From 'Weird Al' to first pitches, Star Wars cosplay group opens doors for its devoted members

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Chris Blackstock will be the first to admit it: It's just plain weird, the doors that open for him as a hardcore Star Wars superfan.

While in character, Blackstock has thrown the first pitch at Comerica Park — twice, met a celebrity or two, and had the pleasure of simply making a sick child smile.

Blackstock and the legions of Star Wars fans are preparing for a busy weekend once Episode VII "The Force Awakens" hits theaters Friday, Dec. 18. 

Who knew that rocking a Chewbacca costume and being a Star Wars superfan could get you on stage with "Weird Al" or on the mound at Comerica Park for the ceremonial first pitch?

Well, that's exactly what Blackstock, the Commanding Officer of Michigan's Rebel Legion, has been doing for seven years now. 

The Rebel Legion is part of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars costume group with more than 10,000 members, spanning 50 different countries. Michigan's chapter is referred to as the Great Lakes Garrisons. The group recently appeared at the Detroit Pistons' "Star Wars night" Saturday, Dec. 12 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. 

"I'm just so amazed at the things I've gotten to do because of this group," he said. "I've thrown out two opening pitches at Tigers game, been on stage with 'Weird Al' three times and was in the Indy 500 parade." 

These costumed superfans don't just throw a costume on and gossip next to the Death Star's water cooler, though. The Rebel Legion -- good guys -- and 501st Legion -- bad guys-- join forces to participate in hundreds of charitable events. 

"We do as many events as we can a year and each member can do as many as they want," Blackstock, of Chesterfield, which lies between Port Huron and Detroit in Macomb County, said. "We have a standing visit in Grand Rapids at the DeVos every other month, and it's just really neat to be able to do that. We've had hospital workers tell us after we're done 'that's the first time we've seen this child smile in two weeks.'

"There's just not words to describe how that feels."

Blackstock retired his popular Chewbacca costume due to some concerns over his long-term health because of the desire to achieve ultimate screen accuracy.  

"After five years, I was basically crippling myself," Blackstock said of wearing 16-inch stilts to capture Chewbacca's 7-foot-6 stature. "When your feet hurt two days after an event, it really starts to take the fun out of it."

Candy Shannon of Napoleon has developed a strong social media following through the world of cosplay. Depending on prosthetics or body paint, Shannon said day-of preparation can take as long as five hours. 

She is known as Sweets4aSweetCosplay by her 11,000-plus Facebook followers.  And while she doesn't have a Star Wars character, she said she has a Princess Leia Miss Piggy Costume in the works.

"They are such a tight-knit, hardcore group that they are basically a family," she said. 

Detroit Pistons "Star Wars" night on December 12, 2015 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. (Photo: Chris Schwegler)Benjamin Raven | braven@mlive.com 

So, as the Garrisons, cosplayers and legions of Star Wars fans wait for Episode VII to open Dec. 18, the theaters in which the movie will show are preparing as well.  

Jenny Garone, director of marketing and identity for Celebration! Cinemas, is on the other side of excitement as she readies for the anticipated record-breaking opening weekend. She said Celebration! has sold more than 11,000 IMAX tickets and there are more than 50 sold-out opening weekend shows across the state. 

As for the costumed movie-goers, Garone is anticipating a jam-packed weekend of hardcore Star Wars fans dressed to the intergalactic nines.  

"(I) think it's the most we'll ever see. Anything epic like Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit and Star Wars always bring out the most," she said. "One of the main things with Star Wars, is that it crosses so many generations." 

As for the movie that stands out for its cosplay crowd, Garone said "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" sticks out more so than others. 

"A lot of people came barefoot," she said with a laugh. "We just had to tell them 'no,' you've got to go put some shoes on.

"We are expecting people to go all-out for this one."

While many are expected to go all-out for Episode VII's opening weekend, Celebration! has rules in place as it pertains to props, costumes, etc. allowed in the cinema.

For those planning on becoming a character, refer to Celebration! Cinema's website for a list of rules of what's OK and what's not. 

Blasters need to be left at home, lightsabers turned off while in the auditorium and no masks, decorations or makeup that conceals the face for those 12 years and older.

"The rules have actually been in place for a while now, and it seems to work really well," said Garone "We truly have not had any serious issues. They just want to heighten their experiences and have some fun." 

Blackstock said while this can be a pain for some, he understands the reasoning and that Disney, who owns the Star Wars franchise, has released similar guidelines.

"It's not this huge giant thing as far as I'm concerned," he said. "They're not worried about us, because, our blasters don't do anything.

"You could do more damage with some of our lightsabers than blasters."

From Shannon's intricate costume and character prep to Blackstock being forced to hang up his Wookie costume due to long-term health concerns, the one constant is the love of what they do and the fun they have doing it. 

"Most of all, just have fun and don't let it strap you mentally or financially," Shannon said when asked what advice she would give to interested cosplayers. "You have got to love your character."