“A long time ago…”: Looking back at Star Wars Celebration 2015 in Anaheim…

“You’ve taken your first step into a larger world…”

Well, not too far this time…more like nearby Anaheim, California. Only 40 or so minutes away, in good hyperspace traffic…

In April of 2015, my wife and I went to our first “Star Wars Celebration”; an every-four-years event that reaches Star Wars fans worldwide in places such as England, Japan, Germany, etc. Usually it’s held in locales beyond my immediate fiscal/practical reach. Luckily, in 2015, Star Wars Celebration finally came to Anaheim, California (home of Disneyland), which is roughly 35-40 minutes away from us. At that time, we only bought tickets for one day of the four-day long convention, since my educator wife wasn’t on spring break, and couldn’t get the remaining three days off. For the long-delayed Star Wars Celebration 2022, we managed to work it out schedule-wise, and we’ll be attending all four days of the convention later this month (May 26th-May 29th).

In the meantime, I’d like to take a look back at Star Wars Celebration (SWC) 2015, when we took our “first step into a larger world…”

In the Disney parking lot, across from the Convention Center, for the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim; even from the bumpers of the cars in the lot, we could tell we were definitely in the right place…

My wife and I have done other events at the Anaheim Convention Center–right across the road from Disneyland–so it’s very familiar to us, thanks to conventions like WonderCon, or NostalgiaCon80s. There was a sense of great anticipation among Star Wars fans in the year 2015, as it marked the year that Disney Studios would be unveiling its first live-action Star Wars film, “The Force Awakens”, that December. At the time, the only proofs of Disney’s new stewardship with the Star Wars franchise were a pair of animated series; “The Clone Wars” which began in 2008, and “Rebels,” which debuted a year earlier, in 2014. No one knew exactly what Disney would do with Star Wars live-action then, but I was encouraged by rumors that producers Kathleen Kennedy and JJ Abrams were turning to the Original Trilogy (1977-1983) for inspiration.

Outside the Anaheim Convention Center, which more recently served as the filming location for “Starfleet Command” in the Star Trek series, “Picard.” On this day in 2015, it was flying under the banner of another popular space-opera franchise…

Disney’s live-action Star Wars since 2015 has been a mixed bag, but in truth, no more so than any other time in the franchise’s now 45-year history. The turn of the new millennium saw the deeply disappointing prequels, and even the original trilogy misfired a bit with “Return of the Jedi.” In fairness, Disney’s The Mandalorian” has arguably been the best thing from the Star Wars universe since the Original Trilogy. Either way, once I sit in a darkened theater and enjoy that almost Pavlovian blast of John Williams’ opening fanfare, I’m up for it–no matter how rocky the ride. SWC 2015 seemed to get this feeling–that almost primal anticipation connected with Star Wars, and that’s what we (and many other fans) were there to celebrate on Saturday, April 18th, 2015…

Top Left: A clone trooper and a Jawa.
Top Right: A self-made Speeder-bike cosplayer from “Return of the Jedi”.
Bottom Left: A pint-size princess, stormtrooper, Jedi and Sith get up close and personal with a radio-controlled R2-D2, courtesy of the droid builders at astromech.net, whose work is so good that it’s been used in modern Star Wars productions.

“Tell uncle if he gets a translator, be sure it speaks Boche…”

Of course, as you make your way into the convention center, the main attraction would be the Dealer Hall; where a cavernous space is filled with aisles of merchandise, books, games, collectibles, costumes, and celebrities signing autographs. My wife and I only had that one day at SWC 2015, so we didn’t get as much time as we’d like to peruse everything in-depth. Hopefully at SWC 2022, we will be able to take a deeper look at all the exotic Star Wars-wares on display…

Top: At the EFX Collectibles booth; a life-sized stormtrooper mannequin (that was not a cosplayer), as well as scale miniatures of an AT Scout Walker (aka “the chicken walker”) and Han Solo’s famed ride, the Millennium Falcon–hovering over an asteroid display (“The Empire Strikes Back”). Bottom: A large scale-collectible of the Tantive IV’s escape pod from the original “Star Wars” from 1977 (“A New Hope” became the movie’s title 4 years later, in 1981, during its rerelease). To the left of the pod are absolutely perfect recreations of Rebel pilot helmets from the Star Wars movies.
Top: Star Wars Battlefront had interactive gaming booths called “Battle Pods” (sorry, I’d love to go into more detail, but I’m not a gamer, and know next to nothing about the whole subculture–my video gaming days ended with Wii Bowling, I’m afraid). Bottom: Hallmark had a booth at the convention as well, selling collectible Hallmark ornaments which would be highly sought-after collectibles after the Christmas season of 2015.

“As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure which planet we’re on…”

In addition to the flood of merchandising, there were also dioramas of Star Wars scenes–many with full-scale props–where cosplaying fans could take pictures posing in or near. Mind you, this was a few years before Star Wars’ “Galaxy’s Edge” and “Rise of the Resistance” opened across the street at Disneyland, and fans had to settle for slightly less-than-immersive interactive experiences. Nevertheless, the exhibits at SWC 2015 were certainly novelty enough for a day of Star Wars fun. If my then ten-year old self had seen anything like these exhibits back in 1977, my little head would’ve exploded

A diorama of Mos Eisley spaceport on Tatooine dresses this display of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, faithfully dinged-up to match the lived-in universe look of the 1977 film. Standing nearby is R2-D2, who faithfully keeps his single eye on a greedy Jawa, who’s probably hoping to turn Luke’s ride into cantina drinking money…
Me (center) finally getting to check out the used droid lot from “Star Wars.” It was really neat getting up-close and personal with the red astromech R5 (yes, the one with the bad motivator), a Treadwell, and various other authentic reproductions of the robots used in the original film. All that was missing was Tunisian sand on the Dealer Hall floor.
Closer look at the Jawa droid-repair and servicing facilities in a set replicating the maintenance bay aboard a massive Jawa sandcrawler. All of the Jawas and droids in this set were highly detailed, screen accurate mannequins.
Top: A couple of fans are welcomed aboard a recreation of the Millennium Falcon interior by a lone R2-D2. This was one of the interactive displays where fans and droids mingled. Of course, the Millennium Falcon interior of Disneyland’s “Galaxy’s Edge” is far more detailed, but this wasn’t too bad for the time. Bottom: Medical droid 21-B (right) welcomes two patients into a rejuvenating ‘bacta’ tank (not filled with ‘bacta’ at the moment, thank goodness) in a set recreating the Rebel Base’s medical infirmary on Hoth from 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back”.
Left: A screen-accurate moisture vaporator from Star Wars, as seen in “A New Hope” and many Star Wars productions since. Right: A 1/4 scale Imperial AT- Scout Walker. It’s interesting that these bits of recognizable background dressing and hardware add such a lived-in, familiar feel to that galaxy far, far away..
Top: Two Imperial troops arrest two speeder-biking rebels near the entrance to the shield generator on the Forest Moon of Endor, from “The Return of the Jedi.” At this particular display, fans could touch and even sit on the speeder-bike prop (!). Bottom: A 1/2 scale Rancor beast, straight from Jabba’s palace. Most recently, a Rancor was seen in the recent Disney live-action series, “The Book of Boba Fett”, where it was trained by actor Danny Trejo and ultimately brought under control by the combined efforts of Boba (Temuera Morrison) and Grogu (aka “Baby Yoda”).
There was a live telecast from a recreation of the Mos Eisley cantina set, where guests at the convention could stop by for a Bantha burger or other exotic edibles from that galaxy far, far away. Some guests were interviewed as well. Of course, this is another attraction that has since been surpassed by Disneyland’s Galaxy’s Edge, which now features a fully immersive Star Wars cantina experience as well. But hey, for 2015? This was as good as it got.

“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed…”

Since my wife and I were only at SWC 2015 for one day, I didn’t attend too many panels, since I wanted to get my fill of the entire experience before settling down in one spot. However, I did take in one–a panel for longtime “Industrial Light & Magic” visual FX artist, producer and writer John Knoll, whose rough-draft treatment became the basis for arguably the single best Star Wars film of the Disney era to date; 2016’s “Rogue One.” During the panel, Knoll discussed how movies like Star Wars and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) set him on his career trajectory in visual effects production…

Top: John Knoll discusses some of his inspirations for his career in visual FX work, including “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Bottom: A fortuitous visit to the “Apogee” visual effects studio by a 19-year old Knoll began his career in earnest. The bearded gentleman in the powerpoint presentation was Academy-Award winning FX artist John Dykstra, who left Industrial Light and Magic to form Apogee, which did the miniature work for TV’s “Battlestar Galactica” (1978). Knoll personally met with Dykstra during production of “Battlestar Galactica.” Dykstra showed Knoll the ropes during his visit. During his presentation at the convention, Knoll lamented that modern-day FX houses don’t do such informal tours for aspiring young artists these days. Back in the late 1970s, all of this technology (such as computer-operated motion-control camerawork with miniatures) was relatively new, and the technicians creating it were a lot less formal about passing on their experience to younger fans.

“A person of some importance, I believe…”

There were celebrities signing autographs at the convention, of course. Some of the stars on-hand included Billy Dee Williams (“Lando Calrissian”), Anthony Daniels (“C3PO”), and John Ratzenberger (“Cheers,” “Outland” and Major Derlin from “The Empire Strikes Back”). Actor Kenny Baker (“R2-D2” as well as roles in “Amadeus,” “The Elephant Man”) also made one of his last convention appearances there as well, before his unfortunate passing the following year in 2016 (I met Baker years earlier at San Diego Comic Con). My wife and I didn’t have a huge expense budget for SWC 2015, so I didn’t plan on getting many signatures. However, being a fan of his work in other films, such as “Mahogany,” “Brian’s Song,” and 1989’s “Batman”, I decided to get Billy Dee Williams’ autograph…

The line to see Billy Dee Williams was quite long, and one of the few times at the convention where I was willing to wait, since I’ve been a fan of the actor’s for some time. He finally arrived, about 45 or so minutes late, walking with a cane, but cool as ever. The line moved quickly, so there wasn’t a lot of time for chit-chat. When my turn in the queue came, I mentioned that I loved his work in “Brian’s Song.” He quietly smiled and signed my autograph.
Sometimes you get a more personal experience during convention meet-and-greets (especially if the queue is small). Other times, you just get the autograph. Anyway, I got the autograph, and even a handshake (ah, those carefree pre-COVID days).

Note: Pro-tip for meeting celebrities: Never overstay your meet-and-greet, especially if there is a long line of fans behind you…and there was a very long line for Billy Dee Williams.

“Now, I’m going to put these on you…”

One of my favorite aspects of sci-fi/fantasy/horror conventions is the cosplay, and the cosplay we saw at SWC 2015 was easily on a par with the top-of-the-line cosplay we’d see at San Diego Comic Con. I’m looking particularly forward to SWC 2022, where my wife and I will be cosplaying as “Uncle Owen” and “Aunt Beru” from “A New Hope.” Joining us will be two friends, who are bringing their 10 year-old son (and fellow Star Wars fan) Joshua. Joshua recently did a convincing young Luke Skywalker at Comic Con Revolution 2021 in Ontario, California.

Anyway, here are a few cosplay highlights from SWC 2015:

Left: A Sith Lord has really got a hold on Princess Leia (in her slave-girl bikini from “Return of the Jedi”).
Right: At last! A fan gets to pose with “the mighty Chewbacca,” as Jabba might say…
Left: Every so often, you see a very familiar cosplay that is exceptionally well executed. In this case, another Princess Leia. However, this young lady was absolutely spot-on, right down to her height, eye color, and her hair buns, which were a better match to the cosplayer’s brown hair than the more reddish-tinted ones that brunette Carrie Fisher wore in the original 1977 film. Right: A dedicated Aayla Secura cosplayer from “Revenge of the Sith”, who was slathered in blue Twi’lek body makeup. I admire the dedication of cosplayers who forsake comfort and even practicality in the name of their art. Well done!
I enjoy the diversity of sci-fi fandom, particularly this group, which included a Sith, a Mandalorian (long before the TV series), and a fabulous Pride-twist on Han Solo and Chewbacca! The pink furred Wookiee cosplayer was tired of wearing his hot, furry headed-mask, so I remember telling him he didn’t need to wear it for my shot–he was still holding it, and that was fine by me.

“The Force can have a strong influence on the weak mind…”

Well, back in those days (not so much at the last few conventions I’ve attended), you could almost always count on groups of far-right, fundamentalist religious protesters who would break out their yellow signs and megaphones in order to berate us conventioneers for our sinful ‘idolatry’ (i.e., enjoying a day of Star Wars fun). I won’t go into the many reasons I loathe such hypocritical zealots as these (who only seem to be happy when others are as miserable as they are) but their angry tirades were met by a group of mocking cosplaying fans, who carried clever, Star Wars-themed counterprotest signs as well…

Top: The obnoxious religious zealots who tried their best to make the attendees of SWC 2015 as miserable as themselves. Bottom: Star Wars cosplayers, including a Tusken Raider, a Jawa, and a couple of Imperial stormtroopers, were far wittier and cheeky in their counterprotest–quoting the scripture of “the Holy Trilogy”.

“What’s so important? What’s he carrying?”

To those readers with the patience and stamina to see more from Star Wars Celebration 2015? All 122 of my photos from the event are available in the link below:

Flickr Album: “Star Wars Celebration, Anaheim California, April 18th, 2015.

Enjoy!

“You must face Darth Vader again…”

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little photo-essay reminiscence of Star Wars Celebration 2015, and I promise an even more in-depth look at Star Wars Celebration 2022, which is less than three weeks away at the time of this column’s publishing. My wife and I have already pre-ordered autographs with Anthony Daniels (“C3PO”), Ian McDiarmid (“Emperor Palpatine”), Giancarlo Esposito (“Moff Gideon” from “The Mandalorian”, Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul”), and Carl Weathers (“Greef Karga” from “The Mandalorian,” as well as “Apollo Creed” from the “Rocky” movies). I also plan on attending more panels, taking more cosplayer photos, and perhaps even sneaking in a few celebrity photos as well, if possible. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to sharing more with you soon.

May the force be with you…

A selection of droids from the Artoo Builders at the recent 2022 WonderCon.
Images/collages: Author, Lucasfilm

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Seeing your post I am reminded of just how much I loved the original film “back in the day” and have progressively enjoyed each subsequent film less and less until I started to loathe the IP. That was until the Mandolorian. Which helped restore some of my enjoyment in the franchise. I still get childlike glee from seeing several your photos without the context of later films ruining ruining it for me. Every little quote for the original film makes my feel warm inside and I am amazed at how a film can have that affect on me, especially after all these years and with how critical I can be of films.

    It completely surprises me that there were religious protesters for a Star Wars convention….protesting idolatry of all things? I can see pacifists maybe having a problem with it glamorizing violence. I still find it odd that kids “need” Darth Vader and Stormtroopers on their toothbrushes, t-Shirts and lunchboxes. But I will admit that when I tried to explain to Little GG the meaning of the Stormtrooper and Death Star on one of his favorite shirts (it was a gift from a family friend) he just shrugged as he has not seen any of the movies yet (he is 3). I guess the aesthetics just appeal to him without having a context and it remains one of his favorite shirts. He did make papa proud when at Playmobile Land recently he said he would rather be a Naval Officer than a Pirate…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for that thoughtful reply.
      It nicely sums up many of my own complex feelings for the Star Wars franchise. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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