham who succeeded Albin Johnson and serves as Legion Commanding Officer of the Legion. With thousands of members already enlisted, we had a chance to get Mark’s take on many topics that would be interesting to Star Wars fans. From 501st Exclusive action figures to running most elite costuming organization in the world, see what he has to say! Thanks again to Mark for taking time out of his super-busy schedule for this interrogation.

THE INTERROGATION
Darth Spice: Mark, if you can briefly tell us a little about your background and how you got involved into the service of the Empire?

Mark Fordham: Like most of us, I was hooked on Star Wars the first time I saw it. I bought the toys, built the models, and dreamed of having the costumes one day. Once I was an adult and had the means to buy a few things, I started trying to put together a Darth Vader costume. I actually liked the stormtrooper outfit the best, but at 6’4” I felt I was too tall for a stormtrooper and was better suited for Darth Vader. My Vader costume was (as most costumes are) an evolutionary process that I still don’t consider “done”. But I eventually had the full impression and started trying to figure out what to do with it besides wear it at Halloween time. So I started volunteering for birthday parties. This was a few years before the 501st was formed. After the Legion started promoting itself I heard something about it, but back then it was being touted as the “501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers” and I was a Vader, so I didn’t think I was eligible. A few years after that I ran across the Legion again and learned they accepted all bad guy costumes. That was all I needed to hear!

DS: What part of joining the 501st Legion did you feel was the most difficult?

MF: At the time that I joined the Legion, the tough part (i.e. creating the costume) was behind me! I found the membership application/induction process to be rather easy. But for most I would imagine that it’s getting the complete costume done and done right. It shocks most people just how expensive some of these costumes can be.

DS: Please briefly describe your very first event or experience in costume.

MF: Hmm, first time in costume or first time in costume as a member of the 501st? My first time in a Darth Vader costume (pre-501st) was for an employee Halloween party in 1987. It was a HIDEOUS costume, and I am grateful that no photos of it exist! I had the small child’s size Don Post Vader helmet. I wore my black S.W.A.T. jumpsuit and boots with a black Vampire cape. I made some metal boxes for my belt and chest. I didn’t have much time to put the thing together, so I went into my recording studio and pulled a bunch of knobs off of some audio gear and hot-glued them onto the boxes. But despite how horrible the costume was, it won a prize in the contest and was a big hit. This experience introduced me to the fun of costuming and educated me about the popularity and positive response that Star Wars costumes generate.

My first experience in costume as a member of the 501st was the Episode II DVD release in 2002. That was memorable for me because it was the first time I was costuming as an ensemble with other characters. It was also the first time I saw in person the trooper armor I longed to have when I was younger. I was pleasantly surprised at how readily I was accepted into and befriended by the group. Though the public traffic in the store was somewhat light, it was a blast and made me impatiently look forward to my next trooping opportunity!

DS: To date what has been your most extraordinary tour of duty?

MF: Geez, what a tough question. Many events are special for a bunch of different reasons, and out of over 170 troops to date, selecting any one as the best is tough! But I think it would have to be a recent Make-A-Wish troop. A terminally ill child had made a Star Wars “wish” including a chance to meet Darth Vader. A handful of us went down to the MAW center and suited up. Our contact came downstairs and explained to us that the child we were there for was rather shy. We went up and made our entrance, and as usual we received a very warm and lively reaction from the crowd gathered to support our young patron.

I meandered through the tables, delivering my usual Vader bits and gags along the way. As I came up to the table with the young man we came to meet, he was not too sure about me. Not wanting to overwhelm him, I sat a safe distance away and began engaging him in some dialogue. His responses were short and soft at first, and he wouldn’t really look at me. But as time went on he began feeling a little more comfortable around me. We relocated to another area of the room for photos, after which he and I were seated side by side. Feeling the event was coming to and end, I tried to really reach him. I explained that the reason I was so cranky in the films was that I didn’t really have any friends. Then I asked him if he would be my friend. He smiled and seemed to connect to me at that point. Final goodbyes were said and we walked back downstairs to the changing area.

Our contact came down to say thanks, and I immediately noticed she was vigorously wiping away tears from her eyes. As she continued to attempt to clear her face, she related to us how she felt that what had just occurred upstairs was nothing short of magic. The details of her observations were of great interest to us all, since we had observed the event from the impaired isolation of our helmets. Long story short, this troop was special to me because it was a vivid reminder that we get so caught up in what we are doing as we are doing it that we often don’t realize what we are accomplishing. There was apparently a magical experience being had all around us, but we were just doing “our thing”. Many of our members say they troop to make a difference, and that day in particular, we did.

DS: What drove you to serve the 501st in a greater capacity? How did you first get involved with the inner-workings of the Legion?

MF: Taking the last part first, I joined the Legion towards the end of 2002, a few months before our Garrison (Alpine) was created. I spent 2003 watching and learning and making notes. By year’s end I had come to the conclusion that our unit could do and be so much more. So I ran for CO, was elected, and served for 2 terms. After serving on the Legion Council and getting some exposure to the Legion-level happenings, I again felt there was work to be done. I had not planned on serving more than two terms as Garrison CO regardless, but at the end of my second term as CO I ran for LCO and was elected. I’m currently in my second term, and don’t at this point plan to run again.

My desire to serve has been fueled by wanting to contribute and improve. I was taught as a child to leave something in better shape than you found it, and I think that’s been my primary goal. I’ve always been decent at problem solving through analyzing and organizing things, but I am also creative and try to think outside the box. I guess you could say I have a good balance between the left and right sides of the brain (creative vs. analytical). With everything I’ve done as LCO I’ve tried to be fair and find the happy medium between too much structure and not enough.

Serving in the Legion at all levels has been wonderful, which often leads people to ask me why I limit my terms in office. I do that because the way I look at it, when I’m serving I’m having the ride of my life, like being on a Ferris wheel with both ups and downs. But as much fun as I’m having, I remember that there is a line of folks waiting for their turn to ride. And I recall that I was once in that line, and how badly I wanted to ride, and how grateful I was when the opportunity came. So as much I appreciate others allowing me to have my turn, I want to reciprocate and pass that same opportunity along to the next guy or gal.

DS: You were the chosen one who had the task of being the soldier who would succeed Albin Johnson who has since become quite the Star Wars icon. Talk about what it was like to step in after he stepped back for some very understandable well-known personal reasons.

MF: First of all, though I’ve said it before I’d like to again thank Albin for stepping aside and letting someone else take their turn at the helm. He certainly could have retained the office indefinitely, so I compliment him for allowing others to see what they can add to what he started.

I think at first I was a little worried about just how much latitude Albin would give me and whether the membership would really recognize me as their new leader. Albin and I spoke shortly after the elections and he assured me the Legion was mine to lead and that he was purely in a support role. That meant the world to me in two ways. First, I was relieved that I could proceed with the goals I had promised the membership I would undertake, without worrying about stepping on any toes or asking permission. And second, I was reassured that Albin trusted me enough to take charge of something as precious as the 501st.

I guess along with this relief, I also felt a little pressure. He told me that he had tried to turn the Legion over to someone else twice before and had to come back into office both times. So he jokingly said he was counting on me to prove to both him and more importantly the membership that the Legion could operate without him. Having served in numerous leadership capacities since childhood I really wasn’t worried about it, but I have often reflected on this remark and kept it in my mind as an additional motivation.

Overall, the membership has been very supportive of me, as has the Legion Council. But there are stills times when folks seek Albin’s input or presence over mine, and that’s to be expected. Albin will always be Albin, and I’m fine with being that other guy, the one from Utah,,,you, know, what’s his name.

DS: How much is Albin still involved with the current activity of the 501st?

MF: Albin was voted a permanent “advisor” position by the previous administration. I solidified that office when I revised the officers’ job descriptions at the start of our charter revision campaign and officially listed it. As an advisor, Albin’s input is sought along with the rest of the Legion officers. He is on the Command email list, so he stays informed on what’s going on. But his involvement, unless specifically requested, is at his discretion and leisure. Sometimes he’s less visible than others, and I take this as a good sign. If he was worried about the direction the Legion was going, he wouldn’t be comfortable taking any time away from things.

DS: Some pretty amazing things have taken place that really connect costuming / collecting since you’ve been in office. Can you give us some of the details on the 501st Legion Stormtrooper? How exactly did that all come down?

MF: The Hasbro 501st Stormtrooper action figure project was initiated a little before I took office so I’m not as well-versed on its origins. Albin told me about the project after I came into office, explaining that it was top-secret. After I took office the challenge was just keeping it under raps until it could be announced!. Perhaps a future interview with Albin or Scott Will can yield more info on the genesis of the project.

DS: I’m sure this made it a little easier when the concept for R2-KT came about, please give us a little insight what being involved with this special project was like?

MF: This project really involved Albin exclusively, so I would again defer to him on the details as he worked directly with LFL and Hasbro on it.

DS: What would you say to a person who was sitting on the fence about joining the 501st Legion?

MF: I’d say “Doesn’t your butt hurt?” Get it – sitting…fence…oh well. I would explain to them how special trooping is. I would emphasize that what we do is “trooping” and not just “costuming” because I really feel we are more than a costuming club. Anyone can put on a costume. But we also strive to “put on” the character. And that’s both the challenge and the fun – recreating the magic that captivated all Star Wars fans when they first “met” these characters on the big screen or via DVD. I’d also talk about the value of service and the difference that one can make through participation in the 501st. The level of benefit gained by both the giving trooper and the receiving public make the Legion the quintessential win-win!

But to be honest with you, it has been my observation that trooping is best understood through experience, not dialogue. I recall a member of our Garrison who vowed she would never wear a costume in public unless it was Halloween. But she was talked into joining us for the MS Walk, and after a little girl ran home and made us a big poster card saying that meeting the Star Wars characters was the best part of the MS Walk, this member tenderly confessed that she “finally [got] it”. So if you really want to understand trooping, borrow a costume or help as a spotter or photographer and come troop with us. Here’s my favorite photo from one of our events in 2005: (note, this is not a staged photo)


CLICK TO ENLARGE

I tell people that I’ve been hugged by 4 year olds and 40 year olds. We joke amongst ourselves that trooping is probably as close as any of us will ever get to feeling like a rock star. So get off that fence!!!

DS: Recently in the fan film “The Force Among Us” fans hear the tale of Toby Markham who is the fairly famous “Captain Jack” Stormtrooper. Since many years have passed, do you think the people at Lucasfilm would ever consider lifting his lifetime ban? Do you feel his punishment deserved?

MF: Well, technically the Legion banned Toby, not Lucasfilm, though it was at Lucasfilm’s insistence. As far as letting him back in, the Legion really hasn’t had a policy of re-admitting anyone after expulsion, much less Toby. Re-admission is however one of the discussions we’ve had this year on the Council. Expulsion from the club has been and needs to remain a drastic and last-resort action. Accordingly, readmission should be just as carefully and selectively done. I know Toby and have expressed to him my regret over the situation. He is a fine costumer and a great guy who made a bad decision that unfortunately got exposed and exploited. Though the course of things was not intentional on Toby’s part, Lucasfilm’s reaction is understandable. We’ve finally achieved a high level of trust between the 501st and Lucasfilm, and that trust simply can’t be compromised.

As far as Toby ever rejoining the Legion, the last time I talked to him he was too busy with his Jack Sparrow endeavors to sit around moping about not being able to troop with the 501st. That’s not to say he doesn’t miss us, but he is happy and healthy and contributing to the costuming community in other ways. I would love to welcome Toby back into the Legion and have told him as much. But that decision really lies with Lucasfilm for now, so only time will tell.

DS: Where is the 501st going next?

MF: “Difficult to see, the future is.” But seriously, people often base their predictions of the future on the past. I think in the case of the Legion, that’s how I do it. I feel that the success of the 501st is tied to the success of Star Wars, and its popularity hasn’t waned at all. I believe where Star Wars goes, so will the 501st, and I see Star Wars remaining near and dear in the hearts and minds of the world’s peoples for years and years to come. Star Wars is of course celebrating its 30th anniversary. The Legion is now celebrating our 10th anniversary and continues to see growth beyond the release of the last film. We are also receiving more positive press than ever before. Our efforts, combined with Lucasfilm’s inclusion of the 501st in official media, has given the Legion’s name a growing familiarity with fans everywhere. Where the question used to be “who are you guys”, more and more we are being asked “are you guys members of the 501st?”

Where the Legion “goes” specifically is up to those who participate in and lead it. Are there more Rose Parades ahead? We were invited back by the parade committee. Will there be more merchandise? That’s a safe bet. As far as other firsts, they seem inevitable. This year we had a trooper on all seven continents – even Antarctica. So who knows? The prospect of commercial space flight certainly makes one think about the possibilities!

I’d like to share a personal perspective here on the distant future of the Legion. We tend to all think that we are immortal and will be trooping forever, but we, like the actors whose characters we portray, are getting older. So who will be costuming 25 years form now? I know that in my case, my kids will be. I have introduced them to trooping and regularly take them with me. My youngest, dressed as a Jawa, has trooped over 100 events and has been trooping since he was 6. My oldest has already joined the ranks of the Legion as a pre-armor Darth Vader, and will soon be followed by his younger sister. So I see the future of the Legion in them, along with the rest of our members’ children that are already participating.

Bottom line, for a bunch of folks in dark costumes, I’d say we have an incredibly bright future!