Fan dance

As Yoda might say of 'Star Wars' fans, 'freaks and geeks they are not'

In a patch of the galaxy not so far away, a disturbance in the Force menaced a band of Jedi knights camping in tents on a Manhattan sidewalk.

For weeks, these “Star Wars” zealots had waited in shifts outside the Ziegfeld Theater to be among the first in the universe to catch the latest — and last — film in the double trilogy. On “Revenge of the Sith” Eve, as they geared up for the final episode, the fans also faced a new prospect: the end. It was a bittersweet moment — a time to bid farewell to wookies and droids, to wrap up a three-decade-long fantasy they have participated in since childhood.

Fans dressed in Luke and Obi-Wan costumes perform center sidewalk, pantomiming scenes as the original 1977 film played behind them on a white tent. Other fans, some wearing hats with Yoda ears, cheered.

Then, suddenly, tidings of galactic import raced through the crowd: General Grievous arrived, or rather the voice of General Grievous, actor Matthew Wood. Fans swarmed him like ewoks on a stormtrooper. They pleaded for a “spoiler” session as he tried to escape.

Final curtain be damned

And so the universe turned on West 54th — and around the world, from campouts at theaters in Hollywood to a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra tribute to “Star Wars” music in London — as George Lucas’ many children prepared for life on Planet NoQuel.

Yet somehow, no one seemed particularly despondent — or ready to accept that the final curtain ever will fall on “Star Wars.”

“There always will be something,” says Steve Lorenzo, one of the die-hards who waited outside the Ziegfeld. “Even though it’s the end of the movies, it’s not the end of ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Long ago, “Star Wars” fans emerged as a hardy lot — true believers free from the effect of reality’s tractor beam (or scathing critical reviews of the films). For years, Lorenzo and his otherworldy brethren endured torture waiting between films and weathered mockery that could wither Yoda’s lightsaber. Geeks, they have been called. Fanatics. Dweebs. Nerds.

The “Star Wars” men — and they make up the majority of the films’ fans — take some of the worst hits. In a segment on Conan O’Brien’s latenight talkshow (made famous as it was passed email to email across the Net), Triumph the Insult Comic Dog told a lone woman waiting in line to see “Episode I”: “You can choose from all kinds of guys who have no idea how to please you.”

Faced with such Earthling scorn, fans link arms and march on in their lovingly detailed costumes. They bond at conventions and in clubs like the 501st Legion, a worldwide group dedicated to dressing up in Imperial soldier finery, and the Royal Handmaiden Society, which emulates the robed characters loyal to the queen of Naboo. Some, like the members of the R2-D2 Builders Club, prefer the sound of the whizzing of little wheels.

A cottage industry of “Star Wars” fan films has sprung up — works that are now spotlighted at an annual awards ceremony. Fans write books and songs. They obsessively collect merchandise and cover themselves in “Star Wars” tattoos.

“We all express our love for ‘Star Wars’ in different ways,” says Josh Griffin, co-owner of massive fan site TheForce.net. “Everyone has a secret passion for ‘Star Wars.’ ”

The official “Star Wars” Web site alone counts 4 million registered users. Jim Ward, a marketing VP at Lucasfilm, says that half of all Americans own a “Star Wars” video or product. “There’s no phenomena like it,” asserts Ward.

But as the Siths take their revenge, fans like Lorenzo still feel misunderstood. “It’s really narrow to pigeonhole the ‘Star Wars’ crowd as freaks and geeks — it’s the easiest way to get a cheap laugh,” says the 39-year-old, who works for a software company and joined the Ziegfeld line partly to help raise money for a charity, the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

All walks of life

Lynne Lipton, the “line mother” in New York — and perhaps better known as the voice of Cheetara on “Thundercats” — calls her fellow fans “intelligent and wonderful.”

Tariq Jalil, who directed 2001 “Star Wars” doc “A Galaxy Far, Far Away,” says hardcore fans are addicted to the films’ mythical themes and pop spirituality. “They believe there is a Force.”

While the ranks of dedicated “Star Wars” heads still appear dominated by techies, there also are financial analysts, lawyers, journalists and doctors. TheForce.net’s Griffin is a youth minister.

A female newspaper editor in Vermont recently “outed” herself in a column she hoped would shatter the myth that the “Star Wars” fan is a “greasy-haired, bespectacled adolescent male geek who has no life.”

Not all “Star Wars” fans necessarily reside on the same side of the Force. Lucasfilm says that people under 25 prefer the new films, while older fans stick to the originals.

Many older fans were deeply disappointed by the first two prequels but watched the movies over and over anyway. The “Star Wars” saga has become almost critic-proof — and fan-proof.

Still, fans have gone against Jedi master Lucas. They savaged “Episode I’s” CGI character Jar Jar Binks — and, in doing so, some believe, got Lucas to limit his screen time in subsequent films.

“(Lucas) is at a point where he’s making movies for himself,” says Tim Hatcher, who goes by Qui-Gon Tim in fan circles. “But he may be responding subconsciously.”

Lucasfilm’s Ward rejects any such influence. “The fans have no impact in the sense that (Lucas) is listening to them and altering the film. George Lucas makes the films he wants to make.”

Some fans speak of the last episode as a “cathartic” experience that gives closure to their childhood, with tears shed at screenings. Still, it seems unlikely that fans are done with the Force — or vice-versa.

In this galaxy, conventions and merchandizing appear destined to go on, as does online gaming. It seems “Star Wars” fans don’t fade away — they just dress up.

“Someone always is going to have a sci-fi party and need 100 stormtroopers,” Qui-Gon Tim says.

As long as Lucas has his fans, and fans have Lucas, there’s always a New Hope.

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