At the Opelika Fall Festival last week, a group of Stormtroopers, looking like they could’ve stepped straight off of a Star Destroyer, walked around and posed with festival-goers who stopped to get pictures with them. The people behind the white Imperial soldier armor are a group of local Star Wars fans known unofficially as the “Auburn-Opelika Stormtroopers.”
For the most part, the Auburn-Opelika Stormtroopers are actually members of the 501st Legion, an international fan-based organization for Star Wars enthusiasts that create and wear movie-accurate costumes to events. Ronnie Sparks began the Auburn-Opelika group in 2015 as its first member when he bought some Stormtrooper armor and started dressing up for events around town.
“I had always wanted to get my own armor together and look like I’d stepped out of the movie,” Sparks said.
Sparks also put together a set of Stormtrooper armor for his older son and a Jawa costume for his younger son, and the three of them started attending events. When Sparks found out a few months later that there were some other guys in Opelika also trying to join the 501st legion, they got together and the Auburn-Opelika Stormtroopers became a group.
There are currently seven members
“It was a release of a Star Wars game, and they were out front,” Brian Lewis said. “My son and I went to buy the game. We got to talking to them, and then we joined up probably several months after that.”
The Auburn-Opelika Stormtroopers attend all kind of events, including birthday parties, charity events, children’s hospitals, video game releases at GameStops and movie releases at theaters.
“We do mostly children’s events, anything that has to do with making kids either feel good or forget about whatever bad is going on in their life,” Brian Lewis said.
“This time of year gets crazy,” Sparks said. “The September/October time, there are more events than there are in other parts of the year.”
They plan to be at the AMC Tiger 13 theater in Opelika for the opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie in December. The Stormtroopers don’t charge for any events they attend.
Sparks and Brian and Matthew Lewis assembled and modified their armor sets themselves. The 501st requires that members’ costumes pass high standards ensuring they are screen-accurate.
“It has to be exactly like they would’ve made it back in the original movies,” Brian Lewis said.
Matthew Lewis said he is not yet a member of the
“The helmet has to have all the specific pieces on it, it has to have a mesh behind the frown, all the colors on it have to be correct, you have to have what’s called a thermal detonator that goes on the belt, and you have to have the weapon to go with it,” he said. “Mine is almost there. I’m missing a few little pieces.”
The armor costs roughly $1200-$1500 to buy and modify. It traps body heat and can be restrictive, and the Stormtroopers pretty much unanimously agree that it’s not comfortable to keep on for long periods of time.
“Usually about two to three hours, and then the helmet gets really stuffy,” said Matthew Lewis. “The armor is a lot heavier than it looks, so you start getting tired too.”
While the Stormtroopers are typically a big hit with people wherever they go, they occasionally get strange reactions.
“We’ve had some people not know who we were, they were kind of scared of us for a second, so that was kind of funny,” said Matthew Lewis.
Sparks said they invite anyone who’s interested in it to join them.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Everybody’s invited, all you have to be is 18 years old and have your own movie-accurate costume, and you can be a part of it.”
Sparks is often asked how much it would cost for the Stormtroopers to come to a child’s birthday party.
“The one thing I always like to emphasize is that we don’t charge money,” he said. “However, we do say we would prefer that you donate to some cause or some charity. It’s not a requirement, you don’t have to do it, but if you feel like you want to give money, then give to some charity or cause.”
Sparks said that licensing issues with Disney and Lucasfilm is one reason they don’t charge money.
“Part of the reason is simply because I do this really as a hobby, and because it’s fun and because I like to see the smiles on kids’ faces.”
“It’s a way for us to give people a little bit of a break from the reality of life,” Brian Lewis said.
Judging by the faces of the kids, and grownups, posing with the Imperial soldiers at the Opelika Fall Festival, that’s one target these Stormtroopers don’t miss.