(Photo by Art Becker)
By Jeremy C. Fox, Globe Correspondent
Sunday morning, Ann Marie Shafer will step into orange coveralls and strap on a white harness, leaving the bottom clasps open so she can bend and slip on her black boots.
She will clip onto the left boot a cuff of green webbing and silver cylinders, fasten the harness, and strap on a hand-painted chest box. If the weather is good, she will paint her face green and don a headdress with tentacles that drape around her neck.
“It’s one of my easiest costumes,” Shafer said of the X-wing pilot uniform, selected, “because we have to get there so early, before the roads shut down, and then stand in a parking lot for a couple of hours.”
Shafer, 26, is one of about 50 “Star Wars” fans from across New England and as far away as Maryland who will march in the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They are members of the Rebel Legion, for fans dressing up as Jedi knights, rebel pilots, and other good guys, and the 501st Legion, for amateur Darth Vaders, stormtroopers, and assorted evildoers.
Both have the blessing of George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, who allows them to appear publicly in costumes derived from “Star Wars” so long as they don’t profit from appearances. Instead, the groups accept donations for organizations like the Jimmy Fund and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, charities serving some of the same children who are delighted — and sometimes terrified — to see them.
“There are some kids that, they see us and won’t come anywhere near us. There are some kids that get curious, so they come closer, but all of a sudden they get too close, and then they run back,” said Mike Brunco, 35.
These “Star Wars” fans grew up with the film series, and other science fiction films and television shows. Phil Maiewski, 37, said he saw the first film when it came out in 1977, though he was too young to remember it.
“‘Star Wars’ has always been there. It was my childhood,” Maiewski said. “I always wanted to be Luke Skywalker.”
Maiewski dressed as Skywalker on Halloween when he was 6 or 7, he said, but like most members, he didn’t start making and wearing his own costumes until much later.
Many stumbled into the hobby by accident. Erich Shafer, 33, was invited to an event by people he met through work.
“I turn around, and here’s Darth Vader, and stormtroopers, and clone troopers, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Leia in her bikini, and Mon Mothma walks out, and here goes Jango Fett, and I’m just like, ‘This is cool. I like this. I like this a lot,’” Shafer said.
Shafer is married to Ann Marie Shafer, whom he met at the 2008 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She was a jedi; he was an imperial crewman.
For their wedding, the groom’s party wore “Star Wars” costumes, while the bride’s dressed in “Star Trek” regalia.
Andrew Liptak, 27, who has gotten his wife Megan interested in costuming, said people shouldn’t assume “Star Wars” fans are nerdy guys who can’t get dates.
“There’s not a lot of people in their parents’ basements that just come out for conventions,” Liptak said. “We all have fairly functional lives.”
“Star Wars” costuming became an organized hobby in 1997, when fans celebrated the first film’s 20th anniversary and South Carolinian Albin Johnson bought stormtrooper armor and founded the 501st Legion.
Two years later, fans founded the Rebel Legion. The groups have since grown to include thousands of members around the world. Both have strict requirements that costumes be “screen accurate,” and members spend hours studying the films and hand-crafting costumes.
While the older 501st remains larger, the groups share many members, who may dress as imperial gunners for one event and then a couple of weeks later show up as Padawan learners. Brunco, who leads the501st Legion’s New England Garrison, has been known to wear a rebel fleet trooper uniform, while Ann Marie Shafer, who leads the local base of the Rebel Alliance, has dressed as an imperial crewman.
The groups began marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade seven or eight years ago, Brunco said, and it has since become the unofficial start of costuming season, with the Woburn Halloween Parade marking its end.
Each year, the parade draws dozens of costumers from around the region, including Liptak, who will drive more than three hours from his home in Vermont to participate. Walking four miles in costume can be challenging, but members said it is worth it for the enjoyment they give the crowd, especially the children.
“It’s something of a rite of passage,” Maiewski said. “It is the hardest troop of the year, but it’s also one of the most fun, because we get the most people to come out for it.”
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.