JOLIET – Not even a gray, overcast sky and light rain could dampen the enthusiasm of Star Wars fans who crowded downtown Joliet on Saturday to celebrate the nearly 40-year-old science fiction adventure saga.
The seventh annual Star Wars Day attracted fans of all shapes and sizes, from those dressed as Wookies, Tusken Raiders and Stormtroopers to one fan who played Palpatine running for emperor.
“I’ve seen [Star Wars] grow from a subculture into pretty much almost basically pop culture,” said Jeremy Elkins, a lightsaber choreographer and teacher who is a member of The Dark Empire and other ‘Star Wars’ groups. “When I see this kind of stuff, it warms my heart because it actually allows me to come a little bit out of my shell.”
Elkins said he wished other cities would follow suit with their own variation of Joliet’s Star Wars Day.
Star Wars Day is organized by the Joliet Public Library to promote reading.
The event also exposes visitors to downtown Joliet and its businesses, as well as the Joliet Area Historical Museum, where a lightsaber demonstration was held.
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, took part in that demonstration and briefly traded blows with another opponent with his own lightsaber.
“Although I have not yet been promoted to the Galactic Senate, it is my honor to represent this area as part of the 11th Congressional District [of Illinois],” he told visitors.
One of the main spectacles of Star Wars Day is the costumes. Members of costume clubs, such as the 501st Legion and Sandtroopers, were there to take photos with families in front of the downtown library after the parade.
All costumed characters marched in a parade that began at the museum and ended at the library, where a band performed music from the movies.
Josh Smith, of Pekin, came to the event for the first time and he was dressed as a scout trooper.
He said he liked seeing the variations on Stormtroopers – one was dressed as a Blackhawks Stormtrooper – and other characters.
“There’s one guy out here that did a Darth Vader concept. … If you look at the original drawings that the artist Ralph McQuarrie had done, there’s this one where it looks a little bit more like samurai,” Smith said. “It’s just neat to see what people’s imagination can bring to the table.”
He said Star Wars Day was “a little bit overwhelming,” but in a good way.
“I pictured lots of people, but I couldn’t have fathomed how many people,” he said.
The Joliet Public Library counted 10,000 people for Star Wars Day last year – the biggest attendance yet – and said attendance has grown every year.
Denise Zielinski, the library’s community engagement officer, has said the number of costumed characters keeps rising because “people keep hearing about it.”
Elkins said costumed club members “don’t make a dime doing this.”
“We do this because we love this, we do it for the smiles and we do it for the charities,” he said.
Saturday’s attracted more than fans and families – but artists and authors, such as John Jackson Miller, who wrote “Star Wars: A New Dawn,” and James Tampa, who has worked for Marvel, DC, Topps and Dark Horse comics.
The artists and authors present were available on the second floor of the library, where hosts held a live show from Rebel Force Radio and WGN Radio. One topic the hosts discussed was the ongoing controversy over the Lucas Museum in Chicago.
Many first-time attendees came to Star Wars Days on Saturday.
Monica Shaw, along with her husband, Jonathan, and their daughter, all from Joliet, were there for the first time and enjoyed the music and costumed characters.
“It’s really nice. It’s pretty amazing,” Monica Shaw said.
Manhattan resident Erin Collins and her family were also at Star Wars Days for the first time and Collins said they definitely would come out to it again next year. She said her family enjoyed the parade and meeting the characters.
“It’s good for families. It’s really nice,” she said.