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Panic and Self-Flagellation at Star Wars Celebration

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A First-Person Tale of Lines, Lost Cars, Lines, Ian McDiarmid, Lines, Fanboy Crowds, French Fries, Lines, Star Wars and More Lines.

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I started to curse myself right around the time I realized I had no idea where my car was. Yes, I roughly remembered where I came in that morning to Angel stadium, having been detoured way the hell out there by all the lot-crowding anywhere near the actual convention. But since I had arrived, it was like they’d switched things around, and the elderly parking attendants couldn’t agree on where I would have been most likely to get directed at 9:30 a.m.

The day had started off panicky from there, as I looked down at my lanyard and saw that my media pass, which rather cheekily featured the Inquisitor, was no longer there. Frantically I called Peggy, my transcriptionist whose spare room had become my base of operations for Anaheim. She didn’t see it anywhere. Rummaging through the clutter in my car like Yoda through an X-Wing’s cargo, I found that it had slipped down the side of the driver’s set. Sigh of relief. Grab my bag. Off I go…

…neglecting the fact that I have left my wallet inside on the driver’s seat. And that’s what brings me back, looking for my car in the hot midday sun, when I should probably be busy waiting in yet another line. I learn an itchy head is particularly annoying when you’re in a hurry to find a needle-ish vehicle in the baseball parking-lot metaphorical haystack. I also learned that my car-unlocking clicker has no range whatsoever. On at least one occasion, I was standing right in front of my vehicle without realizing it. Silver sedans are the new green hatchbacks (I had one of those too). When you’re a one-man website and sleep eludes you, it is possible to be quite incredibly stupid sometimes, usually as a result of neglect. But then, I wasn’t to know that my smartphone no longer connects to the Internet on its own network. That’s a totally new glitch.

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It always starts with traffic. Unless you live next door to the venue, and nobody does, the first day of any convention consists of getting up insanely early yet not early enough, loading the car with last-minute essentials (which meds do I need? What can I do without?), and hoping everyone else is less prepared than you. It also involves not making the stupid rookie mistakes of forgetting what the route’s like, such as that trick-merger where you think you’re absolutely in the right lane based on the signs, but you’re funneled into the wrong one anyway, and then you have to backtrack from the new freeway you’re on, and before you know it you’ve lost 45 minutes to utter pointlessness. At least parking attendants mostly take credit cards now.

Anaheim conveniently has big neon road signs that inform you where “Star War” parking is, though it takes a while to actually get to it, and once you’re there, you have yet another odyssey, on foot, through the Spinal Tap-reminiscent bowels of the back of the Convention Center’s basement levels, through endless corridors, till you find the various queues at the end and attempt to find out – from volunteers who know nothing – which one media people should be in.

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A word or two about press passes, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, because they’re not the magical talismans some people think. At conventions, for the most part, a press pass is simply the equivalent of a free basic ticket. It’s very nice, but it doesn’t let you cut any lines, nor bring any guests (unlike press screenings of movies, for which the studios are good enough to realize that banning significant others would make more domestic trouble than it’s worth for some reviewers). There are passes that can get you reserved seating in certain panels, but they must be negotiated with each individual publicist for each individual panel. Disney XD were kind enough to offer me one for all their Rebels stuff. Emails elsewhere were not returned.

Interestingly, the press passes for Star Wars Celebration have no names or identifying information on them, so you could totally swap them out or resell them and there’d be no way to prove you hadn’t earned it correctly.

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The advantage of a convention organized around a single theme is that it attracts smaller crowds than events like Comic-Con that cater to multiple fandoms. The disadvantage is that everybody wants to do everything, and this is why there are four days to the show – if you manage to do as many as three of the things you most wanted to do in one day, you’re doing all right.

I’ve been to single-theme conventions before: Fangoria, Star Trek, even He-Man/She-Ra. And most of them are defined entirely by the guests they get, as exhibit halls tend to be small and sad (Hello Kitty Con was a major exception, and the only single-topic con I’ve been to that comes close). That is not remotely the case with Star Wars Celebration. Giant set replicas for photo ops are everywhere, from full-scale Rancors to bacta tanks, as well as large displays from the usual licensees – Hasbro, Sideshow, Lego, WeLoveFine – third-party vendors, and fan groups. All have lines. Some have impossible lines, like the Battlefront booth that lets you get in a Rebel pilot outfit and sit in an X-Wing simulator for about a minute. Then there’s the official convention merchandise store which, having refused to place buying limits on any items, gets cleaned out of almost everything desirable very quickly. But never fear – there’s still a make-your-own souvenir shirt stand inside it that’ll create a “Jar Jar is my Spirit Animal” shirt for the mentally deranged among you.

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Thought I was kidding, didn’t you?

Day one at any convention is and should be about getting your bearings first and foremost. Technically, this is day two (Friday), but Thursday was simply not going to happen with my workload, so I enjoyed the Force Awakens and Ian McDiarmid panels remotely, as all the big ones stream online for the benefit of people who like convention panels and nothing else. McDiarmid read some passages from the Shakespeare-style Return of the Jedi parody in the Emperor’s voice, and it was glorious. I’m glad he seems to be proud of the fandom, rather than embarrassed as Alec Guinness was. McDiarmid is the one guy I have broken down and paid for a photo op with – he is my favorite actor in the saga and he’s getting up there in years. It’s good to see that he seems like he won’t hate me once I finally get my handful of seconds to shake his hand.

Somehow, it proves easy to get into the Carrie Fisher panel, probably because I slipped in through a side door with the help of a volunteer who knew no better. Had no idea there was a formal line inside that they police rigorously. Every arena panel I attend, or even see on a monitor, has at least a few empty seats in the very upper levels, and I strongly suspect they are dleiberately not filling every one, for some nefarious purpose or other. Fisher is still very much a party girl, sharing anecdites about how the reason she and Harrison Ford look happy when they arrive at Cloud City is that they were still drunk from an all-night aprty with Eric Idle and the Rolling Stones. Asked for a selfie by a fan who says he was in a play with her in New York, Fisher agrees and promptly makes out with him the second he hits the camera button.

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Fisher’s panel, as with almost all the big names, is moderated by James Arnold Taylor, who voices the inconsistently English-accented Obi-Wan Kenobi on Clone Wars, and does many others too, as he tells us in a pre-prepared, self-promotional spiel in front of everything he hosts. Imagine Alton Brown if his obsession were Star Wars rather than cooking shows – smarmy and overdoing it to the point of irritation when he’s the focus, but smart and tolerable when his job is to make the other guy look good.

Carrie Fisher today feels way cooler a human being to me today than Princess Leia ever did back in my youth. I confess, my lack of interest in her then may have been influenced by some degree of cultural misogyny: Ireland in the ’70s was not hugely progressive on the whole equality thing, and many of my childhood friends, if not all, flat-out refused to play with girl figures. I remember while role-playing a leprechaun game with one of my friends, one of his three wishes was that every girl in the world be dead “except people’s mothers.” I’d bet good money he’s married now with many children. The stigma rubbed off on me a bit, and the Leia figures didn’t really get played with until I realized the Han Solo figures could double as James Bond…and he needed Bond girls. (At 11, the Slave Leia outfit did nothing for me. I did wish there were a figure at the time, but only because Boushh Leia looked inaccurate on toy Jabba’s chain.) Carrie, I’m sorry – these days I think you’re way cooler than Harrison and Mark when t comes to in-person appearances, and I’d say I love you, but, well…you know.

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lightning added by Skip Garcia

I’m nervous about meeting the Emperor, but the process is quick and efficient. They have this down to a science. “Stand! Next! Stand! Next!” The actor just stands there as people are herded through quickly to stand beside him and get snapped. I shake Ian McDiarmid’s hands, and ask him if we can both throw lighting at the camera. He replies, in his impeccable accent, “Well, I won’t, but I really think you should.” I do. NEXT!

At the bar in the Hilton lobby, nobody asks to look at my large photo that I payed $60 for and am so proud of. Said bar, which is the only place I can get my smartphone to work as it’s supposed to – guess who thought he was awesome for Tweeting pics like a muthafucka earlier that day, only to find none of them actually sent? – is where my phone vibrates with a text. It’s Rian Johnson, director-to-be of Star Wars Episode VIII and a former USC classmate of mine. I texted him a day ago to see if he’d be down; this is his text back telling me he was there yesterday, and that was it.

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Are these Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII designs? (Hint: No)

Some backstory: Rian promised me at one point that I could appear in his next film as a guy who gets killed. I tried to discreetly remind him of this occasionally. I never got the call, and the film was Looper, which was awesome. When next I saw him, he said, “You should have reminded me more!” Well, considering his next film, he may get very tired of reminders.

I text him back asking him to hit me up by email – I have lost his, locked as it is inside a no-longer there inbox at a company I don’t work for any more. Midway through the text, my phone switches to all caps for no discernible reason. I try to play it off like a joke, but Rian probably thinks I’m a huge asshole who screamed at him now.

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Clearly this man has a death wish.

The options for the evening are to see Anthony Daniels’ panel, or try to watch the first-ever screening of Revenge of the Sith in 3D, introduced by McDiarmid. I love Sith, so I opt to get in line, but after an hour of standing and not moving, I give up. The room packed to capacity ages ago. Point being, anyone who says nobody likes 3D or the prequels is a lying jerk.

By this time it’s too late to see Anthony Daniels, so I walk like a mile or so and meet some friends at California Pizza Kitchen, which has hastily improvised some Star Wars cocktails, mostly by putting glow-sticks in them. I order the Darth Vader. First sip: GAHHH, pure rum. Second sip, through the straw, off the bottom: Yeooow! Super sour. I surmise the sourness is whiny Anakin underneath, and the rum is his dark, Vadery exterior. We keep talking for a while, and when I get back to my car the lot is locked. Thankfully, there’s a side way in for pedestrians, and the gates open from the inside.

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Unthankfully, the quiet neighborhood in which Peggy lives has decided to put up a DUI checkpoint. Time to pray that the Vader was less strong than it could have been. I briefly think about turning, but realize that would be stupidly incriminating. Gotta face it.

The cop asks for my ID. Sees my home address.

“You’re a long way from home.”

“Yes sir, I’m here for the Star Wars convention.”

He makes some comment about thinking the plush monkey in the back of my car was a dog. It isn’t. He seems satisfied. I’m waved through, only to then encounter closed street after closed street, and fearing I’ll have to go back the other way through the checkpoint and definitely seem suspiciously impaired if I do that. My GPS manages to wing it, though it still manages to mispronounce streets completely – “Orangethorpe” is “Arrange a thorp,” for example, and the Spanish article “La” is always “lay.”

I hit the bedsheets in the spare room and set my alarm for 8. It will prove not to be early enough, as the next day I am forced to park at Angel Stadium, where we started this tale.

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The three Star Wars Rebels events I get into with my special pass are a study in escalation. First, at the panel, we see a trailer for season 2. Then, at the press conference afterward, we learn more, like that really is James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, Freddie Prize Jr has a scar on his face from playing lightsabers as a kid, and everyone complains that Dave Filoni never tells them anything. Finally, at the screening, we’ll actually see the thing and most of our questions will be made redundant.

When Tiya Sircar asks why none of them get to sit in on James Earl Jones’ recording sessions (usually, the cast records as a group), Filoni replies “No Mandalorians!” He describes season 2 as the “Empire Strikes Back phase” of the story. Producer Simon Kinberg says writing the show is like adding new books to the Bible, though when a reporter asks if he realizes all the main characters have biblical names, he says he didn’t. Prinze promptly inquires whether Chopper is in the Old or New Testament.

Filoni says he never consciously intended Ezra to be like Aladdin, but he’s flattered by the comparison. Ralph Macchio was a more deliberate influence. The name Bridger is a deliberate nod to him bridging the gap between prequels – something I thought was obvious the first time, but which led to a collective “Ahhhhhhh” from all the attending press.

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There is a story group at Lucasfilm of about five people that keep all the continuity straight from here on out, so that, for example, Rebels won’t contradict anything in Rogue One.

Prinze also says Star Wars “teaches more about real life than a lot of the other stuff out there,” as in you can relate to a flawed guy like Han Solo more than a superhero. Then he bizarrely compared his wife Sarah Michelle Gellar to a Wookiee. “She’s really hairy and has a great low growl. She’s a powerful actress and can grunt with the rest of them.” It’s a joke, but I reckon he’s doing all the household chores next week.

California Luke and the Raiders of the Lost Carpark took up a lot of the rest of my day. When I got back, there were two hours to spare before the screening, and I realized that wouldn’t be time enough to wait in line for anything good.

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I then further realize, with no small degree of alarm, that I’m wearing the pants which – in addition to having only one good pocket – have a zipper that rarely stays up. This becomes more of a potential issue as I near-simultaneously remember that I am also wearing the cheap boxers that most frequently part to display wiener. The combination makes me the most awful person in the world if I do not constantly do my due diligence and ensure there is no convergence of the two events.

So I get lunch, and all I’ll say is that it takes a lot to fail at making chili cheese fries, yet the hot dog place inside the Hilton has made an awfully good attempt at such. Next, I buy my first piece of merchandise. It’s a belt. It is my sincere hope it keeps the pants high enough that the zipper behaves.

It has nothing to do with Star Wars. I don’t need references to the Force right above my crotch (though I am mildly disappointed that “I am your father” is not a belt slogan as yet). I have instead picked Venom, whose design is a masterpiece of simple, primal badness – darkness and fangs. I can relate to that. (My wife, when I will return home, will find a way to call it cute.)

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I’ve covered the screening already. After that, I got in the official arena line for Mark Hamill, and waited an hour to be told they weren’t letting anyone else in. (Oh well, at least I won’t have to see James Arnold Taylor’s painful mugging again.) I figured there wasn’t anything else left to do, with the exhibit hall closed, and screenings of Empire and Jedi the only events open. Convention hall chairs aren’t the best things to watch a movie in. I’d go to the bars that are being set up outside for a dance party, but the DUI checkpoint has made me paranoid, as of course, it should.

I go back to Peggy’s intending to write. Instead, I drink Jim Beam. And set my alarm for 7 a.m. Because NO GODDAMN WAY am I missing the panel about the Star Wars spinoff movies. Although a comversation with another fan I had earlier gave me hope – he had no idea who Josh Trank and Gareth Edwards were. When I told him, he replied, “Yeah, but it’s not like they’re gonna be showing footage or anything.” Oh, you silly, silly man.

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7 arrives too soon.

In a convention that has been all about lining up for stuff, Sunday morning provides the perfect capper, like the Fourth of July finale where fireworks on top of fireworks all go off at once. I am in a line to enter a building, through which I will walk to stand in another line, which will then be herded into a second building and a completely new line. There’s a lot of time to wait. Not to get all Dr. Manhattan on you, but I’m there, right now, writing some of this very article. Until my calves numb up from sitting on the floor.

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Anthony Daniels shows up to wave hello to everyone. I’m told this is a tradition of his. He’s too fast for me to snap a pic.

It’s two hours later. I’m in the arena. It’s not even full. People walking in five minutes before start time get a seat. I could have slept later and shopped more. Why did I underestimate people not giving a shit about stuff they don’t know about yet?

Panel turned out to be great, though. I wrote about it on Sunday.

The one thing I wanted still to do was see the display of props and costumes from The Force Awakens, because duh, who wouldn’t? I headed straight there and found they had cut off the line, seeing as it was going to be a four-hour wait and the show was closing in four hours. This prompts the question of why the stupid fuck the costumes weren’t on the main floor where everyone could see them, instead of some dinky upstairs meeting room that people have to be herded into one at a time. Feels like a gimmick and a rip-off, but oh well – these same costumes and props will be touring theater lobbies before we know it.

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The official merchandise store is now easy to get into because there’s almost nothing left. Too-small stormtrooper shirts, miscellaneous Gonk droid merchandise, and a Max Rebo plush that plays music if you squeeze it just right. $35 is steep for something the size of a large Beanie Baby, but if I don’t come home with an exclusive plush, I fail my wife.

Dealers are not cheap at the show. Unless you want to buy up old Hasbro 12-inch figures that look like utter crap compared to what Sideshow and Hot Toys have done since, the prices are steep. I snag the one 6″ Chewbacca I see for $20 – he’s that price at my local drug store, too, but this is without tax. Minutes later, I pass the same dealer and he’s marked Chewie up to $25. Even Hayden Christensen Anakins are going for around $35, $15 above retail.

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Best costume of the week, I think, is the Rancor Keeper, Malikili, who defines the phrase “too sexy for my shirt.” Seriously, the dude knows his body type, picked an appropriate character, and was flaunting it with confidence. I think it’s safe to say he will not end up dateless. Unlike the dude with the “I came to Star Wars Celebration for the Slave Leias” tee. That guy’s never getting laid for years.

Most costumes seem to be mash-ups, crossplays and customs rather than faithful re-creations. There are still stormtroopers, and a few Boba Fetts, but custom Mandalorians and hybrid troopers seem to be the majority.

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I surmise that it would be best to leave early and beat traffic – I have been chosen to accept a mission to pick up my mother-in-law’s cell phone from grandma-in-law in Anaheim. I will need sustenance, so I join the one line that actually has a reward at the end: a food truck line. Cheesesteak fries. I’ll live.

Before I leave, I try one more time to Tweet properly, and fail. I call AT&T.

It turns out my plan does not include any data. They lied to me. They lied to me!

“I told you they would never consciously betray the corporation”

Terminate them! Immediately!

I may have been here too long.

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About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist