On the Road: Star Wars goes to the Bulls

Costumed 501st Legion members turn out in full force in Durham

On Saturday, members of the 501st Legion's Carolina Garrison visited the Durham Bulls. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com)

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | May 10, 2016 10:00 AM

Sandie MacLachan is a Duke University employee, a musician, a wife, a mother and, surely, many other things. But if you saw her at Saturday's Durham Bulls game, you wouldn't know her by any of these descriptors. In fact, you wouldn't know her as "Sandie" at all.

Sandie MacLachan is Princess Leia.

MacLachan was one of a cavalcade of characters who appeared at Durham Bulls Athletic Park for the team's annual "Star Wars Night" promotion. She and all of her cohorts -- from Darth Vader to Chewbacca to Boba Fett to various classifications of Storm Trooper -- are members of the 501st Legion's Carolina Garrison.

The 501st Legion is an international organization, started by South Carolinian Albin Johnson in 1997, whose members all possess meticulously crafted, screen-accurate replica Star Wars costumes. They wear them at events -- almost all of which feature a charitable component -- taking place within the region which their garrison represents.

It's safe to say that, without the 501st Legion, the Star Wars theme nights that have swept across the Minor League landscape over the past decade would not have ever existed. Their members' presence at the ballpark is the most crucial component of the promotion.

MacLachan has been a member of the 501st Legion for over three and a half years. For her, dressing up as Princess Leia (as well as other characters, such as Juno Eclipse) is simply one more chapter in what has been a life-long love affair.

"My Dad took me in '77 to see Star Wars and that was it. That was our thing," she said, speaking in a de facto character costume-changing area prior to Saturday's ballgame. "So I'm a diehard fan. I will always be a diehard fan. Since '77!"

Through the decades, Princess Leia has always been her favorite.

"I remember in grade school playing Star Wars and I was always Princess Leia. I always wanted to be Princess Leia," said MacLachan, whose son's middle name is Lando. "Leia's my number one, my go-to…. She's a strong person, a very strong person, a leader. She's always been my girl. [Like Princess Leia] I always try to do the right thing and do it the best way I can. I'm not perfect, but yeah, she's my favorite. I identify with her a lot."

So do the legions of young fans she interacts with, from baseball stadiums to children's hospitals.

"The little girls love her. She's a princess! So we have these trading cards that have our pictures on them, and we give those to the kids. They love to see all the characters," she said. "It's funny, because certain kids gravitate toward certain characters. It's just fun. It's the look on the kids' faces, and also knowing that, yeah, we're having fun dressing up but we're raising money for charity. That is like, the cherry on top. It really just is awesome."

***

Meanwhile, some 10 feet away from Maclachan, Scott Wilmoth was beginning his laborious transition from affable family man and IT analyst into Darth Vader. Wilmoth has also been a Star Wars fan since '77, but he said his love of the franchise is mild when compared to most legion members. First and foremost, he just wanted to have a "cool costume" to wear.

"This started out as a Rubies [brand] Supreme, which sells for about $600," said Wilmoth of his Vader get-up. "But I went through and completely reworked it. I got a whole different body suit, I put in metal parts and completely scrapped the whole helmet and mask. I took the hinges out, I sanded it down and completely reshaped it because it was such poor quality. I put in new hinges, I painted it, I got it the way you see it. I modified every piece of the costume in some way, shape or form, except for the inner robe, which is just a piece of material…. So I spent a good year working on the costume to get it authentic, because we have to have a screen accurate costume in order to be a part of our group."

The 501st Legion's rigorous costume standards are what first attracted Wilmoth to the group.

"They scrutinize the fabrics, the fabric color, they scrutinize the weave of the fabric and we have known suppliers that we approve," he said. "See, [original Darth Vader actor] David Prowse is a pretty big guy, he was 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 or so. I'm six foot. So I've got a good three or four inches of lift inside my boots, and the helmet is so big it sticks up as well."

Wilmoth joined the Carolina Garrison in 2010 and has since become one of the group's more active members.

"Each person has their own designator," he said of the 501st Legion. "Now, if you remember the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, they asked one of the Storm Troopers who was supposed to be guarding the Millennium Falcon, 'TK 421, why aren't you at your post?' So TK is a designator for Storm Troopers. Then there's TD for Desert Troopers, TS for Snow Troopers, TB for Biker Scouts, SL for Sith Lords and then BH for Bounty Hunter. So I am a Sith Lord, 6809, but I've been a regional representative where I would go around and try to help coordinate events and get everything together."

In fact, Durham Bulls' fans who have since come to enjoy Star Wars Night as a promotional schedule staple have Wilmoth to thank. The event has grown to massive proportions in recent years; Saturday's edition included Han Solo theme jerseys, character-themed videoboard headshots, between-inning events such as the Cantina Dance cam and "Vaderade" and "Yoda Soda" beverage concoctions available for purchase.

"I contacted the Durham Bulls and said, 'Hey, have you ever thought about doing a Star Wars Night?'" said Wilmoth. "They said 'Well, yeah, we have but we don't know where to start' and I said, 'Well, that's why we called you. I've got the people and the resources to do that if you're willing.' The first time we did it, we had six characters show up and ever since then we've gotten a little bit bigger each time."

Through it all, Wilmoth has always enjoyed the opportunity to transform himself into one of cinema history's most well-known and enduring villains.

"It's no fun to put on a costume and be the same person you are in general," he said. "I'm not necessarily a bad guy but it's just one of those things. You can kind of be mean, or silly, but usually I'm not too mean. I'm just a nice guy who likes to go out and make a few kids smile and help raise some money for charity."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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