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501st Legion: Dark side does good

Stormtrooper org marches for charity

A long time ago, 8-year-old Albin Johnson arrived at a nearby movie theater to see something called “Star Wars.” It was only the second film he had ever seen, but to borrow terminology from another science-fiction pic, it was “the one.”

“The world changed for me,” Johnson recalls. “The movie was a cultural revolution for kids. You were able to take that amazing imagination kernel with you.”

And take it Johnson did. In 1997, he and fellow “Star Wars” enthusiast Tom Crews formed the 501st Legion, an org devoted to dressing up as Imperial Stormtroopers and other characters.

“I just wanted a way for fans to be a Stormtrooper authentically,” Johnson says. “I had no idea how appealing that would be to people.”

The group now consists of 3,500 members from more than 40 countries. Earlier this year, more than 200 members marched, with Galactic precision, in the Tournament of Roses parade.

But what truly distinguishes the 501st is its community service. Many members visit children’s hospitals and fund-raising events dressed as Stormtroopers or Darth Vader. In lieu of charging for other appearances, the organization accepts donations to its charity affiliates, such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation.

“The reason people are in the 501st is because of the charity work,” Johnson says. “You get over the excitement of being in plastic, but the kids’ excitement keeps on bringing you back.”

Mark Fordham, the organization’s commanding officer, regularly takes his five children along on charity trips.

“My kids are being exposed to the value of service,” Fordham says. “There are others out there whose needs are greater than our own, and it’s so cool to make that difference.”

Filmmaker Jay Thompson has captured the group’s philanthropic efforts in his 2007 docu “Heart of an Empire,” which is currently on the fest circuit.

“People go into the movie thinking one thing (about the 501st), and they come out very surprised,” Thompson says.