Jesse Nabers is a good guy. He’s a professional photographer; is charming and easygoing; has some fairly rad punk rock tattoos. And yet, when needed, this good guy can become a good bad guy. He can become one of Darth Vader’s enforcers.
Nabers belongs to the Neon City Garrison, the Southern Nevada chapter of the 501st Legion. (Colloquially, the 501st Legion is known as “Vader’s Fist.”) Formed in 1997, the 501st Legion (501st.com) is a costuming organization composed of Star Wars fans from around the world who dress as Stormtroopers and try do some good in the community while they’re at it. From visiting children’s hospitals to escorting student flagbearers into school assemblies, the 501st has done a lot of light-side work while keeping up dark-side appearances.
On the eve of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Nabers—whose Stormtrooper “operating number” is TK-52477, his birthday—explained what compels a Star Wars fan to go that extra distance.
I have to ask about the Aurebesh in the Neon City Garrison’s insignia. (Aurebesh is a Star Wars-specific alphabet, first seen in Return of the Jedi.) How does it translate?
I think it says, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
How did you get involved with the 501st?
Back in 1999 I was working at a Guitar Center down in Phoenix, and one of the guys who worked the drum department was a ’Trooper. Back then, very few people were into this stuff. I’ve always been a Star Wars fan, because I was born the day before the first movie opened.
Do you remember the first time you saw the original Star Wars?
I remember sitting around the house watching it on VHS when I was a kid. This would have been about the same time that The Empire Strikes Back came out, because I saw Empire and A New Hope together, and I saw Return of the Jedi in the theater. I must have been 3 or 4 years old, but that’s some of my earliest memories, running downstairs to play with my Star Wars toys and watch the movies.
What about Star Wars spoke to you?
I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan. It was always about being in space plus the struggle of good versus evil. I’ve always liked an underdog story, and that’s what the Rebellion is: the underdogs, going up against the monster. That became more and more personal to me, because I grew up in punk rock. If that’s not a punk rock story, too, what is?
Tell me about some of the things you do with the 501st.
It’s about bad guys doing good. We try to give back to the community through our love of Star Wars. Last month a couple of our guys went to one of the local hospitals to visit with the kids there. And recently, a little boy wanted to meet Darth Vader at Disneyland, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation had us come out to invite him. That was just incredible. When we walk in and people see these hard characters, the rest of the world just melts away. These sick kids are so vibrant for the few minutes that we’re with them. It’s powerful.
The 501st also supports victims of bullying. I like that.
Yeah. The Legion is very involved in anti-bullying campaigns, because we all remember what it was like. We remember being told “quit being a nerd and play a sport.” Now, being a nerd has become chic.
So, let’s nerd up. What’s your favorite of the Star Wars films? Your least favorite?
Empire. The Empire Strikes Back is one of the greatest films of all time. You have real character development. You feel the struggle and the hardship that all these characters are going through. That’s what speaks to me.
I have a love/hate relationship with the prequels. I do like Episode III (Revenge of the Sith). I mean, they’re fun films. Not a fan of Jar Jar Binks, but I get why he’s there. I still watch the movies. I marathon all of them, every May.
When are you seeing The Force Awakens?
Opening night, and then once a day for a few days. This is bigger than Christmas.
It’s a great time to be a fan, isn’t it?
No better time. And Lucasfilm always takes such great care of its fans. We have a wonderful relationship with them. They have been nothing but encouraging of the various fan groups, because we’ve helped keep the brand alive for so many years. We’re very honored, and lucky, that they’re passionate about the work that we do, as well.
Got anything to say in closing, TK-52477?
Long live the Empire!